Oneironautics

Ὄρθρου, ὅταν δυσόκνως ἐξεγείρῃ, πρόχειρον ἔστω ὅτι ἐπὶ ἀνθρώπου ἔργον ἐγείρομαι: τί οὖν δυσκολαίνω, εἰ πορεύομαι ἐπὶ τὸ ποιεῖν ὧν ἕνεκεν γέγονα καὶ ὧν χάριν προῆγμαι εἰς τὸν κόσμον; ἐπὶ τοῦτο κατεσκεύασμαι, ἵνα κατακείμενος ἐν στρωματίοις ἐμαυτὸν θάλπω;

                                                          -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.1

 

“Early in the morning, when you find it so hard to rouse yourself from your sleep, have these thoughts ready at hand: ‘I am rising to do the work of a human being. Why, then, am I so irritable if I am going out to do what I was born to do and what I was brought into this world for? Or was I created for this, to lie in bed and warm myself under the blankets?’”

This section of Meditations inspired me to write the following passage. I have not really used this site for creative writing, but since it is related to ancient history I think that it has a place here. :3


 

I wake up each morning with torpor, feeling pleasant warmth radiating around my body. The sun cuts through the slits of the windows and illuminates the dwelling. The place where one rests is sacred and should be dark and quiet like a sealed sarcophagus. The light causes me to stir inside my cocoon, angrily.

This cocoon is the temple of rejuvenation, it is a brilliant canvas for the imagination, and is sacred to many ancient deities.

And thus to be dragged out against your will and taken across the most holy pomerium, the lines that demarcate the boundary of this glorious place within and the world without, is the most vile deed known to mankind.

This cocoon is made entirely of blankets, shielding its singular oneironaut1 from the light and chilly air, and must be bravely set aside. The journey of the previous night is over and although its warmth beckons for surely what would be another amusing jaunt, one must get up and resist such strong opiate.

Every morning, now and hereafter I must metamorphose by bursting violently forth from my warm fibrous cocoon and face the day boldly. For  today I am still alive, this is what one is brought into this world for.  There still remains much knowledge to be gained, wonders to be seen and a life to live outside this cocoon of bedclothes. Mors aurem vellens: “vivite,” ait, “venio.”2

 

1 A person who travels in dreams.
2 “Death is plucking at your ear: ‘Go on and live,’ he says ‘I’m coming.'” – Copa, Appendix Virgiliana

A Lesson in Latin Linguistics Through Mycology

I started reading The Latin Sexual Vocabulary by J.N. Adams today, taking my time going through all the Latin sources he uses, quite fascinating. Anyway, I wanted to talk about the word uerpa which I shall remain aloof and not divulge the details of its meaning. Adams’ treatment of the words are so scholarly and it really tickles me pink (and plus, you’ll figure it out sooner or later anyway). So this tale starts out in the year 1775, a wonderful year in which the scrappy American Revolution was due to start and on European continent, a man named Otto Friedrich Müller, a naturalist, named an ascomycete fungi related to the morels. Now, I am no mycologist, (from the Greek μύκης, mukēs, meaning “fungus”) so please bear with me on the details. For those who are curious a dictionary will show that the definition of an ascomycete is simply “a large group of fungi characterized by the presence of sexually produced spores formed within an ascus. Also called sac fungus.” Now of course you must wonder what an ascus is, (I sure did!). Linguistically speaking, it is from the Greek word ασκος, askos, meaning “bag”. The definition of ascus is “a membranous, often club-shaped structure in which typically eight ascospores are formed through sexual reproduction of ascomycetes. How fun! Now that we are acquainted with the terminology, onward to the matter at hand. So, our man, Müller named a certain ascomycete fungi Phallus conicus. So this is where things get entertaining. Although retaining its name many other individuals attempted in vain to place it into different genera. In 1815, Olaf Peter Swartz decided  that naming this fungus (pictured below) Phallus conicus was far too obvious in meaning to the average lay person so he changed it to Verpa conicus.

Verpa_conica

Verpa conica

This alteration wouldn’t really be noteworthy, except the reason why he changed it. In all likeliness (mere conjecture on my part) it was to avoid potential ridicule. The joke really is funnier in Latin, so they say, and this is no exception. So I will let you in on the joke, the term verpa according to J.N. Adams is thus:

Verpa can also be classified as a vox propria for the penis; it serves as a complement of mentulaVerpais recorded in literature only in Catullus (28.12), Martial (11.46.2), the Corpus Priapeorum (34.5) and perhaps Pomponius (see below), but its currency in vulgar speech is established by its frequency in graffiti (see CIL IV.1655, 1884, 2360, 2415, 4876, 8617).1

So, in short, the words verpa and mentula in Latin, for all intents and purposes are the most obscene words for the male genitalia as far as scholars can tell based on literary and archeological evidence. A proper Roman like Cicero has simply refused to write mentula in response to a letter and instead he wrote “id  uerbum,” that word. It is hard to approximate just how improper it was to use these words in civilized conversation, but one can imagine its equivalent today would be approximately the four letter word for pudenda muliebria. I suppose, to take it a step further, one must know exactly why this word was such a big deal. The term verpa is a very specific word for the phallus. It has an explicit meaning of an erect phallus with the foreskin pulled back and the glans exposed. This was considered exceptionally rude especially  for the upper class who was well versed in Greek culture.  Using this post as a segue, look for my next post which will be a treatment of the phallus by Graeco-Romans. Here. 1. J.N. Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1982), 12.