Digitus impudicus

We have been recently invited as guest authors to the popular Hungarian blog of Latinitas “Laudator temporis acti”, “a praiser of times past” (no, not that Laudator!) where we started our career with the Hungarian version of our recent Lucus a non lucendo. Our second guest post, published this morning, was inspired by the latest post of our friend Poly Hatjimanolaki.

Poly has just published the title page of the recent edition of the German journal Focus representing the Venus of Milo wrapped into the Greek flag and making an unambiguous gesture. “Tricksters in the euro family” announces the title, referring to the Greek budget scandal, and the article offers a simple key to the German readers to effortlessly interpret the situation: “The Greeks have nicely established their lives in the triangle of black work, tax fraud and fakelaki [slush-money]. It is obvious that bribery, corruption and tax evasion is in their blood.” The analysis of these stereotypes going back as far as cunning Ulysses is illustrated by Poly with various “modified” versions of a visual stereotype of Greece, the Venus of Milo.

Gino Boccasile: A Fascist propaganda stamp representing an American soldier dragging away the Venus of Milo, and the same stamp pasted on an envelope in Northern Italy occupied by the Germans, 1944

In a great part of these illustrations the source of humor is that the ancient marble torso is being complemented with an obviously modern supplement: a hook, an electric guitar, a tennis racket. However, the title page of Focus is a cuckoo’s egg in this series. For the gesture of the middle finger raised is not more modern but rather much more ancient than the statue, and we could easily find it not on a classical statue, but on an ancient Priapus idol or a Pompeii graffiti.

The Internet is flooded by an etymology tracing back the “middle finger salute” to the Angincourt battle of 1415 where the contemptuous French threatened the famous English longbow archers to cut off their middle fingers drawing the bow (as the Spartans in fact did to the captured Athenians according to Thucydides). But the battle, as it is well known, brought a crushing victory of the English, and the archers triumphantly displayed to the French captives their middle fingers which still “pluck yew”, can draw the bows typically made of yew tree. In time the initial “pl” was distorted into “f”, and consequently “yew” also got a different orthography and the gesture a different interpretation.

Various urban legend sites never tire to oppose this myth and to insist on the ancient origins of the gesture of the “digitus impudicus” (impudent finger) or “digitus infamis” (infamous finger). Some quote Martial as an evidence, others Suetonius or Aristophanes. We, however, instead of extracting all these texts only make one single elegant reference to the source which already five hundred years ago collected all of them and more, but has never been quoted in this debate. We speak of Erasmus’ Adagia, the monumental collection of ancient proverbs complemented with quotations and commentaries.

Adagia 2.4.68. Medium ostendere digitum. Medio item digito porrecto, supremum contemptum significabant. Martialis lib. 2: Et digitum porrigito medium. Nam hunc digitum Martialis impudicum vocat: Ostendit digitum, sed impudicum. Persius infamem: Infami digito & lustralibus ante salivis. Huc arbitror pertinere, quod apud Laërtium Diogenes, ut alibi diximus, hospitibus quibusdam Demosthenem videre cupientibus, non indice digito, sed medio porrecto demonstravit, parum virum innuens & effoeminatum. Ac paulo post, eodem in loco, satis indicat porrectione digiti medii quippiam obscoenum significari, cum ait, insanos haberi, qui medium porrigant digitum, qui indicem, non item. Itaque eodem in carmine duobus adagiis extremum contemptum indicavit Satyricus: Mandaret laqueum, mediumque ostenderet unguem. Elegantius fiet utrumque, si longius detorqueatur. Ut Philosophicis praeceptis laqueum mandes, tu tuo vivito more. Et Theologorum decretis negociatores medium unguem ostendunt, id est, plane contemnunt ridentque.

Adagia 2.4.68. Pointing with the middle finger. The raised middle finger was the sign of the greatest contempt by the ancients. Martial, Book 2. [Ep. 2.28]: Show him your middle finger. The same finger is called “shameless” by Martial [Ep. 6.70]: He shows his finger, but the shameless one. And “infamous” by Persius [Sat. 2.33]: …she hallows him with her infamous finger and with saliva [i.e. the Roman grandmother her newborn grandson, against the evil eye]. In my opinion here belongs what we read in Diogenes Laertius: that when someone was asked by foreigners about Demosthenes, he pointed at him not with the forefinger but with the middle finger, as if indicating that he regards him a villainous and effeminate person. The same author somewhat below suggests that the raised middle finger means something indecent, because he calls fools those pointing with the middle finger, in contrast to those who point with the forefinger. And the Master of Satires [Juvenal, Sat. 10.53] quotes two adages in one verse to represent contemption: [Democritus to the Fortune threatening him] wished rope and showed his middle finger. Both adages are more elegant when inserted in a longer phrase, for example: Wish rope to the precepts of the philosophers, you just live your way. Or: The merchants show their middle fingers to the prescriptions of the theologians, that is, they completely contempt and ridicule them.

In adage 3.3.87. Ἐσκιμαλίχθαι Erasmus also treats the Greek occurrences of the gesture in Aristophanes and Suda, and dedicates a whole adage with number 2.4.67 to the idiom “wishing rope to someone”. Whoever is curious of them can find them all in the Adagia’s CD edition by Studiolum.

The examples of Erasmus were primarily taken from classical literature where the gesture was used to express contempt, just like today. But as it is indicated by the verse of Persius, it was originally used in an apotropaic function, as a protection against the evil eye, like every other phallic symbol. Such representations, as they are displayed on plates IX, X and XI of Thomas Wright’s The worship of generative powers (1865) were equally worn on amulets, coins, in the neck or on fibulae. And if in an emergency none of these were at hand, then people displayed them at least with the hand: with the thumb passed through the index and middle fingers (which already at that time was called a “fig”) or with the “digitus impudicus” raised. As the Venus of Milo does it on the title page of Focus. German readers thus should not be offended, for the gesture is not the sign of any contempt of “the euro family”, but rather an ancient apotropaic symbol justified by the present situation of Greek economy.

At the same time we have to agree with Takis Theodoropoulos, from whose book Το αριστερό χέρι της Αφροδίτης, Aphrodite’s left hand (2008) Poly quotes this very apposite phrase:

The hand is an erotic accessory. A female hand without charm, an ugly finger can upset the harmony of the properties of even the most beautiful person.

As it is illustrated on the title page of this Focus.

5 comentarios:

Πόλυ Χατζημανωλάκη dijo...

Many thanks for the χειροποίητη translation!

Best wishes!

Studiolum dijo...

Many thanks to you for the inspiration!

Studiolum dijo...

Poly’s reader ‘apri’ in his/her comment called attention to even more ancient Greek Priapic representations from the Museum of the Cyclades: http://www.tanea.gr/default.asp?pid=2&artid=4544783&ct=4

Megkoronáz A.J.P. dijo...

The middle-finger gesture isn't used in Britain. Instead we use the V-sign, with the palm of the hand facing away from the person being gestured at--sort of a reverse "peace" sign. It actually would make more sense for an archer to use both fingers to pull the bow. I've certainly heard the Agincourt story before, though only fairly recently.

Studiolum dijo...

Strange. Where does it come from, then? I would have sworn that it was of British, or at least Anglo-Saxon origin, as it is now generally accompanied by the English f-word in all languages. In the South, in Italy and Spain it was not traditionally used, either. Now, where has it survived the Dark Ages?