Going Potty in Ancient Times (GPAT 1)

A question on the biblical studies email list about the use of the circumlocution “cover your feet” in 1 Samuel 24:3 for defecating has me thinking about the potty. Not that it is very difficult to get me thinking about toilets! I am the son of a plumber and a third-year apprentice plumber (never did finish much to the chagrin of dear old Dad… got religious instead and now I’m a professor who gets paid less than plumbers!).

So here is my brief and very selective survey of going to the potty in ancient times.

Going Potty in the Hebrew Bible

Well, I thought I would begin where the email discussion did: the use of the expression “cover feet” (סכך + רגל) in 1 Samuel 24:3 to describe Saul going into a cave relieve himself. This more than likely indicates the posture taken when defecating. Thus it’s a circumlocution for the act of squatting with robes covering/cloaking the action (For the posture of squatting see Deuteronomy 23:13 where יש×?ב “sit” is used to refer to going the bathroom). This passage doesn’t say anything about permanent potties, however. This expression is also found in Judges 3:24, where perhaps we get a bit of insight into more permanent facilities. The Judges passage narrates Ehud’s somewhat colourful killing of Eglon king of Moab (this passage is chok full of potty humour!). Most translations represent Eglon getting killed by Ehud in the throne room. Recently, however, Tom Jull has made a persuasive case for the room being the other throne room, the potty (JSOT 81 (1998) 63-75). Thus the image we are left with is an enclosed chamber ensuite off the throne room in which Ehud killed Eglon as he was getting up off the potty. Bummer… no pun intended!

Potty-Time at Qumran

A toilet was discovered at Qumran in locus 51. Here are some pictures from Humbert and Chambon, Fouilles de Khirbet Qumran (1994).

The toilet at Qumran was private. It consisted of a pit dug into the floor of an enclosed, roofed chamber. One toilet for the whole Qumran community clearly suggests this wasn’t the toilet used by everyone (talk about a line-up!). Perhaps it was reserved for full-fledged members of the community (kind of like getting keys to the executive washroom at work!). It appears that Israelites/Judahites liked their privacy when in the loo (Enclosed chambers were also found in the Iron Age II level in the city of David).

Public Potties in Ephesus

While people in ancient Israel were bashful about going potty, that wasn’t the case for ancient Greeks and Romans. My first experience of an ancient toilet was in Ephesus some 16 years ago. Here’s picture of my dear wife sitting on the potty in the Scholastika Baths in Ephesus… and look, she’s even reading!

I always thought that the watercourse in front of the seat was for cleaning the dust off your feet while you do your business. While that may be the case, I’ve also heard that instead of toilet paper or leaves, people would clean themselves with a sponge fixed onto a short wooden stick and that the water channel was used to “dip the stick” to clean it. Some people even think that this is where the expression “wrong end of the stick” comes from.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this brief toilet tour… now I really have to go…

Ancient Potties, Archaeology, Humour, Translation Theory. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Going Potty in Ancient Times (GPAT 1)

  1. Pingback: Codex: Biblical Studies Blogspot » Blog Archive » King Saul on the Silver Screen: An Early Film about Saul and David

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