From Fart Gods to Farting Out One’s Soul: The Historic Ritualization of Farts
They command attention, bring silence into noisy environments and have been associated with the utterances of gods for thousands of years. In fact, entire rituals have been designed around them. Farts. Would you believe it?
For several thousands of years, the ancestors of the Innu (or Montagnais) people inhabited the northeastern portion of the present-day province of Quebec, and parts of the eastern portions of Labrador known as Nitassinan (“Our Land”). Scholar Marie Wadden, in her 1991 book The Innu Struggle to Reclaim Their Homeland tells us “the people trapped moose, caribou, deer and small game, and they also farmed and fished.”
Davis Inlet, August 1903. Innu traders gathered outside the Hudson's Bay Company post in Davis Inlet, Labrador. Public License.
Matshishkapeu, the Fart God
The language known as Ilnu, is part of the ‘Cree’ language group and the people worshiped a range of hunting and animal gods while paying homage to animal spirits. In 1987, researcher Peter Armitage wrote "Religious Ideology Among the Innu of Eastern Quebec and Labrador”, in which he studied the Innu god “Matshishkapeu” and commented on his “unusual omnipresence” which makes him an especially unique mythological being: “he is everywhere, both inside the tent and outside; he is always with you no matter where you may travel.”
Although Matshishkapeu existed everywhere, he was best known to the Innu as the “fart god” and this “spirit of the anus conversed with the Innu with great frequency” especially while hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering (Armitage, 1987). Matshishkapeu was a humorous god and his “popping up,” was an important source of laughter to the Innu while facing the life-threatening hunt, but he was also thought of as one of the most powerful spirits, able to control the “Caribou Master, as well as humans”.
Matshishkapeu the legend (public domain)
Matshishkapeu (literally the "Fart Man") was the most powerful spirit in the Innu world, and often roared when “the Caribou Master refused to give the Innu caribou to eat.” Scholar B. C. Goddard wrote Rangifer and Man: An ancient relationship in 2003 and observed that within Innu myths, Matshishkapeu “cursed the Caribou Master with constipation and then cured him of his ailment.” Furthermore, Armitage noted in his 1987 paper that “Matshishkapeu’s utterances are usually cryptic,” according to what “an Innu hunter said.” Legends and myths state “that you have to concentrate hard in order to understand what is being said” but “every single fart,” no matter how glorious or humble was believed to be Matshishkapeu giving an important message. A sudden unannounced rumble required immediate translation and a surprise fart, delivered at an inappropriate time, interrupting the tranquility of camp life called for a specialist interpreter who questioned all the witnesses and let everyone know what the fart was saying.
Iñupiat dance near Nome, Alaska, 1900 in which offerings are made to the fart god.
Farts in the Ancient World
The spiritualization of farting was not restricted to northern latitudes. A specialist in the history of gastric wind, Professor Valerie Allen, wrote the groundbreaking book “On Farting: Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages”, in which we learn that most medieval theologians recorded farting as “the product of decomposition… the mark of death.” Manichaeism was a mystical religion based on dualistic principals that at one time claimed to have had St. Augustine among its members. He believed farts were the act of "freeing divine light from the body” and St. Augustine also referred to people who could produce odorless “musical sounds” like “singing” from their behinds.
The philosopher Pythagoras believed the soul (pneuma) was breath, and because a fart was a sort of breath, as he was struggling with the mechanics of trigonometry, he was also concerned that if a person pushed hard enough they might “fart out his or her soul.” The ancient origins of “fart fearing” is better understood when we consider that several wars having been directly provoked by farts. In Book II Chapter XI of Josephus’ Wars of The Jews we are told it was a “randomly presented fart” that set off a chain of events that led to the revolt against the 6th century King Apries of Egypt. He wrote “an irreverent Roman soldier lowered his pants, bent over, and “spoke such words as you might expect upon such a posture.” A steely silence spread over Jerusalem and because the unforeseen incident took place shortly before the Passover, a riot broke out to capture the farter “that led to the deaths of over 10,000 people.”
Bust of the unfortunate 6th century King Apries of Egypt, on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. Could he ever have imagined that a misplaced fart nearly toppled his crown? (CC by SA 3.0)
Interestingly, what is considered by many historians to be the oldest joke in the world is a fart joke. An ancient Sumerian proverb dated to about 1900 BC reads “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” Historian Robert Bartlett in 2000 published England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, 1075-1225, in which he told the story of Roland le Sarcere, also known as Roland the Farter. This court minstrel to King Henry II of England did a famous dance that ended with the execution of “a jump, a whistle, and a fart.” For his anal accomplishments, Roland was gifted a manor house in Suffolk with 100 acres of land. Roland’s fart act was so beloved that subsequent chroniclers repeated his story and expanded his biography, “a process that inadvertently extended his lifespan to 120 years.”
Top image: Hegassen scroll detail. Fart Battle, 1864 (public domain)
By Ashley Cowie
Nitassinan: The Innu Struggle to Reclaim Their Homeland, Douglas & McIntyre, December 1991, 240pp, by Marie Wadden, ISBN 978-1-55365-731-6.
B. C. Goddard, "Rangifer and Man: An ancient relationship", in Proc. Ninth Workshop North American Caribou, edd. S. Coutourier and Q. van Ginhoven, Kuujjuac, Quebec, 2003. Rangifer special volume 14, pp.15-28
On Farting (The New Middle Ages) Paperback– 15 Apr 2010 by Valerie Allen. Palgrave Macmillan; 2007 edition (15 April 2010)
Bartlett, Robert (2000). England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, 1075-1225. Oxford University Press. p. 236. ISBN 0-19-925101-0