Words and dirt

thompson at jlc.net thompson at jlc.net
Sat Nov 2 12:58:56 UTC 1996

Like Dominique, I don't know if the words that Bob Hueckstedt's student is
seeking are actually "dirty", either in themselves or in their own context,
but  the issue surely deserves comment, esp. in light of Jean Fezas'
interesting observations.

I think that it is quite likely that certain words were considered to be
taboo in Vedic.  Verbs like yabh-, had-, and pard-, as far as I know, are
rarely attested in Vedic [certainly they do not appear in the RV], but it
is very likely [given that they appear to have IE cognates] that they were
current, say, at the RV period.  Of course, the absence of these words in
the RV does not prove that they were taboo.  Words like ze'pa and bheda'
are attested in the RV, so apparently reference to genitalia was not taboo
in that text [re ze'pa: is the gloss "tail" a modern euphemism, or is it
rather a Vedic one? Likewise ZiSNa' = "tail, penis"].

I have always been puzzled by the fact that in the azvamedha the "central
mystery" of this ritual, i.e., the mating of the mahiSI with the horse,
hidden under a blanket of course, is accompanied by what is universally
recognized as "obscene banter" between the king's other wives and the
priests who are present [note that our word yabh- occurs here].

Of course, it is frequently pointed out that this "extremely explicit...
showcasing of extreme sexuality" [thus Jamison, "Sacrificed Wife...", p.65]
has something to do with promoting fertility and sexual power.  No doubt.
What is of interest to me is the role of words, obscene words, in
performing this function.

The Vedic RSis were certainly *acutely* aware of "les pouvoirs de la
parole" [the phrase is Renou's].  It would seem to me that they were aware
of the fact that words which refer to taboo, i.e., emotionally charged
matters [like sex with horses] themselves become highly charged words.  So
if you want to promote fertility and sexual potency, these are the words
that will do that for you.

So, maybe like children who exhibit interest in "dirty" words, the Vedic
RSis seem to have been sensitive to the fact that such words had power, and
they had power precisely because they were "dirty".  Of course, the
anthropologist Mary Douglas has interesting things to say about dirt.


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