Saturday, And The Myth Of The God Of Shit
Some bits of mythology seem perfectly designed to make the rounds of adolescent social networks. Among these is the character of Sterculius.
Sterculius has caused a bit of a stir, since God Checker described the deity on Twitter as “the God of Poop from Roman mythology”. To explore the matter further, Godchecker writes that “the name used behind his back was ‘Poopy’.” Elfwood brings even greater literalism to our understanding by picturing Sterculius as emerging from a toilet, wearing a dirty toga and carrying a bag of burning shit.
A god of poo seems just outrageous to us. It’s fun. It’s silly, and evidence, as Historical Nonfiction on Tumblr puts it, that the Romans “approached ludicrousness with their large and continually-expanding pantheon.”
The implicit point of comparison is the Christian God, who, in addition to getting a capital letter as the all-defining-god-of-gods, has the advantage of being simultaneously tribal and universally abstract. The Christians say that their god is everywhere, and so imply that he is present in shit, but have enough restraint never to mention that point specifically. Sterculius, on the other hand, is explicit and specific. He was a god of poop, and nothing but poop. Ridiculous Romans. How could they believe such a thing?
This poo-focused perspective is entertaining enough to occupy a 144-character post, but the concept of Sterculius isn’t really that simple.
First of all, Sterculius wasn’t just about feces. Sterculius represented the fertility that is derived from the decomposing manure and agricultural waste that was placed on fields by Roman farmers to keep their crops healthy. Sterculius brought attention to one end of the cycle of life, bringing attention to the idea that life isn’t just a one way street, but that new life depends on the dead, stinking, rotting matter that results when old life is consumed. That’s a more complicated idea than the Christian model, in which life proceeds on a one-way journey from birth to death, and then either to eternal bliss or eternal suffering.
Sterculius is even more than this, however. Despite what the Crazy-Romans-Had-A-God-Of-Poo meme would have you think, Sterculius wasn’t necessarily a stand-alone divinity. Some sources said that Sterculius was actually Picumnus, a child of a satyr-like god named Faunus, the fore-runner of the fauns.
At other times, Sterculius was described as merely a name which referred to one aspect of a larger divine personality, the titan Saturn. Saturn, also known as Cronos, was associated with the introduction of the order of time into the universe, and was said to have eaten all of his children, who were imprisoned in his great stomach until they were liberated by Jupiter to become the more familiar Roman gods.
This story of divine beings held as infants within a great body until they could be released to grow into full power has obvious agricultural parallels, as seeds, buried within the soil and so apparently consumed, can emerge to become greater plants in time. It’s not out of left field that Saturn was also known as an agricultural deity, with responsibilities for both sowing and reaping.
This dual nature is seen in the modern-day worship of Saturn, in the form of the scythe-wielding old man, who is kicked off the throne on New Year’s Day by a little baby (the little shit) who in turn becomes Saturn by the end of the next year.
Saturn also gave his name to the day Saturday. If we were to follow the easy line of thinking that says that Saturn = Sterculius = the god of poo, we could proclaim Saturday as the day of shit.
I favor the broader interpretation, but neither one is completely, or exclusively, correct. People who have been raised to think that a mythological tradition has a single valid version, which is dictated by a single written code, have difficulty understanding the flexibility and multiplicity of other systems. “The Romans” were not really a single people with a single set of religious beliefs. In different times, in different places within the Roman Empire, different specific divinities appeared and disappeared, and took on varying meanings.
Shit happens, but depending on the context, shit can mean many different things.