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January 25, 2008 6:26 PM   Subscribe

O Hammers, Head : discussion of a freakish reference in Philodemus's On Methods of Inference, found in the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum.

See also: the Philodemus Project, an examination of the scrolls from the Villa;
epigrams by Philodemus in the Greek Anthology, on love (2),
on the "human comedy" (1),
life (1),
a prayer
and on family (1);
Wikipedia on the Villa of the Papyri;
a talk on Studies, Excavation, and Prospects of the Villa, touching on the controversy about future excavation;
the Villa previously on MetaFilter.
posted by paduasoy (42 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
I can't believe that guy wrote that whole blog entry without bothering to find out what the original Greek text of the passage he's talking about is.

It seems likely to me, especially if there's a poem beginning "Oh Hammers, Head", that the bit about a foot-tall man with a head beaten with hammers is quite possibly a riddle or a joke. If it wasn't for the "who used to be exhibited by the embalmers" part my guess would have been an anvil.

Heck, who knows what Egyptian embalmers did? They could have engaged in just about any sort of ritual in the course of their work, they may well have exhibited anvils.

Or for that matter, it might not have been a human corpse at all, it could have been an animal or some bones assembled to look like a human corpse for some reason. It seems material that Egyptian gods are usually represented as a human body with a non-human head.
posted by XMLicious at 6:45 PM on January 25, 2008


"my guess would have been an anvil" -- good guess. That makes sense.
posted by post punk at 7:00 PM on January 25, 2008


Solved.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 7:09 PM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


I've never heard of a recipe that involves smashed portabello, mr_crash_davis...
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 7:28 PM on January 25, 2008


O, my bang'd head! That little anvil-headed man is going to bug me worse than Herodotus' flying snakes. If anyone reads Greek, the Friends of Herculaneum Society has a link to P-Herc, an indexed database of early 19th-century facsimiles of Herculaneum papyri. There's rolls and rolls of Philodemus, including De Signis (On Signs), in which the reference appears. Hell, for all I know, it's on that very page.
posted by steef at 8:33 PM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


I find it disheartening that he took the words at face value and assumed they were talking about such an event. It's not like the ancient world was a fucking David Lynch film or something.
posted by puke & cry at 8:40 PM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


According to the context provided, the viable range of human stature, interpreting this as a riddle about an anvil makes no sense. Unless Philodemus took a riddle at face value and the misinterpretation originates with him. Antiquity wasn't a David Lynch film but it was just as brimming with freaky shit as our time.

Good find, paduasoy, and thanks for all these Philodemus links. I'll have to dig into these later.
posted by Kattullus at 9:17 PM on January 25, 2008


I think the embalmers were having Philodemus on.

"Teth! Teth! That stuffy Epicurean is on his way to check out our ritual, call your midget brother and tell him to bring the frying pan hat, this is gonna be awesome!!"

Yeah, something like that.
posted by vrakatar at 9:26 PM on January 25, 2008


Personally, I'm peeved that the one dude's library we actually almost recovered was some kind of insane lunatic for poetry and (ick!!) the philosophy of poetry. Gag me.

I'm inclined to do so.
posted by Iridic at 9:40 PM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


According to the context provided, the viable range of human stature, interpreting this as a riddle about an anvil makes no sense.

But this is half the size of the smallest man on record, assuming that the "foot" measurement is equivalent to a modern foot like the blogger is assuming it is (and isn't actually a cubit or something.) And how do you explain the part about being beaten on the colossal head with hammers? Why would they do that? And if they did that with what we think of as hammers, wouldn't that smash the corpse to pieces?

I'm not saying that I definitely think it's a riddle about an anvil. I'm saying that the blogger's blithe assumption that his interpretation of the English translation of this is literally true seems kind of myopic. It seems to me that for the story to make any sense you have to either take some parts of it as figurative or untrue or at least assume some sort of misinterpretation, like maybe they're talking about what we would refer to as wooden mallets (though still, why they'd hit him on his head...)
posted by XMLicious at 10:16 PM on January 25, 2008


clearly a bad translation of some rather crude vulgar speech

the man had a hard on a foot long, with a head so big that you couldn't even beat it down with a hammer - so remarkable was it, that it was embalmed by egyptian embalmers to give romans an inferiority complex

the full poem -

"o head, oh hammers
the cat's pajammers
bulge with your strength
and infinite length

and priapus
and the rest of us
won't go to bat
with a nail like that!"
posted by pyramid termite at 10:24 PM on January 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


Actually rereading the thing, it says the tiny person's head COULD be beaten with hammers, not that it was, and does not indicate that the beatings were part of the exhibition per se. So....it must mean here was this little guy...with a thick skull...who hung out with the embalmers...and....

oh the hell with it.
posted by vrakatar at 11:11 PM on January 25, 2008


Hammer down dude!

Sounds like a beta release of "Whac-a- Mole"

Maybe they were using the rubber body hammer?
posted by Rancid Badger at 11:28 PM on January 25, 2008


Um, y'all are treating this as if Philodemus were some sort of National Geographic staff writer. In antiquity, it was good form for writers to spice up their work with historical and anthropological examples; the truth of them, strictly speaking, was not so important. Who cares if Antisthenes made or did not make a snappy comeback to Plato at some point? Who cares if there were really foot-tall men? The important part is a) that it's entertaining to the audience, b) it aids memory, and c) it presumably illustrates the point under discussion.

Herodotus, besides the flying snakes, thought there were ants the size of dogs in India who guarded a stash of gold dust. I mean, dog-sized ants? That's, like, five bazillion times the size of the biggest ant on record!

Awesome links to the Greek Anthology, by the way--I love these epigrams.

(the blog is weird, as if the writer had some sort of permanent chip on his shoulder but constantly pretended that he was fine, really)
posted by nasreddin at 12:25 AM on January 26, 2008 [2 favorites]


Perhaps he refers to some well-known joke of the time... something along the lines of "what's 12 inches tall and embalmers beat it with hammers?" Put like that, I really could imagine that it was something along the lines of pyramid termite's contribution. You know, "didja hear the one about the dead guy with the huge erection that the embalmers had to beat with hammers?

It would kind of make sense in terms of the fears and feelings of "ickiness" about what embalmers might do with the dead bodies. (a couple of hundred years earlier Herotodus talks about how the bodies of the wives of important officials, and those of beautiful women, were delayed three or four days before being delivered to embalmers - to discourage the possibility of necrophiliac corpse desecration) ... and if human nature then was the same as human nature now, this sort of dread would lead to black humor and standard jokes.

But I don't know how playful Philodemus was in his writings. He is apparently famous for his epigrammic poetry, which makes me think of witty, metaphoric "surprise" turns of phrase. So, maybe.

If not, what seems especially odd is that embalmers would have any kind of "exhibitions" at all. They were hired for their work, and, I believe, only the fairly well-to-do could afford their services. Customers like that certainly wouldn't want any sort of shenanigans going on with their corpse-y kin. And I've read somewhere (though now, of course, I can't find a citation) that while the embalmers' work was sacred and they were priests (I think everyone in a skilled profession was a priest, though), they were considered ... what? ... ghoulish, maybe. A necessary evil. And even their working areas were not allowed to be inside the town. If that is true it seems especially unlikely that they were entertaining the masses with Sideshows of the Dead acts.

Anyway, odd and interesting.
posted by taz at 12:38 AM on January 26, 2008



If not, what seems especially odd is that embalmers would have any kind of "exhibitions" at all. They were hired for their work, and, I believe, only the fairly well-to-do could afford their services. Customers like that certainly wouldn't want any sort of shenanigans going on with their corpse-y kin. And I've read somewhere (though now, of course, I can't find a citation) that while the embalmers' work was sacred and they were priests (I think everyone in a skilled profession was a priest, though), they were considered ... what? ... ghoulish, maybe. A necessary evil. And even their working areas were not allowed to be inside the town. If that is true it seems especially unlikely that they were entertaining the masses with Sideshows of the Dead acts.


Well, (once again...) Herodotus mentions that if a particularly attractive or prominent woman died, it was mandatory to wait three days before releasing the body to the embalmers. Evidently there had been some...awkward situations before that rule was put in place.
posted by nasreddin at 12:44 AM on January 26, 2008


From the linked blog
For example, consider the man in Alexandria who was a foot tall, with a colossal head that could be beaten with a hammer, who used to be exhibited by the embalmers.
Yeah...the helmets the little grays wear are tough buggers. Too bad the embalmers never figured how to get it off. Imagine the poetry written about that event!
posted by Thorzdad at 5:24 AM on January 26, 2008


Yeah, nasreddin has it: the blogger is an idiot for treating this as some kind of scientific report. People talked about all kinds of weird shit back before the days of mass travel and instant communications, and at this late date there's no way of telling which of it they believed and what they thought was just a good yarn, or even if there was a meaningful difference. There's no way of knowing if this is allegory, confused third-hand report, or just a tall tale.

But the blogger revealed himself as an idiot almost immediately:

Personally, I'm peeved that the one dude's library we actually almost recovered was some kind of insane lunatic for poetry and (ick!!) the philosophy of poetry. Gag me.

So I was pretty much prepared not to take anything he said seriously.

(I love the Greek Anthology too, but reading prose translations is kind of like looking at blurry black-and-white snapshots of paintings.)
posted by languagehat at 6:08 AM on January 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


Caldonia!
posted by mr_crash_davis at 7:10 AM on January 26, 2008 [3 favorites]


I'm afraid people will miss the point of mr_crash_davis's brilliant comment, so: Caldonia!
posted by languagehat at 7:24 AM on January 26, 2008


This ancient plate of beans is really getting smashed with hammers.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 7:33 AM on January 26, 2008


My, my, my embalmer hits me so hard
Makes me say "Oh my Lord"
Thank you for blessing me
With a colossal head and one hype feet
It feels good, it's sweet as candy, a
Super dope homeboy from Alexandria
And I'm known as such
And this is a riddle, uh, you can't touch
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:25 AM on January 26, 2008 [3 favorites]


The DVD Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation is pretty interesting, and it tells how excited everybody at the time was at the prospect of unearthing Pompei and Herculeum, what with finally getting a look at the everyday lives of these noble, elevated, wise and cultured people. What they found to their profound consternation was a great abundance of lewd and pornographic imagery, incest, beastiality, all forms of perversion, publicly displayed just about everywhere. So a big cover up was implemented and everything that could be moved was hidden in secret vaults and only certified scholars with non-disclosure contracts could see even part of it, and much of it remains locked away to this day.

So, yeah, context.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:17 AM on January 26, 2008


I think the embalmers brought out the corpse (mummified perhaps?) of a small primate, which would have a skull much tougher than a human's, and passed it off as that of a little man. There is nothing in the passage to indicate that the man was alive at the time, only that the "head", which could very easily be mistranslated from "skull" could withstand hammers. Though it would still be an exaggeration, the skull of a primate, like a chimp, would be much thicker, the size in comparison to the body would seem like a huge head, and of course the primate would be smaller in stature. Alternatively, the embalmers could have switched skulls, placing a primate's skull on a baby's skeleton, for example, to give the illusion of a little man with a huge, strong head.
posted by misha at 9:30 AM on January 26, 2008


I recall reading a Scientific American article in the mid-80's about an Icelandic character in the Eddas, a poet himself, who was renowned for his large head and 'lion-faced' features. It turns out that there is a disorder that can cause the bones of the skull to grow to immense thickness, but only growing outward, so there is no pressure on the brain. In his early years, the Icelandic poet was immensely strong and had a hard enough skull to deflect axe blows. But as his bones and skull thickened with age, he chronicled his arthritis and pain in his later years as his head grew too heavy to lift and his eye sockets closed into blindness. He died sometime after the turn of the first millenium. About 200 years after his death, a scholarly priest and some of his descendants dug up his enormous 'lion-faced' skull and verified that it still resisted the blows of a hammer, with only a slight flake or two. I'll see if I can hunt down the reference ...

It doesn't sound beyond possibility for a achondroplasmic dwarf to also be afflicted with this same bone disorder. The extreme shortness could be exaggerated slightly, but I don't think it's beyond probability that Egyptian embalmers (after all, mummification was the standard burial practice) might have reserved a particularly interesting sample that came through their offices.
posted by Araucaria at 10:52 AM on January 26, 2008


s/achondroplasmic/achondroplasiac/
posted by Araucaria at 10:54 AM on January 26, 2008


And if you doubt the existence of odd freaks, try visiting the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons sometime. Not photoshopped!
posted by Araucaria at 10:59 AM on January 26, 2008


Indeed, languagehat, people who don't care for poetry and say so are ipso facto idiots.
posted by kenko at 11:02 AM on January 26, 2008


Egil's bones. Sorry, it was 1995, not the mid-80's. Guess my head was in the wrong place this morning :-).
posted by Araucaria at 11:06 AM on January 26, 2008


I have nothing against people not caring for poetry. That quote makes the blogger sound like an idiot.
posted by languagehat at 11:06 AM on January 26, 2008


From my second link:

Paget's is an extremely old disease. The first recorded evidence of the ailment is a grossly thickened Egyptian skull dating from about 1000 B.C. It affects slightly more men than women, and it usually occurs after the age of 40.

Independent verification?
posted by Araucaria at 11:17 AM on January 26, 2008


Egill Skallagrímsson. What a character!
posted by Araucaria at 11:25 AM on January 26, 2008


Uh... well... about Egill Skallagrímsson having Paget's disease. As much as I personally like Jesse Byock (he's my former landlord) I don't think his theory that Egill had Paget's is... well... relevant. He might have, he might not have. However, the main source we have on his life, Egils Saga, is a work of fiction. It shouldn't be taken as historical fact. There's no way to know what Egill looked like in real life.
posted by Kattullus at 11:44 AM on January 26, 2008


Also, I find this modern fad of digging up old references to weird people and then diagnosing them with various diseases (a staple of pop-sci magazines) to be quite insufferable, almost as bad as "psychohistory."
posted by nasreddin at 11:49 AM on January 26, 2008


Yeah! Fuck Hari Seldon! Go Mule! Go Mule!
posted by Kattullus at 12:22 PM on January 26, 2008


Unfortunately, psychohistory is real. And it's coming for YOU!
posted by nasreddin at 12:33 PM on January 26, 2008


No, wait, I've got it: the embalmers were putting on a Blue-Man-Group-type show and the one-foot-tall feller was just the shortest, highest note in a cranial xylophone.
posted by XMLicious at 2:47 PM on January 26, 2008


Yeah, that's weird, but I want to know more about the original wording to start with. What was a "foot" (that is, what did the translator replace with the modern word "foot")? What, indeed, was a "hammer"? A wooden mallet, or an iron sledge? Perhaps "beaten" refers to a musical approach instead of a smashing approach? What's around this anecdote, that he brought it up in the first place? How can we be sure, Darmok-wise, that it isn't some kind of literary allusion to which the original reference is now lost, but with which his audience would have been familiar? (How will audiences millennia hence interpret "Maxwell's Silver Hammer"?)

I'm even suspicious that there's a pun here I'm just not getting, in the "O Hammers, head" bit.

I think taking this bit out of context on the one hand and simultaneously at face value on the other is a textual analysis approach that is bound to fail.
posted by dhartung at 4:17 PM on January 26, 2008


Personally, I'm peeved that the one dude's library we actually almost recovered was some kind of insane lunatic for poetry and (ick!!) the philosophy of poetry. Gag me. I mean, why couldn't he have been Posidonius, or Strabo, or Cicero, or a big fan of Stratonican dynamics, or Erasistratean physiology, or Aristarchan astrophysics? Poetry!? Christ!

Thought this was partly a joke and partly an expression of his own intellectual interests.
posted by paduasoy at 4:27 PM on January 26, 2008


Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em!

How can we be sure, Darmok-wise, that it isn't some kind of literary allusion to which the original reference is now lost, but with which his audience would have been familiar?

Will Family Guy make any sense once I've finished destroying all these masters of Who's The Boss??

As for the "foot tall" bit, um, how can a man be a foot tall while at the same time possessing a "colossal head"? Surely his head could have only been slightly more than average sized at best, and that's assuming a more-or-less microscopic body. Though, of course, since this man was exhibited by embalmers, perhaps his body was more likely to have been prostrate, in which case "one foot tall" might refer to his body's thickness.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:34 PM on January 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


The linked blogger responds to this discussion....
posted by Rumple at 10:54 PM on February 13, 2008


That's a good point he's got about Prince Randian. I still wish he'd bothered to post the relevant Greek text, though. And I still think it's kind of credulous of him to not even express skepticism about whether all the statements involved are literally true.
posted by XMLicious at 2:40 PM on February 14, 2008


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