May 26, 2005

A Euphemism for Pudenda

The other day I wrote a post on a special meaning of the word "hand" that comes up from time to time. I promised then that I would give a sermon on "foot" at a later time. That time has come.

I hope everyone read the lesson in advance. If not get down your Bibles, in this case the King James Version will be best, and read Ezekiel 16:25, Judges 3:24, and Isaiah 6:2. If you have done that and still want to read what I have to say I am here by absolved of any responsibility. If you have not read the lesson, proceed at your own risk.

The Hebrew word for foot is רגל (regel). Like "hand," most of the time regel means exactly what you think it should mean, the things at the lower end of your legs that you put in shoes and stand on. For the record, at least in Rabbinic Hebrew, regel sometimes also means "leg." But regel has several metaphorical meanings, the one that I will explore in this post is a euphemistic metaphor for what one prudish scholar called pudenda.1 Not sure what pudenda means? Well, reread Ezekiel 16:25.

Thou hast built thy high place at every head of the way, and hast made thy beauty to be abhorred, and hast opened thy feet to every one that passed by, and multiplied thy whoredom.

See, now you understand the Latin pudenda. If literal "feet" are at one end of the leg, then metaphorical "feet," pudenda, are at the other end. Many modern translations tend to "pulpitize" the translation. For example the Revised Standard Version reads,

At the head of every street you built your high place and prostituted your beauty, offering yourself to any passer-by, and multiplying your harlotry.

This rather obscures the point. But after all, by the time of the Revised Standard Version there were children in church. No conscientious preacher would want to expose them to any references to pudenda.

Let's look at three more passages from the Hebrew Bible, two of which you should have already read. First, Judges 3:24 reads (again KJV),

When he [E'hud] was gone out, his [Eglon, king of Moab] servants came; and when they saw that, behold, the doors were locked, they said, Surely, he covereth his feet in his summer chamber.

Here "covereth his feet" very likely means, as the RSV, less colorfully, says, "relieving himself." So now, we learn that foot/feet can apply to both male and female pudenda. The Ezekiel passage clearly refers to female pudenda while the Judges passage refers to male. While the analogous use of "hand" seems only to apply to the male penis.

On to Isaiah 6:2, again following the KJV,

Above it [the Lord's throne] stood the seraphims; each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.

Any questions? No respecting seraphim would expose his "feet" before the Lord.

Note: seraphim is grammatically plural but can be understood in the singular as the KJV translators and I do in this case.

The third case is a little more problematic. To understand it you need to know that there exists along side the written Hebrew Bible a tradition of how it was to be read out loud. This "reading" is called the qere in Hebrew. An English translation of the qere of II Kings 18:27 goes something like:

Rab'shakeh said to them [Hezekiah's "staff"], "Has my master [Sennach'erib the king of Assyria] sent me to speak these words to your master and to you, and not to the men sitting on the wall, who are doomed with you to eat their own dung and to drink the water of their feet.

I follow the RSV up to a point. First, please consider that the translation "dung" is itself a euphemism for "shit." While my translation, above, follows that which is "to be read" (the qere), the last few words of what is "written" in Hebrew are reasonably translated, "eat their own shit and drink their own piss." You can see why the rabbis wanted to use a euphemism when reading this passage in the Synagogue. But remember, this was not a Sunday School class that Rab'shakeh and Hezikiah's guys were having. Jerusalem was under siege and on the verge of collapse. They were locked in a life and death battle. Think about how warriors talk.

So now we learn that not only the authors of the Hebrew Bible but the rabbis used "feet" to mean, how shall I say, oh yes, pudenda.

Well, how about the cultural environment in which the Hebrew Bible was written? First Ugaritic uses a different Semitic root for "foot" (p(r), than the Hebrew. This root may be associated with Hebrew pa(am meaning "step." But the most direct cognate seems to be pa(ar that, as a verb, means "open wide." Pa(ar is used in Rabbinic Hebrew to mean "uncover" as in, "he who uncovered himself before Baal."2 Well, well. There does not seem to be a unambiguous example of p(r meaning, pudenda in Ugaritic but in UT 51:II:18 Anat's "loins" are in proximity to her "feet." However, the most plausible restoration of this very broken part of the text would lead all but the most perverse to believe that "foot" here means "foot."

I was unable to find and did not look too diligently for examples in Akkadian or Egyptian. But I'll bet they are there. If anyone knows a good example tell me in the comments. I did a little better job looking at Aramaic and couldn't find a case worthy of mention. However, this is not just a Hebrew thing. Notice the Latin phrase pedes tollere, literally meaning "to lift the feet," but in context it sometimes means "to assume the position for sexual intercourse."3 I am not, repeat not, claiming that this Latin usage has or had anything to do with the Hebrew usage. I am only claiming that the association of "feet" and pudenda is not limited to the Hebrew world.

Thus endith the lessons on hands and feet. Unless there is a great demand, I have no plans to post on either of these subjects or anything having to do with ancient metaphors for pudenda ever again.

Update June 13, 2005

PaleoJudaica notes Ruth 3:4,

But when he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.

He then directs us to an article in the Jerusalem Post which contains the following,

The harvest is over, Boaz is checking the produce and in a merry mood, so one night when he is alone in the granary, Ruth must go and seduce him. Naomi puts it frankly to Ruth and she, the ever-obedient daughter-in-law, does not demur. She washes and dresses in her best clothes and creeps up to Boaz in his sleep, uncovers him and makes advances. Boaz is startled to find himself embraced by the beautiful girl. His reaction is that of any normal male and he asks her to stay the night. She agrees, and at daybreak he gives her a betrothal present and, thanks to the night encounter, they are formally engaged. . .

I don't know how I missed this one, Ruth was the first thing I ever read in Hebrew.

Notes: Links are to my bibliography page where there are complete references.

1) Dentan, R. C. "Foot", Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, George Buttrick ed., Abington Press 1962, Yes, much of my reference library on the Bible is dated but I haven't meaningfully worked on this stuff for 35 years.

2) Jastrow, (1950), 1203.

3) OLD, 1366

Posted by Duane Smith at May 26, 2005 9:23 AM | Read more on Ugarit |

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