Inferi Latrinae

Last Thursday I took part in a lecture by Dr. Christine Thomas at UCI that dealt with Pagan and Christian representation of urban space in the ancient city of Ephesus. Dr. Thomas is a Religious Studies professor who works in Biblical Studies, Classics, and Turkish archeology.


Latrines that were part of the Scholastica Baths in Ephesus, built in the First Century CE.

Of the many interesting topics that came up was public restrooms in the ancient Roman world. They certainly had them, but unlike today things were a bit more cramped and privacy was not as much of an option. To make matters worse, paper-like materials in the ancient world were far more expensive than they are today, and of instead toilet paper the Romans used sponges that were attached to sticks, rinsed, and reused between people (hence the phrase, “the wrong end of the stick”). Life in the ancient world certainly did not have all of the luxuries that we have today!

Now, I had taught undergraduates about these public latrines in courses on the Roman Empire before, but Dr. Thomas informed me of a new aspect of these spaces that I had never heard of previously! Belief in demons, magic, and the supernatural was very common in the ancient world, and personal agents were thought to haunt many dark abodes. Roman toilets were connected directly with the sewers and bathroom lighting was nothing like what we have today. With noxious gases, poor lighting, and dark spaces beneath you, public latrines could be very creepy places.

So what kind of common belief did these factors come together to produce? You guessed it: Toilet Demons!

Dr. Thomas directed my to a book by ancient latrine specialist Gemma Jansen titled Roman Toilets: Their Archeology and Cultural History. As Jansen (pg. 165) discusses:

“For us, people of the 21st century, fear of demons is a less common phenomenon, but for the Romans it was second nature to watch for them everywhere and try to avoid them. To protect themselves, they used amulets, they performed what we call superstitious practices, and they paid attention to prophetic omens. They had to do so, because, if a demon possessed you, he could make you sick or kill you. This also holds true for the evil eye that some one could cast on you.”

Jansen (pg. 166) continues to explain how these superstitions likewise extended to ancient restrooms:

“To understand this fear of demons in toilets, we have to keep in mind that the Roman toilet experience is different from ours in having no gooseneck or stench trap. This implies that one was sitting over an open connection to either a sewer or cesspit. Underneath the toilet user was a deep dark hole from which all kinds of animals could climb up, and perhaps even a demon.”

Not to mention that sewer gases are highly noxious and can even be flammable. Imagine if you saw a spark of combustion from the sewers. Of course you are going to think that demons are down there! In addition to that, there were unseen bacteria that could cause diseases that were associated with latrines, but that no one knew the cause of. As Andrew Wilson, another contributor to Roman Toiletsexplains (pg. 162), “we, modern people, fear bacteria on toilets as the Romans feared demons.”

PygmiesAs such, the Romans were on the lookout to stop these demons. Jansen (pg. 170) even discusses a phrase that was found on an inscription in Pompey: cacator cave malum (“shitter, beware of evil!”). To protect themselves, the Romans employed a variety of methods. One method was to include paintings of defecating pygmies in places that demons were thought to haunt. Jansen (pg. 165) explains:

“The Romans believed that the evil eye or demons lingering in baths and tombs could be expelled by laughter and the unbecoming behavior of ‘ugly’ pygmies made Romans laugh … Clarke [La Peinture funéraire antique] has also found three toilets with pygmy decorations, all with the intention to protect the toilet user.”

Classicist Caroline Lawrence also has a blog post titled “Demon in the Toilet!”, which discusses other demon-protection methods, such as penis-shaped amulets, images of Medusa, and other images of “evil eyes” meant to look back at the demons.

Now the rise of Christianity put an end to all of these Pagan superstitions, right? Nope. The New Testament is full of stories about demons and demon possessions (for a list of Bible passages about demons, see here)! As Mary Douglas (Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations, pg. 31) remarks, “From the New Testament onwards, the Christian mission was a mission of ‘driving out’ demons. The bishop’s office was to ‘tread down Satan under his feet.'” One thing that Dr. Thomas also discussed is how fear of demons, in many ways, was made worse by the rise of Christianity. In a Pagan polytheistic mentality, there are many spirits and animisms in the world, some of which are benevolent, some of which are meddlesome, and some of which are malicious. But, for monotheists, who think that they believe in “the correct” deity, in a world where people worship other supernatural beings, they tend to view all forms of spirit beliefs outside of their religion to be demonic. Far from removing the Pagan superstitions, it created fear in a world haunted by invisible demons.

As such, Christianity equally picked up the fear of toilet demons! We see such demons even mentioned in Christian literature. For example, the Life of Saint Thecla (Miracle 7) records an encounter with a toilet demon:

“In the middle of the night, (the priest) Dexianos was sitting on the privy [i.e. toilet], when a demon raised itself in front of him, a demoniacal creature, savage and enraged. As soon as Dexianos perceived the demon’s presence, because of the deep and hellish obscurity and also because the demon was breathing, throwing crazy looks and proffering insanities, Dexianos was stunned, seized by fear and trembling, filled with terror and covered in sweat.”

The thing is that few people today believe in toilet demons! So what, if not Christianity, brought an end to it?

The ironic thing is that I am am not at all surprised that this superstition existed. Ancient toilets produced a lot of effects that could result in disembodied or invisible causation. When sewer gas would combust, you would not know that it was a purely natural chemical reaction. When disease would spread, you would not know that they were caused by microscopic bacteria.

With no observable cause, people turned to supernatural ones. As I discuss in my article about defining the supernatural, agent over-detection causes humans to assign personal causes to otherwise mechanical and natural processes, resulting in religious superstitions. If anything, there was more evidence for toilet demons than many other ancient religious beliefs. They were tied to unseen diseases and combusting gas, which produced illusory confirmation of their presence.

Instead, it was only science and the discovery of a world governed by purely natural processes that eliminated toilet demons. Rather than search for personal, agent causes, scientific knowledge eventually discovered things like combustion, figured out how sewer gasses are naturally noxious, and discovered that only controllable natural processes caused them. Through the natural sciences we not only lifted the superstition of toilet demons from the earth, but also found ways to make some substantially cleaner and safer restrooms!

Part of the reason I enjoy teaching ancient history is to show students why we do not take many belief systems that were produced in the ancient world seriously, unless they are verified today by the hard sciences. Toilet demons are proof, if nothing else, that people in antiquity lacked the knowledge to fully understand the world they lived in. They are not to blame for this, as it required hundreds of years of secular science to discover the natural processes that are behind things that were previously thought to be supernatural. Toilet demons are just one example, but ignorance of science has led people to form other superstitions based on agent over-detection, such as thinking that the origin of man had a personal cause (rather than unguided evolution) or that our planet was designed by a creator (rather than formed by a collapsing nebula).

I am just glad to know that science has at least reached the point of removing the superstition of toilet demons in our culture, and, as we continue to realize more and more how we live in a world governed solely by impersonal natural processes, I have no doubt that other superstitions that were produced in antiquity, along with toilet demons, will eventually be flushed away.

-Matthew Ferguson

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6 Responses to Inferi Latrinae

  1. stickholder says:

    Are you sure the the Roman toilet sponge-stick is the origin of the phrase, “the wrong end of the stick”? The OED traces the expression only back to the 1800s. Was that expression used in antiquity? I always thought the expression referred to picking up the dirty end of a walking stick.

    • Good question. I’m pretty positive that the phrase does not go back to antiquity (it is the sort of phrase you would use in English, but just wouldn’t be colloquial in Latin or Greek).

      I was actually quoting the term, though, because Caroline Lawrence (one of the Classicists quoted above) uses it in the blog that I quoted from her. The blog is directed towards kids, so it was probably a bit of a simplification. I do know that the phrase is commonly associated with Roman latrines, but that may be an anachronism.

      • In the deep South the phrase is a lot more, uh, colorful: “the shit end of the stick.” It’s such a common saying, but I’d never even thought about what it meant before now. Fascinating!

  2. I wonder if Kevin Smith knew about any of this when he wrote Dogma. The Golgothan seems like an elaborate version of one of these guys.

  3. hüth says:

    [i]The thing is that nobody today (at least in nations with public education) believes in toilet demons![/i]

    • I stand corrected! Thanks for the link!

      Interesting enough, I know a number of Classicists who see similarities between ancient Roman religion and Japanese religion, particularly with the emphasis on orthopraxy (“correct ritual”) rather than orthodoxy (“correct doctrine”), which is more characteristic of Western monotheistic faiths.

      Stories related to ghosts, spirits, and demons would seem to be pretty ubiquitous, though it still seems in many modern societies they are believed in far less today, rather than celebrated culturally. These Japanese toilet ghosts, after all, are described as “folklore.”

      I think that such ghost and demon mythology will continue to be part of our cultural heritage, which is great, even when such things are recognized to be fantasy and human imagination on the metaphysical level. In that way, stories about toilet demons may still exist, even if we do not take their existence to actually be real, as the ancient Romans once did.

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