In the wake of Super Bowl shenanigans last week which seemed to eclipse the half time show in press coverage later, Law Professor Ira Robbins was on NPR’s All Things Considered and suggesting that the gesture isn’t considered obscene any more … in the introductory bits he did give some history:
CORNISH: So, to start, where does this gesture come from? And how far back in history do we have to go to find people taking offense to it?
ROBBINS: If you go back in recorded history, it’s about 2,500 years, although there are apocryphal stories that it goes back even further. The Greek playwright, Aristophanes, refers to the middle finger in his play, “The Clouds,” basically treating it as a phallic symbol.
We see this in Roman literature, as well, and Roman history. In fact, the use of the middle finger was so prevalent in those times that they gave it a special name. They called it the digitus impudicus, meaning the impudent finger.
Interestingly, way back when rogueclassicism was young (and hosted on a different platform), we mentioned a case in Houston wherein the court decided ‘flipping the bird’ did not constitute disorderly conduct. At that time, we also mentioned that folks might want to check out a Straight Dope page for more Roman precedents for the gesture, and happily that’s still where it was almost a decade ago. What isn’t so easy to get to now, however, was a discussion of the Greek side of the gesture which we had on the Classics list, which was once our only bit of ‘social media’ (and so easy to remember where you were chatting about it). That convo now languishing in the Internet Archive, so to make it more ‘available’, I’ll reproduce the discussion (From June 10/11, 2002):
Initially, amicus noster, the late James Butrica asked:
A colleague is wondering whether the Greeks had a specific term for what the Romans would have called the digitus infamis. I haven’t been able to come up with anything better than “mesos” (which might not even be right, if the thumb wasn’t considered a finger).
J.F. Gannon responded:
You are right about mesos. At least you have the support of the Scholia ad Nub. 653. Dover does not have much to say in his commentary and cites no parallels. It is tempting to think the Athenians might have thought of it as the daktylos aischros but I do not know of any text that supports this. But if I were a betting man…
Ernest Moncanda added:
There are several references in the literature to “daktylos mesos” as has been pointed out, and surely Dr. Gannon’s suggested “daktylos aischros” sounds convincing. For the act of “giving” the finger, we have “skimalizein.” For the “eskimalisen” of Arist. Pax. 549, the scholia explains this as to hold up the middle finger: skimalisai gar esti kuriOs to ton meson tOn daktulOn eis ton prOkton ton orneon embalein. Burton, in The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night writes: “Debauchees had signals like Freemasons whereby they recognized one another. The Greek ‘skematizein’ was made by closing the hand to represent the scrotum and raising the middle finger as if to feel whether a hen had eggs; hence the Athenians called it ‘katapygon’ or sodomite and the Romans ‘digitus impudicus’ or ‘infamis,’ the ‘medical finger’ of Rabelais and the Chiromantists–though properly speaking ‘medicus’ is the third or ring-finger, as shown by the old Chiromantist verses.”
Erasmus (Adag. III.iii.87) writes: “Eskimalixthai. To be a target for the finger. Eskimalixthai se XrE, you should be a target for the finger. This insulting gesture was used to convey supreme contempt. Eskimalisai in Greek is to display the middle finger while keeping the others closed, to show disrespect…..Hence too that line in Juvenal” (10.53) [alluded to in Adag. II.iv. 67-68]: “Bade her go hang, showed her his middle finger-nail.” Erasmus says that Suidas who discusses the word (E. 3150. He also cites Pax, 549) uses it more elegantly and more like a true proverb. (Have our hard working “SOL” brothers reached this yet?).
To which James Butrica responded:
Naturally I got the TLG on the case and turned up what has been reported here, and more, though nearly all of it can be traced to two passages of Aristophanes and the comments that it generated, in a sort of mini-history of Atticism in later Greek.
I’ll have to do another search to find exactly where eskimalikhthai turns up in Greek literature, but “eskimalikhthai se khrH” is one of the proverbs in the collection of Michael Apostolius, with an entry only similar to what Erasmus gives: “of those who deserve hubris:’skimalisai’ applies when, wanting to insult someone, they extend the middle finger, draw the others together, and show them to him: properly it means to insert the finger into the bum of a bird.” (There’s a slight grammatical incoherence here, with both plural and singular forms used in reference to the same person(s).)
Hesychius s.v. siphniazein says that the word means “katadaktulizein,” i.e. “to finger up,” and reflects the slander that the Siphnians (of the fabulous Siphnian treasury at Delphi) were pederasts, and he gives the aorist infinitive siphniasai as having the same meaning as skimalisai. Later his entry for skimalisai defines it as katadaktulisai. The Atticist Lexicon of Moeris says that skimalisai is the Attic equivalent of katadaktulisai in other dialiects. Photius also notes the equivalence, but defines skimalisai as “to finger up in unseemly fashion” (askhHmonOs). Similarly, Phrynichus defines katadaktulizein as “shamelessly [aselgOs] touching the seat of someone nearby with the finger” and says that skimalizein is the Attic equivalent.
The scholion on Acharnians 444 glosses Aristophanes’ skimalisO with “with the small finger so that I might touch their womanish bums,” and notes that properly it refers to using “the small finger” to find out if birds are carrying eggs. The scholion to Peace 549 is a little different, saying (in the exact same words found in Michael Apostolius) that it refers to putting a finger up a bird’s bum (no purpose expressed) but also refers to extending the middle finger and drawing the rest together as an insult (pretty much as in Michael again).
Much the same language can be found at Suda epsilon 3150, s.v. eskimalisen; first, however, it says that the word means to put the middle finger together with the “big” one (i.e. the thumb) and strike as an insult (is this a finger-snap?), then it gives katadaktulizein as a synonym, and then the finger in the bird-bum and the extended-finger insult.
A second Suda entry, sigma 606, s.v. skimalisO, provides much the same information as the Acharnians scholion — not surprisingly, since the Suda entry evidently exists simply because Aristophanes used the word. In fact, the two passages in Aristophanes seem to have generated pretty much everything else said about this verb, with the exception of an anecdote in Diogenes Laertius’ life of Zeno (7.17). It appears that Zeno was at a banquet, third in sequence on a couch. Zeno kneed a neighbour who had just stuck his foot in his own neighbour’s bum, and asked “So what do you think the one above you is having done to him by you?” (ti oun oiei ton hupokatO sou paskhein hupo sou?). The Loeb translation of Hicks takes this all somewhat innocently, with kicking and nudging, but skimalizO seems after all to be somewhat more intimate — in this case perhaps a “foot-goose.” (Hey, wasn’t Kevin Bacon in that movie?)
I wouldn’t care to guess which potent variety of hashish Burton was using when he spun out the nonsense quoted above about “debauchees.”
We might also point to a photo of a statue of Venus being unpacked at the Michael C. Carlos Museum (Venus Flipping the Bird), which we didn’t mention in that Focus Magazine cover thing (Venus Still Causing a Stir)… I seem to recall we had at least one other conversation on these sorts of things on the Classics list (mostly from the Latin side); if I find it, I’ll add it.
ADDENDUM (a few hours later) … Just found this lurking in my mailbox with a bit of ClassCon too:
ADDENDUM (the next day) … as I catch up on my rss feeds, I note that James Warren of Kenodoxia fame has also been waxing on this subject: One-fingered salute