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Children of the Dung Heap September 2, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

There are some strange surnames if you take care to look around. And the present author knows of what he speaks: being called Beachcombing gets you some very curious looks in post-offices and at border crossings… But Beach’s personal favourite from history is the Greco-Egyptian name Kopr- (with many derivatives) meaning, of course, ‘dung’. These ‘execrable’ names have been much debated over the years: we have over two hundred that survive in our records and scholars have now come to a reasonable consensus as to their origins. If you met Paul Dung in ancient Alexandria in, say, the second century you were speaking either to a child of the dung hill or a descendant of the child of a dung hill. And  dung-hill children, in case you were wondering, were those who had been left out at night on the village rubbish heap because their parents were not prepared to raise them.

And why expose a child in ancient Egypt? The most obvious reason was that the child was ‘defective’, that could mean anything from subjoined twins to a fused finger. But it might also be the result of an unwanted birth: though Greco-Roman abortion seems to have been quite efficient and if you are going to expose the child anyway… Then the third reason was that a child was wanted but a girl was not. There is a memorable papyrus letter that survived for a couple of thousand years in the sands of Egypt where a father (a soldier away from home) tells his wife that if the new born lacks a penis she must be exposed… And if that gives you the shivers then look at the male-female ratio for China under the one child system. Any other instances of infanticide on this level? drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com

All this makes sense, with one notable problem. If the children were going to die, how did they grow up to carry the name Dung? The explanation is simply that passers-by sometimes rescued the squawking babies before the cold or – this is the detail that Beach finds most disturbing – the wild dogs could get at them. And who were these altruists? Well, this being the ancient world they were rarely much of anything good. True, some groups – stoics, Jews… – could not abide child exposure and rescued the victims of the less civilised: dung children were, on occasion, adopted. However, more typically they were local entrepreneurs who knew that if they could bring the child to adolescence they would make a tidy sum in the slave market.

Child exposure slowly wound down in the fourth century in the Empire. The legalisation of selling children may have helped: at least so several historians allege, though Beach has his doubts. More important was the rise of Christianity that tightened sexual and, what may very loosely be called, ‘pro-life’ morality in many different areas. Interestingly one of the earliest Christian jibes against exposure was that dung children created potentially incestuous situations. If this seems a bizarre argument remember that dung babies were sold into slavery, so some could have ended up in the local brothel and some could have been visited by their own biological fathers there. It is a rather contorted claim that tells us more about late Roman Christianity than about the realities of child exposure: and, let’s face it, if anyone wanted to get in a hissy fit about incest in Egypt there was ammunition lying about all over the place.


3 Sept 2012: KB writes in: Being interested in the idea that Kopr in a name likely refers to dung (as in our modern prefix copro-) I proceeded to do an Internet search, and came up with two sites that mention the Hebrew word “koper.” One site says the word refers to pitch, another seems to say it refers to burnt offerings, and by association, to those who are redeemed by burnt offerings. If this is the root of any names beginning with Kopr, those names may refer not to dung and to discarded humans, but rather to burnt offerings and redeemed people. Given that the word is also used in the old testament referring to the pitch used to make Noah’s Ark watertight, it could be an occupationally-linked name: “pitch maker,” or alternately to a very dark skinned person. Here is one link. You must scroll down a bit to find the definition of “koper” in a lengthy sermon.  Given the ease of this search, it makes me wonder why experts agree on the dunghill connection rather than the pitch maker, the pitch colored, or the burnt offering redeemed person? Methinks one would not need to be currently Hebrew to have a Hebrew-word linked name: since words can be adopted from one language into another now, could they not have been so in ancient times? Certainly Egyptians and Hebrews were in contact quite a long time ago, as were Greeks and other Mediterranean people’s… Genesis, I assume, is old enough to fit within the eras of Greco-Egyptian language development, and in Genesis, apparently, the Hebrew word “koper” meaning “tar” or “pitch” is found.While I am not a linguistic expert, I have found that any “remarkable” consensus among usually-infighting experts should be questioned and “remarked” upon.’ Andy the Mad Monk meanwhile has some terrifying Indian statistics on infanticide. Thanks KB and Andy!!!


13 Sept 2012: AOD writes in ‘In regards to your 2nd September article “Children of the Dunghill”: it’s probably worth noting that there was another, altogether more positive set of connotations associated with dung in ancient Egyptian culture- famously, the scarab or dung beetle was regarded as sacred, with its habit of rolling perfectly round balls of dung for its larvae earning it solar connotations and the emergence of adult beetles from these balls leading to associations with rebirth.  These beetles were enshrined in the Egyptian pantheon as the deity Khepri, whose name is likely derived from a verb meaning ‘to develop’ and who was sometimes regarded as an aspect of Ra. I’ve no idea if or in what form these ideas survived into Ptolemaic or Roman times, though note that ‘Khepri’ and the (probably unrelated) Greek root copr- under discussion have an almost-identical set of consonants.’ Thanks AOD!!!