HTML Backgorund Color

  About   /  Archive   /   Seasons   /  Print   /  Tenement   /  Shop



In the Gnostic apocryphal book First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ, there is a chronicle concerning the holy excreta of Christ. One day, the Virgin Mary washed the Baby Jesus’ Swaddling Clothes. The water in which the cloth was washed was found to have miraculous properties. The wet diaper was put on a post to dry. An evil and naughty little boy then passed by and prankishly plopped the swaddling clothes on his head; in an instant, he was exorcised, and a host of demons flew out of his gaping mouth. Today, the Swaddling Clothes are preserved in a golden reliquary in a chapel in Aachen, Germany. The excrement of the Dalai Lama is also believed to be holy. His sacred excrement is lovingly collected, dried, pulverized, and crammed into little bags. The Tibetan pedung, meaning “sacred remains,” are usually preserved and sold as charms at a great price. They are either placed around devotees’ necks in little amulets or preserved in elaborately ornamental reliquaries. (I own such a reliquary, sans the divine excreta, in which I have placed a relic of Richard Nixon: a rare campaign button.) The English term “dung” can be traced to the Anglo-Saxon word dyncg, to the old German tunga, the Swedish dynga, and Icelandic dyngia.

In ancient Arabia, an incense called “Holy Merde” was made from the excrement of the Chief Patriarch. Over the years, this fine and costly incense has been sold unbeknownst to Christian churches worldwide. Holy Merde may remind one of the artwork Merde d’Artista (Artist’s Shit) by Piero Manzoni, who in 1961 canned his own excrement in 30-gram tins (each of the 90 versions sold for their weight in gold), or Tom Friedman’s 1997 ‘Untitled (Artist’s Feces),’ which consists of miniature balls of the artist’s excrement. When shit is collected either as a holy relic or as fine art, it is transfigured. In her landmark treatise History of Shit, Dominique Laporte writes, “Shit ceases to be shit once it has been collected and transmuted; it then exists only in the form of symbolic equivalents.”

In 1995, on the Polynesian island of Tonga, I had an audience with His Majesty the King. While there, I had an opportunity to see in the district of Mua the ancient tombs (Langi) of the old Tongan Kings (Tu’i Tonga). The graves (fa’itoka) look like low terraced pyramids or mounds made of finely cut and fitted coralline limestone. In olden days, there was a singular religious rite associated with the funeral of the Tu’i Tonga: At night, the male mourners went to the funeral mounds and performed the sacred rite of defecating on the grave. At daybreak, women of high rank would come with woven palm baskets and large shells to scoop up the nocturnal deposits. This process was repeated fifteen times. On the morning of the sixteenth day, the women returned to the sacred mounds dressed in their finest painted tapa cloth (ngatu) and waist mats (ta’ovalas) and pantomimed the act of cleaning away the filth, even though there was no excrement left. This Tongan ritual was an act of great humiliation for the mourners.

Nearby, on the island of Samoa, tradition had it that when a woman was about to give birth, her extended family would pray in unison to each of the various Polynesian deities. After the baby was born, the mother would determine precisely to which god they were praying at the moment of birth. In devotion to that god for allowing a safe childbirth, the baby was henceforth considered the god's excrement and given a nickname, such as “Excrement of Tiki.” The newborn was then washed and the dirty bathwater drunk by all with much gusto and vigor. More recently, in Japan, the followers of the cult group Aum Shinrikyo (believed to be responsible for the release of sarin nerve gas in Tokyo) drank, at great price, the bathwater of Asahara, their leader.


Submissions     ︎      ︎

Partner to a press called Tenement, Hotel is a publications series for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. 

Mailing List