Spittle and Spitting

views updated


SPITTLE AND SPITTING . In the past, spittle was generally believed to have magical properties. Early humans, seeing themselves at the center of the universe, perceived connections between their own bodies and cosmic bodies, gods, and demons. They related parts of their bodies to colors, plants, elements, and directions. Spittle, blood, sperm, sweat, nails, and hair became magical substances not only as a result of this unity but also because, after leaving the body, they would retain some essence of that person. Spittle could therefore be positive or negative, depending on the intent of the spitter. Spitting and blood rites have many parallels, since both involve holy fluids that signify psychic energy and are necessary for sustaining physical life. Connections are still made between body fluids and feelings: anger makes one's blood "boil"; people spit from contempt or "spit out" words in hatred; and our mouths water at the thought of some delight or become dry from fear.

In early myths, life created by spitting is equivalent to the breath of the creator or the divine word. In one version of an Egyptian creation myth, the primeval god Atum spits out his children Shu and Tefnut. Shu was the god of air (e.g., breath), Tefnut was the goddess of moisture (e.g., spittle), and the mouth was their place of birth.

In Norse mythology a being called Kvasir was formed from the spittle of the gods. To commemorate a peace treaty among them, all the gods spat into a jar, and from this mixture Kvasir was created. He was so wise that there was no question he could not answer. Later he was slain by two dwarfs who mixed his blood with honey and concocted the mead of inspiration. By cunning, the high god Odin swallowed every drop of the mead, changed himself into an eagle, and returned to the waiting gods, who were holding out vessels for Odin once again to spit out the mead. A drink of this mead bestowed the gift of poetry on men. On his flight back, however, Odin had lost some of the mead when pursued by a giant who had also assumed the form of an eagle. This part of the mead became known as the fool-poet's portion.

In this myth, the holy spittle and blood have become identical, one being transformed into the other. Mead, blood, and spittle are three familiar sources of inspiration, here combined in one myth. The Norse gods' making a covenant by spitting is related to the custom of becoming blood brothers. Similarly, to spit into each other's mouth is a way to pledge friendship in East Africa.

To transmit something of themselves, holy persons in their blessings will use some form of physical contact. Muammad spat into the mouth of his grandson asan at his birth. Similarly, at ordination the priest or exorcist in ancient Babylon acquired his powers by having his mouth spat into, presumably receiving the spittle of the god. Among the Luba of present-day Zaire, a candidate being initiated into the order of sorcerers drinks a brew containing spittle from each of the elders; he becomes, thereby, not only blessed with their power but also placed forever under their control.

The role of saliva as a part of healing is well known all over the world. Sometimes the emphasis is on the curative effect of the spittle itself, which is known from the fact that wounds in the mouth heal faster. The observation of wild animals licking their wounds added to this belief. Spittle of people fasting is widely reported to be particularly effective, and it has even been thought strong enough to kill snakes.

Particular significance has been attributed to the spittle of people with unique powers. In his healing, Muammad mixed clay with spittle. Similarly, Christ made mud of spittle and clay and anointed the eyes of a blind man, thus restoring his sight. When he spat and touched the tongue of a mute (presumably with saliva) the man could speak. Conferring power of speech on an object spat upon is found in many folk tales.

Sickness is often considered a form of possession by demons who can be exorcised by spitting. In the Babar archipelago of Indonesia, all the sick people expectorate into a bowl that is then placed in a boat to be carried out to sea. In one Buddhist tale, even sins and misfortunes vanish, if one spits upon a holy ascetic.

Spittle is also a protective agent. In southern Europe, praise is sometimes accompanied by spitting to avert the evil eye. Fear of the gods' envy makes some people spit three times, since three is a lucky number. Seeing a black cat or magpies (animals associated with witches), hearing names of dead people (for fear they might return), or smelling a bad odor (to avoid contamination) are all occasions when spitting becomes a safeguard. Before discarding hair or nails, one should spit so as to prevent their being used by witches in black magic. Because of the same belief that something of the person continues to exist in the saliva, great care was taken not to be seen spitting. Behind the custom of spitting on money found in the street lies the fear that, as a fairy gift, it might disappear.

Good luck can also be invoked by spitting. And the familiar custom of spitting on one's hands before starting a strenuous task, thus adding power, also reveals some lingering faith in the magic of spittle.


A. H. Godbey presents a well-documented study of various customs involving spitting in his article "Ceremonial Spitting," The Monist 24 (January 1914): 6791. Additional material can be found in three encyclopedic works: James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough, 3d ed., 13 vols. (New York, 1955), relates principles of magic and religion to local customs and rituals; The Mythology of All Races, 13 vols., edited by Louis Herbert Gray and George Foot Moore (Boston, 19161932), gives numerous examples of the spitting motif in myths throughout the world; and the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 11 (Edinburgh, 1920), offers an extensive article on saliva, concentrating on superstitious beliefs.

Annmari Ronnberg (1987)