Saturday, August 14, 2010

Demon in the Toilet!

It is a basic human instinct to fear things that dwell in the dark. This goes right back to our hunter-gatherer days and is hard-wired into the part of the brain that helps us survive in the wild: the limbic brain. As children, we often fear the idea of a creature peering at us through a nighttime window. Some children imagine they can see a staring face on their bedroom wall. It might turn out to be no more than a trick of the shadows or patterns in the wallpaper, but it sets the heart racing all the same. This innate fear shows that we are programmed to notice the two eyes of a predator fixed upon us, so that we can freeze, flee or fight!

I think this inbuilt fear of staring eyes might be the basis of ancient Roman belief in the evil eye. The Romans believed that if a demon, ghost, evil spirit or witch looked at you in a certain way, then you would sicken or have an accident or other bad luck.

There were several bizarre ways of protecting yourself against the evil eye. One of them was the male private parts, yes: willies! You could either wear one in the form of an amulet or put it on the side of your house or near the threshold. Some of these penis amulets even had wings and/or bells on! (see opening pages of The Colossus of Rhodes) These images have often been considered ‘rude”, but in fact they are apotropaic. That means they turn away evil. In the British Museum Roman Life room (room 69) you will find some tiny silver willies on chains and rings, designed for children to wear. This is because children were particularly vulnerable to the evil eye. On sites of ancient cities you will sometimes find them inside the threshold of a front door (where we put welcome mats) or carved on the wall outside.

Another way of turning away the evil eye is to deflect it, by getting something even scarier to LOOK BACK at it. That’s why theatrical masks and pictures of Medusa are common on Roman walls. They keep away evil spirits, ghosts, and anyone who might cast the evil eye. Even the powerful goddess Athena wore Medusa’s head on her chest - in the form of an aegis. Here is a photo I took of Medusa at the ancient site of Didyma in Turkey, once part of the Graeco-Roman world.

The ancient Greeks put eyes on the underside of some of their drinking cups so when a drinker raised the kylix to his lips it looked as if he had big staring eyes. Maybe the Greeks thought people were especially vulnerable to the evil eye when tipsy.

There are three Latin words for demons, ghosts and evil spirits. The first, the word ‘daemon’ is borrowed from Greek daimon and is not very common until Christianity takes hold. The other two words are much more common in the time of Virgil and Ovid.

One common Latin word for ghosts or spirits is ‘lemures’. That might make you think of lemurs, those little nocturnal primates with big eyes. In the 18th century, a Swedish botanist called Linnaeus invented a way of classifying plants and animals. He used Latin words for the animals. The Latin word he chose for the creature that moves around silently at night and has scary, staring eyes was lemur, based on the Latin word for ‘ghosts’. I don't think it's coincidence that Linnaeus associated the idea of staring eyes with a ghost. It all goes back to the evil eye.

Another word for spirit or ghost in Latin is ‘larva’. Larva’ can also means ‘mask’. The word larva is still used in Venice at Carnivale for the white mask worn by certain people. Once again, the biological word is based on the original Latin meaning. Look at a larva or grub close up and you will see it seems to have two eyes and a mouth. If you look at frescoes of Roman theatrical masks, you see how much they look like ghosts, with their gaping eye sockets and silently screaming mouths. Putting some of these on your wall will scare away anything that wants to give you the evil eye. 

This deep-rooted fear of the evil eye is still common in Turkey, Greece and other parts of the Mediterranean today. You can buy beads that look like eyes to keep away bad luck. For some reason, blue eyes were considered more likely to give the evil eye, so the apotropaic beads are blue, too. If you are Christian you can combine the eye with a Madonna or a cross, or both. If you are Muslim you can combine it with the Hand of Fatima. Here are two amulets I bought recently. One is from Egypt and the other is from Turkey. Turkish airlines even puts the symbol against the evil eye on the tail fin of some airplanes!

I was taking my nephew around London last month and I noticed that even here in the heart of a great civilised city we have such images. Have you ever noticed how many faces are built into buildings? Have a look around your own town. You will see faces looking outward, some of them quite scary, some of them above or below windows. I spotted a scary face on the famous St Paul’s cathedral (left) and also dozens of faces above windows on a street near St James Park. Even after humans move into a well-lit town or city, the deep-rooted fears don’t go away. We still get uneasy when people stare at us on the tube or other public place. It’s that basic fear of the predator, or of the evil eye.

Another deep-rooted fear of human beings is that of pits and holes. This is a sensible fear. Scary things live underground. Bears and wolves dwell in caves, snakes and rats like tunnels, scorpions and millipedes lurk in cracks and crevices.

Some towns and cities have whole worlds underground: the sewers! Every so often rumours arise about a creature who lives in the sewer and might rise up out of the loo and bite you. In New York there is a recurring myth about how some baby alligators flushed down the toilet survived and grew to monstrous size. In India they fear cobras and the Victorians of Hampstead believed giant man-eating swine lived down below! These are called ‘urban myths’ because someone knows someone who knows someone who saw one of these toilet dwellers but when you get down to it, the stories have no basis.

Even the Romans had the ‘urban myth’ of a creature who lived in the sewer. Rome’s ancient sewer was the Cloaca Maxima, a feat of ancient engineering. It was big enough to contain boats and it was so well-built that it is still in use today. Claudius Aelianus AKA Aelian, a Greek-speaking author in the Roman Empire, tells of a giant octopus that lived in a sewer like the Cloaca Maxima. According to Aelian (On Animals 13.6), this big cephalopod came up through a toilet in search of garum, or fish-sauce. I loved this idea so much that I have written a book about it. (I have asked Dr Helen Forte to help me illustrate it and she drew these great pictures.)

In many ways, the Romans were very sophisticated. They had public latrines called foricae, and a new study has shown that almost every private house in Pompeii had a toilet, even if it was just a board with a hole above a bucket. But for all their sophistication, Romans were nervous about using the loos. They are the only people - as far as we know - who put pictures of one of their gods inside the toilets. Which divinity? Fortuna! The goddess of good luck. Fortuna is usually shown holding the rudder of a ship (she directs you) and a cornucopia (she provides for you). Sometimes she wears a grain measurer as a hat on her head. You sometimes see frescoes or mosaics of snakes inside toilets, too. Snakes were considered good luck in Ancient Rome. This is why you often find them in lararia, the household shrines.

The Sewer Demon
A Dutch archaologist named Gemma Jansen is contributing to a scholarly work on Roman Toilets, both the big public multi-seater foricae and the small single loos in private homes. She thinks depictions of Fortuna and of snakes, sometimes together, were to keep away demons and other bad things from you when you were at your most vulnerable: sitting on the toilet. I phoned Gemma a few months ago and asked her to tell me how to explain to children that demons might live down in the sewers beneath the toilet. ‘You don’t have to explain it to children,’ she said at once. ‘Children totally get that something scary could live down there. It’s the adults you have to convince!

P.S. For more pictures related to Roman Toilet Habits go HERE.

The 17 books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children 9+ studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. The first book of the Roman Mystery Scrolls series – The Sewer Demon  – is aimed at kids aged 7+. Another spin-off for readers 9+ is the new Roman Quests series set in Roman Britain, which launched in May 2016 with Escape from Rome


  1. What a fascinating post! I love the idea of a garum-eating giant octopus. I presume you were relatively safe if Allec was your preferred condiment?

  2. I think anything with fish in it would have tempted that pesky octopus!

  3. It strikes me that the octopus ought to have had its own theme tune, rather like The Pink Panther. It would probably have gone:

    'Garum, garum, garum garum garum...'

  4. lol! Or the Batman theme: 'Dinner, dinner, dinner, dinner... GARUM!'

  5. Jason A12:33 AM

    "You sometimes see frescoes or mosaics of snakes inside toilets, too. Snakes were considered good luck in Ancient Rome."

    I hope for poor Nubia's sake that the Flavia's family did not have mosaics of snakes in their lavatorium!

  6. Caroline,

    What a fabulous post! I'll incorporate this into my guiding tours at Vindolanda and (to come) at Housesteads - famous for its Roman toilets! :)

    1. I love Vindolanda. I'm blogging about it soon.

  7. Yes, I LOVE the forica at Housesteads! Be sure to check out my sponge-stick blog, too!

  8. What a great post, Caroline. Fishing boats in the med still have eyes on the front to ward off sea monsters. That giant octopus had better beware.