How a Fart Killed 10,000 People
Farting has caused wars, been obsessed over by theologians, entertained kings, inspired Freud, and drove Hitler mad.
Farting, breaking wind, cutting the cheese, or gas. The English language has numerous words for flatulence and this is even before we devolve into the subcategories that make up the genre. Whatever you call it, farting is a taboo act, but it is also a source of fascination. It’s not for nothing that there is a popular children’s book series called Fart Squad or that the preview of the most recent installment of the Alvin and the Chipmunks dynasty led with the punchline, “Sorry, pizza toots.” Today farting is something for which we perfunctorily ask forgiveness, but in the past it has been the subject of legislation, the cause of wars, and even theologized. We might think of farts as trapped gas, but the history of farting is more than just hot air.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, farting has a spiritual side. Manichaeism, a dualistic religion popular in late antiquity that at one time counted St. Augustine among its members, actually held that farts were the act of freeing divine “light” from the body. Manichaeism may have been, as scholar Robin Lane Fox has noted, “the only world religion to have believed in the redemptive power of farts,” but they weren’t the only ancient group to give the phenomenon a great deal of thought. In addition to laying the foundations of trigonometry, the philosopher Pythagoras was concerned that a person might fart out his or her soul. As classicist Andrew Fenton wryly observed, this can explain why they steered clear of beans. Given that the soul (pneuma) was breath and a fart a kind of breath, the explanation makes a lot of sense.
The ancient fear of farting is justified when we consider the surprising number of the stories—that is, more than none—about wars provoked by farts. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, a fart set off a chain of events that led to a revolt against King Apries of Egypt. The repercussions were even worse in first-century Jerusalem: The historian Josephus tells us that an irreverent Roman soldier lowered his pants, bent over, and “spoke such words as you might expect upon such a posture.” The incident took place shortly before the Passover and caused a riot that led to the deaths of 10,000 people.