The great gourd

I have had a joyless time filling forms today. So I thought I’d blog to cheer myself up. And what better way to cheer oneself up than talking pumpkins. Last week, I went to Cambridge to give a paper at the History and Philosophy of Science Departmental seminar. It was a rather terrifying, yet extremely fulfilling experience. I had the opportunity to catch up with some friends I had not seen for a long time. As we were discussing vegetables after my paper (on Greek and Roman vegetables who love each other – more on that another time), Professor Nick Jardine reminded me of a passage of Saint Irenaeus on The Great Gourd.

The famous 'messy' floor mosaic, Vatican Museum

The famous ‘messy’ floor mosaic, Vatican Museum

Let’s take this slowly: the ancients found cucurbits very funny.  I guess we do too: in French, we say ‘quelle gourde!’ when we find someone stupid. I believe there are equivalent insults in a number of other modern languages. Even though English-English does not have pumpkin-themed insults, many people say ‘country pumpkin’ instead of ‘country bumpkin’. Anyway, the ancients did have ‘good’ cucurbit jokes. I addition to the pumpkin-classification joke I mentioned a few weeks ago, I could mention the treatise that Seneca (or someone else – the attribution is not certain) wrote to mock the late Emperor Claudius. He titled it ‘The Apocolocyntosis of the Emperor Claudius’, that is, ‘The pumpkin-ification (or gourd-ification) of the Emperor Claudius, playing on the word ‘apotheosis’ (deification). (By the way, the text is deeply disappointing for us pumpkin lovers – nothing much on the vegetable there).

The joke that interests me today comes from the writings of Saint Irenaeus. I am not claiming to know much about this illustrious saint. Here is what you need to understand the passage.  Irenaeus was a Bishop from Lyons (France), active in the second century CE. At the time, Gnosticism, a branch of Christianity, which maintained it taught the true word of Christ, namely, that the material world was the creation of an evil deity, was gaining many followers. Irenaeus did not like Gnosis – the least one can say. Here is what he had to say about Valentinus’ (one of the most famous Gnostics) religious Tetrad:

But there is nothing that prevents another who gets involved in this subject to define the terms thus: There exists a certain royal Pre-principle (pro-arche), pre-unintelligible, pre-immaterial, and pre-spherical. And this is the principle which I call Gourd (cucurbita). With the gourd there is a principle which I call the Great Hole. This Gourd and Great Hole, since they are one, emitted without emitting, a fruit visible in all its parts, edible, and sweet, which we will call ‘Cucumber’ (cucumis). With this Cucumber, there is a principle of the same power, which I call Melon (pepon). Those principles, the Gourd, the Great Hole, the Cucumber and the Melon emitted the whole multitude of Valentinus’ delirious melons. For if one must apply ordinary language to the first Tetrad, and if one were to apply his chosen names, who would prevent him from using these terms, since they are much more credible, in ordinary usage, and known by all? [Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.2.4]

Note that some translators have  ‘Supervacuity’ or ‘Superemptiness’, instead of my ‘Great Hole’. The Latin has the word ‘perinane’, which is a Greek word rendered in Latin. I believe there is a double entendre here with the Greek word perineos, the perineum.

Cucurbits in the ancient world were associated with fertility, not so much because of their shape but because of their numerous seeds. I think Irenaeus is being extremely rude here, which probably explains why the passage is only preserved in Latin translation and not in the original Greek. I must say I do like the Delirious Melons!

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