All this spitting has got me thinking about the role that saliva plays in Judaism and Christianity. It's pretty obvious that today's Jewish acts of spitting directed at Christians are meant as an insult. Expectoration, like the violent discharge of other bodily fluids, is not usually regarded as an act of love. Yet there are many examples of good spitting in the ancient sources of both religions. Saliva was (and still is) believed to bring about healing, good fortune and to banish evil. Is there a connection between these two kinds of spitting?
Saliva was widely regarded in the ancient world as a medicine for a variety of afflictions, from blindness to epilepsy to various skin disorders.* Galen, the second century physician and surgeon from Pergamon, writes in his treatise On the Natural Faculties:
- And you may observe the extent of the alteration which occurs to food in the mouth if you will chew some corn and then apply it to an unripe [undigested] boil: you will see it rapidly transmuting- in fact entirely digesting- the boil, though it cannot do anything of the kind if you mix it with water. And do not let this surprise you; this phlegm [saliva] in the mouth is also a cure for lichens; it even rapidly destroys scorpions; while, as regards the animals which emit venom, some it kills at once, and others after an interval; to all of them in any case it does great damage. Now, the masticated food is all, firstly, soaked in and mixed up with this phlegm; and secondly, it is brought into contact with the actual skin of the mouth; thus it undergoes more change than the food which is wedged into the vacant spaces between the teeth. (3.7)
Pliny the Elder, the first century Roman polymath, writes in his Natural History:
- The best of all safeguards against serpents is the saliva of a fasting human being. But our daily experience may teach us yet other values of its use. We spit on epileptics in a fit, that is, we throw back the infection. In a similar way we ward off witchcraft and the bad luck that follows meeting a person lame in the right leg.' (28.7.35)
*see the excellent article on this subject by G. Chowdharay-Best, "Notes on the Healing Properties of Saliva," Folklore 86:3/4 (1975), 195-200
There are three occurrences of Jesus healing by means of saliva in the gospels. In Mark 8:22-26 Jesus heals a blind man in Bethsaida by spreading saliva on his eyes. In Mark 7:31-37, Jesus heals a deaf man with a speech impediment by placing his fingers in the man's ears, spitting on his hand and touching the man's tongue. In John 9:1-12, he heals a blind man by spitting on the ground, forming a muddy paste in his hands and spreading the mixture on the man's eyes. After washing in the Pool of Siloam (pictured here), the man is miraculously healed:
- ταῦτα εἰπὼν ἔπτυσεν χαμαὶ καὶ ἐποίησεν πηλὸν ἐκ τοῦ πτύσματος, καὶ ἐπέθηκεν αὐτοῦ τὸν πηλὸν ἐπὶ τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς
- גמירי בוכרא דאבא מסי רוקיה בוכרא דאמא לא מסי רוקיה
- "We have a tradition, if he is the firstborn son of his father, his saliva brings about healing; if he is the first born son of his mother, his saliva does not bring about healing."
- חד אמר יין בתוך העין אסור, על גב העין מותר. וחד אמר רוק תפל [אפילו] על גב העין אסור
- "One man said it is forbidden to apply wine to the inside of the eye on the Sabbath, but upon the eye is permitted. The other said tasteless saliva even upon the eye is forbidden."
Few modern people today use saliva as a medicine, although it should be noted that recently science has demonstrated that saliva does in fact contain wound-healing proteins called histatins. Many modern people, however, do believe that spitting will bring about good luck, or at least ward off bad luck. Baseball players have elaborate spitting rituals before they step into the batting box. Throughout the world, but especially in the Mediterranean Basin, people spit into the air three times to chase away the evil eye or the devil. This is the origin, for instance, of the phrase "tfu, tfu, tfu" that many Jews recite after announcing a piece of good news. Even Pliny talks about people in his day doing this, particularly boxers would spit in their glove to ensure that their punches would be strong. Perhaps this is the connection between good and bad spitting. Fundamentally, saliva is and was regarded as something undesirable, and the act of spitting seen as something vulgar. This is what provides its power to exorcise both demons and disease.