Dear Res Gerendae reader. It feels as if we’ve come to know each other well these last few months. We’ve talked about current affairs and zombies and what films and TV we like. If there’s been a downward trend in the scholarliness of my posts, you’ve been gracious enough not to mention it. And if, from time to time, you’re tempted away by the lure of a linguistics-themed cake, I can forgive you that. We’re all only human, after all. I just feel I ought to say how much I’ve enjoyed your company.
So I hope you won’t think me too forward if, this Valentine’s Day, I serenade you with a love-song. It’s not new and I didn’t make it up myself, I’m afraid. On the contrary: it was originally written in Sumerian and hails from ancient Ur, around 2000 BC. I think you’ll agree it’s a work of strange and powerful beauty.
It’s called ‘My Hair is Lettuce’.
My hair is lettuce, planted by the water.
It is gukkal-lettuce, planted by the water.
My nurse has… high
Has made my hair into a …
Has piled up its locks,
My attendant arranges it,
The attendant arranges my hair – which is lettuce, the most favoured of plants.
The brother brought me into his life-giving gaze,
Shu-Sin has called me to his refreshing…
[About five lines missing]
You are our lord, you are our lord,
Silver and lapis lazuli – you are our lord,
Farmer who makes the grain stand high, – you are our lord.
For him who is the honey of my eye, who is the lettuce of my heart,
May the days come forth, may Shu-Sin…
It is a balbale of Inanna.
OK, to be honest, this probably isn’t the most appropriate song for me to be singing. It was in all likelihood originally sung by the lukur-priestess of Ur when she stood in for the love-goddess Inanna in her ritual hierogamy to the king, Shu-Sin. I’m not a priestess (I apologise if this shatters any illusions). I’m not even a priest. I’m going to level with you, dear reader: I only sang this song because I want to talk about the lettuce.
To our ears, the claim that ‘My hair is lettuce’ is an odd and comical opening gambit for a love-song, religious or otherwise. ‘The lettuce of my heart’ also has a humorous ring to it (though is it really any stranger than ‘the apple of my eye’?). So what’s going on here? The definitive collection of Near Eastern texts in translation, John Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (ANET3), helpfully suggests that ‘[t]he comparison of hair with lettuce may have had a “fertility” significance’. Well, yes, obviously that would seem likely (and I enjoy the inverted commas around ‘fertility’). There’s a straightforward link between vegetation and fecundity, as is clear in some of our other Sumerian sacred marriage songs. Here’s another, from the steamier end of the Sumerian songbook. It’s listed in ANET3 as ‘The Honey Man’:
He’s sprouted! He’s burgeoned! He’s lettuce planted by the water,
My well-stocked garden of the… plain, my darling of his mother’s womb,
My barley-stalk luxuriant in its furrow – he’s lettuce planted by the water,
My apple tree which bears fruit up to its top – he’s lettuce planted by the water.
The honey-man, the honey-man does sweet things to me!
My lord, the honey-man of the gods, my darling of his mother’s womb,
Whose hand is honey, whose foot is honey, was doing sweet things to me!
His limbs are honey-sweet, and he was doing sweet things to me!
He was doing sweet things to my insides, all the way up to my navel!
My darling of his mother’s womb,
My… of the fair thighs, he’s lettuce planted by the water.
It is a balbale of Inanna.
All that sprouting and burgeoning imagery pretty much speaks for itself. It’s not a great leap to work out what the barley stalk and the fruiting tree signify. But at first glance the lettuce doesn’t exactly stand out (so to speak) in their company. Squat and round, you’d have to try pretty hard to find anything phallic about most modern European lettuce cultivars. The wild lettuce of the ancient Near East looked rather different, though. It grew tall (over a metre) and straight. It was very bitter and cultivated for its seeds and oil rather than for its leaves to be eaten. More to the point, it released a milky-white sap when rubbed.
It wasn’t just the Sumerians who saw something erotic in the humble lettuce. This is Min, the Egyptian god of fertility and reproduction:
Those things behind him are lettuces. They consistently appear as one of the main elements in his iconography. This relief from Ramesses III’s funerary temple at Medinet Habu (better known for its depictions of the Sea Peoples) shows a festival of the deity in which stylised lettuce-plants are carried along in procession behind the god’s carnival float.
Similar associations may also have existed in the Levant, too, if Greek accounts of the Phoenician god Adonis are anything to go by. There’s a problem here in that Adonis is only known from Greek sources. His name is derived from the Semitic word for ‘lord’ so it’s not obvious which specific Phoenician deity he relates to. But his story, of a mortal man who loved a goddess and died, only to ascend to divinity strikes a chord with a number of other tales told about Phoenician deities – especially the healing-god Eshmun. Because our records from Phoenicia are so fragmentary, it’s hard to know whether this euhemerism was a genuine characteristic of Phoenician religion or merely a feature of ideas in the Hellenised world of the first and second centuries AD when our versions of the tales were first written down.
Adonis was, according to myth, a lover of Aphrodite, and was killed by a bull sent by the jealous Artemis. The second-to-third century AD Greek writer Athenaeus, in his Deipnosophistae (2.69), offers three authorities linking this story to lettuce. Nicander of Colophon, he says, claims that the Cypriots (who knew a thing or two about Phoenician religion) believed Adonis sought refuge in a bed of lettuce when wounded by the bull. Callimachos and Euboulos are both cited as saying that Aphrodite lay her lover down among the vegetable as he died in her arms. It’s impossible to know whether the presence of lettuce in this myth and its association with Aphrodite stems from its erotic significance in the East, though it seems distinctly plausible. What’s interesting, though, is that the Greeks themselves interpreted it completely differently.
For the Greeks, lettuce was an anti-aphrodisiac, bringing drowsiness, loss of potency and a need to urinate. Athenaeus specifically says that the story of Adonis dying amid the lettuce is allegorical, referring to the fact that men who indulge too much in the dubious joys of salad are putting their manhood on the line. He reinforces this stance with a fragment from Euboulos (fr. 13, at Ath. 2.69d):
Don’t serve me lettuce at the dinner table, woman
Or you’ll only have yourself to blame.
Because the story goes that it was in this vegetable, once upon a time,
That Cypris laid Adonis after he died;
So this is dead men’s food.
Athenaeus also quotes Amphis (Lamentation fr. 20, at Ath. 2.69c) who is blunt about the risks a young man takes by eating lettuce:
…the damned lettuce!
If anyone under 60 years old eats it,
if he ever gets some time with a woman,
he can twist and turn all night long without making any progress
on what he wants to do. Instead of getting help,
he uses his hand to massage his inescapable fate.
To make matters worse, the best variety of lettuce for eating is, allegedly, the worst for side-effects. Lykos the Pythagorean reports that it’s known as εὐνουχος – ‘the eunuch’, and that women call it ἀστυτις – ‘the impotent’, a fact repeated by Pliny (NH 19.38). The botanist Jack Harlan, writing in Economic Botany 40 (1986, 4-15), suggested that while its milky juices put the peoples of the Near East in mind of phalloi and semen, the Greeks may have been reminded more of the opium-poppy and its similarly-coloured sap. This seems plausible, though it’s not like the Greeks to overlook the potential phallic associations of anything.
Unsurprisingly, Greek ideas about the effects of lettuce had a long and lingering afterlife in western science and medicine. Dioscorides’ first-century AD pharmacopoeia continued to be used by herbalists and physicians for centuries. One seventeenth-century translation avers that wild lettuce ‘is somewhat in virtue like unto the Poppy – [and it] – doth avert wanton dreams and veneries’. Linnaeus alluded to similar anti-aphrodisiac properties and as late as the nineteenth century doctors were still publishing papers claiming that lettuce had comparable effects to opium (Harlan 1986, 9). ‘Lactucarium’ or lettuce-extract was included in British and US official pharmacopoeias of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a sedative to be used for sore throats and insomnia. In the 1970s some hippies picked up on it as a potential legal high.
So what are the effects of lettuce? Should you be making last-minute changes to your Valentine’s Day dinner? Perhaps unsurprisingly, scientific and medical tests have suggested that lettuce and its extract have no medicinal effects whatsoever. You won’t get aroused from it, you won’t get impotent from it and you certainly won’t get high from it.
It is, in short, just salad.
And it’ll probably look really silly in your hair.