Anthropologists Are Afraid to Ask About Farting

Why are farts so universally reviled?

Part of the centuries old depiction from the Japanese art scroll He-Gassen Waseda University Library via io9

Most cultures treat flatulence as abhorrent; it impinges on the senses, offends those caught in the blast and brings shame upon the culprit. But farting is a universal act—a byproduct of being a human being with working intestines and a healthy host of co-dependent microbes. So why do we, as humans, seem to hate farts so much?

Anthropologist Kirsten Bell, inspired to track the history of our relationship with farts, found herself at a dead end. Anthropologists will study nearly anything, she says, but they seem uninterested in farts. (Maybe it's hard to get funding for flatulence-related field studies?)

“Call it an insatiable curiosity about the human condition, call it a Freudian anal fixation, call it what you will, but I, for one, am not willing to let the matter rest there,” says Bell writing for PopAnth about her quest to find out what little we know about the cultural importance of farts.

Digging through the literature Bell found that farts are almost universally reviled, with various cultures at various times constructing elaborate rituals for how to cope with such an emission.

In the single page discussing farts in Constance Classen, David Howe and Anthony Synott’s book, Aroma: the Cultural History of Smell, they note that in Morocco, “it is traditionally held that breaking wind inside a mosque will blind, or even kill, the angels therein.” They go onto observe that farting is so closely associated with harmful spirits that a spot where one occurred may be marked by a small pile of stones, as if to trap the evil spirit inside.

But why do we loathe farts so, when other things, like coughing and sneezing, do not carry nearly as much baggage?

Bell turned up relevant analysis from Benjamin Franklin (no, really): “Were it not for the odiously offensive smell accompanying such escapes, polite people would probably be under no more restraint in discharging such wind in company than they are in spitting or blowing their noses.”

To Bell, it is the smell and the gaseous nature of the fart, that is the key. Farting represents not just a foul scent, but an impinging of one human upon another, an invasion of the senses and a breach of personal space.

Farts may very well be the penultimate bodily emission. They are likely to be perceived as far more polluting than other bodily excretions such as faeces, because they are for all intents and purposes invisible. We cannot actively avoid them. While we can generally side-step faeces, blood and urine, or complain to the waiter if we find a hair in our soup, little can be done to protect ourselves from the sensory invasion of the fart.

Will we ever stop farting? Not likely. Has there ever been a human culture that, rather than holding their noses and wheezing, loved, appreciated and worshiped the fart? Who knows. And unless anthropologists ever shake off their disinterest and find out, we may never know.

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