Just Desserts: Food, Flatus, Feces And Fortune
in Aristophanes’ Wealth
In the Wealth, Aristophanes presents a world turned upside down due to an inversion of of the relationship of human merit to divine reward (Konstan, 1995; Sommerstein,
1978; Riu, 1999). The farmer Khremylus and other decent men live in poverty and are ignored by
the gods, while the wicked are prosperous. However, if Khremylus and his slave Karion can restore sight to the outcast god
Wealth, this skewed system will correct itself. The Wealth, then, much like the Acharnians or the Peace, focuses on the correction and restoration of society, but, unlike the Acharnians or the Peace, episodes of food and feasting in the Wealth do not facilitate that correction. This paper suggests that, although the presence of food in the Wealth marks one’s status as rich or poor, it is feces and flatus—the emphatic opposite of food—that actually bring about the transformation of that system.
Aristophanes often marks his characters’ prosperity with presence of food; in the Wealth, the presence of wealth is described by a catalogue of benefits intertwining
honors, material goods and food (190-93). Initially, Khremylus and the other good citizens are not only poor, they reduced
to eating herbs or they are starving (253, 283, 500-04). When Wealth is able to fairly distribute his favor, Khremylus’ home, and those of all decent folk, is subsequently enriched with fine things
and food in abundance (806-20, 751-63, 893-94), whereas the wicked are
stricken with poverty and hunger (873-900).
The key to this rectified prosperity, however, lies in the restoration of Wealth’s sight by the god Asclepius. Given that the gods ignore the prayers and offerings of their meritorious worshippers
(93-95, 218-19), propitiating Asclepius should be impossible. What sways Asclepius is not Khremylus’ sacrifice, rather it is Karion’s flatus. As the god approaches the suppliants, Karion, who has been stealing and eating
the votive food, crepitates loudly and foully, but the god does not mind
this breach of holy silence and decorum (698-99, 703-704). Karion interprets the god’s reaction as reflecting the ancient doctor’s practice of tasting feces as a diagnostic: Asclepius himself is a “shit eater” (skatophagos, 706). Although Asclepius is not said specifically to have eaten the gas, the adjective
used and the situation itself do imply a tasting of the flatus. The suggestion that the flatus is the offering that affected the god is strengthened
by Karion’s comparison of his gas to frankincense (703) and by the fact that the priests
of the temple have literally stolen the food intended for the god from the
altars (677, 680-81).
In a play that focuses on inversions, it is logical that the substitution of
votive fart for votive food has the desired effect: Wealth is treated with the greatest of care and his sight fully restored (727-36,
737-38). Moreover, this solution to mortal woes—affecting the gods through assertiveness and anal emissions, rather than respect
and sacrifice—had been alluded to earlier in the play. In an aggressive and combative gesture, Khremylus’ neighbor Blepsidemos wanted to fart at the goddess Poverty as she is banished
from the world (613-18). During the choral parodos, Karion had attempted to control the men by casting himself as Circe and them
as docile swine that will even eat feces from her hands (305). The chorus retaliated against such divine enslavement by verbally rubbing Karion-Circe’s nose with shit rendering him/her dazed and meek (314-15). But the clearest evidence that feces and flatus, as the opposite of food, have
been instrumental in reversing the inverted sacrificial process in this topsy-turvy
world is revealed in the final episode. As Wealth has redistributed his benefits to all who deserve them and removed
them from those who do not, we find that the gods are starving (1100-1209). However, there are still crowds coming to the temples, but they are no longer
leaving food for the gods; they are leaving feces (1183-84).
The comic success of the Wealth rests on the humor of the outrageous reversals of fortune that characters both
human and divine undergo. Food does play an integral part in highlighting these changes as its absence
and presence mark poverty and wealth, respectively, but it is the role
flatus and feces as correctives that shows us how Khremylus literally and
metaphorically gets his just desserts and leaves the gods to eat shit.