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Doves Dung

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occurs in 2 Kings 6:25, as a literal translation of חֲרֵיאּיוֹנַים (charey'- yonim), which in the margin is written, דַּבְאּיוֹנַים (dib-yonin'), both meaning the same thing. By many the expression is considered to signify literally the dung of pigeons as food in the last degree of human suffering by famine: "And there was a great famine in Samaria, and behold they besieged it, until an ass's head was sold for threescore pieces of silver, and the fourth part of a cab of doves' dung for four pieces of silver." Different opinions, however, have been entertained respecting the meaning of the words which are the subject of this article, namely, whether they should be taken literally, or as a figurative name of some vegetable substance. The strongest point in favor of the former view is that all ancient Jewish writers have understood the term literally, and generally as an article of food. That this interpretation is not forced appears from similar passages in Josephus (War, 5:13, 7): "Some persons were driven to such terrible distress as to search the common sewers and old dunghills of cattle, and to eat the dung which they got there, and what they of old could not endure so much as to look upon they now used for food;" see also Eusebius (Eccl. Hist. 3:6): "Indeed necessity forced them to apply their teeth to every thing; and, gathering what was no food even for the filthiest of irrational animals, they devoured it." Celsius, who is strongly in favor of the literal meaning, quotes the following passage from Bruson (Memorabil. 2, c. 41): "The Cretans, during the siege by Metellus, on account of the scarcity of wine and drinks, allayed their thirst with the urine of cattle;" and one much to the point from a Spanish writer, who states that in the year 1316 so great a famine distressed the English that men ate their own children, dogs, mice, and pigeons' dung." As an additional argument in favor of the literal interpretation of the passage in question may be adduced the language of Rabshakeh to the Jews in the time of Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:27; Isaiah 36:12). Other and more modern instances have been adduced, and among them the famine in England during the reign of king Edward II, A.D. 1316, when "pigeons' dung" is mentioned as being eaten by the poor (Edinburgh Christian Instructor, No. 122). It may be, however, that the sacred writer means only to say that the famine was so severe, and every thing so exorbitantly dear, that an instance occurred when an ass's head was sold for eighty pieces of silver, and a cab of doves' dung for five; so that the passage may be understood literally, since it is not incredible that persons oppressed by severe famine should devour even the excrements of animals. In the account of the famine and pestilence in Egypt, A.D. 1200, 1201, written in Arabic by the physician Abd-allatif, we have a remarkable illustration of this passage. He says, "The poor, already pressed by the famine which increased continually, were driven to devour dogs, and the carcasses of animals and men, yea, even the excrements of both." Taking the term, however, in a literal sense, various other explanations have been given of the use to which the doves' dung was applied. Some of the Rabbins were of opinion that it was used for fuel, and Josephus (Ant. 9:4) that it was purchased for its salt. Mr. Harmer (Observ. 3:185) has suggested that it might have been a valuable article, as being of great use for quickening the growth of esculent plants, particularly melons; and he shows, what is well known, that the Persians live much on melons in the summer months, and use pigeons' dung in raising them. All travelers describe the number of pigeon-homes in Persia. See above. Mr. Edwards, was cited by Dr. Harris, remarks that it is not likely they had much ground to cultivate in so populous a city for gardens; and is disposed therefore to understand it as meaning the offals or refuse of all sorts of grain, which was wont to be given to pigeons, etc. Dr. Harris, however, observes that the stress of the famine might have been so great as to have compelled the poor among the besieged in Samaria to devour either the intestines of the doves, after the more wealthy had eaten the bodies, or, as it might perhaps be rendered, the crops, with the undigested contents, as suggested by Fuller (Miscell. Sacr. 6:2, page 724). Bochart, indeed, has shown (Hieroz. 2:573) that the term "pigeons' dung" was applied by the Arabs to different vegetable substances. He quotes Avicenna as applying the term stercus columbarum to two different plants or substances. One of these is described by Avicenna and other Arab authors under the names kuz- kundem and joug-kundem, as a light substance like moss. Secondly, this name was given to the ashnan or usnan, which appears to be a fleshy- leaved plant, that, like the salsolas, sdlicornias' or mesembryanthemnums, when burnt, yields alkali in its ashes. From this Bochart has been led to consider it as identical with another plant, which occurs under the name of kali both in the Hebrew and Arabic languages, and which was used in ancient times, as at the present day, as an article of food. (See PARCHED CORN).

Celsius, however (Hierob. 2:32), has shown that Bochart was mistaken in affirming that the article of food known among the Arabs by the epithet doves' or sparrows' dung was pulse or chick-peas, and therefore the connection between the Hebrew and Arabic terms kali falls to the ground. Still it remains certain that the Arabs call the maritime plant kali, from the ashes of which soda (hence called al-kali) is obtained, by the epithet sparrows' dung. But this, if accessible at all in Samaria, would hardly be a regular article of food, even in a siege, much less be stored up for the purpose of sale, as the article in question appears to have been. We may also compare the German Teufelsdreck ("devil's dung") as expressive of the odor of asafaetida (see Gesenius, Thesaur. page 516). Linnaeus suggested (Praelectiones, ed. P.D. Giseke, page 287) that the Hebrews term may signify the Ornithogalum umbellatum, "Star of Bethlehem." On this subject the late Dr. Edward Smith remarks (English Botany, 4:130, ed. 1814): "If Linnaeus is right, we obtain a sort of clew to the derivation of ornithogalum (birds' milk), which has puzzled all the etymologists. May not this observation apply to the white fluid which always accompanies the dung of birds, and is their urine? One may almost perceive a similar combination of colors in the green and white of this flower, which accords precisely in this respect with the description which Dioscorides gives of his ornithogalum." Sprengel (Comment. on Dioscorides, 2:173) is inclined to adopt the explanation of Linnaeus. The late Lady Callcott, in her Scripture Herbal (1842, page 130) infers that the pigeons' dung which has been mentioned above as being eaten in England in the famine of 1316 was the roots of this plant. It is a native of that country, and also of Taurus, Caucasus, and Northern Africa. Dioscorides states that its bulbs were sometimes cooked with bread, in the same way as the melanthium, and also that it was eaten both raw and roasted. The roots were also commonly eaten in Italy and other southern countries at an early period. If the besieged had communication with the exterior, or even if any of their body could have dug in the neighborhood of the walls, for the kind of "earth- nut" offered by the bulbs of the ornithogalum, or Star of Bethlehem, which is said to be, abundant in the neighborhood of Samaria, there does not appear any good reason why it should not be the substance alluded to. But it does not seem so likely to have been stored up; and no distinct reference has been found in the Arab authors to such a plant under the name of stercus columbarum.

None of the above explanations of the difficult term in question appear satisfactory. Those that proceed upon the supposition that the substance designated was not intended as an article of food, give us only other purposes which are too petty to deserve such emphatic notice, as marks of famine in a siege, and the rest fail to identify any substance with the terms employed. Nevertheless, having seen that the name "pigeons' dung" has been, and probably still is, applied by the Arabs to different vegetable substances, we are not disposed to adopt the. literal meaning of the term, since doves' dung, being devoid of nutriment, was not likely to have served as food, even during the famine, especially as we find that an ass's head was sold for sixty pieces of silver. Now, if any asses remained for sale, or ass-loads of corn, as the expression has been interpreted, there is no reason for supposing that other substances may not have remained stored up in secret for those who had money to buy. But it is not easy to say what vegetable substance, serving as an article of diet, is alluded to by the name of "doves' dung." We must therefore rest, for the present, with the conclusion that it was a preparation from some plant, which, as being popularly known by this repulsive name, was not ordinarily resorted to for food, and of which, therefore, there has been no occasion elsewhere to make mention. Future naturalists may hereafter succeed in determining the point more definitely. Or it may be true that several species of plants and vegetable productions were anciently designated by this and similar terms, as the instances adduced above seem to show; and analogous cases in the popular nomenclature of modern nations go far to justify this assumption (see Thomson, Land and Book, 2:200).


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Doves Dung'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/d/doves-dung.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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