Vegder's Blog

June 29, 2009

Urine and the Arts 小用 技芸

First off I want to make something absolutely clear: This post is in no way meant to be salacious or crude. It is intended to be a serious, or, at least, semi-serious approach to a legitimate field of study. Urine is one of those words which can easily trigger reactions in prudes and/or fetishists, but it is intended to do neither here.

While working on the previous post about traditional yellow pigments in Japan an artist friend of mine in New York, Bill (aka Cathy), e-mailed me and said he recalled something about urine being a constituent of a particular pigment. That got me going… and thinking about the significance of urine (小用 しょうよう) in Japanese print art and how there was almost nothing out there to be found. Unlike European painting and printmaking I only knew of one example of a Japanese figure urinating and that was minor element in a minor print by a minor artist I had never heard of. I am posting the image below so you will see what I am talking about. It shows a man from the back wearing a formal samurai outfit while relieving himself into a what appears to be a lacquer bowl. His aim is true, but there are splashes radiating outward.


Why this artist chose this motif is a mystery as are so many other themes in Japanese prints. It certainly is understandable that such images are rare in woodblock prints. Its not a polite topic. However, there are a load of images of flatulence and what has been described as ‘fart wars’, but there is almost none of urination. Perhaps the image I just posted is it.

I wrote that at the end of June 2009 and have since found other examples of urination in Japanese woodblock prints, but they are few and far between. The most startling and fantastical of images is that of a woman bent over with her butt in the air and her head toward the ground looking back at the viewer. The question: is that urine she is blasting the kappa with or is that a fart? Probably the latter, but it sure looks like a spray of her ‘water’. There is a tradition in Japanese folklore dealing with kappas and farts. You figure it out.

On the right above is a detail from a Hirokage (広景) print of a man urinating into a bowl (?) held aloft by a kappa (河童) disguised as a beggar. At least that is what I think it shows. Why? Got me.

In European art, on the other hand,  it is a totally different story. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York there is a spectacular oil painting by Lorenzo Lotto (ロレンツォ  ロットー: ca. 1480-1556) of Venus and Cupid from the 1520s. Magnificently painted it shows a naked, reclining Venus with her left hand touching or near her left breast while her right arm is raised above her thigh holding a blue ribbon. At the end of the ribbon is a wreath of what appears to be laurel leaves. Standing next to her a young, winged cupid steadies the wreath with his left hand while aiming an arced stream of urine though the center so that it will land on his mother, the goddess of love. This bizarre scene was probably commissioned as a wedding gift and meant to symbolize fertility. Lotto probably was familiar with any number of ancient or Renaissance bronze sculptures showing a playful youth directing his stream.

This is shown courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at

The Met’s web site describes this painting as “a painted epithalamium” or visual composition celebrating a marriage. It is stuffed with symbolism. Cupid’s behavior may actually refer to the “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” of Francesco Colonna which describes a dream in which ‘a peeing infant adorns a fountain inscribed with the Greek word for ‘laughter’…” As best I can tell there is a description of a statue of a young boy that has a mechanism that once triggered squirt water in the face of unsuspecting visitors. Supposedly on closer examination of the statue a person has to place his foot on a movable step which causes a lever to lift a pipe which directs the stream. That would be more startling (and disturbing) than someone spritzing you with a fake lapel flower.

By the way, if you had trouble reading the large words in the above paragraph don’t feel bad. There is a modern scholarly work which discusses the “H. P.” saying that it has an “…unpronounceable title, unreadable text and unidentifiable author…”

While writing this entry I just recalled a sculpture of a young boy and a frog in Kansas City. It is a well known artwork there and fortunately I found an image posted at and placed in the public domain by Daderot. It was created by Rafaello Romanelli (ラッファエッロ・ロマネッリ: 1856-1928), an Italian sculptor and there seems to be some question about which way the stream is flowing. I seem to recall it is from the frog to the boy., but a lot of people say it is the other way. It may not be from the age of Lotto, but I think it makes the point.


This new information and images were added on October 2, 2012: Recently I met a new acquaintance, a young man, Alex B., who borders on becoming a friend of mine – his curse – and he reminded me (on two occasions) of the Titian painting of a bacchanal in which a young Cupid is urinating on a reclining Venus. He wrote me in an e-mail: “That Lotto painting is so peculiar and kind of goofy. Maybe I’m immature, but it’s hard for me to take it seriously, unless I focus my attention on everything outside of the subject matter. That is the case with a lot of Mannerist paintings though (and I do think this is at least marginally a painting done in the style of Mannerism – no doubt Bronzino drew from it in hisVenus, Cupid, Folly, and Time). Undoubtedly beautiful though.” He added: “… the Titian Bacchanal, which was painted within two years of Lotto’s. They were both Venetian so Titian must have drawn some influence from him. Notice the infant pulling up his garment and peeing (it’s a little difficult to see).”

This incredibly lush and glorious painting is in the collection of the Prado (プラド). I found a reproduction of it at commons.wikimedia and have shown the full image below plus an enlargement of the appropriate area.

And, just for good measure, I have decided to add an image painted by Rubens (ルーベンス: 1614-1673). It is a copy of the Titian (ティツィアーノ: ca. 1485/90-1576) painting and makes for a great comparison of these two giants of the art world.


And for an even greater measure, here is the Bronzino (ブロンジーノ: 1503-72) painting which Alex mentioned. Why? Because I love Bronzino’s work – not as much as that of Titian or Rubens – and because I think   the connection is apt. Thanks Alex!

 I found this image at commons.wikimedia, but it is from the collection of the National Gallery in London. It dates from 1545. No urine that I can tell.

The shower of gold

Equally as strange as the Lotto Venus and Cupid painting is the version of the Zeus/Danae myth created by Mabuse – マビューズ  (aka Jan Gossaert – ヤン・ホッサールト: 1478-1532) in 1527. Acrisius, king of Argos, had no sons and only one daughter whom he loved dearly. An oracle said that if she lived she would bear a son who would kill him. Unable to bear the thought of killing Danae to save himself he had her locked in a dungeon – a tower in the Mabuse version. Zeus spotted her, was smitten and transformed himself into a golden shower to lay with her. The result was Perseus who was known to the Greeks as chrusopatros (fathered by gold) and the Romans as aurigena (generated by gold). Danae kept him hidden from Acrisius for four years but eventually they were found out. Refusing to believe that the father was Zeus Acrisius still couldn’t bring himself to kill them directly. Instead he had them placed in a trunk which was cast into the sea. At the island of Seriphos they were rescued or so it is said. Of course, Perseus grew up and unwittingly killed his grandfather. How? you say. Well, Perseus competed in the games at Larissa in Thessaly and Acrisius was in attendance. When Perseus threw a discus it accidentally struck Acrisius and that was all she wrote.

Below is the Mabuse painting. Notice the position of Danae’s legs. The original hangs in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

In the early 14th century someone composed a poem entitled Ovid Moralisé or Ovid Moralized. It was an allegory sprinkled with Christian beliefs. In Art and Money by Marc Schell it says: “The early fourteenth-century Ovid Moralized… emphasizes the ideas that the substance of God’s semen is gold… that it enters Mary [i.e., the Virgin] by the ear (oreille), and that Christ is an aurigena like Perseus.”

In the Persians by Aeschylus the Chorus says that Xerxes believes he is descended from Perseus and therefore he is “…a god-like hero whose race is sprung from gold.” In Sophocles Antigone the Chorus tells us that Danae “…guarded a deposit of the seed of Zeus that had fallen in a golden rain.” Ovid referred to this event several times. Marlowe in his Edward II the king compares his love of a male companion to that of Zeus for Danae.

Thy absence made me droope, and pine away,
For as the lovers of faire Danae,
When she was lockt up in a brasen tower,
Desirde her more, and waxt outragious,
So did it sure with me

Bruegel and Teniers – buveurs: There is an engraving of a peasants’ wedding dance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525/30 to 1569: ピーター・ブリューゲル) where there is a whole crowd of revelers. In the background on the right one man has taken time out to relieve himself. No one seems to care or pay any attention to what he is doing. It seems as natural an act as… as… well, say, taking a leak.


Here is a detail:


In the 17th century David Teniers (1610-94), who married into the Bruegel family, created similar scenes.


Ganymede* (ガニュメデス)  – A picture of ideal beauty: There is an ancient myth of the abduction of a beautiful young prince from Troy who was spirited away by a giant bird to be the cupbearer of Zeus (ゼウス). Often referred to as the ‘Rape of Ganymede’ is an apt title. In the Iliad Homer (ホメロス) tells us that the boy was the comeliest of mortal men. Some say he was more beautiful even than the most beautiful women. Everyone educated man in ancient Greece knew the story or a variation on it. The chorus in Euripides (エウリピデス) Trojan Women describe him as a Nancy boy, a pansy, prancing about his golden chalices. With a “…calm, sweet smile upon his young face…” he seems oblivious to suffering taking place at Troy, his formerly earthly home. If anyone wants to bowdlerize the myth they should read Euripides Orestes where he is described as the bedfellow of Zeus. Plato (プラトン) is more explicit: In Phaedrus the sex is graphic and leaves nothing to the imagination. One of the speakers in the Laws makes it clear that he believes such behaviour is unnatural and that the myth was created by the Cretans just to justify their pederasty.

Now let’s jump forward about 1,500 years to Michelangelo (ミケランジェロ) and his conception of ideal beauty. Of course, it is male, but not only that – it is usually male with extra muscles added. Michelangelo was clearly no fan of sissies and scrawny, kick-sand-in-his-face, weaklings. His Ganymede is as far from the one described by the Euripides chorus as one could get. In Michelangelo’s hands Ganymede was no longer a lithe, young boy. If his model, i.e., Michelangelo’s model, was alive today he would be in his late teens or early twenties, the product of years of pumping iron at a local gym, steroid abuse and maybe even be an actor in adult porn industry. This would more to Michelangelo’s liking and was.

We no longer have Michelangelo’s original Ganymede, but we do have a print by Barbizet showing us what it looked like.


Rembrandt (レンブラント) must have had a visceral reaction to Michelangelo’s conception. At least that is what Kenneth Clark thought. Not only is Rembrandt’s Ganymede the antithesis of that of Michelangelo, but it clearly leaves behind the cupbearer of Homer and Plato and every other ancient Greek. Rembrandt replaces the majestic eagle with an somewhat disgusting and intimidating vulture-like bird. His Ganymede is no longer a muscular, over-sexed, young man or even a lithe youth, but rather is an only-a-mother-could-love, ugly, squirming baby. A baby who is so frightened that he is having the piss scared out of him. And if there is any question about what he has in store for him Rembrandt has placed a bunch of red cherries clutched tightly in his left fist.

Rembrandt_Ganymede Rembrandt_Ganymede_dtl

Tennyson (テニソン) and sexuality – hardly subtle here

In an encyclopedic volume from 1906 comes this passage from Tennyson’s Palace of Arts originally scribed in 1832 and revised ten years later:

Or else flush’d Ganymede, his rosy thigh
Half-buried in the Eagle’s down,
Sole as a flying star shot thro’ the sky
Above the pillar’d town.

It isn’t the quote here which counts so much – although in this age of sexual liberation it is truly a sizzler – rather it is the text that precedes this quote: “[Ganymede] was regarded at first as the genius of water, and represented by the sign Aquarius in the zodiac.” Genius of water? Here genius means the guardian spirit of water and ‘to make water’ means to urinate. Clearly Rembrandt would have known this. His Ganymede is not just a frightened child anymore mocking Michelangelo’s overly-sexed, brazenly naked youth displaying his athletic six-packed-abs.


Shakespeare and Ganymede

In As You Like It Rosalind, the main character, disguises herself as a boy named Ganymede. She is just as sexually alluring as a woman as she is as a young man. Another character in the play is Hymen, the Greek god of marriage.

Years ago, when I still lived in Kansas City, there was local NPR program devoted once a week to women’s issues. It was underwritten by Dr. Henry Hyman, Ob/Gyn. The irony was not wasted on me.


* I love language and while I am not very good at it I am completely fascinated by words and their origins. Every once in a while when I read or hear certain words I stumble mentally and everything else seems to get blocked out.  Certain words like apotheosis, gamboge, hagiography, eleemosynary and puce always seem to stop me in my tracks. Even when I know what they mean I still stumble. Catamite is just such a word. Catamite, “a boy kept for unnatural purposes” – now there is a polite definition. What I didn’t know until I started researching this post is that catamite is a ‘folkloric’ distortion of the name Ganymede. Fascinating, eh? At least to me it is.

Just for good measure and apropos of nothing

Since I have been discussing Ganymede I thought it might be time to throw in a third, fourth and fifth major example. Bertel Thorvaldsen (ベルテル・トルヴァルセン: 1770-1840), a Danish sculptor, created several sculptures of this most famous cup bearer. Below are all or parts of three of them – each posted at and released into the public domain. The one showing Ganymede and the eagle was taken by Gunnar Bach Pedersen. The other two are both taken from photographs by Stefano Bolognini.

Hogarth showed us life as it is/was – William Hogarth (ウィリアム.ホガース: 1697-1764) created a series of paintings in ca. 1742 entitled Marriage a la Mode. A couple of years later he translated them into print form. In Plate VI there is a domestic setting of a well to do household. A woman appears to have fainted. Most of the figures looked distressed. There is an overturned chair. In the confusion and underfed dog has jumped up onto a chair at a table and is about to run off with a pig’s head sitting on a platter. The dog’s teeth are well dug into the pig’s ear. But none of that is what concerns us here. What really strikes me (and you I hope) is the painting on the wall hanging near the balance weights of the clock and the rack which holds a cloak and a tricorn hat. This little oil painting, which must be taken directly from another painting probably by David Teniers (デイビッド.テニールス: 1582-1649) or one of the Breughels [an alternate spelling], shows a man relieving himself against a wall. The positioning and stance make this action unmistakable. (The image of the whole print and the detail are shown below.)

But Hogarth didn’t limit himself to one brazen example. In his Enraged Musician there is a little boy who appears to be watering the plants with his own water.


In the chaos shown in another Hogarth print of Hudibras Encountering Skimmington there is a figure on the far left who is taking a wizz while looking up at a couple of ‘beauties’ looking out of a window. I found an image of this print after Hogarth at Wikipedia. The detail comes from a different source.


You can tell me… What’s in your secret sauce?

In the late 18th century a new type of glazed ceramics made it appearance in England. This was not a high-end commodity. In fact, it was rather low-end and looked down upon. The surface decoration ranged from a multicolored swirls to more delicate fern-like structures. This was mocha ware – or mochaware depending on who you ask. The glaze was a closely guarded secret, but not closely enough. We now know that it was composed of tobacco juice, hops, stale wine and urine – some say stale urine. The Grove Encyclopedia adds turpentine into the mixture. The question – like so many other questions I have asked – is: Whose dumb idea was it to concoct this devil’s brew? Well, it may have been dumb – originally – but in time it became more refined although it never attained elite status. However, the example shown below on the left is of an 1820-40 lead glazed earthenware coffee pot from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum shows how refined a piece could be. The pint measure to the right of the pitcher is from ca. 1900.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1856 while Charles Dickens was living in Dover while working on Little Dorrit he walked to the village of Deal, 8 miles down the road. He stopped into the Admiral Benbow for a bite. Dickens strolled into the kitchen “…bread and cheese in hand, munching and looking about. One landsman and two boatmen were seated on the settle, smoking pipes and drinking beer out of thick pint crockery mugs – mugs peculiar to such places, with parti-coloured rings round them, and ornaments between the rings like frayed-out roots.”

This piece of Brazilian moss agate was posted on-line by Dr. von Frese of the Geology department at Ohio State University.

A University of Toronto physics web site once described this dendritic/feathering, tree-like effect on mocha ware as being due to the Gibbs-Marangoni effect combined capillary action.

Below is a selection of four pieces also from the same collection. They date from the early 19th c. The museum’s on-line text reads: “Mocha decoration relies on a chemical reaction between acids and alkalis. The mocha decorator dripped a dark pigment made by mixing acidic tobacco juice, manganese and stale urine onto a pot that had been dipped in alkaline clay slip. Contact with the alkaline surface made the pigment spread out into frond-like forms, a reaction that could to some extent be controlled by the potter.” The legend speculates that this method of glazing may well have been discovered by accident and was later named after moss agates called mocha stones.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

According to the September 1989 issue of Spy magazine the clothing designer Bill Blass owned a collection of American and British Mocha ware. The artist Leonard Baskin and his wife also had a collection of these ceramics. Members of the Wyeth family owned pieces as did Al Lewis who wrote the song Blueberry Hill which Fats Domino made famous. Lewis owned over 1,500 pieces.

Indian yellow and you can guess what makes it yellow

“Derived from the urine of cows that had been fed mango leaves (Mangifera indica Linn.), the pigment was used mainly for watercolor and tempera-like paints. It was also occasionally used in the West as a glazing color in oil or in underpainting…” In 1966 Gettens and Stout determined empirically that the formula was C19H16O11Mg.5H2O. Supposedly the government banned the production on humane grounds in 1908. Being fed only mango leaves shortened the life span of most cows. They have been described as sickly looking before they died.  In Artist’s Pigments… it states that “The principal colorant compound in the pigment is based on the yellow crystalline magnesium salt of euxanthic acid.”

Cow urine was evaporated out and then formed into balls by hand which were exported for refinement by pigment suppliers. There are numerous alternative names which have been given to this pigment including ‘snowshoe yellow’, something reminiscent of Frank Zappa.

The great picture of the cows in Karnataka, India was posted at commons.wikimedia by Ilya Mauter. The mango leaves is from operated by Shu Suehiro.

Indian yellow was used mostly in… Guess! You’re right: India. It has been suggested that it was introduced into the sub-continent from Persia in the 15th century. The dating is probably because there are no Sanskrit references to it prior to that time. Peori, one of its many names, “could be obtained from Jaipur, where it was known as gogili, an Indianized form of the Persian implying ‘cow earth.’ ” In Paintings and Lifestyles in the Jammu Region: From the 17th to 19th Century A.D. it says: “The effect of gold was imparted by using yellow gold-dust after intermixing cow urine with mango or papal leaves and water. The golden yellow colour, thus prepared, was known as gaugoli.”

While I am not saying that the bright yellow in this miniature from ca. 1590-95 is made from a cow urine extract, I am not saying that it isn’t. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Some of the pigment made its way to the West but the information about its use is sparse. There are reports that it was used somewhat to dye fabrics, but that its smell was so unpleasant when dissolved in hot water that the practice was stopped. Before it was firmly established by an Indian in 1883 that it was mango leaf fed cows that produced this color Europeans speculated that it came from the urine of either camels, elephants, buffalos or even “…certain varieties of serpents.” Have you ever tried to collect snake urine? Have you? It can’t be easy.

Urine as a mordant – On October 15, 2015, late in the evening a man named Charlie wrote to me: “Urine is used as a mordant with certain dyes. That may be the Prussian Blue connection.” That is what got my juices flowing again and brought me back to this subject of urine and the arts. Except this time he added a new twist which hadn’t occurred to me: its use as a mordant. It also proves my point that no post is ever finished. So the game is on, and I have a whole new path to go down.

Peter_Kalm_Finnish_stamp_7   Finnish stamp of Peter Kalm found at commons.wikimedia.

Rita Adrosko in her book Natural Dyes and Home Dyeing talks about Peter Kalms visit to Pennsyvania in the middle of the 18th century.

While visiting the Philadelphia area in 1748 Peter Kalm learned that local residents used the bark of
the sassafras tree as a dye and its leaves as a tea. The bark was used fine lasting orange color, which
was sunfast. The wool was dyed in a brass boiler, with urine used in place of the usual alum mordant…

640px-Sassafras_albidum_Trunk_Bark_3264px   I found this image of sassafras bark at commons.wikimedia. It was posted there by Derek Ramsay (Ram-Man) and boy am I glad of that.

Orchil and urine: Also called archil, is etymologically of unknown origin. A purple dyestuff extracted from Rocella tinctoria, a lichen found on rocky shores. For those who are interested, tinctor is Latin for ‘dyer.’ The American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record for 1904 gives this explanation by P.L. Ronceray:

The name ” orseille ” is given in France to those lichens which. on exposure to air and ammonia, develop a purplish-red colour.
The use of orseille was introduced into Europe from the East by a Florentine named Federigo about a.d. 1300. From his successors,
who were named Orcellari, Ruccellari, and Ruccellai, the name of one of the chief genera of lichens used, viz: Roccella. is apparently
derived. In France two commercial groups of orseille are recognized, viz. the “orseille de terre” and the “orseille de mer,” the former
being collected inland in hilly districts, and the latter on the sea-coast.

The “orseille de terre” may be the so-called ‘false orchil’, but I don’t know for sure.

Rocella_tinctoria_Norbert_Nagel_commons_7b   I found this at commons.wikimedia. It was posted there by Norbert Nagel.

In Lichens for Vegetable Dyeing Eileen Bolton says:

The Phoenicians in the Levant made their Tyrian purple from the Murex and Baccinium shell-fish – a practice which continued up to
the twelfth century A.D. It was a royal and ecclesiastical privilege to wear clothes of this colour. Cloth receiving this dye was often first
coloured with a preparation made from two lichens which abounded in the Levant, Roccella tinctoria and Roccella fuciformis. When
the art of making the famous Tyrian purple died out, the lichen dye alone was used for making a regal purple. This preparation from
lichens is referred to as Argol, Archil or Orchil.

Unlike sassafras, orchil was not color fast. In fact, while it produced a range of beautiful and delicate colors they would start to fade as soon as they were exposed to the light. So it wasn’t the mordent affects of urine that accounted for color fastness. It must have been the internal chemistry. Adrosko wrote: “In processing orchil, whole lichens were first steeped in an alkali such as fermented urine or slaked lime which were used often during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This mixture was allowed to set for about a week until it turned deep purple. After three more weeks, without the addition of urine or lime, the “urinous volatile spirit” of the dye was replaced by a violet scent and the liquid had turned crimson. Then blue or red orchil could be made by simply adjusting the solution’s alkalinity.”

A word about the word – Words fascinate me. All words fascinate me. Simple ones, complex ones, strange sounding ones, foul ones, fowl ones, foolish ones. They all carry the same weight in my mind. They all had to come from somewhere – even if that somewhere was thin air. Inventions devious and descriptive. Even the word ‘the’ stupefies me. I remember once I was sitting in a class on East African history, taking notes, when the teacher used the word ‘hagiography’. After that I couldn’t hear another word he was saying. But the greatest thing about words is that they all can be argued over while hell is freezing. And from my perspective, no one ever wins. Not saying that anyone loses, but… In fact, to take a word from the game of black jack – it is a ‘push’ – there is no winner or loser. Now there’s a word: push. Another good word to ponder is ‘trump’, like Donald Trump, trompe l’oeil, take a trump, etc. But enough about this.

My mother, a bright woman, was very rigid in her sense and use of words and their pronunciations. Me? I see them as much more fluid and indefinable. My mother would always say: “Look it up in the dictionary.” She meant in the large Webster’s that we owned. Then she would follow it up with: “What do they give as the first definition, the second, the third [and so on].” As if Webster’s had become gospel, never to be questioned or disputed. Then I went to college and, guess what, I found that there were lots of other dictionaries – I already knew about some, but my mother had been dismissive of them – and they didn’t always follow the same form as our over-sized Webster’s. In fact, the nuances of language became clearer and clearer to me. Rigidity would never work and words should never be accepted at face value.

Today’s word: Mordant! Curious word. Aren’t they all? Recently when the fellow named Chris wrote me, pointing out that urine was used as a mordant I started researching not only the subject, but the word itself. I ran across what I thought was a misspelling: mordent. To make sure, I looked it up first at the Oxford English Dictionary online to see if it might not be ‘the British’ way of spelling it. It wasn’t. Mordent is a musical term. “A rapid alternation of a note with the note immediately below or above it in the scale…” Fine. That’s great. Out of my field of understanding. But digging a little deeper I looked at its etymology and it said: “Early 19th century: via German from Italian mordente, present participle of mordere ‘to bite’.” Wait a second! ‘To bite’? Isn’t that what a mordant with an ‘a’ is said to do? And, according to the Merriam-Webster it first showed up in English in 1806. They give the pronunciation as ˈmr-dənt.

So, what about mordant? Same pronunciation: ˈmr-dənt. Exact same pronunciation. Damn. Then the next question is: How did this word, mordant, get into English? Of course, this spelling has different nuances of meaning, but let’s stick to its use in dyeing. Again the Oxford: “A substance, typically an inorganic oxide, that combines with a dye or stain and thereby fixes it in a material.” Its etymology? “Late 15th century: from French, present participle of mordre ‘to bite’, from Latin mordere.” Via the French, this time and not the Germans. Hmmm? But that is not the point. The point is they have the exact same root in Latin. This version showed up in Middle English in the 15th century – 250 to 300 years before the musical term. I love it! The word ‘mordant’ bites! Big time.

Now, let’s go a little deeper. What other words are related, even tangentially, to the word ‘mordant’? There is a slew of them and some are quite surprising. (This ‘slew’ – there are others, of course – comes from Old Irish and first appeared in English in 1839. And a good thing too, so I can use it here and now.) Anyway, as I was saying, mordant-related words include morsel, remorse, mortgage and a lot of others, all based on the root word or sound coming from the Indo-Europeans. Much older than Latin.

Tell me, how did you do to get your tepee looking so good? 

The other day, I was talking with a very bright and creative friend of mine – let’s call her Gina – and telling her about the use of urine as a mordant. Silly me. She is from Montana and reminded me about the use of urine in tanning hides, specifically buffalo hides, in this case. Below is a painting by George Catlin from ca. 1832-33. It is entitled: “Crow Lodge of Twenty-five Buffalo Skins”.

Smithsonian_Catlin_buffalo_tepee_7b   The Smithsonian Institute

In a 56 page publication from the War Department in 1888, Compilation of Notes and Memoranda Bearing Upon the Use of Human Ordure and Human Urine in Rites of a Religious Or Semi-religious Character Among Various Nations, under the category of ‘feces’ it says: “The Kioways of the Great Plains soaked their buffalo hides in urine to make them soft and flexible.” It was attested to by Captain Robert G. Carter, 4th Cavalry, U.S. Army. Elsewhere, it is mentioned that the animals brains were also used to soften the hides. The urine was human.

NMAI_Siksika_Blackfoot_buffalo_hide_moccasins_1890_no.7   National Museum of the American Indian – Siksika Blackfoot buffalo skin moccasins, ca. 1890. Not saying that the hide was cured with urine, but considering everything, it might have been. Also, found lots of Kiowa deerskin articles, but none made of buffalo hide. Whatever!

Pecunia non olet – Money doesn’t stink!

Gold coin from 74 A.D. with the head of Vespasian on one side and Fortune on the other. © Trustees of the British Museum

The emperor Vespasian (9 – 79 A.D.) came from a family of noted tax collectors according to Suetonius. He distinguished himself as a soldier and administrator. Once while he was traveling through Greece with Nero he incurred the emperor’s displeasure by either leaving the emperor’s presence while he was singing or by falling asleep. He had to go into hiding for a while. Fortunately for Vespasian Judea was in revolt and he was sent there to quell it. Some time later troops in other parts of the empire starting lobbying for Vespasian to be the next emperor. Unsure of the signs he went to Egypt and visited the temple of Serapis where he heard that if he would spit in the eyes of a blind man he would be cured. He did this in public before a large crowd and guess what – it was better than laser-corrective surgery: the man could see. This Vespasian took to be one of the signs that he should become emperor. He also healed a cripple just by touch.

Once he had returned to Rome he tried to bring order back into a crumbly society. “To let slip no opportunity of improving military discipline, when a young man reeking with perfumes came to thank him for a commission which had been given him, Vespasian drew back his head in disgust, adding the stern reprimand: ‘I would rather you had smelt of garlic’.” He helped restore the city by hauling away trash on his own head and letting people construct buildings on abandoned or neglected properties. A kind of early form or Habitat for Humanity. He built many prominent public buildings and started the construction of the Colosseum. He reformed the courts, etc.

Your tax dollars at work! How do you think they paid for the Colosseum?

This image was originally posted at Flikr by Jaymce.

If Vespasian did have any flaws it was avarice. Suetonius wrote: “The only thing for which he can fairly be censured was his love of money.” He reimposed old taxes, raised new ones and “He made no bones of selling offices to candidates and acquittals to men under prosecution, whether innocent or guilty.” He sponsored the arts and live high while doing it. But here is the kicker: Suetonius tells us that when Vespasian’s own son criticized his greed the emperor “…held a piece of money from the first payment to his son’s nose, asking whether its odour was offensive to him. When Titus said ‘No,’ he replied, ‘Yet it comes from urine.’ ” Vespasian had set up public latrines and charged Romans to use them. The run-off was sold to cleaners and others who could make use of it. I don’t remember exactly what the details are, but the ammonia content of urine was used to bleach togas and other fabrics. So, I guess you could say that Vespasian used a urine tax (among others) to pay for public improvements and entertainments.

A view of the Colosseum as imagined by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912)

Erasmus wrote about this in his Education of a Christian Prince: “Indeed the examples of the worst princes are sometimes more of an incentive to virtue than those of the best or average rulers. For anyone would be dissuaded from greed by the story  of Vespasian’s tax on urine and his statement (no less disgusting than the facts) ‘money smells good wherever it comes from’; and the same goes for that detestable phrase of Nero with which he  used to instruct his officers, ‘You know what I want, and see  that nobody else keeps any.’ ”

A painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) as imagined from the floor of the Colosseum. The original hangs in the collection of the Phoenix Museum of Art.

Flash forward a little more than 1800 years and Duchamp gave us the urinal itself as art. He called it Fountain and signed it ‘R. Mutt 1917’. An article in the Telegraph from March 10, 2011 called it “The practical joke that launched an artistic revolution.” That it did – that and a lot of other disputable sources, I mean.

I got this from a post at commons.wikimedia.

Urine in literature

There must be a [blank] load of urine references in classic literature – especially considering all of the synonyms and euphemisms, but there is only one which comes to mind quickly and that is a couple of passages in Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez:

[Dr. Urbino’s parrot has escaped and he] “…looked for him in the foliage, but there was no response in any language, not even to whistles and songs, so he gave him up for lost and went to sleep when it was almost three o’clock. But first he enjoyed the immediate pleasure of smelling a secret garden in his urine that had been purified by lukewarm asparagus.” (This appears on p. 39 of my edition.)

Still life with asparagus by Adriaen Coorte (ca. 1663 – after 1707) – © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Later on p. 221 Dr. Urbino’s wife is thinking back about the meals they had together where everything had to be perfect: “Even when it was not the season for asparagus, it had to be found regardless of cost, so that he could take pleasure in the vapors of his own fragrant urine.”

García Márquez, winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature, is one of my favorite authors of all time and this book is a masterpiece. If you read it now and still don’t like it – then tough. It is still a masterpiece like the Coorte painting above.

After I posted the passages from  Love in the Time of Cholera one of my favorite correspondents, Eikei, wrote me to let me know that Proust had also written about this asparagus/urine phenomenon. I looked it up and sure enough it appears in Swann’s Way –  a passage Garcia Marquez probably knows by heart: “I would stop by the table [in the kitchen and]… what most enraptured me were the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and pink which shaded off from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible gradations to their white feet – still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed – with an iridescence that was not of this world. I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to accept vegetable form…” Later Proust adds that “…all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare’s Dream) at transforming my chamber pot into a vase of aromatic perfume.”

Some of the science concerning asparagus and urine – In a book by James Collman it says: “Does your urine have an odor just after you eat asparagus? If so, you are not alone, but not everyone experiences this result. The odor is caused by sulfur-containing metabolites, or breakdown products, produced in the body from constituents of asparagus. This phenomenon was not noted before the late 17th century, when sulfur and sulfur compounds were added as fertilizer to improve asparagus flavor. The ability to carry out the required metabolism to produce the odor is inherited, a dominate genetic trait with no apparent gender distinction. Many men believed this odor production to be a male trait – not so. There seems, however, to be a national variation.” 40% of those studied from the U.K. produced this odor while all French studies did. There also seems to be a difference between different groups on which can detect the smell and which cannot.

If you are anything like I am – heaven forbid! – you started James Joyce’s Ulysses and never finished it

There was a recent – March 27, 2011 – tongue-in-cheek list of the 50 most famous and/or popular books which you should NEVER read. This appeared in The Telegraph and was authored by Iain Hollingshead. He started with Ulysses and noted that “If the early description of the protagonist going to the lavatory doesn’t make your eyes swim, the final 40 pages, untroubled by punctuation, will.” Well, while I may not have gotten past the first four or maybe seven pages before calling it quits I certainly know about the last part with all of the ‘yesses’ being spewed by Molly Bloom. But I’ll leave that for another time. Here I want to concentrate on James Joyce and urine. Naturally there are several references, but I’ll be damned if I am going to spend the rest of my life looking for them. Here are two:

For Leopold Bloom, Episode 4: Calypso,  “Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

In Episode 17: Ithica Bloom and Stephen Dedalus go out into the garden to urinate: “At Stephen’s suggestion, at Bloom’s instigation both, first Stephen, then Bloom, in penumbra urinated, their sides contiguous, their organs of micturition reciprocally rendered invisible by manual circumposition, their gazes, first Bloom’s, then Stephen’s, elevated to the projected luminous and semiluminous shadow.”

There are other writers, of course, who have written about or mentioned urine in one way or another. A few of these include Rabelais, Montaigne, Mandeville, Swift, Flaubert, Freud, Tolstoy, Thoreau and Orwell. When or if I can ever muster the energy or the interest I will finish this section.


This new information was added on September 22, 2017 – The CAMEO Materials Database at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston describes ‘urine’ as “A clear amber liquid (mammals, aquatic species) or grayish semisolid (birds, reptiles) excretion of metabolic waste from vertebrates. In mammals, urine is formed in the kidneys. It is a collection of water-soluble by-products of protein metabolism (urea, creatinine, uric acid, ammonia, etc.) mixed with salts and pigments. Urine, or sig water, has been used in dyeing and tanning.”


AN ADMISSION: I started this post based on a false memory. I thought I remembered that urine played a part in the discovery of Prussian blue. I was wrong. However, what I did remember correctly was that Prussian blue played a major role in the history of Japanese woodblock prints. So, based on a misconception I started this rather bizarre entry and once I got going I thought it was interesting enough to continue even though its ties to Japanese art are – to say the least – negligible.

For more information about Japanese prints and culture please visit our other web site at


  1. Too funny. Reminds me of the bumper or window sticker showing the little boy peeing on something. Would love to see this done in a sticker format, I would put one on my car just for kicks.

    Comment by Daniel Dew — July 8, 2009 @ 12:14 pm | Reply

  2. best article i’ve ever read on the web!

    Comment by jean — June 7, 2012 @ 6:37 pm | Reply

    • Thank you so much. I am extremely flattered by what you have said.


      Jerry V.

      Comment by vegder — June 8, 2012 @ 4:32 pm | Reply

  3. Urine is used as a mordant with certain dyes. That may be the Prussian Blue connection.

    Comment by Charlie — October 15, 2015 @ 10:50 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: