It seems so innocuous, clear and frothy and hopefully odor-free. Nothing like the strong stuff, blood and urine and sweat and mucus. We wiggle away from when a grandmother spits on her hand to rub dirt off our face; we welcome a French kiss. You would think saliva’s significance would end there.
Ah, but we equate salivation with desire, the force that runs our lives. We turn saliva into a projectile when we are utterly disgusted with someone. Our forebears saw saliva as powerful enough to ward off evil spirits.
“Spit it out,” we say, demanding a confession. Someone is “the spitting image” of a parent or grandparent—is that a reference to DNA’s presence in saliva? “I don’t give spit about that” demeans the fluid, yet it is essential to life. Hardly the stuff of clay, we are more like waterworks, wet fluids pumping and streaming through our bodies at all times. Saliva keeps our mouths from going dry and lubricates a good meal’s passage down our throat.
Again, you would think its role would stop there. But in The Body Fantastic, Frank Gonzalez-Crussi, professor emeritus of pathology at Northwestern University Medical School, links old hopes of healing with modern medical discoveries.
Jesus spat into a blind man’s eyes to restore his sight, Gonzalez-Crussi reminds us. When someone fell into an epileptic fit, ancient Romans spat upon them to ease the seizure. In the fourth century, De Medicamentis noted that toothache could be cured by spitting into a frog’s mouth. The ancients thought it could erase lichen (were they mossy?) and leprous spots. Hildegarde of Bingen wet a magnet with the someone’s saliva and drew it across his forehead while praying. Russians spat on their finger and drew a circle around a snakebite to exorcise its venom. Wet nurses used saliva to heal lesions on the skin of the newborn.
In Madagascar, the roar mafaitra—the first spittle of the morning, often foul-smelling—is believed to heal a sore ear or eye. The spittle of someone who is fasting has long been thought to have special curative powers. Pliny wanted a woman’s fasting spittle to ease bloodshot eyes; Irish peasants mixed it with clay from a holy well for sore or blinded eyes. In the Leech Book of the Fifteenth Century, readers were told they would need “a sausere full of fastynge spatyll” to cure “scabbis.” Albert the Great thought fasting spittle’s power was revealed by its ability to kill asps and other venomous creatures. Nicholas Robinson, an eighteenth-century English physician, mixed saliva with bile and pancreatic, gastric, and intestinal juices to dissolve “all manner of viscous humors and fabulous concretions.” Or just sogged up a piece of bread with fasting saliva to cure “the gout, the gravel, the stone, the asthma, and dropsy.”
So is this why my dog licks a cut paw obsessively? Or why holes and traumas in the mouth seem to heal faster than injuries to the skin? Earlier medicine seems superstitious now, but those doctors were on to something. Saliva contains immunoglobins, mucins, antibacterial peptides, antifungal compounds, factors that promote blood clotting, epidermal growth factor, histatins, lysozomes to zap bacteria, and leptin. It also announces the body’s condition, its odor giving away the presence of a sinus infection’s infected mucus or one of the smellier diseases. Other telltale compounds, when traveling in blood, would be bound to proteins; in saliva, it is easier to find the molecules that are biologically active. Now that we have sophisticated equipment, minuscule levels of certain molecules in saliva will be easier to detect, the tests far less invasive than other means of diagnosis. We are already using saliva to diagnose hereditary diseases, malignant and infectious diseases (including COVID), and endocrine disorders.
No wonder saliva was thought to be lucky. For centuries, people have spat at the name of the devil and spat to avoid a witch’s curse. Ancient Romans spat away bad luck after encountering someone lame in the right leg, as terrible a curse as a black cat in your path. Jewish custom suggests spitting three times after learning of something terrible, which ostensibly wards off the evil eye but also sounds like a sensible psychological trick to ease some of the shock and emotional charge of that terrible news. Even after receiving good news, the custom is to spit and say “Pu, pu, pu.” Greeks also spit three times to ward off the evil eye (occasioned by praise or jealousy) or cancel a curse, but for them, the number three invokes the Holy Trinity. The Zulu use dream spittle when a widow is troubled by her late husband’s ghost.
“Who spits at heaven, it falls in his face,” warns a Spanish proverb. The Roma have a man spit into water to help his wife become pregnant, although sperm is also helpful. Reading catalogs of such customs, it occurs to me how handy it was, to carry a weapon against the devil in your mouth at all times. These are practical superstitions, easy to enact by a layperson anyplace and anytime.
So how does such a helpful substance wind up a sign of disgust and uncouth manners? There are few signs of utter disdain as eloquent as spitting in someone’s face, and there is an energy to the act, an explosive momentum that must be quite satisfying. Even men of the greatest refinement were once allowed to use spittoons, and they remain next to the seats of the U.S. Supreme Court justices for tradition’s sake. I wince to think what tavern floors would have felt like in bare feet.
France outlawed spitting in public in 1922, and there were campaigns against it in the United States because tuberculosis was such a plague. Maybe it was hygiene that turned opinion against spitting—or maybe the ladies grew sick of it. In any case, the shift is relatively recent, and baseball players remain exempt.
The rest of us will keep our spittle mainly to ourselves, offering it up to diagnose illness but ignoring the other devils.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.