Oh Great God of Useless Information: On a recent Beavis and Butt-Head show, our two favorite metalheads are at a tractor pull. One of the tractors goes out of control, knocking over outhouses and releasing the great Greek god of feces to take his vengeance on the land. In a newspaper interview, the creators of the show said that while doing some research, they stumbled on the god in a mythology book. Just who was this great god? Where was he said to dwell? And finally, just what were his actual duties? — W. Elliot, Clairemont
Research? For Beavis and Butt-Head? And just how likely do you figure that is? Anyway, expecting little, I turned your questions over to the drudges at the Sagacitus Mattus Alicius Foundation for Mythology and Small Appliance Repair, and darned if they didn’t come up with your answers. Sterculius is the god in question. He’s Roman, not Greek. And “feces” is kind of stretching a point. He was the god, actually, of manure. Fertilizer.
As with most of the ancient Roman deities, we have no vivid picture of our dung king. He’s the hero of no epic. His genealogy is vague. He was just one of an almost uncountable number of god-spirits that early Romans believed had to be bribed and flattered if life was to proceed smoothly. Virtually every action, event, or object in Roman life was governed by some god or other (Spiniensis, god presiding over the clearing of thorns from gardens; Cardea, goddess of door hinges; Commoleda, goddess in charge of keeping trees from being struck by lightning; Robigus, god of mildew and rust). The whole system was so vague and complicated that people often said prayers, in essence, “to whom it may concern," afraid they might beseech the wrong deity or leave out one they didn’t even know about.
Among the ancient references to Sterculius is a brief nod in Pliny the Younger’s Historia Naturalis, in what appears to be a dissertation on fertilizer, “Italy...pays tribute to Sterculio, son of Taunus, on account of his immortal invention....”
So where did Sterculius live? Well, these gods were often embodied in objects related to their powers. Perhaps there was a little bit of him in every cow pie.
But being the emperor of excrement may not have been a very prestigious gig. Sterculius’s son Picus was a king and a gifted prophet (even after being turned into a woodpecker by a miffed goddess). The keepers of the Picus legend decided that being the son of the manure maharaja was so undignified that they shoved Sterculius out of the family tree and declared their boy the son of all-powerful Saturn. (You get to do that in mythology.) Two thousand years later, it’s left to Beavis and Butt-Head to rehabilitate dad’s image. Very appropriate that it should be done at a tournament of large farming equipment.