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Fork You! (A History of Satan's Silverware)

By Edited Apr 8, 2016 5 15

But Is It Kosher?

Even the lowliest of implements can be the target of Christian sheeple ire, spawning dissent and controversy where none should ever have existed.  

Ladies and germs, I bring you the humble table fork, an instrument of the Apocalypse so vile, so malignantly subversive, its use was considered heretical. 

The accusation of heresy is really what put French patron saint Jeanne d’Arc to the torch.  It was contrived heresies that led to the hanging and burning of thousands of men and women (mostly women) in Europe’s bloody witch-hunts, resulting in the senseless murders of innocent people.  And it is heresy, more than any other imaginary offense, which is the greatest of all “crimes” against organized religion. 

Yup.  The simple fork belongs to the great Christian tradition of oppression, censorship, and mindless brainwashing.  The rabble won’t stop observing their pagan Winter rites, you say?  Easy – create a new holiday, move it to December 25 (the day the pagan celebration ends), claim that day is, instead, really the day of Jesus’ birth (ignoring the New Testament’s own clear indicators he was born in the Spring and not in Winter), throw in some Christian voodoo, stir with much iron-fisted suppression, and call it “Christmas”.  Voilà!  No more pagan Roman saturnalia celebration.  It hath been assimilated!

Resistance is Futile

The evil on your dinner table – ooooooo, be scared – the fork, however, despite its devilish associations is actually a wondrous little tool whose utility cannot be overstated. 

Antique fork
And at one time the fork probably kept people from eating feces.
Dirty, Stinky, Nasty Fingers
For the 99.99% of you not curious enough to care about such things as I do, have you ever wondered why the left hand is considered bad?  In Latin, the word for left-handedness in humans derives from the root word “sinistra” (means “left” or “unlucky”).  The same Latin word forms the basis for all Romance language words equating to “sinister”.  And “sinister”, as we all know, is bad: evil, malevolent, or boding or attended with misfortune or disaster.

However, there’s another, nastier reason why the left hand is “unclean”.  The majority of people on the planet are right-handed; these were the hands used for presenting holy relics or sacraments, and for eating.  The right hand became equated with “good”.  The left hand, however (the dominant hand in a minority), was prohibited from food handling at table and from being used in other ceremonies and rites of religion.

It is because the left hand’s function was a “sinister” one: after defecating, ancient people used their left hands and the fingers of that hand to scrape away fecal residue from the anus and surrounding perineum, flinging it away from the fingertips when finished “wiping”.  What makes the hand “unclean” is the certainty that (in the desert environments where Jewish law first codified the left hand as “unclean”) it is unlikely that a desert nomad would have bothered wasting precious water washing the “wiping” hand afterward.  At best, he or she might scrub it lightly with sand or dirt; more likely the unclean, feces-smeared hand was wiped off on the hem of a garment.

Unclean, indeed.

People mostly ate with their fingers for millennia; good manners and social norms dictated how to eat certain foods.  For example, a whole hand was never to be dipped into a communal bowl – the tips of the first two fingers were used to scoop out portions of food, the fingers then placed in the mouth.  There is no mention of washing the hand before “double-dipping”: it is presumed that communal bowls carried the saliva and bacteria from the mouths and fingers of all diners.  But even that level of contamination had to be more agreeable than having a left hand, carrying fecal matter beneath its nails and in its skin creases, dipping into the hummus.

And if you think discussions about proper wiping are things of the past, think again.  When he was in exile in France before the ouster of Iran’s shah in the late 1970’s, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini continued his Muslim scholarly work.  Among his treatises was an enforcement of a prescribed method of cleaning up after a holy dump: “One should not use more than three stones or one piece of cloth when wiping one’s anus”.  [Dang, Ayatollah, you’re a cheapskate.  I’d use a whole bolt of cloth and a mountain of gravel if I had to.  When I’m done dropping a deuce I want my bilge flap to pass a white-glove test!]

Caution: Pan is Hot
Cultures will often overlook the obvious when developing a concept or a technology.  The Aztecs, for example, had the wheel.  However, it was never used for anything relating to work – wheels in the ancient Aztec world appear as design motifs and on toys.  That’s right: a dad may have made a small carved toy for his son or daughter, and fixed it with a tiny axle and working wheels so the child could pull the toy around.  There were no carts, wagons, or wheeled conveyances, though.  The Aztecs walked or ran everywhere. 

But, they had the wheel, not realizing its potential. 

Why didn’t they use it for something other than toys?  That’s still a bit of a mystery, but the best reasons are obvious.  In the first place, the Aztecs had many “beasts of burden” in the form of enslaved enemies.  These were used to transport goods across the Aztec Empire on foot. Also, the lack of a practical use for the wheel might have resulted from no easily domesticated draft animals available (South America’s largest candidate for the job is the llama; it is not particularly robust, and it is not known for its easy-going disposition).

Humanity also had the forerunners of modern tableware used in different capacities for millennia.  Knives, of course, evolved from flint or obsidian flakes, knapped to a certain thickness or length.  These were the first eating tools beyond fingers.  Knives later were made of metals; some had dual-pronged tips to aid in spearing food morsels.  [It was the 17th Century’s Cardinal Richelieu who “invented” what we might call a butter knife today.  He was disgusted by guests rudely picking their teeth with knives during meals.  This annoyed him so much he put a word in King Louis XIV’s ear about the offense to his tender sensibilities – the king issued an edict in 1669 declaring that all cutlery brought to the royal tables must have rounded, blunted tips.]

The first spoon, of course, was the cupped human hand.  However, shoving this “skin cup” into a boiling terra-cotta pot to dish up some scalding gruel was probably not a good idea.  Paleolithic people used shells or chips of wood for spoons.  More utilitarian spoons, first used as serving utensils then as eating implements, evolved from mussel shells and bowls used for dipping.

For millennia, people got away with using spoons (of varying degrees of crudity) and knives for eating, along with their “clean” hand.  [And the “unclean” hand use is documented as late as the mid 1800s by an anonymous diarist who wrote an 11-volume, privately published journal of his sexual activities over his lifetime called My Secret Life.  One of the lengthier entries notes the voyeuristic activity of this “gentleman”, spying through a hole into a women’s crude toilet stall at a train stop in France.  He gives great detail of an instance wherein one female traveler, after defecation, used the old left-handed, scrape-clean-and-fling method for clearing her anus of fecal residue.]

Fork in the Road
The fork caused some problems when it was first adapted to table use in about the 8th Century. 
Pitchforks – of a two-tined construction (usually carved out of wood) – had been around for centuries.  Unfortunately, although not of Biblical origin, the Christian world had another (and negative) connotation concerning pitchforks.  It was the tool of torment of their Judeo-Christian anti-god, Satan, also known as Lucifer, or generically as -- >gasp< -- THE DEVIL!!

El Diablo did not wield a pitchfork in sacred biblical texts.  This was a contrivance developed over time in Western culture and iconography.  The pitchfork didn’t simply fall out of the sky and into Satan’s waiting, evil hand for torturing you for eternity, though.  As a symbol of evil and torment it had to come from somewhere.

Remember that Christianity’s biggest crime is heresy.  Heresy in its most basic form requires a rejection of whatever god the current power-holding, offensive religion in authority at the time

Poseidon (statue, Copenhagen, Denmark)
wants you to believe in.  Nothing was more heretical to early Christendom than the holdover vestiges of paganism, whether of Egyptian, Roman, or Greek origin.

Paganism, of course, isn’t pagan if it is monotheistic.  Nope, paganism refers to those peoples of antiquity who worshipped many gods.  That is a Great Big No for a religion trying to force its monotheism down the throats of a superstitious, ignorant people.

The symbols of paganism became anathema to Christians.  One of the earlier images to be subverted and twisted into something evil was the trademark of the ancient Greek god of the seas, Poseidon.  His symbol of power – his scepter, if you will – was a large weapon, a long staff capped with a three-tined, stabbing fork.  It is called a trident.

What in the Christian world looked like a trident?  Hmmmmm . . . a pitchfork?  Yeah, that’s the ticket – a pitchfork!  Thus, the symbol of Poseidon’s (pagan) might was co-opted and subverted by early Christians in the West as the tool of The Devil!  And The Devil, as we all know, is bad!


8th-9th century forks (Persian)

The dining fork was invented likely in the 4th Century CE in the Byzantine Empire (most likely of Persian crafting).  It was in the Middle Ages that the two-tined version of the serving fork (used in ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece) showed up in Europe as an eating utensil. 

However, the table fork was mostly used by wealthy families of the Middle East and Byzantine Empire.  So, to impoverished, insanely covetous, and jealous Christians it needed condemnation because it looked like the pagan Poseidon’s poker of power.  Muslim users were considered infidels in the eyes of “Christians”.  And as proof that Middle Eastern Muslims were evil they used little tools of the devil, tiny little pitchforks that sat proudly on their tables, used to put food into their heathen, non-Christian mouths.


In Hell...Everyone Must Eat His Vegetables

A poignant illustration of how suspect the fork was in its earliest days is found in Venice in 1004.  At her wedding feast, the Greek niece of a Byzantine Emperor used a golden fork (she was marrying a Venetian doge’s son).  To Europeans of the day (who still ate with their fingers and knives) this new bride’s use of this strange device was seen as sinfully

Antique gold fork
decadent.  A snooty Venetian, a Christian no doubt, sniffed, “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers.  Therefore it is an insult to him to substitute artificial metal forks for them when eating.”  This poor woman died in a Black Plague epidemic a few years later – “Saint” Peter Damian reckoned her death was God’s punishment for her hateful vanity in using a fork! 

Gotta loves ya summa dat good old-timey Christian charity, huh?

Queen’s Fork
By the 9th Century CE, forks had found their way to England.  They were not common enough, and were viewed with religious superstition and suspicion as icons of Satan for such a long time that they did not come into popular use there until the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (b. 1533; reigned 1558-d.1603).
Antique fork (ca. 16th century)

The fork was introduced first in America in about 1630.  Though it had been used in Europe for several centuries the ignorant Americans didn’t see the utility of the device.  They had spoons and knives and fingers.   And the manner of its preferred use was confusing to the Colonials – was it a small spear, or a scoop, or a cutting device?  This bewilderment can be seen in its alternate name at the time: the split-spoon.


early American fork & knife
Its uses on European tables weren’t always clear, either.  For example, on the Continent during England’s Regency Period (1811-1820) Italians were using the fork to shovel food onto a spoon, which was then placed in the mouth.  As late as the mid 1840s Americans were still struggling with the fork’s usefulness at the table – many still used the older method of knife and spoon. An etiquette guide of the time acknowledged this rustic habit but cautioned, “If possible, the knife should never be put in the mouth at all”. 
And just to show that Americans weren’t the only rubes in the world, a French guide to proper table manners from the same period instructed a good guest, “When the fingers are very
Satan's Silverware
greasy, wipe them first on a piece of bread.” [Better the fingers should be greasy than coated with what the “unclean” hand carried then!]
Today, the lowly fork is de rigueur in any setting.  We would all be horrified to see anyone plunging his or her meat-hooks into the various serving dishes on our tables, cramming food into his or her gaping piehole, “unclean” hand be damned (and I’d punch somebody in the neck without hesitation if they put their mitts in my grub like that). 
It just isn’t done.  It just isn’t civilized.  But, oddly, it was the use of the fork that was once considered uncivilized, heretical, a sign of vanity, and a symbol of the pagan Poseidon and, by default, of Satan!

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May 20, 2012 2:01am
Great article - Thumbs up!
I hope you regard my further comment as a supplement instead of a critique. But I am really surprised that you have missed one of the major *Fork and Civilization* specialists, i.e. Norbert Elias who wrote The History of Manners and The Civilizing Process. Elias described in particular how the fork changed the European Civilization.
May 20, 2012 10:53am
These are the types of subjects that really CAN take on a life of their own (like the potato, and how it changed world history). You're correct, the most homely devices have made such a difference (that's why I do what I do). Thanks for reading.
May 20, 2012 3:05pm
Great article, but I hope you don't judge all Christians by the irrational and unChristian behaviour of some so-called Christian leaders of the past (and present).
PS With practice, you can "shovel" with chopsticks.
May 21, 2012 11:50am
Yeah, the shoveling of noodles and rice I've seen, but I'd love to see some typical two-fisted slob pound down a bucket of fried chicken with chopsticks!! Thnaks for reading,and no I don't judge all Christians by the behavior of a few (that's what "Christians" do)
May 20, 2012 3:46pm
Bowl by mouth, chop sticks working and you can eat very quickly.

In Malaysia and Indonesia it is still pretty common to eat with fingers and spoon. You never want to use your left hand to eat with, present something with or touch others with because the left hand is used for washroom business. While forks are available (and so are chop sticks) these are imports and not traditional.
May 21, 2012 11:57am
Yeah, the shoveling I've done with noodles and rice, face in bowl, I've just never seen a fatso pound down a Wendy's triple with cheese using chopsticks.

And I covered the "unclean" hand thing in the article, and as a left-handed person I have always been cautious when traveling as not to offend the cultural norms associated with its use. When in Rome, eh? Thnkns for reading.
May 21, 2012 12:26pm
Great article, entertaining and informative. I love eating with my fork, if only to keep my fingers clean, and find it surprising when people eat with their hands. But it know it happens, and it probably won't change for a while.
May 21, 2012 1:22pm
I'm a fan of the fork -- anything that keeps my hands clean. Thanks for reading.
May 22, 2012 3:31am
I never thought I would be reading quite so much about the history of wiping one's bum today :-) Brilliant!
May 22, 2012 9:44pm
Yeah, well, that’s what I’m here for, to educate! Thanks for reading.
Jun 27, 2012 2:29am
Really an interesting article on methodological believes.......
Jun 27, 2012 11:50am
Thanks for reading.
Jun 27, 2012 11:50am
This comment has been deleted.
Jun 27, 2012 3:31am
Congrats on another feature! Until now I never even thought about the fork's roots! Where do you come up with these ideas? Roughly half of my family, including my daughter are left-handed (I'm not), but we never did know why being so used to be considered "bad". I must send this to all of them.
Jun 27, 2012 11:51am
That's where the "left-handed" prohibition comes from. Tell all your left-handed friends! Thanks for reading.
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  1. John T. Flanagan "Folklore." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.
  2. Rachael Gilbreath "Elizabeth I." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.
  3. "Fork." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.
  4. "sinister." Webster Illustrated Contemporary Dictionary (Encyclopedic Edition). 1999.
  5. Bill Bryson Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States. New York City, NY: William Morrow and Company, 1994.
  6. "A History of Western Eating Utensils, From the Scandalous Fork to the Incredible Spork." smithsonianmag.com. 31/07/2009. 15/05/2012 <Web >
  7. "Fork." en.wikipedia.org. 15/05/2012 <Web >
  8. "The History of the Fork." hospitalityguild.com. 15/05/2012 <Web >

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