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The Straight Dope

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What's the deal with Satan and goats? In some pictures Satan has a goatee, horns, and hooves like a goat's. I don't read the Bible much, but is there a part where it says goats are evil or something like that? I'd like to know. --Jimmy Anderson, Arkansas

I don't know what it is with goats. You get my goat. Old goat. Scapegoat. Bible (well, New Testament) scholars will remember Matthew 25:31-33, "the Son of Man . . . will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left," the goats presumably being headed for eternal damnation. The preachers say this is because sheep are obedient whereas goats are ornery and do their own thing. Also, goats have--one must speak frankly--prominent genitals. Sheep, on the other hand . . . sheepish? Sheep to the slaughter? Sorry, babe, but I'd rather be a goat.

All that having been said, the connection between Satan and goats is indirect. The goatlike features commonly attributed to the devil derive from the Greek pastoral deity Pan, who was half man, half goat. I have here a picture of a sixth-century Coptic ivory carving of Pan, and if you take away the pipes and give him a pitchfork, you're looking at the devil, complete with cloven hooves, hairy legs, horns, and beard. Oh, and prominent genitals.

The phallic aspects tend to get airbrushed out of the modern picture of ol' Scratch, but let's not kid ourselves. When Christian artists pondered the most dangerous and subversive of the deadly sins, they weren't thinking of securities fraud. It was only natural that they should seize on the frankly sexual figure of Pan. (I'm thinking here of Pan-as-old-lech, not the romanticized Disney version.) I mean, if you want a truly disturbing portrait of wickedness, what are you going to pick up on, mass murder? Too alien. Whereas unbridled sexuality . . . I'm not pointing any fingers, but this is a topic to which a lot of us can relate. Pan also had the advantage of being pagan, and since time immemorial the gods of one age have become the demons of the next.

Satan wasn't drawn strictly from Pan, and for that matter portraits of the devil weren't as consistent as today's highly stylized version might suggest. Artists of centuries past, like Hollywood special-effects geniuses today, tended to be pretty eclectic in their search for frightening imagery. If you look through medieval woodcuts and such, you see a devil who's often claw footed, with a long pointed tail and sometimes wings--more on the order of a gargoyle. His color varies, too, though Satan was frequently portrayed as either black or red--black being the color of death, and red no doubt suggesting blood and carnality. The trident probably comes from Neptune. I could give you a long list of other precedents from ancient iconography, but let's skip that. The trick in portraying Satan has always been simple enough. You want a critter of which one thinks: Ooh, that's scary. But also: You know, I can see the appeal.

I always thought yam and sweet potato were two names for the same thing. However, when I asked to be passed the yams at a recent family gathering, I was informed by one of my snotty east-coast cousins that no yams were on the menu. I was reduced to asking for the "f**king orange things, a**hole," which detracted from the air of refinement and class that I like to convey. What's the straight dope, Cecil?

--Robbie Federer, Evanston

I see you were able to communicate, which is the main thing. Technically, however, your cousin is right. Contrary to what even some grocery-store produce guys think, yams and sweet potatoes are unrelated vegetables, though in both cases you're eating the root of a tropical vine. Sweet potatoes, Ipomoea batatas ("batata" is the original Taino name, whence potato), are an American plant of the morning glory family, whereas yams are of the genus Dioscorea. Yams, which are rarely seen in the U.S. and Canada but are a staple in tropical regions, can grow up to seven feet in length. The name is thought to derive from the West African word nyami, "to eat," which is heard in Jamaican patois expressions such as, Oonu wan fi nyam banana dem?, "Do you guys want to eat those bananas?" Lay that on your cousins at the next reunion if you want to shut them up.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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