“Against the fashionable (and idiotic) claim that revenge is just hardwired and an instinctual response programmed into our genes and neuro-structures,” argues law professor William Ian Miller in an analysis of Njál’s Saga, “actual Icelandic feuding” rather “made it preferable for revenge to be served up cold; take your time and think. Only the stupid hit back right away.”
While uniting rival clans into a nation in the third millennium bc, China’s Yellow Emperor is said to have established prohibitions against feuding by making a gruesome example of one rebellious leader—peeling the man’s skin off to use for target practice, stuffing his stomach to make a ball to kick around, and fermenting his flesh and bones into a bitter broth to drink.
Roman physician Galen recounted a debate from which a medical rival “departed in a big hurry, knowing, I imagine, that if he remained he would be proved wrong.” Galen then wrote a book to be delivered to the rival’s followers. “You walked away,” it reads, “behaving like an athletic competitor who seizes the crown and flees before the contest; but today you will not escape refutation, for this book will follow you.”
In 2008 a Bronx-based Red Sox fan worked one day of construction at the new Yankee Stadium—having said up to then he wouldn’t go there “for all the hot dogs in the world”—so he could bury a Red Sox jersey in the cement, hoping to “jinx that stadium.” His defiant act was reported to Yankee officials, who spent $50,000 digging up the jersey and threatened legal action. “It was worth it,” the fan said.
In 1873, as part of the Bone Wars, paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh complained in The American Naturalist that his rival, Edward Drinker Cope, was dentally inept; he “mistook canines for incisors, nasals for frontals, maxillaries for premaxillaries, maxillaries for nasals, and maxillaries for frontals!” Cope claimed he was “too fully occupied on more important subjects.”
“Mine is a peaceable disposition,” Heinrich Heine writes in his journals, declaring simple wishes: a humble cottage, some fine trees out front. But “if God wants to make my happiness complete,” he adds, “he will grant me the joy of seeing some six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees. Before their death I shall, moved in my heart, forgive them all the wrong they did me in their lifetime. One must, it is true, forgive one’s enemies—but not before they have been hanged.”
In the Texas border town of Lajitas, generations of goats named Clay Henry have since 1986 served as mayor from a pen outside the general store, where passersby often stop to give them beer. In 2001 a local man became envious that Clay Henry III was allowed to drink alcohol on Sunday in the blue law–abiding county. “The next morning,” the local sheriff reported, “the goat was found lying with its testicles cut off.”
“I have personally watched and studied a jealous baby,” Saint Augustine reports in his Confessions. “He could not speak and, pale with jealousy and bitterness, glared at his brother sharing his mother’s milk.” Regarding the baby’s sinister intent, Augustine contends that “it can hardly be innocence,” when the milk “is flowing richly and abundantly, not to endure a share going to one’s blood brother, who is in profound need.”
The eponymous temptress of Dolly Parton’s 1973 hit “Jolene” was based, according to the country singer, on a bank teller who flirted with her husband, Carl Dean. “Every time I look at him sleeping over there in his La-Z-Boy, snoring, that hair turning gray at the temples,” Parton said in a 2014 interview, “I wonder if Jolene is still around. I’ll call her up and say, ‘You come and get him now!’ ”
Afridi tribesmen agreed not to engage in traditional blood feuds on a road through the Khyber Pass after it was seized by the British Raj in 1879. One result, the writer E.F. Benson later reported, was that Afridis would travel through clandestine tunnels to the road to “smile at each other.” Then, “having taken the air,” he wrote, “they rabbit it into their fortresses again.”
Russian legend holds that the first dog was created without fur. He soon lost patience waiting for it and so ran after a passing stranger, who turned out to be the devil. Owing to this evil allegiance, the fur originally intended for him went instead to the first cat, from which derives the antipathy between their descendants: dogs believe cats have stolen their property.
In love with the same slave girl, Iris, two men in first-century Pompeii fought via graffiti. Severus tagged the wall first, writing that Iris did not love Successus, adding, “His rival wrote this.” Successus responded, “Don’t even think to speak badly of a man more handsome than you, especially one who is both most vicious when crossed and yet also good.” “I have written all there is to say,” Severus retorted. “You love Iris, but she does not love you.”
“His method was inefficient in the extreme,” scoffed Nikola Tesla in 1931 in a New York Times obituary for his former employer and longtime scientific competitor, Thomas Edison. “In view of this, the truly prodigious amount of his actual accomplishments is little short of miracle.”
After Helen Gahagan Douglas was elected as a Democratic representative in 1944, news outlets spread rumors of a vicious rivalry between her and Republican congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce; one headline read helen vs. clare: torch vs. icicle. “For reporters short of real news,” Douglas complained, “it was a simple day’s work to speculate that we would claw at one another.” The women resolved to avoid giving fodder to such baseless stories by never discussing the same subject on the same day.