Integrating Work and Spirit

For many years, I kept my spiritual life (Druidry) separated from my work (computational linguistics). Of course, there are certainly strong overlaps — you only have to look at the 50+ articles under ‘Word and Spirit’ in the sidebar to see that. And every once in awhile I’d cast a spell for prosperity or something similar. And the people at work sometimes good-naturedly joke about how Druids dance naked around Stonehenge. Ha ha! Never heard that one before. But for the most part my professional life has been secular, and my religious life non-professional.

interviewfrankmaceowenI think most people create this kind of separation, and it’s probably not healthy for us. It wasn’t really ever my intent to make this break; and it was my hope, years ago when I started practicing druidry, that they’d come together somehow, sometime. But I didn’t know how that might happen.

Then I got a wake-up call at work: I wasn’t doing so great. My job performance had been disappointing. I needed to step up my game. And if I continued on my course, I’d be in real danger of… well, the consequences remained unspoken, but that of course made the imaginings all the more dreadful.

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Story, History, and Meaning

In the episode of Faith, Fern and Compass we posted this week, Alison and I talked a bit about stories, and what their purpose might be. Is storytelling something with evolutionary origins? If so, what? And why? It’s a completely open question, but an essential one: stories and histories, real or imagined, provide entertainment, bind communities together, give our lives meaning and provide guidance and comfort in difficult times. As we discuss in the podcast, figuring out how to cultivate storytelling and other types of art — while somehow accommodating the social upheaval they inevitably give rise to — is critical. As Susan Biali says, “We cannot afford to waste human gifts. We need to learn how to nurture the creative nature.”

MoonWithTrainAfter the podcast, I went back and looked a little deeper into the etymologies of history and story. There is an unfortunate urban legend that history literally means, and comes from, the words “his story”, and while there is a faint glimmer of truth in that — and of course the deeper, more abstract truth, that what we call “history” is too often the story of what dead white guys were doing — the fact is that history and story have more to do with wizard than anything else. These are all the same word, at root; they ultimately arise from a term meaning one who is wise.

With wizard it’s most obvious: the Proto Indo European weid, meaning “to see” or “to know” descended into Proto Germanic as wisaz and Old English as wis. In Middle English it was combined with the suffix -ard, indicating one who is or does (as in coward, drunkard), and made to mean one who is wise — perhaps even too wise.

But in Greek, this same Proto Indo European root weid became his (“wise”), and was combined with tor (“one who is or does”) to mean, basically, wizard; and the term histor was often used to mean “old man, wise man, judge”. A historia, then, would be a tale told by such a wizard. It was borrowed directly into Latin, and thence into French, becoming estorie.

It was then borrowed twice by English — once to become history, and once to become story. For a long time these two words were just two versions of the same term, like want to and wanna, but eventually story (the less formal version) took on connotations of ficticiousness and frivolity and went its own way.

Spiritually both history and story share connotations of a fertile, abundant path through grounded, earthy territory, rounding up with powerful motion that ends in an expression of fortitude and stamina. The hi- at the beginning of history adds a depth of rootedness, of something arising from a hearth and home. It is this rootedness that gives history its peculiar power to give guidance, bind communities, and infuse our lives with meaning.

On the Meaning of Life

“In our life there is a single color, as on an artist’s palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love.” – Marc Chagall

“The meaning of life is that it stops.” – Franz Kafka

“Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Being alive is the meaning.” – Joseph Campbell

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” – Albert Camus

“The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.” – Vaclav Havel

Does life have a meaning? If so, what is it? What is it that gives life meaning? And… should we care?

As is obvious from the quotes above, it’s a point of contention. Some people think that they have it figured out: life’s meaning is love or death or living or whatever. Or — more accurately — they think that love or death give life meaning; but they don’t say what that meaning is. Meanwhile, Albert Camus says that looking for life’s meaning will just make you unhappy; and Vaclav Havel implies that, even if that’s true, maybe living a meaningful life is more important than being happy.

Now, I’m not an expert on life; but as a linguist, I’m an expert on meaning. I know what meaning is, how words (and other things) get their meanings, and how those meanings can change over time and be different for different people. So even if I don’t know the meaning of your life, I can tell you how to give your life meaning.

There are basically three ways in which a word can have meaning:

  1. it refers to something concrete in the world, that we physically experience (like rock or run or happiness);
  2. it refers to a metaphorical extension or abstraction of a concrete experience (like rock-solid or running for office or happy accident);
  3. it refers to a relationship between a word of category (1) or (2) (like geology, an ongoing relationship between scientists and rocks).

How does this apply to life?

Well, because life is a concrete occurrence, it automatically has meaning in sense (1). We physically experience it; and the more conscious we are of that physical experience, moment by moment, the more meaning it has. This is a core teaching of Buddhism and many other contemplative traditions. It also reflects the quote by Joseph Campbell above.

As for (2): can life gain meaning by metaphor? Life itself is not really a metaphor for anything, but certainly many events in your life gain meaning by being metaphorical. If you are Catholic, for example, then eating the Eucharist is meaningful because you’re metaphorically eating Christ’s body (well, really you are in fact eating Christ’s body, but set that distinction aside…). Or if you set up a Christmas tree, an evergreen, to represent the continuation of life even in the dead of winter; or if you wear a religious symbol as jewelry; or if you collect souveniers that remind you of people or places important to you… All of these are meaningful acts and objects because of the power of metaphor.

And (3): can the events in your life gain meaning by being in relationship with something? Sure. The simplest kind of relationship is identity or similarity: if two things are the same, or alike, then they stand in relationship. So you can give meaning to something just by repeating it. Suppose you go to the same restaurant every week for dinner; or go to the same vacation spot every year. Just by going back again (and again), you give the event more meaning.

And life itself can gain meaning by being in relationship with… something else — something outside of life. Perhaps this is what Kafka was getting at, when he said that death gives life meaning; because life obviously has a relationship with death. What the relationship is, exactly, is unclear (does death set life’s boundaries? or does life continue after death? is death a kind of life? Does it give rise to life? etc.), but the relationship is undeniable, and that fact is enough to give life some kind of meaning.

But at some level, when people say they want to know the meaning of life, what they really mean is, “Why am I here?” They want to know that their existence matters; that their presence on Earth “makes a difference”. And this “mattering” or “making a difference” is just a kind of relationship. In other words, people want to know that their life has a relationship with something — anything — outside of itself. Perhaps this is why some people are so invested in the lives and accomplishments of their children. Even if their lives are meaningless, and their children’s lives are meaningless too, if the two lives are connected — if they have some kind of relationship — then suddenly meaning, of a sort, appears.

But is that really enough? Ideally you’d like to connect your life to something that itself has tremendous meaning — like some titanic struggle, or a god who has a great hidden purpose in mind, or a never-ending quest for knowledge and understanding. If you can convince yourself that these meaningful exterior things are meaningful enough in and of themselves, and you can establish a strong enough relationship between that and your own life, then maybe your own life will have great meaning, too.

Maybe. But when I’m tempted by these thoughts, I always remember Ozymandias.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away. – Shelley, 1818

Perhaps the Buddhists have it right after all.

Faith, Fern, and Compass


I cannot express how incredibly excited I am about this: Alison and I have started back into podcasting in a big way! We’ve got a whole new web site and a whole new name: Faith, Fern, and Compass: Nature Spirituality in the Digital Age. Instead of posting randomly whenever we get around to it, we’ve got a solid weekly schedule; and instead of focusing on pagan matters, we’re shooting for a broad range of topics all over the spectrum. This week, for example, we ask: what do bullfrogs and barred owls have in common? Can poetry save the world? Who owns an ecosystem?

Beyond that, though, we’re also offering pro memberships, which get you all sorts of extra stuff, including a whole extra episode every week, and a pro extension to all the weekly free podcasts. For example, in this week’s pro extension, we ask: what is the true meaning of Genesis, and what does it have to do with Beltane?

Faith, Fern & Compass is not just a podcast. It’s a challenge.

  • A challenge to live more gently and attentively with the fierce joy, quiet sorrow and wild love of the earth.
  • A challenge to reconnect with ourselves and with one another in a time of rapid technological progress and cultural change.
  • A challenge to honor the ancient wisdom of the past while nourishing our sacred roots in the present and looking forward to the unfurling future.

Each week, co-hosts Alison Leigh Lilly and Jeff Lilly invite you to join them as they explore the challenges of nature spirituality in the digital age through ecology, art, politics and interfaith conversation. Become part of a growing community of spiritual seekers and creative contemplatives finding guidance in the wellsprings of personal experience, soulful relationship and the dark green tones of earth-centered spiritual practice.

And that’s just the free stuff.

Becoming a Pro Member not only lets you support your favorite podcast, it also means you get access to tons of exclusive content, discounts and other benefits, including:

  • Weekend Pro Episodes – a full episode each weekend just for Pro Members
  • Extended Weekday Episodes – an extended edition of the free podcast
  • Bonus Episodes – extra episodes during seasonal breaks
  • Free Album Downloads – delivered right to your email inbox at the end of each season
  • Members-Only Newsletter – full of news and updates, discount codes and specials on up-coming companion eBooks and album packages
  • Any other cool content we create along the way!

 

So head on over and check it out, folks!

Sodden Spring

Seattle, they say, is a rather wet city. But the last few days were sunny and warm, so I guess I was lulled into thinking (wishing? hoping?) that perhaps the worst of the showers were over. Late yesterday, in the golden late evening, Alison in a coat against the wind, and I in a light sweater, walked to the bicycle shop, a pleasant two miles away through neighborhoods abloom with daffodils and cherries and along the cedar-trimmed Green Lake. Her bike was waiting, freshly oiled and polished and adjusted and ready to go. I set out on foot for the return journey, while she rode in circles around me, testing her balance and getting back into the swing of riding after a two-year break. We made it less than a block before it started raining.

Seattle rain (in my limited experience of it) is generally gentle, misty, gusty, and fitful; it’s easily dealt with if you have a light coat. When the rain got harder and harder, I felt sure it would let up soon. But within five minutes it had turned into a serious downpour; and five minutes later, when the hail started, I told Alison to go on home, so that her bright bike wouldn’t suffer in the weather too much. I jogged soggily after her, my sweater quickly growing heavy and cold with the rain and ice. Surely it couldn’t go on like this much longer…!

Well, I was right, but by the time it let up, I was just a few blocks from home. As it turned out, Alison wasn’t far ahead, because the rain and darkness made it too dangerous to bike, and she’d had to walk most of the distance. When we got inside, panting and shivering and dripping icy water everywhere, Cu Gwyn did not approve at all.

Sodden is a delightful old word that goes back to Proto European seut, meaning “boil”. In Proto Germanic it became seuthanan, and in Old English seoþan; and this word eventually became modern English seethe. But the past participle of seoþan was soden; and this broke away from seethe and became an adjective in its own right, sodden. Since things that are boiled are also quite wet, sodden came to mean “soaked” as well as “boiled”. By the end of the 19th century, the “boiled” meaning was forgotten.

Sodden and sadden are similar in sound, and carry much the same phonosemantics: a promising fresh beginning, a turning point or doorway, and a fall to grounding and dissolution. While sadden carries the flat-ah vowel sound of sad, balanced and static, sodden has the short-o sound of sod, fundamental, Source, beginning. Despite its association with water, it is a word of returning to earth.

When Alison got out of the shower, she was beaming. “I think everyone remembers a day,” she said, “maybe in high school or college, when you went to a water park, or to a rainy soccer game or something, and you get totally soaking wet, and you had a fantastic time… I feel like that now.”

“Yup,” I said. “Busch Gardens, with the German club. May of 1991. I’ll always remember it.” The springtime of life, the springtime of the year, and the sodden blessing of rain on the earth.

Wilderness Among Us

Alison and I have been spending a lot of time in Seattle’s parks this spring, and it got me thinking about the word park. It’s an old Proto-Germanic word, originally parruk, a type of enclosure for animals, such as a sheep pen. By the mid 13th century it was used more to refer to enclosures for animals that would be hunted; and in the 1660′s in London, these enclosures were most often areas that were kept semi-wild so that the nobility could easily hunt inside the city. The step from that meaning to “any preserved natural area” was a short one.

“Parking” vehicles comes from the early 19th-century usage of arranging military vehicles in a park. Spiritually park is an enclosed, firmly rooted Source energy, but one which holds much motion and power.

One of my pet peeves is an old joke that is supposed to illustrate how insane English is: “it’s the only language where you park on a driveway and drive on a parkway.” Ha ha! Oh, such wit. This chestnut even has its own facebook page (which I’m not going to favor with a link — you can find it yourself if you’re so inclined). Why does it peeve me? It’s just an innocent little quirk of the language, after all. And English is pretty crazy, am I right?

Sigh. See, I’m a linguist, and I study languages like ornithologists study birdsong. For me, a languages are beautiful, delicate structures built up organically over thousands and thousands of years. They aren’t just crazy random collections of rules and words; they evolved, and they do things for a reason. They contain some weird things, just as evolution does some weird things (like, why is the left half of the body controlled by the right side of the brain?), but there’s a reason.

We park on a driveway because a driveway is a way though a yard, or on a property, where we can drive. Sometimes we do park in it, too, but that’s just because we can never find time to clean out the garage. And we drive on a parkway because a parkway is a way for us to drive through a park, or at least a landscaped, green area. There are all sorts of lovely nuances in these words as well — the fact that the modifiers drive and park carve out the semantic space, distinguishing themselves by the function of the “way” and the location of the “way” respectively. You can also distinguish “ways” by speed (speedway, expressway), cost (freeway, tollway), size (broadway, alleyway), the type of vehicle or moving object (railway, motorway, bikeway, walkway, footway, headway), the distance (halfway, midway), what you do while traveling it (raceway, runway), the “surface” (waterway, airway, stairway, subway), direction or path (beltway, byway), the paving surface (causeway, from Latin via calciata, “paved way”), and how lovely it is (fairway). There are subtle rules for creating new compounds, too — if I tell you they’re installing a fishway on the dam, you probably wouldn’t bat an eyelash; but if I try and use a word like congressmanways to talk about the halls of Congress, you’d look at me like I’m nuts. You know, subconsciously, that “way” only works for regularly traveled paths, and it really likes to combine only with nouns of only one or maybe two syllables, accented on the first syllable for preference.

English isn’t crazy — it’s subtle and beautiful. You just have to be patient with it, respect it, and pay attention to it; then it will reveal its beauty.

Like birdsong. Like anything that’s wild.

Moon

The moon was full this morning in Virgo — an earth sign ruled by the messenger god Mercury. What better time to bring the moon to earth? And by coincidence (?), just as the Earth was placed directly between the sun and moon, the sun reached out with a massive solar flare.

Moon comes from Proto Indo European meses or menses, the word used for both moon and month; and this in turn was probably derived from the root me, meaning “measure”. Menses (which of course is also the ancestor of Latin menses, “months”, now used to refer to uterine discharge) descended into Proto Germanic as maenon and Old English as mona.

Spiritually the word moon indicates an orb of manifestation and making, particularly the creation of of flowing, fast, wholesome energy which grounds and returns to Source. You can see this echoed in the sorts of idioms surrounding the word: shoot the moon, moon-eyed, over the moon.

The origin of the popular rhyme “Hey Diddle Diddle” are completely unknown, though personally I’m inclined to the theory that it’s a mnemonic for remembering the some of the constellations.

There is an inn, a merry old inn
beneath an old grey hill,
And there they brew a beer so brown
That the Man in the Moon himself came down
One night to drink his fill…

–Tolkien

Sound

This afternoon, shortly before four o’clock, the sun, which had been low and sickly most of the day, began to seriously consider setting, her flames licking the clouds and igniting them all along the horizon above the Olympic mountains, and tracing the waves of Puget Sound with gold and scarlet, as I stood at the brink of the waters, blinking in the cold wind from the sea. The sound stretched out vast in front of me, confusing distances, so that the postcard-perfect snowy mountains looked both as far as the edge of the world and close enough to touch. Behind me was Seattle, with its rumbling buses and rushing cars and chattering humanity. With me here, at the line where sea, sky, and city met, was a seagull — at least, I think it was a seagull, though I’ve never seen a seagull that was so large, mottled gray, and ill-tempered. I considered trying to snap its picture, but it just scowled at me and flew off.

In English sound has four basic meanings, each of them historically unrelated to the others — an unusual situation. The “narrow channel of water” goes back to Germanic swem, “move, be in motion”, which is also the root of swim. The “fathom, probe” meaning is possibly related to swem as well, but can’t be traced back further than Old French sonde. The “noise” meaning has the most regal pedigree — it goes back through Latin sonus to Proto Indo European swonus, which is also the root of swan (“the sounding bird”) and sing. And the “healthy, unhurt” meaning comes from Proto Indo European swen-to, “strong, healthy”.

It’s my sense that the fact that all these meanings have merged into a single simple word — sound — shows an unconscious acknowledgement among English speakers of the underlying affinity between these concepts. Phonosemantically sound indicates energy that arises with great vigor but also with resonance, depth, and earthiness. You can feel the same energy in south and ground and round — volume, profundity, but also vibration and motion. For each of these concepts — the narrow waters, the far fathoms, the shaking air, the healthy body — sound calls to mind a mass, often in movement: a channel of ocean, an echo in the depths, a billow in the atmosphere, an unsullied solid.

And these thoughts bring me round again to where I’m standing. I am here because of a confluence of ripples set in motion quite suddenly this fall. So much was different a year ago — on a cold January day — when I stood with my fiancee on the opposite edge of the continent, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, our faces to the ocean’s wind, planning our wedding. I had a solid job with good prospects, our little home in Pittsburgh was established and orderly, my children (who visited on weekends) were doing well across town with their mother. Everything seemed reasonably sound and predictable. Then, two weeks before our wedding in September, there was an earthquake under my little life: my company was bought by a much larger one in Seattle. Like a hammer tapped against a weak spot in a support beam, or a shout in silence, or a boulder falling into a deep pool, those corporate executives brought a sharp shock to my life. Even as Alison and I launched our new lives as husband and wife, we were shifted, shunted, and everything began to settle into a new shape.

It’s still settling. Our orderly little home in Pittsburgh has been sorted, boxed, and readied for transport three thousand miles. Just today, I put down the deposit to reserve a new apartment — a newer, smaller place, cozier, with more light and less carpet, and strange west-coast trees in the yard. I hope they will be our friends. My new job is even more solid, with even better prospects, but will require more time in an office. The schedule of visitation with the kids — three months in the summer? Two months with extra weeks in the fall and winter? Something else entirely? — has become a source of contention, and I can only hope that it’s resolved quickly. The only thing that has remained rock-steady has been my wife, who has been beside me without a doubt or a flinch every step. When the ground shook under us, we leaned on each other. When the hardest shocks came, we were knocked to our knees, but we landed together, and rose again together.

We were married on the edge of land, sea, and sky, but also on a knife’s edge in our lives — between jobs, between homes, between cities, between landscapes. In September we knew that the edge was coming, but we couldn’t see beyond it. Today I stand on another shore, under another sky, with a new home and new work before me. Even this northern sun seems new. But it is good. And she still stands with me.

There is a sound — a song — when I hear it these days, I often cry.

Harbor

We’re here where the daylight begins
The fog on the streetlight slowly thins
Water on water’s the way
The safety of shoreline fading away

Sail your sea
Meet your storm
All I want is to be your harbor
The light in me
Will guide you home
All I want is to be your harbor

Fear is the brightest of signs
The shape of the boundary you leave behind
So sing all your questions to sleep
The answers are out there in the drowning deep

You’ve got a journey to make
There’s your horizon to chase
So go far beyond where we stand
No matter the distance
I’m holding your hand

Vienna Teng

Oddments

  • It’s been almost four months since I’ve posted here; the new marriage, new job, new home, and new child custody situation have put this blog on the back burner. But finally things are settling into their new shape, and I can breathe a bit. My posting will still be very sporadic over the next couple of weeks, but I hope to have everything on an even keel by early February.
  • In the meantime, I’ve collected some past writings and put them on a new blog, Skein of Words. I want to use it for bits and snatches of fiction I’m working on. I tend to have a number of projects going at once, many of them interconnected and interrelated, and it’s only every once in a while that once of them is knocked into a shape finished enough to be ‘published’ (though, these days, the very definition of ‘finished’ and ‘public’ are changing month to month!). I have been trying to discipline myself to work very hard on just one project until it is finished, but I visited a psychic during my honeymoon who suggested I take a more relaxed, playful attitude. So I made this blog where I can simply work on whatever I want to work on, and whenever one of my projects is ‘ready’, I’ll put it on Amazon and ‘publish’ it. Good times! Check it out!
  • If you follow me on facebook (either my personal account or my Druid Journal page), you might have noticed that I haven’t posted anything in months. I’ve gotten pretty fed up with facebook, and plan on confining myself to Twitter (@druidjournal) and G+ from now on. Look me up there!
  • “In Seattle you haven’t had enough coffee until you can thread a sewing machine while it’s running.” ~Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon
  • There is a famous, oft-quoted speech attributed to Chief Seattle in 1854, at the time when his people agreed to move to a reservation. It is eloquent and moving, but it was made up in the mid 70′s by a screenwriter. Nevertheless a version exists which probably actually reflects what Seattle really said, and is definitely worth reading: “When the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone… At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land.” – Chief Seattle (probably)

Storm and Throng

Last night a whopper of a storm raged through Pittsburgh, with thunder in hordes and lightning thronging. For hours it bellowed and shouted, grumbled and threatened, like an old man sitting on the porch, banging his stick and raging against the government. Finally it huffed off, leaving only a gentle rain to greet the dawn. Now it’s all past, and the day is fresh, green, and breezy.

Storm is from Proto Germanic sturmaz, and belongs to that class of uniquely German words that are unrelated to any other branch of the Indo-European language family. It became sturm in German, familiar to most people in the expression Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress” or “Storm and Yearning”), and storm in Old English. Spiritually the word encapsulates the lightning (“st” = the bright energy in motion), the thunder (“or” = the grounding, the power) and the new life that a storm invariably spawns (“m” = manifestation). It’s an awesome word; no wonder it was borrowed into Old French (estour) and Italian (stormo).

Speaking of Drang, it is probably from Proto Indo European trenk (“beat, press”), and came into Proto Germanic as thrangan. At this time it had connotations of pressure and pushing, as well as crowdedness and tumult. In German the ‘crowding’ meaning was lost, leaving the pressure, urging, yearning. In English, however, the ‘pressure’ meaning was lost, leaving the idea of a crowd: Old English gethrang, modern English throng. Spiritually, Drang is a door opening with forceful authority, reverberating, generating power. Throng has the same sense of power and reverberation, but instead of a door, it is a perilous path.

“Life does not consist mainly, or even largely, of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thought that is forever flowing through one’s head.” – Twain

Oddments

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated the blog, because (drum roll please!) I finally finished a huge set of revisions to Mere America: First Nations, my novella of an alternate-history America which explores the effect of geography and the land on the history of America. I noted yesterday on Google+ that American civil religion is founded in part on the idea of the land being granted to us, with a special place in God’s plan, on analogy with Israel; and I wanted to go deeply into the question of what parts of America’s character derived from us as a people, and what parts were dependent on accidents of geography. In this edition there is a whole new prologue and extensive revisions to the section on the Vikings landing in British Columbia, thanks to excellent feedback from Kara-Leah. If you’ve already bought a copy, you should get a message from Amazon about updating to the new version. If you haven’t already bought a copy — feel free to click here at your earliest convenience. :-)

Mere America

Snake, Serpent, Drake, Dragon

Ali and I almost jogged right over a great black snake in the park this morning. Alison said:

Black snake stretched, unwound across the path. We stopped to watch in the steam and sun-slant of morning as it melted back into the brush.

It was about three or four feet long, and a few inches thick. To me it looked like water: a jet-black trickle of liquid, flowing across the path, almost painfully slow. It brought to mind the discussion we had on our recent prodcast about Harry Potter, Nagini, and the Midgard Serpent.

What is it about snakes?… There is a passage I always think of, from Kipling’s Kim, in which a Tibetan lama and his disciple, Kim (the English boy raised by native Indians) stumble upon a cobra as they are seeking a mystic river.

“Look! Look!” Kim sprang to [the lama's side] and dragged him back. A yellow and brown streak glided from the purple rustling stems to the bank, stretched its neck to the water, drank, and lay still — a big cobra with fixed, lidless eyes.

“I have no stick — I have no stick,” said Kim. “I will get me one and break his back.”

“Why? He is upon the Wheel as we are — a life ascending or descending — very far from deliverance. Great evil must the soul have done that is cast into this shape.”

“I hate all snakes,” said Kim. No native training can quench the white man’s horror of the Serpent.

“Let him live out his life.” The coiled thing hissed and half opened its hood. “May thy release come soon, brother,” the lama continued placidly. “Hast thou knowledge, by chance, of my River?”

“Never have I seen such a man as thou art,” Kim whispered, overwhelmed. “Do the very snakes understand thy talk?”

“Who knows?” He passed within a foot of the cobra’s poised head. It flattened itself among the dusty coils.

“Come thou!” he called over his shoulder.

“Not I,” said Kim. “I go round.”

Snake

Snake comes from Proto Indo European sneg or snag, meaning ‘crawl’ and ‘creep’. This became snakon in Proto Germanic, snaca in Old English, and snake in Middle English. For a long time people preferred to use the word serpent, borrowed from French; but eventually the native English word pretty much won out.

Snake is a word that carries intimations of increase and fertility, as well as grounding and dispersal of energy, rising power, and containment — all of which well fits a creature so close to the ground, but with the power to strike through the air suddenly.

Serpent

Serpent is from Proto Indo European serp, which meant ‘creep’ (just as sneg/snag did). Serp became the Latin verb serpere, ‘to creep’, and a thing that crept was a serpent. The word was borrowed into Middle English and almost replaced the native snake.

Spiritually serpent has the same sense of increase and fertility, but has more connotations of power directed at a point.

Drake, Dragon

These words come from Latin draco, ‘dragon’; drake was borrowed directly, and dragon came through French. The Latin word came from the Greek drakon, from Proto Indo European derk ‘to see’ (since Greek dragons had the Evil Eye).

Drake, like serpent, is a word of directed motion, but more associated with decision; and like snake, has connotations of rising power and containment. Dragon has a more luxurious energy — decisive motion, but towards grounding, gathering, Source.

Musings on Wild and Goose

Ali and I just got back from the Wild Goose festival, a gathering of “emergent” Christians — those who, broadly speaking, are seeking a way to reconcile Biblical authority and church teachings with issues of justice, technological and social change, and the place of Christianity as one religion among many. It was fascinating to spend time among so many Christians — none of whom proselytized at us, lectured us, or pitied our poor damned souls, but were welcoming, open-minded, and, in many cases, brilliant and inspiring.

All of which I’ll write a lot more about later. For now I want to share a quick story that moved me, and think a bit about the words wild and goose.

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Sun, Summer, Summit

This trio of words — inspired by the Summer Solstice — are completely unrelated historically, but their phonosemantics are remarkably similar.

Sun

Sun derives from Proto Indo European swen or suwen, a slightly modified version of the base form saewel, which meant both “sun” and “to shine”. Old English sunne was a feminine noun, and originally all references to the sun assumed that it was female (as in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth — and you may be sure that this was something Tolkien was quite aware of). The sun only became male in English in the 1500’s, long after the noun itself no longer had gender. Phonosemantically sun indicates powerful directed energy (”s”), narrowing toward a goal (”n”), but nevertheless suffused with relaxed, thoughtful qualities (short “u”). Perhaps this reflects the paradoxical power of the sun to both bake you in its heat and lull you to sleep on a golden afternoon.

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The Sea and the Soul

The Proto Indo Europeans of the steppe near the Black Sea had no word for “ocean”. They had mori or mari, meaning “lake” or “sea,” but this most likely referred to the sparkling quality of its surface (cf PIE mer, “clear, sparkle”) and did not carry connotations of vast continent-wrapping waters. When the Indo Europeans started moving and trading around Eurasia, riding their horses and carts and spreading their culture wherever they went, they often found they needed a word for “ocean.” Usually they simply borrowed the word of whoever happened to be living nearby.

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Moss, Mire

This week we’re in Charleston, South Carolina, visiting the Angel Oak. It’s considerably sunnier and wetter here than it is back in Pittsburgh: the earth is sandier, the blue skies paler, and the waters warmer. In the morning we went out jogging past the stately homes, the gardens lush with semitropical bushes, huge magnolias, and towering pines. In many places the yards showed the ongoing struggle of the suburbanite to grow grass everywhere, everywhere in America, even in places that would much rather be, say, a sandy beach, or a peat bog. As we ran, we ducked under the hanging Spanish moss, one of my favorite plants of the deep South.

Spanish moss is not moss at all, really, but a kind of bromeliad, related to the pineapple, and native only to the Americas. Like many bromeliads, it grows in the air, attached to other plants (or poles or telephone wires), and thrives in areas of high humidity. The island of Barbados (from Portuguese “bearded”) was named after the Spanish moss growing there.

The Proto Indo European root meu meant both “moist” and “marsh”; it is the ancestor of Latin mucus (eww) and Proto Germanic musan, meaning “marsh,” “bog,” “mire,” and a plant that often grows there: “moss.” Musan became meos in Old English and moss in modern English. Meanwhile, musan became myrr in Old Norse, which was borrowed into English as mire. These words both carry the spiritual notion if manifestation, creation, in recognition of the tremendous life-fostering power of those areas where land and water mix in equal parts. Moss also has earthiness and growth, increase; while mire has strong motion, power, movement, and suggests an almost malevolent agency of entrapment.

Oddments

  • We procrastinate all our lives. Perhaps we know deep down we are immortal, and that eventually all men will do and know all things. – Borges
  • When the oak is felled the whole forest echoes with its fall, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze. -Carlyle

Rain, Wind

It’s been a cold, rainy spring here in southwestern Pennsylvania, and though there are lilies blooming in the garden and birds clamoring in the yard, I’m nevertheless wrapped under two blankets, the windows are shut tight and the rain and wind are beating at the glass.

3 AM – I am awake to the downpour, dark rains swelling the land, my bones themselves seeming waterlogged until they are spongy and wrinkled.

4:11 AM – The first bird opens his throat to swallow the dark in rising song slipping in between the rain. The land awakening, dawn remade. – Ali

Rain

Rain is probably from Proto Indo European reg, meaning “moist, wet”, related to Latin rigare (whence we get irrigate). In Proto Germanic reg became regna, and in Old English, regn, contracted to rain in Middle English. Spiritually the word indicates motion through initiation towards groundedness and release; it echoes the sentiments of many who feel that a shower is a baptism of the earth.

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Temperance, Terror, Torch, Torture

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Temperance

Ultimately, temperance comes from Latin tempus, “time”. No one knows where Latin picked up tempus – most likely from some nearby language, such as Etruscan. In any case, it’s also the root of words such as temple, temporary, tempo, extemporize, and tempest. From tempus came the Latin verb temperare, “to mix properly, moderate, blend”, in the sense of cooking or preparing something to the proper time. This was the source of temper (Old English temprian), and also of the Latin noun temperantia, “moderation”. Temperantia was borrowed into Anglo-French (i.e. the French spoken by the upper-classes in England after William the Conqueror) as temperaunce, which became temperance by the mid-1300’s.

The very oldest versions of the Temperance Tarot card show a figure mixing water into wine, thereby showing temperantia, moderation.

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