Thursday, November 29, 2012

Heading into December

     The Christian faith is such a curious blend of things taken from Judaism, original thought and borrowings from 'heathen' faiths. In the end, what is accepted or acceptable is not so much divinely ordained but is decided by those who come out alive from the brawl.
      Christmas is one of those celebrations that arose because heathen celebrations were fun and it was difficult to persuade people to abandon them as well as the church needed a date to celebrate the Son's birth as a human. His earthly name was Jesus, a Latinization of the Greekifying of a Hebrew name Joshua/Yesua. He is called 'Christ' from the Greek word 'Khristos' or 'the annointed one' which is a translation of the Hebrew Masiah or Messiah. The gospels were originally written in Greek, which seems odd to me. I am sure there is a reason why Greek was still such a common language in areas where the Romans had clearly taken over.
       The 'mas' in Christmas is from the Old English 'mæse', meaning a celebration or a feast. The Oxford Dictionary states that it came from the Latin verb 'mitto, mittere' perhaps from some concluding words like 'Ite, missa est' or "Go, he/she has been dismissed." So it is the feast of the anointed one but I think that we are all special in our own way and therefore every day is Christmas.
      Another Christmas related word that interests me is 'mistletoe'. As a plant, it was sacred to the Celts.  The Druids did not write their secret knowledge down, it is Pliny who discusses it in his Natural History. The word 'mistletoe' itself comes from the Old English 'misteltan' or Old Norse 'mistiltienn'.  'Mistel' for the name of the plant which seems to have been equated with basil in Alfred's translation of Gregory's 'Pastoral Care'. 'Tan' is for twig or branch, or even diving rod. The Romans called it 'vascum' which is its genus name today. It was obviously important to winter solstice celebrations in the north and therefore it had to be incorporated into the Christian feast but it appears that its use for a 'kissing ball' may be a later development. One is supposed to remove a berry each time someone is kissed under the mistletoe and, when all the berries are gone, the kissing must stop. Then the mistletoe must be burned on the Twelfth Night (the night before the Epiphany) in case the kissers had no intent to marry.
     Pliny stated that mistletoe found on the oak tree was especially valued. So, if it is associated with oak trees and especially trees that had been hit by lightening, it is associated with Thor, who as the protector of mankind, then protected houses that contained mistletoe from being struck by lightening. This is not its only reference in Norse myth.  Mistletoe was the wood of the arrow that killed the god, Baldr, who eventually is resurrected but only after the Norse apocalypse - Ragnorok.
     The name for December comes from the latin month December, which according to the Oxford Latin Dictionary, is derived from 'decemo-membris'. Decem is the word for ten and membris can mean 'a section or division'. It was the tenth month in the Roman calendar until the Romans decided to honour Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar as gods by adding two new months, which they named for these new deities. As we move into the month and edge closer to the big day, I will probably add a few more Christmasy words and their origins.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Cat Got Your Tongue?

      Idioms are fascinating things. They are particularly challenging for people who are learning any new language and it seems like English has more than its fair share of them. One idiom that I use often is 'giving someone the hairy eyeball'. Did I ever hear that somewhere or make it up myself? I don't know but I did have someone ask me to explain it. Think of the face you make when you get a hair in your eye and combine that with some shocking or unpleasant news and there you have a hairy eyeball.
     I spent a few hours Thursday night trying to track down why we say 'cat got your tongue?' when someone is too silent. There is nothing in Brewer's Guide to Phrase and Fable on it. Unfortunately, as with many vernacular idioms, it was not written down until late, not until the mid 19th century, although there were several suggestions as to why a cat would want your tongue. The Oxford English Dictionary guesses that it may have something to do with cats being considered witches' familiars and having the sense that the cat has bewitched you into silence but I do not like this explanation.
    There is also a story on the net, told and retold, that in the Middle East, a liar's tongue was cut off and fed to the Caliph's cats. I was unable to find a the source for this assertion, whether it was reported by some medieval western chronicler or an Arab writer, so I am sceptical although it is a marvelous story.
     There is a nearly identical French version of this idiom "donner sa langue au chat" meaning one is giving one's tongue to the cat but it is used in a different sense. According to the Larousse dictionary, it means to give up (guessing). I found a French blogger who also wrote about other expressions that involve cats. One is "J'ai mangé la langue du chat"(I ate the cat's tongue) which means "I cannot keep a secret" and "mettre quelque chose dans l'oreille du chat"(put something in the ear of the cat) which means "to forget something".  I thought perhaps this means there was an early French origin for this expression but it does not appear in Thomas Heywood's books of English proverbs and sayings from the 16th century.
     If the expression is derived from the relationship of cats and Satan, then this is a late pairing, from the witch hunts of the late 15th and 16th centuries. Cats were not always seen as agents of evil, especially as many people, monks included kept cats as mousers. The cat was a symbol of liberty in Roman times since it appears on the statues of Libertas, the goddess of Freedom.
    The connection between cat and witch may have come from the custom of throwing a cat on the hilltop fires of the summer solstice, which came to be called the feast of St. John the Baptist when the church, unable to change pagan customs, incorporated them into Christian customs. One has to wonder what the cat has to do with the solstice. Cats draw Freyja's chariot, which reinforces the cat and witch connection since Freyja practices seidr, a type of magic performed by women. Though it seems to me that most of the important feasts or sacrifices to the Aesir take place in the winter not in the summer.  Isis and Batt are also connected to witchcraft and cats.
     Clearly there is something older going on with cats and language and the solstice. The domestic cat is not native to Northern Europe, it appears to have been introduced by the Romans who got them from the Egyptians. I don't like the theory that it comes from cats and witches but I have no alternative theory to propose.  

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Bit of Irony

      For Remembrance Day or Veteran's Day or Armistice Day (whatever you call it), most people around here have a public reading of John McRae's 'In Flander's Fields'. It is a moving poem and the good doctor was a Canadian who gave his life in service to his country. The poem, that as often comes to my mind, is called 'Dulce et Decorum Est' by Wilfred Owen, a British volunteer, who also died, killed in action seven days before the war came to an end.
     I mention this because his poem speaks against war and he was not someone who stayed home and wrote his anti-war poems from the safety of his living room far from the front. He wrote his poem describing the horror of the gas attack, having seen it up close, and finished with,

"If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--- My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori."

He quoted a line from Horace, which means "how sweet and fitting it is to die for one's 
country". It was taken from a poem in Horace's book 3 of Carmina, poem #2 'Angustam Amice', the entire stanza is here,

"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo."

"It is sweet and fitting to die for the fatherland.
Death pursues even the fleeing man and spares
not the unwarlike of young men or the hamstrings of the timid."

How would Horace know? Somehow he managed to survive the Battle of Philipi, 
fighting on the losing Republican side, even though he fled the battle without his shield. I guess the lie started with Horace. Augustus forgave him and then he spent the rest of his 
life writing poems for the glory of Augustus and his war machine.

It is difficult to provide a translation of the title because 'angustam' is an adjective and 
'amice' is an adverb and they just do not go together. Word order in classical Latin is fluid and it is more important to Roman poetry to adhere to the meter than to keep adjectives 
with the nouns they describe and adverbs with the verbs. The title of the poem would 
always be the first few words of the poem, hence The Aeneid was never called that by the Romans, it was "arma et virumque cano". "I sing of arms and a man."

The first stanza is then,

"Angustam amice pauperiem pati
robustus acri militia puer
condiscat et Parthos ferocis
vexet eques metuendus hasta."

ignoring meter and putting it together as a modern sentence, it should go like this:

" Robustus puer condiscat pati amice angustam pauperiem acri militia et hasta/eques 
vexet Parthos ferocis metuendus."

"Let the healthy boy learn to endure patriotically narrow poverty with military discipline 
just as the mounted spearman harasses the Parthinians with the ferocity of fear."

Sounds like fun. Sign me up for that.
The Latin version of Horace's poem was taken from The Latin Library website.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Deeds of the Romans, Story #130

    Of course this story may have another number in another collection but I feel like translating one of the shorter stories that probably does not get much attention on the world wide web.

      Refert Valerius, quod Fabius praefectus redemerat captivos Romanorum promissa pecunia. Quam cum senatus dare nollet, ipse fundum unicum habens vendidit et pretium promissum solvit volens se portius patrimonio privare quam propria fide inopem esse.

     "Valerius relates how Fabius, Prefect (or Governor), had paid the ransom for Roman captives with the agreed on money. How, when the senate was unwilling to pay, he himself having one piece of property, sold and paid the promised price, more willing to deprive himself of his inheritance than to be poor in personal faith."

Presumably this story is told about  Fabius Maximus(ca. 280-203 B.C.), who paid the ransom for captives taken by Hannibal. Virgil names him as one of the greatest of the Fabii in the Aeneid, whom Anchises mentions in the trip to the underworld. He practiced a 'scorched earth' strategy against Hannibal which did not endear him to the Romans but after more conventional methods of warfare failed and a number of Senators were killed at Cannae, they called him back and he was named "The Shield of Rome".

Valerius is presumably Valerius Maximus, a Latin writer from the reign of Tiberius. The story itself may have come from Livy but it is also reported in Plutarch's biography of Fabius, chapter 7.