Every Word Tells a Story 12 - Levitate, Laconic and Lucifer
Just for the 'L' of it...
It has been a while since our last stop at K and its curious contributions. It is only logical that we arrive at our next stop, L.
The 12th letter of our alphabet L, come to us via the Egyptian hieroglyphic that represents a shepherd's staff or a cattle prod. Nice.
The Phoenician 'Lameth' and the Greek 'Lambda' are also the precursors of our 'L'
The 'L' sound can be different depending on whether it occurs before a vowel as in 'lap' ' long' 'lip' and 'please', or before a consonant as in 'tilt' 'milk' and 'belt'.
L can also be a silent presence as in 'palm', 'psalm', 'balm' and calm.
It can make its ghostly presence felt by slightly modifying the vowel sound as in 'walk' and 'talk', 'could' and 'would'.
Like those who came before, L can stand its own when it comes to contributing to our etymological entertainments.
So put your feet up and lounge on your luxurious couch while we learn to like the 'L' words.
The Journey begins
In this trip we will ponder the curiosities of Levitation, marvel at the Madagascar dwelling Lemurs, visit Laconia province in Greece and then to nearby Crete to see the Labyrinth created by master builder Daedalus. After considering the Lotus -Eaters we may ultimately contemplate the fate of Lucifer himself.
The Levitation TrickClick thumbnail to view full-size
Who amongst us have not been fascinated by those levitating Sadhus of India. A trick much mimicked by the conjuring tricksters Copperfield, Blaine et al. The thought of rising above the ground, not to be entrapped by gravity and float free from the terrestrial confines is an enchanting idea. Yet we know that gravity is a tough master. We know that most of what we see as human levitation is achieved through trickery and sleight of hand.
Like most magic tricks, once we know the inner machinations, we will know it is a simple case of mechanics.
Have you noticed that in most levitation tricks the participant wears a certain kind of clothing? Whether a saffron clad Yogi or a damsel in a Las Vegas auditorium, they are always fully clothed, covered from neck to toe in flowing robes. The trick, dear reader is hidden beneath those folds of fabric.
Levitation is achieved by a device that allows the trickster to anchor to the ground via a metal staff while concealing a platform they could sit or lie in. In some cases it is a flexible metal harness that holds them aloft.
The word Levitation comes from the latin 'Levitas' meaning 'lightness', 'to rise' or 'to lift'. The root 'Lev' also has a similar meaning in diminutive form and crops up in many other words you may not have associated with levitation.
Words with 'Lev' root
To lift suffering
A device used to lift
To move to a higher place
Using yeast to make dough rise
Lack of seriosness, light, floating
To rise above anxiety, to lift, take away
A ridge, embankment - raised to prevent river from overflowing
The head of the household would utter these words nine times as he walked around the house at midnight throwing black beans over his shoulder:
"haec ego mitto; his redimo meque meosque fabis"
(I send these; with these beans I redeem me and mine.)
The rest of the household would then clash bronze pots while repeating nine times:
"Larvae et patrum maiorumque recedemus"
(Ghosts of my fathers and ancestors, be gone!)
Did you know that the lemurs of Madagascar get their name from a Roman festival of exorcising bad spirits? Well you do now.
Carl Linnaeus, who founded the biological naming system, used the name Lemurs to describe three species : Lemur Tardigarda ( Red slender Loris) , Lemur Catta ( Ring Tailed Lemur) and Lemur Volans (Phillipine colugo) way back in 1758. In those days the benefits of a classical education is to casually allude to Greek and Roman mythology in your scientific pursuits.
Linnaeus was fascinated by the nocturnal wraith like lemurs with their shiny eyes and slow, floaty gait. He thought they were 'ghost' like.
The word Lemures comes from the Roman festival of Lemuralia or Lemuria. During this festival, the Patriarch would walk around his house barefoot at night, holding a lamp and throwing black beans over the shoulder to appease and lure away bad spirits from his household. The origin of this myth comes from Ovid. He claims that Lemuria was originally Remuria, a feast instituted by Romulus to appease the spirit of his murdered brother Remus ( the twins reared by wolves, who were the founders of Rome).
The three days of the feast were May 9, 11 and 13th. The superstitious Romans felt this festival made May a bad month for weddings.
They went as far as to say "Mense Maio malae nubent" ( They wed ill, who wed in May).
When Christianity came calling, the Vatican felt the need to de-paganize many of these superstitions. Pope Boniface IV chose the last day of Lemuralia ( 13th of May) to consecrate the Pantheon at Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs. Thus began the feast of All Saints Day which was originally celebrated in Roman times on the 13th of May and then moved to the 1st of November subsequently.
Gimme a clue
The skein of thread Ariadne gives Theseus is called a 'clew' or a 'clue'. The modern meaning of solving a puzzle by being given a clue comes from this Greek myth of the labyrinth.
The Cretan Minotaur was trapped inside a maze commissioned by King Minos and purpose built by the ace architect Daedalus. Rumour has it that the Minotaur was borne by King Minos's wife after having intimate relations with a bull. Don't know what the Cretans were drinking when they came up with these tales. Apparently even Daedalus found it difficult to escape his own maze due to his cunning construction.
When the Greek hero Theseus came calling, the King bid him to kill the half-man half -bull terror. The King's daughter, Princess Ariadne, fell in love with the hunk that was Theseus. Knowing very well that Theseus would end up getting trapped in the maze even if he manages to kill the Minotaur, Ariadne gave him an unbreakable skein of thread to help him find his way back. Theseus triumphed.
The word Labyrinth comes from ancient Greek 'labrys' or a 'double edged axe'. The palace of King Minos at Knossos in Crete was given the name 'Labyrinth' as the axe was a royal symbol.
Although we tend to use 'labyrinth' and 'maze' synonymously, strictly speaking a labyrinth is a single path that coils round and round towards the centre - one could follow the path to the centre without getting lost. It is the the maze that is a complex puzzle with many branching blind alleys. But why quibble.
Odysseus and the Lotus- Eaters
In the Homeric poem Odyssey, the hero Odysseus describes how he and his crew are adrift due to adverse winds and end up in the land of lotus - eaters ( lotophagi) :
"I was driven thence by foul winds for a space of 9 days upon the sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take in fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near the ships. When they had eaten and drunk I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars."
The beautiful Lotus flower is an aquatic species that grows in Tropical Asia and in parts of Australia. It is a flower with several religious and mythological symbolism. It is also the national flower of India and Vietnam.
The Lotus flower belongs to the species Nelumbonaceae. The scientific name for the Sacred Indian Lotus is Nelumbo nucifera.
Perhaps it is the special characteristics of this species that lends to its religious connotations:
The lotus takes root in the soil at the bottom of a pond or a lake. The thick stem rises through the water and the flower and its leaves float on the surface. The stem on average can be 1.5 m long although some as long a 5 metres have been reported. The breathtaking beauty of the flower is in its wide lavish petals and the large leaves that surround the flower sometimes spanning 3 metres across.
The Lotus flower is rooted in Hindu mythology and is a flower of great symbolic beauty - signifying virtue, purity and beauty. Many ancient verses comment on the fact how such beauty can arise from the muddy and marshy environment. Metaphorically it suggests that virtue and beauty can rise from the humblest of surroundings.
Many Hindu Gods and Goddesses are depicted seated in a lotus flower.
The name lotus may come from the Greek origins. The Greeks used the name lotus or lotos to signify several aquatic plants - water lilies, blue lotuses etc.
When Homer describes the land of lotus eaters, it is likely that the plant he describes is one of the species whose fruits and stems have soporific properties and serve as some kind of narcotic. The water lily Nymphea caerulea has psychotropic properties when ingested. There is a lot of speculation as to the location of the land of lotus -eaters. Some say it is likely to be off the North African coast - Heredotus speculated it could be coastal Libya.
The term lotus- eaters has now entered our language as a phrase meaning those who lead a casual, soporific existence with not a care in the world.
Laconic Spartan retorts
- Philip II of Macedon invaded several of the Greek city states pending Sparta - he then sent a typically loquacious message to Sparta: "You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city." The Spartans replied with one word: "If " (αἴκα). Subsequently neither Philip nor his son Alexander attempted to capture the city.
- Seeking asylum, some Samians reached Sparta, where they were given audience of the magistrates in order to seek aid. They made a long speech, imploring the Spartans to give them food and support. After listening to their verbose and imploring narrative, Spartans told the Samians that they had forgotten the first half of their speech, and could make nothing out of the second half and sent them away. The Samians were given a second chance, and having learnt their lessons, they simply said, showing a bag which they had brought with them, 'The bag wants flour.' The Spartans told them they did not need to have said 'the bag'; however, they could have their flour.
Ever wondered where the word laconic comes from?
It is from a province of ancient ( and modern Greece) called Laconia where the city of Sparta was situated. The fierce Spartans were well known for their brevity. They were people of few words but more action - so well known were they for their curt answers and one word put downs, the Greeks called anyone who spoke in such a manner as Laconic.
Spartans focused less on flowery, pompous speeches the rest of the Greeks were known for. The Spartans considered such loquacity a waste of time and energy. Theirs were dry wit and blunt put -downs.
The Spartan teachers frowned upon loquacious answers and often punished their students ( biting their thumbs off, ouch!) if they lapsed into verbosity. Some of our politicians could do with a Spartan education.
The word Spartan also has come to mean meagre or minimalistic approach to life as in ' Spartan clothing' or a 'Spartan meal' .
Perhaps I need some Spartan training in hub creation!
Some believe that the Spartan laconic approach stems from less emphasis on literature and education and more on martial training and warmongering. However, Socrates himself says that the Spartans may pretend to be blockheads, but like expert marksmen, could throw a verbal retort with disconcerting accuracy and understanding.
He believed that the Spartans were highly intelligent and their laconic attributes come from their belief in conveying maximum meaning with minimum verbiage.
It is no wonder when the Spartan mother sent her son away to battle she handed him his shield with the utterance ' Συν ται η επι ται! Syn tai e epi tai! ' meaning 'return with it, or on it'. This meant he could either return victoriously with his shield held high, or as a dead body carried on his shield. Failure was not an option. He certainly wasn't welcome back if he fleed from battle by throwing his shied away!
Love you too, mum.
"How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, 'I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.' But you are brought down to the realm of the dead, to the depths of the pit. Those who see you stare at you, they ponder your fate: 'Is this the man who shook the earth and made kingdoms tremble, the man who made the world a wilderness, who overthrew its cities and would not let his captives go home?"
The word Lucifer literally means ' Light - bringer' , ' Morning star' or ' shining one'. It is a translation of the word 'Heylel' or 'Helel' mentioned only once in the Hebrew Bible. ( Isaiah 14:12)
In its original version Prophet Isaiah uses the phrase 'hêlêl ben šāḥar' ( Lucifer, son of morning) to describe a dead King of Babylon in a taunt against pompousness and pride. It was not indicative of a fallen angel or Satan.
In later years Christian writers gave a larger role to Satan and used Isaiah's taunt to signify the fall of Angel Lucifer whose sin was pride and jealousy against God.
The myth of Lucifer has ancient origins in Babylonian and Eastern mythology. It may allude to the morning star Venus who shines bright during dawn but is then faded out by the Sun. There are creation myths surrounding the God Attar who is the morning star who attempts to dethrone Ba'al and then descends to rule the underworld.
In early Christian tradition, the word Lucifer did not mean the fallen angel. The early Latin versions of Bible mention Lucifer in other places where it has several other meanings:
Peter 1:19 Et habemus firmiorem propheticum sermonem: cui benefacitis attendentes quasi lucernæ lucenti in caliginoso donec dies elucescat, et lucifer oriatur in cordibus vestris: ( So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.)
Job 11:17 et quasi meridianus fulgor consurget tibi ad vesperam et ccum te consumptum putaveris orieris ut lucifer (Life will be brighter than noonday, and darkness will become like the light of the morning)
In a strange twist, the Latin Vulgate also uses the term stella matutina ( literally morning-star) to describe Jesus as in:
Revelation 22:16 ego Iesus misi angelum meum testificari vobis haec in ecclesiis ego sum radix et genus David stella splendida et matutina ( I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star)
I had originally intended to finish this chapter with Lucifer. Call me a sentimental fool, I did not want to end with a fallen angel, however bright he may have shone, but with a word of Love!
The word Love comes from Old English lufu meaning affection which has roots from Proto Indo European leubh meaning ' to care, desire or love'.
The lack of universal definition for love has also meant that it can be used to indicate so many emotions and affections. What would the world do without the word Love. More specifically what would song-writers do?
The Greeks attempted to define several types of Love although in many texts the meanings may overlap:
Love is a many splendoured thing...
Type of Love
Agape (ἀγάπη agápē)
Love of the soul, as opposed to eros which is physical love. This is the word used in modern Greek to say 'I love you' -'s'agapo'
Eros (ἔρως érōs)
passionate, sensual love and physical desire, longing.
Philia (φιλία philía)
Dispassionate, virtual or platonic love - to family, to work - a love of practical reasons and mutual benefit.
Storge (στοργή storgē)
A natural, intrinsic love like that felt by a parent towards their offspring
Xenia (ξενία xenía)
the love of the host to his or her guest, something which was important to the ancient Greek. A ritualistic bond that developed between the host and his guest often reciprocated.
How about a visit to Anatomical Etymology
Thank you for your time and hope you enjoyed this hub. I know it is long, but I am sure once in a while you prefer a leisurely 6 course meal to a fast food snack! If you enjoyed this and like me love etymological narratives do visit the other parts of this series.
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Appreciate your visit, dear reader.
Copyright © Mohan Kumar 2014
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