The thin, delicate hands she held out to collect the rain had started to leak under the weight of the puddle she had amassed in them. She let out a happy sigh. The sensation of water against her skin was the only thing that made her feel as if she existed, and whenever the heavens opened and poured out its contents, there was no greater feeling. There was a time when she could enjoy herself bathing in the lakes of the woods, but those had long since vanished, paved over by settlements of cement and steel.
None could spy her form. None knew even her name. And in the mind, without a name, there can be no existence. Beings like her were permitted to exist only where no man can prove. Mystery was the only lake in which she lived now. She was like a dot of light in the eye, disappearing as soon as one focuses on it, a passing moment lost in a blink. The animals did not seek to comprehend, and they did not try to make sense of her, but the humans always did. They had invented stories of her, conflating legends into her, shaping her into something she was not until she herself could not recognize herself anymore.
In the earliest ages she was but a singular spirit of a lake, a manifestation of the lake itself, communicable and visible, elevated in time to deity. A manifestation not of one lake, but of all water. The storms and seas, too, were her domain, but her sisters of the lakes disappeared. The many spirits inhabiting the forests left without resistance. The animals once filled with vivacity and chatter became dulled and silent. She asked the birds of the air and the fish of the lake why they no longer responded to her, but as she feared, it was a futile question asked without merit.
But mankind continued to worship her, sacrificed to her, experimenting with the mechanisms and rituals by which to earn her favor, and she obliged in kind, becoming desperately lonely, but as man moved and interacted with the ages, others appeared. Unfamiliar spirits hailing from far away, garbed in armors or robes of foreign tribes. They, too, had been mere spirits confined in place to one location, but now they could travel with the people, and these interactions assuaged her loneliness.
A pantheon arose from the collisions of these tribes. It had become difficult to tell whether she was absorbing or being absorbed into these unknown goddesses, but it hardly began to matter. Her memory grew foggy at this point, lost in the countless legends and mythologies that arose as her influence spread and became disjointed. What was true and what was false did not matter. All that mattered was the mystery. The space between reality and fantasy was mystery, and these humans captured her within this gap like a fish clasped between two hands. It was the only place she could exist anymore as their observations covered every dark inch of the world. Even as cults of supremacy grew declaring themselves a tier of spirit above herself, she hardly cared. Promoted or demoted into deity or demon hardly mattered either. The slow death of mystery is what concerned her most.
Their eyes scoured her. Each mind that wondered for a moment whether she could be explained pricked her like a thorn. And yet they built statues to her… temples to her… her name changed again and again as her existence became a fractal… a kaleidoscope of countless reflections. Goddess of the seas… goddess of rain… goddess of love… mother goddess of monsters… Goddess only over the things they did not understand the movements of — the unpredictable. As soon as they did, it was “natural.”
Yet somehow… they had divorced her from nature. This cataclysm is what drove her into a horrifying despair, and her domain shrinked all the more as their understanding deepened. She could see the others like herself, once spirits of earth and heaven, now the personifications therein of all Earth and all Heaven, slowly losing ground as mystery faded. All save for one.
In time, those who worshiped her stopped for all manners of reasons, whether it was conversion or death. Her name disappeared from the minds and lips of men. She was the patchwork goddess, sewn together from so many different, almost contradictory concepts that she could scarcely remember her true origin, if she ever had one. Perhaps the continuation of her identity from the time of lakes was an illusion. Perhaps she was a Ship of Theseus, repaired and rebuilt from end to end until she was no longer who she was when this journey began. She did not know even her first name, if ever she had one.
What she knew was that she loved the sensation of rain. Standing atop the rooftop of skyscraping structures erected higher than the tallest trees of the forests, she felt a tingle along her skin. She sighed impatiently as a buzzing, automated surveillance drone peered around the corner, its strange wings moving so rapidly so as to be invisible. Dropping the water pooling in her hands, she vanished in a flash of nothing, wondering if she might reappear later when it rains again.
I’ve been listening to an audio book titled Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, and it’s been a real eye-opener. Having always had a thirst for knowing the origin of things, whether its the origin of languages or of physical matter or of psychological disorders, I jumped on the opportunity to hear a little bit about the origin of our biological species, Homo sapiens.
Since this is chiefly a section about etymology, I’ll start with what “human” means. It comes directly from the Latin word homo meaning man, which later evolved into the Latin word humanus, meaning human. The related word, humane, meaning to show compassion or benevolence, also comes from this idea that we are somehow unlike the animals from which we have descended. This superiority complex is developed from mankind’s own immodesty when it comes to our lineage, believing that we have been set apart from our distant cousins in “nature,” that mankind has achieved a more complete state of awareness. In a sense, we have, having developed such remarkable advancements as language, law, morality, and fiction. What other animal can engage in mythology as naturally as humans can? And yet, to engage in this stroking of the ego is to risk undermining the point of understanding our humble limitations.
In some ways, the book appears to present the argument that we have gained the awareness now to realize that we have evolved far too rapidly such that our genetics have not been able to keep up with the development that our culture and technology has provided us. One such development is language itself. With the growing minds and more fine-tuned vocal chords that the great apes stumbled into, language itself in the form of warnings and mating calls began to take shape, but those were single, solitary calls. The truest advancement in language happened in mankind when we were able to string together words into complete sentences, capable of expressing extremely complex thoughts and instructions with a small, efficient vocabulary. It’s one thing for a monkey to cry that there is a lion approaching, but a completely separate thing for a hunter-gatherer to declare that a lion was seen by the river at daybreak.
Another possibility arose as to the need for more advanced language, and that is the growing necessity for social structures. Neanderthals, our brothers and sisters on the evolutionary tree, did not hunt in packs or establish very complex societies, preferring instead to live peacefully and simply. Homo sapiens on the other hand were starting to undergo different evolutionary pressures. As our heads increased in size due to the need for more powerful brains, and an upright posture for running and balancing our gross, swollen heads, and narrower hips for improved running, childbirth became increasingly dangerous. Thus, children with softer, smaller heads, more underdeveloped coming out of the womb were selected for, meaning mothers were pre-occupied caring for their young, requiring the need for a tribe to assist in raising children.
On top of this, there was a need to know who could be trusted since one’s social circle was going to extend beyond family and into members of the tribe who may be less familiar or have less extensive contact. The primary driver of language development may have been gossip. People are so predisposed to gossip that it seems to be something we need to become consciously aware of doing else we’ll never stop doing it. Just now, when speaking with a colleague, I found myself immediately discussing the whereabouts of different colleagues not a part of the conversation whatsoever. It’s practically a genetic impulse.
And on another more interesting note is the primary means by which early Homo sapiens overcame his competitor human species like the Neanderthals, and that is with greater organization and cultural adaptation. An animal’s behavior is beholden to it’s genes, with the environment only slightly affecting the details. A human’s behavior is beholden to his or her culture, a difference that affects everything in adaptability. A human tribe that suffers defeat from a Neanderthal tribe need only change its culture or mythology, reorganize, and in time, over perhaps a few generations, the more adapted culture would triumph over the more slowly evolving Neanderthals. A woman born in 1900 eastern Germany and living for 100 years would have gone through 5 different political systems: the monarchy under Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Weimar Republic of post-war Germany, the Third Reich of Nazi Germany, the communist bloc of East Germany, and finally the democratic Federal Republic of Germany of the modern day. That is all within one lifetime, and the sheer difference in behavior between all five systems far surpass the adaptability of any other animal on Earth.
Now, to discuss everything the book covers would be overwhelming and most certainly an exercise in futility, so I’ll end with this. As a member of the human race and a member of the human species, and a member of the human culture, there is something deeply unsettling and yet comforting about recognizing our place in nature, how we are an aberration and yet no such deformity at all. There is no true distinction between the way we operate back then and now, save for this difference in culture. We still laugh, love, hate, fight, make peace, trade, and create. We still pick flowers to share with the person we love, touch hands to show affection, speak about and with others to pass the time, dream of the unsearchable at night, and eat together. So long as we have this connection to our ancestors, this shared set of behaviors built into us, we’ll still be human. Perhaps its in losing this that we lose our humanity.
Writing is such a pernicious thing, isn’t it? Once it takes hold of you, it doesn’t ever truly let go. Donning the identity of “writer” is practically a surgery, a process that will leave the participant subtly changed in ways that they may never recognize. Maybe that responsibility to an identity is why it’s frightening to think about calling myself a writer. I merely write, arguably as do we all. Because ultimately we frame all thoughts — fleeting or lasting — into the context of words.
The skill of writing is just slowing down enough to capture those words into a script outside the mind. The science behind it is fascinating enough, studying the etymology and phonemes and diphthongs of every nuance in the study of language, but the art of it is almost impenetrable. Who can suggest why melodies sound the way they do except to throw their hands up and shrug? So what does that make good writing? The art or the science? The Taoist answer is that it’s the harmony of both; the Kantian answer is that it is the synthesis of both. Who cares? It’s enough to call it mystery and let flow good writing, judged only by the ability of that writing to most efficiently transfer the thoughts of the author into the mind of the reader, whatever avenue that happens to take. This means, of course, considering the sheer breadth of experiences in the world that writing has almost no meaning in generalities. The individual author has a task to throw into the zeitgeist of mankind their own stories, so that someone somewhere somewhen will be able to get something from distantly sympathizing with the mind of the author. In other words, it’s not necessary to write everything for everybody.
But going back to that efficiency factor of transferring thought into words… truly there is something lost in translation, right? Once we can read minds or upload thoughts directly into the brain, writing will be a dead craft, relegated to the same dusty shelf as weaving or coffee brewing. Well, certainly by that point humanity will have changed so fundamentally there’s a question of whether it’s even possible to fathom the similarities between such a society and ours. Techno-nihilism aside, converting feelings, experiences, expressions, and all of those undefined concepts into words is a process that involves analysis, which in Greek means to “loosen,” or more loosely, to break down into component parts. In short, it means to smash it apart and look at what’s inside, and this means that the gestalt of the concept is lost upon examination. Only upon examining can we then assign a word to whatever was inside, and that assignment even has a probability of error. To complicate things further, the reader then must take that word and consider the meaning of it in conjunction with all of the other preceding and succeeding words, which has its own probability of error, and it boils down to mere chance that any one person will understand the intent of the any other. Miscommunication should honestly be the expectation. How privileged we are as a species that it is not, though considering how often it happens, maybe we’re just entitled. I suppose we have thousands of years of evolution to thank for that, too.
To take apart something and transport it little by little to be reconstructed elsewhere is essentially the topographic map of communication. Creativity is its own special monster, as is story crafting, story telling, and all of the children that stem from communicating. Writing, however, is more than just the break down of ideas into words… it’s the distillation of the human desire to be remembered — to be acknowledged. Writing is the sublimation of the will to leave something behind and be immortalized, as well as the wish for an intimate connection with one other person, the reader. Should the reader respond back with writing, a two-sided relationship is made. It’s the crystallization of man’s loneliness and terror of an uncaring world, because while some writing is meant for a specific person to read, is it not the case that most authors and writers do not know the reach of their own words?
So I’ll continue to write, perhaps for someone in particular, perhaps for no one, but so long as I write for myself, I’m sure there will be like-minded people out there eventually who will read my work and think, “I understand you.”
That’s really all any of us want, huh?
Welcome back to Etymonday — the weekly, unprofessional, perhaps even incorrect etymology and thoughts blogcast.
The previous week I mused on stars, so perhaps it’s convenient to talk about the closest and brightest star in our sky, the Sun, and specifically, it’s many variants and names that I find personally interesting.
The word “sun” comes from the Old English word sunne, which comes from the Proto-Germanic word sunnon, which comes from the Proto-Indo-European root suwen. Much like the word “star,” the word for sun seems to have remained remarkably static throughout the centuries, perhaps because the Sun itself is so utterly constant. More than even the stars, which ancient peoples have noticed had a few stray actors such as the planets or the occasional meteor, but the Sun never changed. Still, as it evolved in other languages, such as into the Greek helios or the Latin sol, or the Sanskrit surya, the symbolism behind the Sun seems fairly universal. Interestingly, suwen may be related to the word for south, due to the fact that the people who spoke Proto-Indo-European would have always been in the Northern Hemisphere; therefore, the Sun would have always appeared in the south. Only along the equator does it appear that the Sun travels perfectly east to west across the sky.
The Sun was often seen as the embodiment of heavenly perfection for many civilizations across time. Cults that worshiped the Sun must have been nearly ubiquitous across the surface of the Earth, as even we acknowledge now in the modern day that nearly all of our energy production is driven by solar energy. Wind and water? That energy comes from the input of solar energy that moves those substances. Fossil fuels? Any bio-fuel can be traced back to chlorophyll and plants, which source their energy from the Sun. Geothermal and nuclear energy perhaps are the only two that do not have a strictly solar origin, but even they are byproducts of a previous Sun that exploded in order to create the materials that eventually coalesced into the Earth. Alchemists of Europe believed the Sun to be made of the perfect material, which was crystallized in their pursuit of gold.
In fact, it might be worth to take a trip down the halls of world mythology in order to see how people viewed the Sun. The Sumerians believed the sun to be Utu, the dispenser of justice and truth, rider of the sun chariot, a concept that survived since the Neolithic era. The “solar barque” was a ship that the Sun rode on, which is reflected in Egyptian mythology with Atum the sun-god and Horus the god of the sun, and later Ra. It almost seems as if control over the Sun shifted over time as different kingdoms within Egypt rose and fell from power, as if conquering the mythology of the Sun itself was symbolic of asserting absolute authority.
The Greeks perceived the sun as the god Helios, and later, Apollo. Interestingly, the earliest epics of Homer see Apollo in a different light than the Romans who saw Apollo as a shining, solar god. In any case, the original driver of the solar chariot Helios, son of Hyperion, was thought to be all-seeing and diligent, attending to the dangerous and skillful task of daily controlling a chariot that had the power to set the entire world on fire. The Romans believed something similar but went on to eventually call the Sun Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun, incidentally, whose festival was celebrated on December 25th to celebrate the passing of winter solstice and return of longer days.
The list goes on and on, and one can peruse Wikipedia’s article on solar deities for themselves, but the point is that the Sun represents power. It is considered masculine in almost all mythologies (although the Proto-Germanic word was feminine, and there’s evidence of a Pan-Asiatic sun goddess such as in the Japanese goddess Amaterasu), and is even the chief god in some, the son of a chief god, or at the very least a high-ranking, respected member of the pantheon. The Sun is never to be looked down upon or trifled with, and many who dare try in these mythologies are punished to the utmost and destroyed.
The Sun represents power and life. Bright, burning, beautiful, like fire itself, capable of warming and harming. It is a measure, lengths of its day used to determine seasons and calendars, the zodiac used to determine the fate of a child. Eclipses come and go, but the Sun rose and set every single day since eternity without fail. Nothing else could compare to the persistence of power of the Sun. A sunny disposition is someone who is bright and cheerful, full of energy and optimism. The Sun is hope in solitary constancy, that things will not change despite how things appear to change. Could it be that the Latin word solus as in “alone” (where we draw “solitary” or “isolated” from) is related to the fact that there is only one Sun who is unaccompanied by the moon or the stars?
It was not actually so large a leap in logic to think the Earth revolved around the Sun rather than vice versa due to the role the Sun played in the minds of men. Who could ever have accepted a selenocentric model? I also wonder what kind of mythologies would occur in a planet orbiting a binary star system. The fact that we now understand the Sun is not eternal, is not the center of the universe, and isn’t unblemished (sunspots are certainly a thing) doesn’t really diminish the subconscious veneration we all have for the Sun even in the modern day. It is symbolic of awe-inspiring strength. It is symbolic of truth and light. It is the greatest physical fire that humanity has ever experienced, and we survive in its shade rather than its full presence. It’s almost fair to say that it is the closest thing that we have to an incarnate deity.
I think on Mondays I’d like to talk about words.
And today, starry-eyed as I am, I’d like to discuss stars.
The word star is super interesting because it doesn’t come from Latin or Greek like the other 70% of English words. It comes from the Old English word steorra, which comes from an even earlier Proto-Germanic word sterzon, which comes from the Proto-Indo-European root ster. Isn’t it incredible how a word remained so static for over 7000 years of human history? How many words can boast that claim? Moreover, due to the sheer stability of the structure of the word, the English word “star” has many cousins in other languages that sound remarkably similar. Aster, stella, steren, estrella, stjerne, staar… the list goes on and on.
It’s theorized that Ishtar, Astarte, and Ashtoreth — all ancient goddesses of love, associated with the planet Venus — are potentially related to the word “star” due to the fact that Venus appears to be a wandering star (the Greek word planetes literally means “wanderer”). The movement of the planets, and therefore, the movement of the gods, was believed to determine the course of calamity and blessing. This is where we get the word disaster, literally meaning “bad star.”
Movie stars and rock stars and musical stars… all called such things because back in the 1820s, marketers would advertise by claiming the most famous members of touring theater and performance groups as stars, an idea that started to enter the popular consciousness only around this time. In history, reference to people as stars was commonly used to suggest their eternal fame or glory, as when Orion (of belt or hunting fame, depending on who you ask) was made a constellation in the heavens. Shakespeare and Chaucer used “star” to describe people as well. We use “stellar” to describe something good, but it was originally used to describe anything pertaining to stars. Strangely enough, the origin of that usage of “stellar” comes from the fact that we call these great people “stars,” which almost seems like an etymology that eats itself.
But I think what I find most interesting about the myriad uses of the word star and its conjugates is the idea that it all stems from one of the most widespread activities on the planet Earth: stargazing. Since time immemorial, single culture on every single continent has experienced night, and with it, the passing of the sun and the appearance of countless flecks of light speckling the sky, and all of them wondered what they were seeing. And so they stared, identifying ones that moved of their own whims, but noting the constancy of the stellar wallpaper.
To all people of the Earth, stars meant high and heavenly, almost divine, unsearchable. The way they moved, and the pattern to which they were arrayed could only be guessed at. And yet they chose to guess, eyes all around the world affixed on the same image of the boundless celestial ceiling, an unreachable backdrop upon which the history of mankind staged their performance.
They meant persistence. Every year, they would return to their positions, never having changed, only having revolved, as we perceived it. The very basis of the solar calendar, the pre-eminent calendar system of the ancient and modern day, was the Sun’s position relative to the stars. The Greek zodiac was developed to represent which constellation of the sky the Sun could be found in during that part of the year.
The stars never changed, no matter how far their explorers went. The North Star guided them by night as the Solar Star guided them by day. However, the further they went, the sooner they discovered there was a whole half of the sky that they had never seen. Two people from opposite poles would disagree about what the night sky looked like, but they were only ever looking at half of the full picture. Neither was ever wrong, unless they surmised that only their interpretation could have been correct.
I should note that as our observations of the stars have become keener and more refined, they are not as constant as they appear from afar. They change in luminosity — some grow weak and die with a puff, others expand and explode into a supernova. Others change places, dancing in a circular tango around one another. Some stars are so far away they can inform us of the history of the universe from ten billion years past due to the limitations on the propagation of light. They are born, they develop, they return to dust. It turns out they are only static in ignorance, but rather dynamic in truth. And now, our collective civilization has come to a point where it is possible to jettison man-made objects towards another star, to arrive there long after its creators have died. To reach for the stars could be more literal than poetic within our lifetimes.
Stars represent a lot… much more than what could be covered in a short post. They are symbolic of so many things that anyone from anywhere will immediately understand because of its pervasiveness in human experience, and I can’t help but see why the word has stayed the way it has for so long, and I can only guess that it will stay remarkably similar until the stars themselves begin to fade.
I am no expert in poetry.
The argument could be made that no one truly is, but moving past overwrought sophism, I think I can soon make it abundantly clear that my attempts at being and becoming a writing creative are somewhat juvenile. However, I will mollify my own defeatism by adding that I hold great respect for the written word.
The fact that what is deeply embedded in the mind of one individual can be transferred into the mind of another equally shuttered individual is a feat worthy of the title of “miracle.” Look no further than the prevalence of the idea that incantations can invoke magic, or more specifically the written rune of Germanic mythology, or the talismans of Fulu Taoism. Strangely, in this era of connectivity and interactivity and globalization, the shrinking world and the network of human lives that crisscross the 21st century experience can numb us to how uniquely profound communicating through words ought to be. You, the reader, capable of the super power that is mind reading at this very moment! And yet, when confronted, we all recognize such self-evident claims that words have the power to build and destroy. Then it seems paradoxical that despite this, the sheer preponderance of words produced, consumed, and recycled in our daily lives, much like the people we come across, will dilute their worth.
This isn’t really how it’s meant to be.
The history of any one word can be traced back to the very beginning of mankind. That is to say, it is possible for an all-knowing God to perform such a wonder, while we ourselves may never have access to such an archive of philology. However, conceptually, I am merely saying that any one word has behind it thousands and thousands of years of evolution that eventually brought it into the lexicon of the modern day. It is like beholding the branch of a massive, thousand-year-old oak, knowing that snapping it off harms the entire tree. How precious is any one leaf of such an awe-inspiring, ancient, living creature?
Any one person has behind him or herself a lineage of countless mothers and fathers, an immeasurable wealth of stories, each with their own soaring climaxes and settling denouements, all to produce one person. How precious is any one person, indeed. And yet, we treat our fellow man expendable, never able to observe in the heat of the moment the great pains, the twists and the turns of history that it took to create this singular, irreproducible individual. But even this, in the end, is a part of a bigger story.
I suppose to return to my original point, we may treat words and people in much the same way in that we are exposed to them so often that we take them for granted. Certainly, we do not take the few hundred or so people in our lives for granted! And more certainly, it is impossible to grieve for the two hundred thousand people who die every day. I would be the greatest hypocrite if I should say that I am an exemplar in this regard. I’m prone to the same numbness! Stepping on another human being in order to move ahead is just the way of this world, is it not? It is eat or be eaten, kill or be killed, survive or die and the strong will exploit the weak. Allow me for a moment to leave this point dangling.
What is the significance of syzygy? It is an astronomical term referring to the linear alignment of three or more celestial bodies. For instance, a solar eclipse is a syzygy of the Earth, Moon, and Sun, in that order. It comes from the Greek root word σύζυγος (pronounced suzugos), an adjective literally describing those who are yoked together, like cattle meant to till the soil, figuratively describing those who are united or bonded. It is further derived from sun- (together) and zeugnunai (to yoke), which later became syzygia to the Romans, meaning conjunction. More broadly, it is used in other fields to generally describe the unification of two opposites or paired entities.
The significance ought to be clear. It is a splendid word that could evoke so many different concepts, all conjoined into a single, odd, rare word — to an extent, a recursive word. It’s an ideal for which to strive. Joining words to concepts. Joining words to words to form ideas. Joining people to people through words. Any permutation would seem to be a valid thesis.
And to return to the dangling thread, it is this joining that can bring new life to numbness. We live on a world in which we are yoked together, in syzygy with one another to survive an existence that is unknowable and terrifying. Many of us have come to our own answers on how to live, but it cannot be shared unless it is first translated within ourselves into words and expressed. Then, perhaps we can start to understand and become the tiniest bit closer to seeing what binds us rather than what distinguishes us. To that end, it starts with me and my own words; I believe in that miracle.