Thursday, April 21, 2011

Of Biblical Origin?

I used the words danse macabre as the title of a post on LaMarotte today—and then having used the phrase, it took hold of me and wished to be explained. The word macabre has a history in this clan going back a ways. Back before Internet days, I once tried to get the lyrics of a Joan Baez song simply by listening to it with a pad in hand. One word absolutely stopped me. Joan was singing something that sounded like machere, almost like the French word mȃché, as in papier-mȃché. At long, long last and from the context, I had it. The word was macabre, but she gave it her own interpretation…

Danse Macabre is the Dance of Death—depicted in paintings (with skeletons dancing) and used as a theme for sermons. In German it is Totentanz, in Dutch Dodendans. It seems to have arisen in response to the black death, so-called, which ravaged Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Today it is thought to have been the bubonic plague. But why was this dance called macabre in French and macabra in Italian? The answer comes from the Online Etymology Dictionary (the affordable source). The phrase was first recorded as danse Macabré in Old French in 1376 and refers to the Maccabees. The Maccabee era in Judea extended from 164 to 63 BC, established by a revolt against the Seleucid empire in 167 BC. In the course of that a massacre took place in which a mother and her seven sons and a teacher of the law, Eleazar, were brutally slaughtered. Vividly described in the apocryphal Book of the Maccabees, Chapter 2, this story made a big impression in medieval Europe and thus became the root of a word we sometimes use in writing, sometimes pronounce as the French do, and sometimes do not, and mean by it, when we use it, something like bizarre. We’ve muted the meaning—perhaps because we haven’t ourselves lived through a genuine plague and stared into the face of Death as other eras had to. Bizarre? But no. Not now. I’ll leave that to another post. But it has something to do with hair. Many women will read that and nod.
Footnote. How many on this Maundy Thursday still remember what the word “maundy” means? I explained it carefully on this site a while back here, but Lord, I’d forgotten myself. Again.

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