Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Soul Source

The roots of the word meaning soul in Greek and Latin are both from “breath,” thus pneuma in Greek and spiritus in Latin. The English soul is rooted in Proto-Germanic saiwalo and takes all sorts of variant forms in Germanic languages from Seele in German to ziel in Dutch. If you produce a list of the meanings of these three words, they all agree. At the most exhaustive level, the words mean “life,” more narrowly “an animating principle,” more narrowly yet a being that “feels, thinks, and wills.” Both the Online Etymology Dictionary (OED) and the much earlier (1852) and exhaustive German Dictionary produced by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm state that the Germanic word is of “uncertain origin.” Both, however, continue on to suggest that the root may be the Proto-Germanic saiwaz, meaning “sea.” The Grimm brothers speculate that the sea might once have suggested “waves” that mark the interior swings in the soul’s inner life. OED suggests what sounds much more plausible to me. Herewith OED’s addendum:

Sometimes [soul is] said to mean originally “coming from or belonging to the sea,” because that was supposed to be the stopping place of the soul before birth or after death [Barnhart]…. Klein explains this as “from the lake,” as a dwelling-place of souls in ancient northern Europe.

This struck me as strangely wonderful for a reason. Back about three years ago I put up a post on Borderzone (link) in which, commenting on Tony Hillerman’s The Dance Hall of the Dead, I had discovered a very curious aspect of Zuni religious beliefs. It is that souls come from and return to a sacred lake in Arizona called Ko-thuwallawa, literally God-Town. What do they do there? They dance.

It is not very likely that the Zuni peoples originated in ancient northern Europe—however similar the beliefs might be. What we glimpse here is something else. While in these bodies we’d better be breathing at right regular intervals. The Greek and Latin words are centered on this vital but also mundane activity. But as for that much less fragile structure, the soul, it may also be seen as a “substantial entity” (OED) that keeps on dancing on….

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