Prayer As Erotic Language

The very heart of true prayer is desire, love. In the language of the Fathers this desire is called eros. Modern usage has corrupted the meaning of “erotic” to only mean sexual desire – but it is a profound word, without substitute in the language of the Church.

I offer a quote from Dr. Timothy Patitsas of Holy Cross in Brookline:

By eros we mean the love that makes us forget ourselves entirely and run towards the other without any regard for ourselves. Allan Bloom described eros as “love’s mad self-forgetting.” (from Road to Emmaus, Vol. XV, No. 2, Spring, 2014). 

Patitsas, in the same interview, offers this observation on St. Maximus’ thought:

St. Maximus says that God was so good that His goodness could not be contained within Himself. It poured forth “outside” Himself in a cosmic Theophany over against the face of darkness [nothingness]. The appearing of this ultimate Beauty caused non-being itself to forget itself, to renounce itself, to leave behind its own “self” – non-being – and come to be. All of creation is thus marked by this eros, this movement of doxology, liturgy, love, and repentance out of chaos and into the light of existence. Creation is repenting from its first moment, for repentance does not require the perquisite of sin. It simply means to put our attention still more deeply upon Christ to love Him much, much more than we have before. Of course, compared to that “more deeply,” the prior state looks like sin – but this is partly relative for us.

This is a profound summary of the work of creation, particularly in its use of Maximus’ imagery and thought. But this account of creation , almost scandalous in its “erotic” content, goes to the heart of worship, prayer and repentance. The language of prayer in Orthodoxy is frequently deeply “penitential” and filled with extreme expressions. We describe ourselves as the “worst of sinners,” etc. St. Basil’s language is typical:

Although I have completely subjected myself to sin and am unworthy of heaven, of earth and of this passing life, even though I am a slave to delights and have disgraced Your image, yet I still do not lose hope in salvation, wretched as I am, for You have made and fashioned me. I place my hope in Your boundless mercy and approach You…

We pray with such extreme language, reflecting not a vision of legal condemnation: rather, it is the recognition of Beauty itself, in Whose Presence we appear broken, soiled, with nothing to recommend us. It is the language of repentance – but not of morbid self-hatred. It is the language of self-forgetting of leaving the self behind, of finding nothing within the self to cling to.

There is another word for this self-forgetting: ecstasy. Again, this word has been abused in modern language and now means an extreme emotional state. But its Greek root means to “stand outside of oneself.” Thus the Fathers will speak of God’s ecstasy – His going forth to us. But there is also our ecstasy, as we forget ourselves and rush towards Him.

It could be argued that the language of self-deprecation in liturgical prayers is very much a “remembering” and “dwelling” on the self. Within a legal metaphor this might be quite true. But we must listen to the whole of the prayers.

O Lord, I know that my transgressions have mounted higher than my head, but the greatness of Your compassion is incomparable and the mercy of Your bounty is indescribable and free of malice. There is no sin which surpasses Your love for mankind. Therefore, wondrous King and all gracious Lord, show Your wondrous mercy to me a sinner; show me the power of Your goodness; show me the strength of Your long-suffering mercy, and receive me a sinner as I turn to You. (St. Simeon the Translator)

We see that our sins have driven us back towards non-being and nothingness. But God in His great mercy continues to call us into existence and to raise us up from the emptiness of our sin. 

I want to say a few words about evil and non-being. Non-being is not evil. It is not anything. We cannot say it is good nor can we say it is neutral. It is nothing. The Fathers recognized a trinity of existence: Being, Well-Being, Eternal Being. They also recognized another trinity: Beauty, Goodness, Truth. 

It is the teaching of the Fathers that being, existence, is inherently good. It is the gift of the good God, who alone has true Being (“Being Beyond All Being”). But we are created with a direction or movement (kinesis). That movement is from being towards well-being and eternal being. Eternal Being is true union with Christ (theosis). 

Our call into existence is brought forth as we behold the Beauty of God. Drawn towards Him, we see that He is not only Beautiful, but that He is loving, self-emptying for the sake of all – that is – we see that He is Good. As we pursue His Goodness we move ever towards our End in Christ who is the Truth. 

I have taken a few moments to set these things in their proper perspective and order because we use these words casually, without care for their proper meaning. Only in this context do we understand sin as an “ontological” problem (having to do with being).

Sin is a movement away from being, well-being, and eternal being. It is a distorted direction (hamartia: “missing the mark”). It is equally the refusal of Beauty and Goodness, without participation in the Truth. 

I will try to put this into practical terms. A man sees someone else in genuine need and has plenty to spare. But he considers the matter and turns away. He has “increased” or “preserved” his wealth, but he has impoverished his soul, diminished his own existence since his existence depends utterly on his movement towards well-being and eternal-being. This he could pursue by following the commandments and the example of Christ (which is already the movement of grace within him). Christ’s self-emptying towards all of creation is the perfection of generosity. To act on generosity is union with Christ, a movement towards well-being. 

When someone asks: “Is it a sin to withhold help from someone in need?” The answer is yes – but not in a merely legal sense. It is a sin – a movement towards non-existence – a movement away from the proper direction of our lives.

And it is from the depths of our non-existence that we cry out to God for mercy. Seeing His Beauty we forget ourselves (and our money, etc.) and we call out to the One who has called out to us. In our longing for His Beauty we love Him and are drawn to His Goodness. We give to the one who has need: “my brother is my life.” 

I would add, in light of an earlier comment, that this forgetting of ourselves in the face of His beauty is true shame (not the toxic form). It is the confessing of our emptiness, our non-existence, in the face of true existence (which is Beautiful). Such a pure-hearted confession is ecstatic, a movement out of the self towards the Other. 

I will also add as an aside that all of this should shed much light on the importance of beauty in Orthodox liturgy and Churches, iconography, etc. It is essential – not a decoration or an afterthought. Much of the modern world sees beauty as a luxury (which it so rarely affords). I grieve deeply when I hear the modern sentiment directed towards a beautiful Church “that money should have been given to the poor.” These are the words of Judas. And those who say such things rarely give anything themselves. Beauty is not a contradiction of generosity. The movement towards Beauty is a movement towards Goodness (which contains generosity at its core). 

The apprehension of Beauty is at the very heart of the preaching of the gospel. It is that which first touches the heart and draws us towards Truth. In our over-rationalized world we tend to think that it is reasoning and arguments that draw people to Christ. But this is something that comes much later. First the heart must be drawn – and this happens primarily through Beauty in its broadest sense. Many things serve this role.

For C.S.Lewis it was a picture in a book of Norse Mythology and the line, “Balder the Beautiful is Dead.” Mysteriously, it pierced his young heart and remained with him until he much later perceived Christ. I have always treasured Muggeridge’s book on Mother Teresa titled, Something Beautiful for God. If you cannot share the beauty of the gospel, then you have likely not understood it and clearly lack the requisite gifts as of yet. This is why St. Porphyrios said, “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.”

These are the thoughts of the Fathers, and the doorways into greater perception of the mystery of the gospel. It is the absence of such depth that reveals the poverty of legal imagery – as well as its lack of beauty. 

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “A Woman Praying,” by John Phillip, painted ca. 1860s.

Postmodern Understandings of Language and Power – Explanations and Refutations

Can language express truth? Can language give us a clear picture of reality?

Discussing Postmodernism has become almost prosaic given the intellectual climate of the 2010s. However, it has posed questions which directly challenge the most classical assertions of how we understand the world around us. For that alone it is worth responding to. 

Postmodernism also remains relevant because much of current thinking is rooted in Postmodern ideas. This goes beyond just academic circles: it is easy to catch Postmodern ideas in everyday discourse. Nothing is unusual about hearing someone retort in an argument “Well, that’s subjective,” or if they are more well versed and a little bolder “That’s just interpretation, there’s never really any one meaning.” 

These ideas originate from Postmodern language theory in particular. What is referred to as “Postmodernism” refers to a specific idea of language and how it functions. These ideas were shaped by numerous thinkers in the 1960s and 1970s: most popularly through French thinkers like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, who took the core ideas on language and related them to concepts of power, oppression, and freedom. 

A critique of language of all things may appear benign and simply technical at first, but the challenge undermines confidence in our ability to have knowledge and the possibility of truth. Let us explore both, but first I will need to explain the Postmodern understanding of language which I have been alluding to. I do warn that in discussing “Postmodernism” that there is a risk in generalization. The term remains elusive and the various thinkers who are characterized as Postmodern are not totally unified in their views. I will stick to explaining the broadly agreed upon problems Postmodern thinkers find in language and dabble with some responses.

Postmodern theories of language challenge the belief that language provides a stable way of understanding the world. When you use language, you are partaking in the act of representing things in the world through concepts. This does not have to be simply through speech, when you are thinking or simply identifying an object you are representing the world through language. If you are for instance looking at a red apple, you will have the corresponding thought “That is a red apple,” which frames the experience and allows you to understand it. In that case, language is being used to formulate a claim which represents something out there in the world, namely that the apple is there and that it has the characteristic of “redness”. “There” is used to represent a concept of space–namely where the object is–and “red” is used to represent a concept of colour. Real things are therefore represented with concepts in language. 

Postmodern language theories argue that this sort of linear connection between language and objects in the world is fallacious and that, in fact, these kinds of representations are unstable. Instead of language being an accurate link to understanding reality, it is a product of culture and social circumstances. Therefore, representations and language are more indicative of culture rather than an objective reality. 

The argument is that all human thought is done through language and that language has an intrinsic “messiness” to it. It relies on words and signs which Postmodernists claim can have countless meanings and interpretation. Without unified meanings Postmodernists argue that it becomes impossible to have singular representations of things in the world, meaning there is a large degree of interpretation to what is deemed reality–therefore, reality is never separated from a subject. 

Language having a cultural dimension also poses a challenge. Since, in this view, meaning is framed by the culture which creates it, what language can express about reality is structured by the types of discourses and meaning which is possible with the ideas of that culture. What Postmodernists are arguing is that the ideas of a culture limit what language can say about reality.

If true, this has significant implications, because every human body of knowledge (“epistemology”) has relied on the intuition that language can at least roughly represent reality. Without that foundational assumption, it is impossible to make any claims about the world or have any form of understanding–consequently defeating the possibility of having knowledge entirely.

To the Postmodernist, classical accounts of truth–like that of Plato’s–which use language via propositional logic, or other bodies of knowledge which rely on the experiential, reason, or narrative cannot tell us anything about the world, due to their use of language. The strong Postmodernist must therefore reject science, history, and philosophy, as they attempt to rationalize the world using language.

This is synonymous with the Postmodern rejection of “totalizing” narratives, also abbreviated as meta-narratives. We will return to this, as it is linked with Postmodern views of freedom and what is dubbed the “domination of language.”

If language cannot tell us anything about reality, then how can we understand the world? 

The answer is that social construction is the prime shaper of reality. This means that, in a Postmodern paradigm, it is impossible to separate reality from the experience of a subject rooted in social-cultural circumstances. Instead, reality is something which is interpreted and must be represented, so it cannot possibly be understood objectively. The world is therefore quite literally constructed out of how it is represented by a culture throughlanguage. Language and culture are seen to shape our notion of reality to such a degree that it is impossible to understand reality outside of them. 

This is why history is deemed an impossible pursuit in a Postmodern context. The argument is that the cultures and, therefore, the languages of the past and present are so different that they become alien to each other. The modern historian is detached from the framework with which people of the past understood the world–i.e.: their meanings and language. Because of this, it becomes impossible for a modern historian to truly understand the past. 

Ideas such as truth, value, and justice are also seen as meanings which are constructed through language and projected onto reality. In a Postmodern context, this means that these ideas must be seen as derived from human beings–not the world nor nature. 

What this all alludes to is the fact that subjectivity becomes important if language, ideas, and knowledge are not rooted in reality, but instead construct it. Subjects and the culture which frames their thinking create particular discourses, which in turn contextualizes how people understand reality. Reality, when paired with the belief that people are always determined by their culture, becomes rather atomistic, since there are series of interpretations of what reality is, but no singular, true “objective” reality.

Taking this position entails that cultures and subjects are insular from the world or that their representations are not shaped by things in the world which they are referring to. This seems rather unintuitive because when people use language they do seem to be referencing things in the world around them. 

This account of language also does not take into account that some concepts are much more stable than others, and that such concepts limit the possibility of mixed meanings and interpretation. For example, if you take the concept of “tree” to signify tall wooded objects, that meaning is relatively stable across the languages of different cultures and time periods. You could take the French word for tree “arbre” and the old English world for tree “Treo” and they would signify the same concept–a tall wooded object. Though, it should be acknowledged that interpretive differences can arise if the trees have different symbolic or metaphorical meanings across the different cultures.

Accordingly, another important concept of Postmodern thought comes from the Discourse theory of the Poststructuralists. Discourse theory states that the signs and symbols which language uses to represent the world fundamentally alters the psyche of people using language. This shapes their very ability to perceive the world around them. Postmodern discussions of politics tend to revolve around this idea of language. 

Power, therefore, becomes closely linked with language in Postmodern thought as a consequence of language’s ability to shape psyche. Thinkers like Foucault focus especially on power because they view language as a subtle, insidious form of power. It is seen as something which dominates people not through coercion or force of arms, but by shaping how they are even allowed to understand the world. In the view of Foucault and many Postmodern thinkers, power is not necessarily held by the rich elite or politician, but instead those that shape the discourses and ideas which everyone–from the rich elite, to the politician, to the layman–use to understand the world. Because of this, strong Postmodernists have a certain skepticism of bodies of knowledge like history, science, and religion or what they call “metanarratives,” since they are viewed as means of dominating our conceptions of the world.

Foucault in his discussion of power talks about how language is selective. Here he takes inspiration from French poet Raymond Roussel who expresses the idea that language does not designate a word for every concept for which designation is possible. This implies that there is a poverty to language since it cannot express all that can be expressed. This is a recurring objection in philosophy preceding the Postmodernists; Ludwig Wittgenstein famously makes a similar critique of language amongst others. 

Where the Postmodern critique differs (though much of it is inspired by Wittgenstein) is the implication brought about when this idea is tied to power. Foucault posits that because language only selects certain parts of reality, it only provides a partial glimpse of reality. Those selections, to Foucault in particular, are tools of domination and power: reality is shaped in accordance with what those who have power want to be believed. Language is therefore restrictive in how it shapes reality and the fact that it only allows certain discourses, in accordance with those in power. 

Before I delve into a criticism, I would once more like to clarify that “those who have power” in this view is not discussing shadowy bureaucrats or a secret cabal of world leaders planning every event throughout world history. Instead, it is framed as those who have traditionally shaped ideas and discourses in Western thought. Foucault is referencing everything from the classics, the enlightenment thinkers, and science when he talks about “power.” 

That being said, questions should certainly be raised when Foucault argues that these thinkers have exercised a sort of domination over people and their discourse. It underestimates the capacity for people to challenge these frameworks of thought, and assumes a certain tyrannical agenda amongst these thinkers to shape reality. 

Freedom then becomes a prime goal for Postmodern philosophy.  Understanding how to achieve it is a contentious point for Postmodern thought. Derrida’s understanding may be the most popular, which is that representation and language are inescapable–therefore making the achievement of freedom impossible. Most Postmodern thought stems from this initial position of Derrida’s, so the question then becomes: “If one cannot be free from the domination of language, how does one best find freedom?” The end is that each individual must find a relative truth for themselves; that is the best one can do to prevent themselves from being dominated through language and oppressive discourses.

There is a problem with this Postmodern emphasis on Freedom, that makes it impossible to function within a Postmodern framework. To make this point more poignant, I will use a Postmodern argument to refute it. 

Let us start with Derrida’s idea of dichotomies. Derrida argues language in the West is flawed because it is limited to various dichotomies: Good vs Evil, Presence vs Absence, Male vs Female, Speech vs Writing. Discourse tends to privilege one part of the dichotomy over the other: Good rather than Evil, Presence rather than Absence, Male rather than Female, and Speech over Writing. The argument is that the choice of what to privilege has no basis in objectivity or goodness, and that in reality neither choice within these dichotomies is inherently better than the other. 

In a Postmodern framework, this has to be the case because if language does not refer to anything than truth does not exist. This introduces the problem that all discourses must become equal, meaning that you must believe that all ideas are equally privileged or equally worthless–a truly daunting proposition. The majority of Postmodernists choose to believe in the former: that all meanings, even within dichotomies should be treated as equal. 

Then the question becomes how can the Postmodernist value Freedom over Oppression? How do they discern that Freedom is indeed privileged to oppression? Why are Postmodern thinkers also quick to value the individual over the collective? Even while disparaging the ideas of the Enlightenment and the West, Postmodern thought seems rather happy to take some of it as baseline assumption. 

If the Postmodernist seeks to answer these questions, they will fall guilty to using value judgments rooted in language or needing to accept metanarrative.

The photo shows, ” Triel sur Seine, le pont du chemin de fer,” by Robert Antoine Pinchon, painted in 1904.

The Very Idea Of Technology

Whenever people are trying to define the modern age, there’s an inevitable phrase that gets tossed around. We hear it all the time – “We are an age of technology.”

And when people are asked what this phrase means, they invariably generate a list – cars, televisions, space probes, computers, the microchip – all things that were mostly science fiction just a hundred years ago. How did we come so far, so quickly?

But are we technological because we have more gadgets than, say, the ancient Egyptians who, after all, did build the pyramids? But our culture is different from the ancient Egyptians. How so?

Our age is technological not because of gadgets, but because of the idea of technology. The gadgets are a mere by-product. The way we think is profoundly different from all previous human civilizations.

We perceive things in a systematic way. We like to build conceptual structures. We like to investigate and get at the root causes of things. We like to figure out how things work. We see nature, the earth, the universe, as a series of intersecting systems. And this difference is the result of technology.

Essentially, we are dealing with two Greek words: techne and logia. Techne means “art,” “craft,” or “handiwork.” But logia is more interesting. It means “account,” “word,” “description,” and even “story.”

It is the root of other important words in English, such as “logistics” and “logical.” And it even reaches into the spiritual realm, where “Logos” is intimately connected with the mystery of God in Christianity, where God (Logos) is made flesh in Jesus Christ.

Therefore, technology is not really about gadgets. The word actually means “a description of art,” or “a story of craft, handiwork.” Anything we create is technology. Be it the microchip, a film, a novel, an airplane, or a poem.

But this is only the first layer. We need to dig further. Why do we use a Greek word in the first place? This question lets us dig right down to the foundations.

The word is Greek because the idea is Greek. This is not to say that other cultures did not have technology; they certainly did; the Pyramids are certain proof of that, as are the Nascan lines in the desert.

However, we have already established that technology is not about gadgets, or objects that we create. It is a particular mind-set.

Technology is visualizing the result, or perhaps uncovering that which lies hidden within our imagination. It really is still about giving an account of art, about what we can do with our minds.

But how is all this Greek?

The idea of technology was given to us by one specific person – the Greek philosopher, Aristotle(384-322 BC).

At the age of twenty, Aristotle found himself in Athens, listening to the already famous Plato (428 B.C. to 348 B.C.).

But the pupil would become greater than the master. Interestingly enough, Aristotle too had a famous pupil – Alexander the Great. Aristotle certainly had the ability to transform the way people thought – down to the present.

It was Aristotle who stressed the need not only for science, but a conceptual understanding of science. It was not enough just to be able to do things, such as craftsmanship that was passed down from father-to-son in his own day, and in many parts of the world today.

It was important to understand how things were; how they functioned the way they did.

It was Aristotle who taught us to break down an object into its smallest part so we can understand how it is built and how it operates. Where would science be today without this insight – which we now take as common sense.

But before Aristotle, it was not common sense. The common sense before his time was to accept things the way they were, because the gods had made them that way, and who were we to question the will of the gods. This was the pre-technological mindset.

Aristotle, like Plato before him, taught that nature and human beings behave according to systems that can be recorded and then classified, and understood and then applied. These categories provided mental frameworks within which we could house our ideas.

Therefore, if nature is a system (and not mysterious and unknowable), then it can be understood. And if it can be understood, it can be controlled. And if it can be controlled, then we can avoid being its victims.

Our ability to classify, categorize, and explain – in short, our technology – is the invention of Aristotle. Before he came along, we were only groping in the dark – if we dared grope, that is.


The photo shows, “Cyclist Through the City” (“Ciclista attraverso la città”), by Fortunato Depero, painted in 1945.

The Humanities And Language

It is often assumed that the discipline of the Humanities involves anything and everything that cannot be properly be classified as a proper science. It is also commonly assumed that language is simply a method of communication – so that flapping one’s arms is the same as speaking; or, one may draw a picture, since a picture is worth a thousand words, as he adage tells us.

Before proceeding further, perhaps its best to define our terms so that we do not bogged down with assumptions.

Turning to language, we need to understand it as thinking more than communication. The founder of linguistic philosophy (Wilhelm von Humboldt) tells us that language is the expression of thinking peculiar to a people, even the most primitive of people, those closest to nature, as he puts it. Communication is only the simplest, basic level of linguistic use.

The most intensive use is the generation of ideas. The philologist Max Mueller continues Humboldt’s description when he describes language as “the outward form and manifestation of thought.”

And Humboldt further defines language as the medium through which humanity encounters reality – “Man lives with his objects chiefly as language presents them to him.”

The philosopher, Ernst Cassirer, succinctly described language as first the symbolic rendering of expressions and second the engendering of discursive thought; or, in other words, reason.

Thus language is the principle which serves to link together complexity in order to produce meaning, or what may be called abstract thought. In brief, for Cassirer, language is the entelechy of knowledge.

This obviously means that language has more than a denotative function – it is more than simply communication.

To quote the Danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev: “A language is that into which all other languages, and even all other conceivable language structures may be translated. In language, indeed only in such, can the inexpressible  be dealt with until such time as it is expressed.” Language, first and foremost is ideas.

Given the intimate association of language with thinking and knowledge – why do we hear the teachers of language referring to it as a “form of communication?” What purpose does this extreme simplification fulfill?

Having briefly defined language, we may do the same for the humanities. Again, we encounter confusion. The tendency nowadays is to view the Humanities as anything that is not science; and this confusion continues into areas which veer into science (like anthropology, psychology and sociology).

So, what are the Humanities? In a very straightforward way the Humanities have always meant the study of Greek and Latin – that is, the discipline of the Humanities has always been tied with the learning of language – because it was (and one hopes still is) believed that by learning a language, in a disciplined and structured fashion, a person became educated and refined.

Thus the Humanities are based upon the understanding that education is only possible through language. Therefore, the Humanities are not anything not science – but very specifically education in language – and those disciplines that promote language – namely literature, philosophy, biography and history. And it is here also that we have the very history of education.

But we now speak of skill, rather than education, and language is simply another tool to further the demands of the labor marker, rather than the promotion of being a good human being – the traditional goal of education. Skill is not about education – it is about labor and production.

Education is about building the good human being – or about the esthetic, moral and intellectual nature of humanity. Skill is about the material environment and its conquest. Skill is about bondage (the demands of labor). Education is about understanding the exercise of freedom.

And then there are countless falsehoods that permeate teaching institutions. The worst among them is the notion of “learning styles,” and the absurd notion of “right-brain” and “left-brain” learners. Study after study has amply demonstrated that there is no such thing as “visual learning” or “auditory learning,” or kinesthetic.

Nor does the brain function in left and right compartments. And yet, these false notions are so popular in educational institutions – and worst of all, entire pedagogies are built around these falsehoods. Why? As researchers recently observed in an extensive in the Journal of Psychological Science, “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing.”

Disturbing because students are being taught based upon false assumptions. Is an educational institution a place where pop-psychology should be followed?

And yet the popularity of these views in pedagogy is enormous. And the literature is enormous. But it is literature produced by the non-specialist – by the amateur. Why do teachers follow these falsehoods?

And recent studies also tell us that the only way possible for the brain to learn anything is through language. Thus, the physical brain is Humanistic. It is built primarily for language, for thought, for ideas. And the world that we live, the labor that do, is a function of thought, of ideas. The world that we inhabit is the product of Humanism.

Thus to neglect confuse Humanism with anything other than language is to deny the importance of thought.


The photo shows, “Le quai aux fleurs,” by Marie-François Firmin-Girard, painted in 1875.

The Crystal Mind: Poems

Glen Gower

There is something growing beneath your skin.
Bristles burst from hidden hearths while stolen feelings
like steely demons scourge the violent hills.
From atop the tower, the blessed Glen Gower
calls the riders in.



Oh changeling,
you creeping, sleeping tame thing
climb down from that steeple high,
let me gaze upon your face tonight.
Look not backwards, forget my soul,
what you spy there has gone before.
Will yourself up into the clouds,
a desert landscape, a crimson shroud,
beyond the river there lies the key
there lie the waters, those that be.
Move through yourself like a
consuming snake, find the figure,
that geometric mistake.
Point the finger to the sign above,
the chi, the rho, the fallen dove.
This bridge is broken, I cannot sleep,
this dream, a token, to protect and keep.
Oh changeling,
you creeping, sleeping tame thing.


Winter Stasis

Soon the crystal mind will shed itself.
Snowflakes hang static in the breathless wind,
the storm in the firmament, the storm within.
What infinite descent will cloud the soul
if not for the pine to root it, to keep it whole?
Such tender frames plague the winter sky,
you can trace the time, the finger guides the eye.
Reverse the fall, feel the ancient breath,
your stinging face, you descend from Seth.
Look there! The sky in it fullness shows
the cathedral vaults, the suspended snows.


Just Hush

Often times I tell myself I’ve been thinking too much.
No rush of the river can soften its touch
but relief, relief can be found in an empty cavern
drained of the tide and left untouched.
Just air, just hush, often you say too much.



Cosmin Dzsurdzsa is the 2016 recipient of the English Society Creative Writing Award for Poetry. His work, both as a poet and a critic, is deeply concerned with the sacred experience. He credits the Symbolist movement and 20th-century Imagism as important influences. Cosmin’s work seeks to engage with the imagination through striking visual representations.


The photo shows, “The Awaited,” by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, painted in 1860.

Indo-European And Indo-Europeans

A bit of time travel… The scene: Calcutta, India. The year is 1783; it is the time of the Honourable East India Company (or John Company, as it was often called), which administered Bengal through the governor-generalship of Warren Hastings.

In 1783, then, a thirty-seven year old jurist, a native of London, landed in Calcutta to take up the post of judge of the Supreme Court. This man was Sir William Jones, who not only possessed a brilliant legal mind but also had an innate gift for languages.

When he landed in Calcutta, he could speak all the European languages, along with Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, and Persian, and even a bit of Chinese. When he came to Calcutta, he was extremely interested in learning Sanskrit, the classical language of northern India. This he set out to do almost immediately, hiring local pundits as instructors.

By 1784, he had established the Asiatic Society of Bengal, which had its own journal, Asiatic Researches. Jones went on to translate many of the classics of Sanskrit literature and laid the foundations of Indology, or the study of Indian culture. Given his propensity for languages, it is not surprising that he began to see patterns and similarities in languages that lay separated by thousands of miles. He says in one of his letters, dated September 27, 1787: “You would be astonished at the resemblance between that language [namely, Sanskrit] and both Greek and Latin.”

This astonishment reached its fullest expression in the early months of 1794, just a little before his death in April of that year. The astonishment, we will note, has now become a certainty, pointing perhaps even to a methodology:

The Sanskrit language, whatever may be its antiquity, is of wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could have been produced by accident; so strong that no philologer [linguist] could examine all the three without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists. There is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and Celtic, though blended with a different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanskrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family.

Here, we should acknowledge the fact that Jones was not the first person to see this affinity of the languages India, Iran and Europe.

As early as 1581, the Italian merchant Filippo Sasseti saw the same similarity, as did the English Jesuit Thomas Stevens who was in India in 1583.

In the seventeenth century, the Dutch scholar Marcus Boxhorn grouped together Latin, Greek, German and Persian. In 1768, the Jesuit, Gaston-Laurent Coeurdoux saw Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, Slavonic and Germanic as all derived from the same source.

And in 1767, James Parsons published his voluminous study, The Remains of Japhet, Being Historical Enquiries Into The Affinity and Origins of the European Languages.

In this book, Parsons gave a lengthy list of words that were similar. The list had over 1,000 words and included all the major Eurasian languages: Irish, Welsh, Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Old English, English, Russian, Polish, Bengali and Persian.

In order to highlight his argument of similitude, Parsons compared the same words with other languages, namely, Turkish, Hebrew, Malay, and Chinese. This simple, yet extensive exercise proved beyond a doubt that the languages of Europe and those of Iran and India showed a marked resemblance.

For Parsons, this resemblance pointed to the verity of the biblical account of Noah. In the eighteenth century, the labels used for languages derived from the three sons of Noah, whose progeny came to populate the earth, after the great flood. Thus, the Jews and Arabs were descended from Shem and were hence Semites; the Egyptians were descended from Ham, and were labeled Hamites; and Noah’s third son, Japhet, was the forefather of all the remaining races of the earth; hence the linguistic parallels between India, Iran and Europe pointed to an original Japhetic language, from which all the rest were derived.

Before we scoff at this notion, it is important to keep in mind that it was only in the nineteenth century that this biblical paradigm was abandoned. Even Jones himself postulated Japhetic origins in order to explain the astonishing parallels. Historians in the eighteenth century thought within the structure of Book of Genesis when it came to the remote past. Thus, when the world was destroyed in the Great Flood, it was presupposed that Noah’s Ark came to rest in Armenia, from where Noah’s sons issued forth to repopulate the earth.

But what were these connections that Jones and the other saw?  Let us briefly look at these ourselves in order to get a sense of the astonishment. Here’s a random, brief list to help us along in our discussion.

English:      father          brother          son        daughter       sister

Celtic:         athair         brathair        —         duxtir            siur

Latin:         pater           frater            —         —                  soror

German:    Vater           Bruder          Sohn      Tochter          Schwester

Greek:        pater           phrater          uius       thugater         eor

Sanskrit:    pitar           bhratar          sunu      duhitar          svasar

Persian:     pidar          bradar           hunus     dukhtar          —

Russian:    pyat            brat                syn         doch               sestra

Lithuanian:   —         brolis             sunus      dukte              sesuo


Although Sir William Jones understood the commonalities between the languages of Europe, India and Iran, he himself stayed entrenched in the biblical schema of the Great Flood, when it came time to explain why these affinities existed in the first place.

It was only in the nineteenth century that scholars of language (or philology) could move beyond Noah, and consider other reasons for the correspondences.

Thus, scholars sought to arrive at a “system” whereby these affinities could be scientifically examined. Here was an attempt to move beyond the “astonishment” that mesmerized the eighteenth century towards an understanding of the rules that governed and predicated linguistic parallels.

This meant it was no longer enough to merely construct long lists of words that were similar; it was more important to examine the underlying set of laws that sought to answer the question as to why each word was not exactly the same in all of the languages. Thus despite the similarities, there were also discernible patterns of change that made Celtic “behave” a certain way, when compared to Sanskrit or Germanic. Thus was born the science of comparative philology.

The father of this new science was Rasmus Christian Rask (1787-1832), the Danish professor, who could speak 25 languages. In his monumental work, Essay on the Origin of the Ancient Scandinavian or Icelandic Tongue (1812), he set in place a system that explained the changes within European languages.

For example, he demonstrated the Greek ph = the Germanic b. Thus, it was that the Greek phrater equaled the German Bruder, or the English “brother.” In the same way, the Greek g always corresponded to the Germanic k. Therefore the Greek agros (“field”) was the same as the Old Norse akr, or the English “acre.”

These rules did not stop merely at sound shifts, but could be discerned in the very structure of the languages in this large familial group. For example, the Latin and Sanskrit word for “fire” underwent the very same declension:


Case                                              Latin                                      Sanskrit

Nominative Singular                  ignis                                       agnis

Accusative Singular                    ignem                                     agnim

Dative Plural                               ignibus                                   agnibhyas


Such a methodology initiated a great effort to synthesize comparative linguistics. Chief among these was the massive work, A Comparative Grammar of Sanskrit, Zend, Greek, Latin, Lithuanian, Old Slavonic, Gothic and Germanic, which came in six volumes and took nineteen years to complete (1833-1853). Its author was the great German philologist Franz Bopp (1791-1867).

As for the term “Indo-European,” it was coined by that most learned physician, physicist and Egyptologist, Thomas Young (1773-1829). The term remains popular in English and the Romance languages. German scholars prefer the term “Indo-Germanic.” The meaning of both is the same: the great family of languages that covers most of the globe.

But having arrived at the linguistic similitude, the next question that was inevitably asked was, “Who were the Indo-Europeans?” Thus began the “problem” of the Indo-Europeans, a problem that remains unresolved to this day, despite a great many advances.

And just what is the “Indo-European problem?” Very simply: since there is no dispute as to the similarities that exist between the languages of Europe, Iran, and India, does this not imply that there was once a time in hoary antiquity when there was only one language, from which all these similar languages stemmed?

Scholars have constructed a hypothetical version of this unified language; it is known as Proto-Indo-European (or as the Germans would have it, Urindogermanisch). And if there was this time of linguistic unity, there must have been one tribe, or group of people that spoke this undifferentiated language. And by extension, where upon this earth did this tribe of Indo-Europeans live?

Given this implied unity, can we discern a cohesive Indo-European culture? A shared mythology, religion, and even concepts? As is immediately obvious, the drive towards scientifically examining the likeness in the Indo-European languages also greatly enlarged the scope of study.

It is this broader, and infinitely more interesting, examination of Indo-European and Indo-Europeans to which we shall now turn.

Once we postulate a linguistic unity, we must then consider a time-frame and a geographical location. This is another step in linguistic archaeology, namely, language as paleontology. Methodologically, this means that we must use those words, which describe physicality, geography, the flora and the fauna, and from these “clues” try to find a match in the archaeological record. And sure enough, there are several intriguing possibilities.

Scholars have looked at the common words for trees, animals, plants, and even physical features, such as mountains, lakes, and rivers. But none of these provide enough evidence to pin down the Indo-Europeans with any degree of certitude. However, when we move into the realm of domesticated animals, we are immediately on fertile ground.

One of the advantages of linguistic paleontology is the fact that it provides researchers with markers that can be traced in the archaeological record. Now, when we consider the Indo-Europeans, one of the most important markers is the domesticated horse. First, all the Indo-European languages share a common word for “horse.”

When the speakers of these languages burst onto history, they are always associated with two things – the domesticated horse and the chariot (which we will examine a little later). We also know from the study of ritual in all the Indo-European cultures that the horse played a vital role.

All scholars agree that the horse was an important component of Indo-European culture. Since we are attempting to locate the original home of the Indo-Europeans, we need to consider the fact that if the horse played a central in Indo-European society, then it might be fruitful to look at those locations where is the horse is known to be indigenous.

This brings us to the region that extends east from the Dnieper river to the Volga, or the Eurasian steppe, where herds of wild horses are known to have roamed from the Neolithic period onwards. By the fourth millennium BC, the horse is already domesticated and cane be found as far east as the Afanasievo culture of southern Siberia, and as far west as the Balkans and the Carpathian basin. It is here that the home of Indo-Europeans is to be located. But all that we should discuss another time.



The photo shows, “The Dream of Ossian,” by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, painted in 1813.

Whatever Happened To The West? Part I

[Editor’s note: This is a two-part series that examines the character of the West, which once made it exceptional].


The most ancient roots of the West lie in one place.

The society in which we live, a liberal democracy, is the result not of events that happened all over the world – rather, it is the result of events that happened in just one country. ancient Greece.

We are who we are not because of what happened in ancient China, Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt or India (essential as the histories of these places are to our knowledge of the world). Despite the passage of millennia, we still live in the world invented by the ancient Greeks.

And because of the influence and spread of western technology, the entire globe has now been impacted by these Greeks of long ago.

There is a reason why we want all people to be free; why we think more democracy is a good thing; why we worry about the environment; why we have immense faith in our ability to come up with solutions no matter how great the problem; why we believe education to be crucial to building a good life; why we seek self-respect.

And this reason is simply stated: we have inherited – not created – a particular habit of mind, a way of looking at the world.

We live within a set of values that constantly encourage us to depend on reason, to seek out moderation and distrust excess, to live a disciplined life, to demand responsibility in politics, to strive for clarity of thought and ideas, to respect everyone and everything, including nature and the environment, and most of all to cherish and promote freedom.

This is our inheritance from the ancient Greeks. We need to study them in order to learn and relearn about our intellectual, esthetic and moral inheritance – so that we might meaningfully add to it so that it may continue in the vast project of building the goodness of our society.

This is why we need to study the Greeks, because through them we come to study ourselves.

And what about the Romans? They were the people that allowed Greek learning to be made available to the world.

The ancient Romans adopted the Greek habit of mind and through their empire, which stretched from the borders of Scotland to the borders of Iran, they passed on this inheritance to all the people that lived within these borders.

Thus, in studying the Romans, we come to understand how very difficult it has been for ideas, which we may take for granted, to come down to us. Whereas the ancient Greeks created the world we live in, the ancient Romans facilitated it by giving universality to the Greek habit of mind.

Thus, to study both these civilizations is to fully understand our own.

Prehistoric human settlement in the Greek peninsula stretches back to the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. By the time of the Bronze Age, different types of pottery demarcates the various phases of material culture.

For the sake of convenience, historians have used these various types of pottery to work out a chronology of Greek prehistory. And because Greece is not only the peninsular mainland, but also the islands in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, the pottery is sorted out by different regions.

Thus, the Bronze Age in the mainland of Greece is classified as Helladic (from 1550 B.C. to 1000 B.C.).

On the island of Crete, the Bronze Age is labeled Minoan (from 3000 B.C. to about 1450 B.C.). And on the various islands of the Aegean, the Bronze Age is referred to as Cycladic, where it begins around 3000 B.C. and lasts until about 2000 B.C., at which time the culture of the Cyclades is absorbed into the greater Minoan civilization.

The earliest expression of Bronze Age civilization in Europe is found on the island of Crete, where a brilliant culture flourished from about 2700 B.C. to around 1450 B.C.

It was brought to light in 1900 by the English archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated a large complex at Knossos, which he called a “palace.”

But the “palace” he found was different from what we might imagine. It was a warren of maze-like adjoining rooms, where people lived and worked, and where oil, wine and grain were stored in massive clay jars, some as high as six feet. It was likely an administrative center, plus a warehouse.

The labyrinthine layout of the palace suggested the name, Minoan,” to Evans, after the Greek myth of King Minos of Crete, who had built a maze to hide the Minotaur, the half-man, half-bull offspring of his wife, Pasiphae, who had fallen in love, and then coupled, with a white bull.

The many wall-paintings from the palace give indication that the cult of the bull was prevalent among the ancient Cretans – the best example being the ritual or sport of “bull-leaping,” in which young men and women grasped the horns of a charging bull and leaped over its back to land behind the animal.

It is difficult to say whether this was done as sport, or perhaps even as a religious dance. We cannot know since we have no contemporary written explanation for this display.

Evans also found thousands of clay tablets with writing on them. The writing was in two versions of the same script. The first version he labeled Linear A, and the second he called Linear B.

The only problem was that he could read neither. It would not be until 1952 that Michael Ventris finally deciphered Linear B and found the many texts in this script to be the earliest form of the Greek language.

When the same rules of decipherment were applied to Linear A, however, it was found to be a curious language that was not Greek at all, nor was it a language that could be placed in any known family group.

Perhaps as further work is done on Linear A, it might disclose more of its secrets. But for now, the Minoan world is mysterious to us, because all we have are its material remains.

However, the more intriguing question that arises from the evidence we have is – how did the earliest form of the Greek language get mixed with a non-Greek language in the palace at Knossos?

This question points us northwards to the mainland of Greece, and to a city known as Mycenae.

The speakers of the earliest form of Greek were the Mycenaeans, who were given their name from the city they inhabited, namely, Mycenae, where the German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, in 1876, found a well-developed civilization, with a ruling warrior aristocracy who lived in fortified towns built on hilltops.

Aside from Mycenae, the towns of Athens (a relatively unimportant place at this early time), Pylos, Tiryns, Iolkos and Orchomenus were also part of Mycenaean culture, which established itself around 1900 B.C. and endured until 1200 B.C.

Schliemann’s excavations revealed a circle of shaft-graves, in which the dead were buried standing up, and in which were found large quantities of weapons as well as gold objects, from funerary masks to goblets and jewelry.

He also found evidence for the domesticated horse and the chariot – and, most important of all, there were found clay tablets with Linear B written on them, which would be deciphered as the earliest form of the Greek language.

All these discoveries led to an important question – where did the Greeks come from because their language ultimately is not native to the land now known as Greece.

If we examine the archaeological record of the time just before the Mycenaean age, we find massive destruction that lasted about a hundred years from 2200 B.C. to about 2100 B.C.

And the material remains of the people that established themselves after the destruction were markedly different from those that lived in these same areas before.

It is to this deep destruction that we can link the “coming of the Greeks,” a phrase much used by historians.

So, where did the Greeks come from?

The clues before us are two-fold: material and intellectual culture. The excavations at Mycenae yield several essential clues: chariot parts, horse tack, skeletal remains of horses, weapons and pottery; plus, there is also the fact that these people were speakers of early Greek, as demonstrated by the Linear B texts.

The recent discovery of the Griffin Warrior from the Mycenaean Age also points to the richness of the material remains from the era, and further offers hints as to the origin of Greek culture.

These clues points to one conclusion. The earliest Greeks, that is, the Mycenaeans, came as invaders, likely from the north, and they destroyed what they found and took control and began to build their own fortified towns.

And we know that they are invaders because of their language, which is Indo-European – and this tells us that these early Greeks came from elsewhere, since the origin of the Indo-European languages is in a place quite a bit distant from Greece.

In the latter years of the third millennium, there were massive Indo-European invasions throughout Eurasia. This is evidenced by the spread of Indo-European languages, and by DNA analysis.

The origin of the Indo-Europeans is likely in the Pontic-Caspian steppe, what historians call the “Kurgan culture.” “Kurgan” refers to the grave mounds under which these early Indo-Europeans buried their dead.

From this point of origin, the Indo-Europeans overran large parts of Europe and some parts of Asia. They were able to be do this because they had domesticated the horse, had invented the chariot, and perfected the composite bow.

The languages they spoke were closely related and to this day comprise the largest family group in the world.

Thus, the indo-European languages consist of the ancient languages (and their modern-day descendants) of northern India (Vedic and Sanskrit) and Persia (Avestan and modern Persian), the Slavic languages, the Baltic languages (Lithuanian and Latvian), Celtic and the Italic (Latin and its descendants, such as, French and Italian), the Germanic languages (such as, German and English), and of course Greek (interestingly, Greek did not create any descendant languages).

This affinity between languages extends further into intellectual culture, since language is the bearer of culture, thus there is a pronounced similarity, for example, among the myths of the various Indo-European peoples – these myths explain and stratify reality.

The Indo-Europeans who veered into Greece called themselves Achaeans, who spoke a very early form of Greek, a form that has some of the closest affinities to Vedic and Sanskrit.

The Achaeans subdued the various non-Indo-European peoples that were living in Greece (the Minoans) and set up suzerainty over them.

The outcome of this process was what we call the Mycenaean civilization, which Schliemann excavated, as noted earlier. The Mycenaeans were known for their warrior culture, in which the chariot and the horse were much valued.

By 1600 B.C. they were established and thrived not only in Greece but also in parts of what is now Turkey.

Around 1450 B.C. these Mycenaeans conquered Crete and destroyed the Minoan civilization.

But they were not above learning civilized ways from the people they had conquered – for they adapted the art of writing invented by the Minoans to their own language, since the Minoan alphabet was not suited for an Indo-European language which had many consonantal clusters, whereas the alphabet of the Minoans (Linear A) was syllablic (each letter represented a consonant and a vowel together).

It is for this reason that Sir Arthur Evans found texts written in both Linear A and Linear B at Knossos, since the Mycenaeans assumed control of this palace structure after their take-over of Crete; and in time they came to use the Linear A alphabet as their own.

The rule of the Mycenaeans in Greece and in Crete was fated. It was destroyed during a catastrophic period in Eurasian history known as “the Bronze Age Collapse,” in which a total of forty-seven important cities were attacked, their inhabitants either killed or enslaved, and the places burned to the ground.

The swath of burned down cities is large and covers Syria, the Levant, Anatolia, Cyprus, Crete and Greece. From 1200 B.C. to about 1150 B.C., there were destructive raids by newer groups of Indo-European peoples, who had developed an innovative method of warfare, which gave them a greater advantage over the armies that these doomed cities could muster.

We have to keep in mind that the first Indo-European invasions, which saw the establishment of the Mycenaeans in Greece and Crete, were the result of the chariot and the composite bow.

The invasions which put an end to the Bronze Age were also successful because of a new type of warfare – the use of infantry armed with a long lance and a broad sword.

The metal for these weapons was iron. Bronze weapons were no match for these iron lances and swords, and the chariots became useless, too, since the foot-soldiers could easily disable a charioteer with their long lances by spearing the warriors that rode inside. The Bronze Age was violently brought to an end by iron weapons.

Thus, the Iron Age begins with an enormous catastrophe – a total collapse of civilization.

Once the large cities and palaces were destroyed, they were replaced by small communities of a few individuals; and these were often located not in the plains, but high in the uplands.

The Iron Age is also known as the Ancient Dark Age, because civilization, or city life, disappeared.

The new group of Indo-Europeans, who invaded Greece in the twelfth century B.C. and put an end to the Mycenaeans, are known as the Dorians; their name likely derives from the early Greek word, doru, which was the long wooden lance that they carried.

It is from the various dialects of these new invaders, plus Linear B that the Greek language developed.

The invading people destroyed civilization and did not value living in palaces or large cities. Instead, they chose to live in smaller communities that had fewer luxuries and fineries which we usually associate with civilization.

There is also evidence of depopulation since the settlements that replace the burned cities and palaces tend to be small and few. Pottery is no longer finely and elaborately decorated but has simple geometric patterns.

The Dark Age lasted from 1200 B.C. to 800 B.C. and can be summarized as a period of petty tribalism.

However, we know a lot about this period because of two significant literary works that describe the people involved in these invasions.

They are the two poems by the legendary poet Homer, namely, The Iliad and The Odyssey. In fact, the story of the siege of Troy may be a memory of the Bronze Age Collapse.

It is with Homer that we enter into recorded Greek history, known as the Archaic period.

From 800 B.C. to 480 B.C., Greece underwent revolutionary changes and began to emerge from its tribal era. This period saw the growth of cities once more, which was fueled by an increase in population and the expansion of commercial trade.

The idea of people being ruled by kings vanished and was replaced by a new form of government, the city-state, in which people sought not to be warrior-heroes, but good citizens.

As a result, there was a focus on refining city life, which led to great achievements in architecture, sculpture, art, commercial relations and trade, politics, and intellectual and cultural life.

Because of larger population colonies were established outside of Greece: in Sicily, southern Italy, eastern parts of Spain, along the southern coastline of France, at Cyrenaica in North Africa, in the Hellespont, and along the Black Sea.

All this was possible because of the growth of technological knowledge, especially in the areas of shipbuilding and seafaring, as well as developments of a new form of government, the polis, or the city-state, which came about as a result of synoecism, or the gathering of various villages into single political entities or units.

It was because of advances in the archaic period that Greek city-states prepared themselves for the maturity and perfection that they would achieve in the fifth century B.C.

And the most important of these cities was Athens, whose citizens radically and permanently changed the world around them – so much so that the ideas implemented by these men and the structures established by them are the very ones in which we still live.

Civilization would never really look back, because of what was achieved in Athens in the fifth century B.C.

This is the origin of the West.



The photo shows, “The Erechtheion on the Acropolis,” by Lancelot-Theodore Turpin de Crisse, painted in 1805.

Language As Archaeology

Where do words come from?

This question then leads to a similar, but broader, question – where do languages come from?

The study of the origin of words forms a special category of history, namely, historical linguistics, which is best described as the archaeology of language.

The metaphor that defines the very essence of archaeology is “the dig,” wherein the earth is pierced and the layers of human existence it enfolds are revealed and read.

Thus, to dig is to go back, not necessarily to an origin, but certainly to a chronological reckoning of the human past.

The very root of the word “archaeology” points us this way; the Greek arkhaiologia means a “collection of ancient things;” by extension “antiquarian lore,” or “ancient history.” There is also logia, which is logos – that grand term of Greek philosophy which means, “word,” “speech,” “reason,” as well as “logic.”

More than anything, archaeology teaches us that material objects are fragments from a larger universe of a culture long vanished, which we can only partially know.

Indeed, wholeness and completeness are antithetical concepts to the science of archaeology – because it entirely depends upon fragments in order to read the past. To understand the past by way of brief remnants requires the highest sort of wisdom – that gained only by a well-disciplined imagination.

When archaeology begins to read the past by way of the fragment, it is broadening its scope to include more than shards, encrusted weapons, worn out coins, and bones.

In this way, archaeology comes to include the entirety of human culture, and what is more human than language?

As we dig objects from the earth, we lay them before us and seek to classify them, to fit them into broader patterns of human civilization.

This “fit” is determined by an associative process – if a shard displays a certain pattern, then it will fit into a category determined by pots and shards that carried similar patterns; and these patterns were used by such-and-such culture, which flourished at this or that time.

Thus, around the fragment we construct a narrative, a story, a history. And by way of this narrative, we make sense of all the ages that came before us.

In effect, archaeology provides the words which physical fragments lack. Ancient objects need to be returned to language so that they can become comprehensible again.

Now, if we shift gears a little bit and imagine language as ground, as a field, which we can dig into, just like soil, and extract historical artifacts, we are participating in linguistic archaeology.

This is more than mere “word origin” or etymology (which comes from the Greek etumologia, or “the true sense [of a word]”).

Digging into a language brings us to the very dawn of human culture – when humankind began to connect sounds that came from the larynx to the reality outside, as well as the reality of ideas.

Language can at once refer to both the material world, and the world of ideas.

Thus, when we speak of the archaeology of language, we mean all those things that are constructed by way of words and ideas.

And what are these things? Intellectual concepts, religion, ritual, mythology, folklore, poetry. These things leave a mark not on the earth, but on the ground of the human psyche.

This means that linguistic archaeology allows us to dig into human psychology itself – it allows us to construct the mindset of ancient humanity.

And it is this mindset which allows us to speak, as it were, with the past, and hear and learn its wisdom.

History is not a set of “lessons,” as commonly explained. Rather, history is humanity accessing the collective moral experience of lived moments.

What does this mean? Ancient artifacts are things to think with – they are aids to memory.

Here it is worthwhile to recall Plato’s explanation of where knowledge comes from – that knowledge is innate in our souls, because it was printed on it during our existence long before we assumed physical shape. Our search for truth, then, is our quest for dimly remembered eternal ideas.

Thus, studying the origin of languages is an imitation of this quest, for it is the search for truth long forgotten.

In his Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein makes this observation: “…as to the essence of language, of propositions, of thought….they see in the essence, not something that already lies open to view and that becomes surveyable by a rearrangement, but something that lies beneath the surface. Something that lies within, which we see when we look into the thing, and which an analysis digs out.”

Each word carries an ancient history, a deep memory. Where do words come from? From such history and memory. Where do languages come from? From the experience of moral and physical reality within human memory.

To dig into words is to look upon the hidden soul of meaning, which is to say, the hidden history of the human past.



The photo shows, “Maiden Meditation,” painted in 1847, by Charles West Cope.