Darkness falls

06/06/08

Permalink 04:37:46 pm, by Chris Jones Email , 607 words, 6217 views   English (US)
Categories: Vocabulary and Grammar

Darkness falls

Obscuritas, Tenebrae and Caligo are all rough synonyms for “darkness". A closer look at these words reveals interesting facets of the Roman mind.

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The Greek emission theory was the most general “scientific” explanation the ancients had for vision. The idea was that some sort of ray from the eye was intercepted by physical objects. Obscuritas IMO captures something of this basic idea. After the prefix ob, the roots of this word are likely the same as for scuta - “tray” and scutum - “shield". Thus, the word carries the notion that something is unseen because it lies behind a larger, blocking object. The transfered meaning then assumes “darkness” is a palpable thing interposed between the eye and surrounding objects.

A citation from Pliny the Elder (NH II.79) illustrates; here the author is talking about how the sun can obscure the viewing of planets:

Tinguit…approprinquantes (sidera)…Sol atque commissurae apsidum extremaeque orbitae atram in obscuritatem.

(apsides is probably best translated as the positions of heavenly bodies as viewed from earth)

Atram here is key; it seems odd to us to think of the sun’s brightness as “coloring” (tinguit) lesser objects in “black darkness", but this fits with the then-current emission theory of vision.

Tenebrae is probably the most common word for general darkness. L&S links the general root of this word with timere - “to fear", but a little digging unearths the uncommon Latin words temetum–a strong wine–and temulentus - “to be stupefied/drunk". Tenebrae then is “darkness” as it impairs the senses; a good example comes from book 11 of the Aeneid, the final words of the warrior woman Camilla:

“Hactenus, Acca soror, potui: nunc vulnus acerbum
conficit, et tenebris nigrescunt omnia circum…”
(XI.823-4)

The passage illustrates one of the word’s multifold association with gloom. Tenebrae is used to describe, e.g., prisons (When Adherbal reports to the Senate about treatment of his partisans by Jugurtha: Pars in crucem acti, pars bestiis obiecti sunt, pauci, quibus relicta est anima, clausi in tenebris cum maerore et luctu morte grauiorem vitam exigunt. - Bel. Jurg. 14), a “dark corner” (Catullus, searching for his friend in the portico of Pompey–a haunt for prostitutes–rhetorically asks demonstres ubi sint tuae tenebrae. - 55.2), and of course the infernal regions (Of many examples, Horace closes an ode with the reflection infernis neque enim tenebris Diana pudicum/liberat Hippolytum, - Carm. IV.7.25-6).

Caligo is more properly “mist/fog", but is yet another stand in for “darkness". The root of this word is the same as found in clam - “secretly, concealed from", callum - “a thick skin", and the English word “callus". Association with “darkness” according to L&S is causa pro effectu, and it seems to have been a strong one. Cicero in his speech against the Agrarian law uses a sailing metaphor to describe proponents of the bill as trying to circumvent open debate in the Senate for personal gain in Egypt:

an qui Etesiis, qui per cursum rectum regnum tenere non potuerunt, nunc caecis tenebris et caligine se Alexandream perventuros arbitrati sunt?

(Etesiis - “with the Etesian winds", i.e. with favorable sailing conditions)

There is also this charming hexameter from Lucretius: Nox ubi terribili terras caligine texit. (VI.851), putting caligo with nox. And like the English expressions “he’s in a fog” or “I haven’t the foggiest", the word often referred to a darkness of the mind: Ipse autem caeca mentem caligine…consitus is how Catullus describes Theseus as he forgets the abandoned Ariadne to concentrate on a sudden storm (64.207).

Three words for the same general concept, a reminder that its worth plowing past the first few suggestions in your pocket dictionary once in a while…

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Qui sciet quae quoque sint modo dicenda, nisi tamen in procinctu paratamque ad omnis casus habuerit eloquentiam, velut clausis thesauris incubabit.

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