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By Alfred de Grazia

Part Three: Working of the Mind



The neophyte comes upon the word "catastrophe" and feels proud to discover within it the Greek words kata (down) and aster (star), so "failing stars" is heralded as the origin of the word. Not so, say our betters: the Greek words within it are kata and strophe (turning) and refer to that part of an ancient drama in which occurs the denouement; the plot, having reached its culmination, descends, often precipitously.

In a plea for the innocents, I would suggest that what we know of Greek etymology is based upon late sources. We know only several hundred words of Minoan and Mycenean, catastrophe not among them. Homer and Hesiod do not employ the word, and they are the earliest of our Greek sources.

I am fortified in my opinion that catastrophe originally meant disaster (dys-aster) by more than this lack of sources of early Greek usage. There is a common tendency in linguistics for people to put two words together ungrammatically and against the ordinary rules for linguistic construction. Hence, three meanings might arise independently and join, since their cognition and perception are close, viz., down-crashing star, huge disaster in general, and the disaster emulating collapse of the plot of a tragedy.

Benjamin Whorf, in Language, Thought and Reality, p. 261, exemplifies how commonly in linguistic behavior "a pattern engenders meanings utterly extraneous to the original lexation reference," to wit: "the word 'asparagus, ' under the stress of purely phonetic English patterns..., rearranges to 'spargras'; and then since 'sparrer' is a dialectical form of 'sparrow', we find 'sparrow grass. ' Another case would be the transformation of Kohlsalat into coleslaw and even, most recently, into coldslaw.

We turn to France for an English etymology, wondering at the word 'martinet' as in the sentence "Her father was a martinet." In Webster's and then in Robert's French Dictionary we discover that a martinet in the fourteenth century appears as a bird, then a chandelier, and by 1743 we find it to be a whip used on children, while in the seventeenth century there lived a French army officer, Martinet, who was a strict disciplinarian, whence the usage of the word today.

Let us recall the book of Cohane on The Key with his several basic words, all god-words, divine, and most likely astral in original reference, og, enah (or hawa), ala, and aza among them. The Black Magellanic Cloud is the name for the seemingly starless patch in the Milky Way near the Southern Cross. The British sailors called it the 'Coalsack' and, coming then from a land of coal, it is understandable. One may choose, says Cohane, and I agree, between imagining "coalsack" to derive from "coal" and "sack", or to think it may be remotely related in the dim past to 'Quetzalcoatl' (the planet Venus). For "... the ancient Mexicans believed that it was through these huge 'empty' spaces that Zoutem-que and his band of fallen angels arrived on this planet." All but the "t" element of the Mexican word is present, as we read Oc/ Hawa/ Ala/ Aza/ Ok or Ocoalazock which sounds like "Coalsack" out of Newcastle. The fallen angel is our Latin Lucifer as in the Bible, who is specifically the planet Venus; and we need not here explain that we have in mind the catastrophic events provoked by cometary Venus in the mid-second millennium B. C., who was not only Quetzalcoatl as savior, but was also a frightful all-destroying god to the Mexicans.

We shall not proceed much farther here. A study of reversals of letters might be rewarding (I wrote "rewording" and scratched it out). Thus I think that the word "Mkl" who is Michael the Archangel and a Hebrew identity for Cometary Venus, may also be "Mlkh" in reverse, who is Moloch, the godfigure dreaded by the ancient Hebrews. And so Python (the dragon killed by Apollo) and Phaeton (the solar figure who was struck down by Zeus to save the burning up of the Earth) and Typhon (the monster dragon also struck down by Zeus) who is tied closely to the cometary-Venus of the mid-second millennium, and who is also Typhoon, the storms of South Asia and Hurracan, the great wind god of the original Americans. But, to refer to The Disastrous Love Affair of Moon and Mars. Typhon is also the Pallas portion of Pallas Athene, the great Athenian goddess, who is Hephaistos, whose name Robert Graves says means hemerophaistos (he who shines by day), related to he apaista, (the goddess who removes from sight) who is none other than Athena. Transmogrifying words is a continuous and eternal human exercise, often performed unconsciously under disastrous stimulation. As agitation creates invention, anxiety creates words; the greater the fear the more words - but the more of catatonism, too - fear of words, being stuck upon words, avoiding words.

Recently two quantavolutionaries engaged in a dispute, the one Editor of the Review of the Society for Interdisciplinary Studies, Malcolm Lowery, a linguist, the other Zvi Rix, a contributor to the Review and a physician. Rix became over the years the greatest authority on that symbol of "divine life" and of many religious apparitions, the ankh, the circle resting upon crossarms and vertical stroke, thus:

By virtue of intensive research, Rix had established that the ankh was not only a widespread symbol, a religious symbol of wide dedication, but also a manifestation of androgyny, that is, a representation of the female vulva and the male phallus, and furthermore was securely identified with a cometary form, especially Venus, with ominous indications that the comet being discussed was a head that had dropped its tail, the victim of this accident being not only the two-sexed god concerned, but also the Earth on which the tail in the form of Phaeton, Typhon, Lucifer and Pallas descended with disastrous consequences.

Lowery, the Editor, partly out of deviltry and partly out of pedantry, pulled Rix up sharply. Citing dictionaries of hieroglyphic Egyptian, he could say that "the evidence of Egyptian script makes it unambiguously clear that when an Egyptian scribe drew an 'ankh' he, at least, was in no doubt that he was drawing a sandal-strap (somewhat stylized)" [1] . This constraint upon the word excited Dr. Rix into a reply that explained how Lowery was "putting the cart before the horse," and that "the original meaning was substantially modified and moderated when terror-stricken humanity managed to analogise these catastrophe-laden prime ideograms to similar-sounding phonetic writings and spellings of less frightful character and of much later development" [2] .

The present writer defended Rix, with his complaint, and specified that the castration-image of the dissevered comet, fully apparent in legends of Typhon and associated events, would readily descend into a sandal-strap, for the word "foot" is in psychiatric semiology a frequent substitute for repressed thoughts and words about the phallus. Moreover, the sandal-strap binds securely the foot, thus, in reverse imagery, to keep it from falling off like a comet's tail.

I would add another speculation, too far removed etymologically, perhaps, to take seriously, that the English word "ankle" had once to do with the word "ankh" and for the same reasons, and if one speaks of "ankle-strap" one might as well be speaking of "sandal-strap."

When I explained this remotely possible connection to Anne-Marie Hueber, who is expert in Allemanic (Swiss) German, she remarked that this language possessed a word "anke," now obsolete, meaning "butter." We pondered this until it occurred that the German word "butter," the same as in English, could be confused phonetically with 'boot' or "foot," possibly by a Hun invader or an early Christian missionary, and, once again, we should be on the track of the "ankle-strap" and its connotations.

The same line of thought led me to a story that I had once heard, of how the bread called Pumpernickel had been named. It seems that the party of Napoleon Bonaparte had stopped at an inn on one of his journeys through Germany and food was served him. Napoleon tasted the proffered sour brown bread and handed it to an aide saying, "C'est bon pour Nicole," this being the name of his horse. The uncomprehending but flattered host announced that such was the name of his bread in French and so it would be called thereafter. (Should this story be untrue we are permitted the Italian expression, "Se non vero, ben trovato.")

The heart as the seat of love and soul is not Greek or Roman by origin, but Christian. The Greeks and Romans were fully and explicitly phallic [3] . The Christian heart, it need no retailing to modern folk, is and has been for long a motif to be found in a great many paintings and is referred to in many prayers. The cult of the Sacred Heart of Jesus originated in the Seventeenth Century with the counter-reformation texts of the ecstatic nun, Marguerite-Marie Alocoque.

In searching for the origins of this shape, the heart, one is led ultimately to a most common symbol of prehistoric man, the female vulva. The sign is often an inverted triangle. As such, it abounds in ancient caves and collections of ancient artifacts. That the ancient vulva had religious significance as great as that of the Christian heart is relatively certain. An abstract of a recent article reads "A carved limestone object found in the East Gravettian [Upper Paleolithic] site at Bodrogkeresztur, Hungary, has been identified as a uterus symbol. It may also be a lunar calendar" [4] . Lunar signifies Aphrodite the goddess of love in later times and also the Mother-God and Mother-Earth.

What can we do but to explain what every scholar in a sense already knows: the eternal vulva, origin of life and source of affection, was simply inverted by Christian thought, into the more abstractly identified heart as the origin of life and love. The triumph of Christianity, sexless in the origin of its god and sexless in the stern teachings of Paul of Tarsus, required the abandonment of the old symbol and did so by converting it to the new.

Humans are not always deprived of control over word-making and word-meanings. George Kaufman the playwright once wrote a line for Groucho Marx - I am not sure of the exact words. A man calls down for hotel service: "I'd like my ice water." Groucho replies: "Send up an onion: that'll make his eyes water." If we could only know how many words began so, unless horrified by the implied blasphemy, we should be continuously amused. Playing with words helps a language to grow, especially subconscious play, accompanied by subconscious laughter - relief from anxiety, that is.

Notes (Chapter 16: Sand-straps and Semiology)

1. II SISR (D. 1977), 33.

2. Ibid., 32.

3. Cf. H. M. Westropp and C. S. Wake, Ancient Symbol Worship: Influence of the Phallic Idea in the Religions of Antiquity (London: Curzon 2nd ed., 1875); John Allegro, the Sacred Mushroom and the Cross.

4. Science (20 August, 1965) 855-6.


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