Asides: ex-votos, curse tablets and voces mysticae

I was given a copy of the Complete Stories of Elizabeth Taylor for Christmas, and was hoping to post about them today. I’m about 3/4 through (it’s over 600 pp) and would prefer to wait until I’ve finished, so this will be an interim post.

Defoe, Tour of BritainI’ve been reading a lot of material for a course I’m teaching about literature and sense of place. My elderly copy of Daniel Defoe’s Tour through the whole island of Great Britain (1727), in its ‘Suggestions for further reading’, cites an essay on the text by Edmund Blunden in Votive Tablets (1931) – which I’ve not managed to find a copy of yet. It’s a collection of his unsigned pieces on English authors published in the TLS, where he was assistant editor in the late 40s.

I vaguely knew what ‘votive tablets’ were, but looked up the term to be sure. Wikipedia defines thus:

votive deposit or votive offering is one or more objects displayed or deposited, without the intention of recovery or use, in a sacred place for broadly religious purposes.

These ‘ex-votos’, as they’re also known, are made in the anticipation or hope of supernatural assistance, such as cure of an illness, or as an offering of thanks when such a wish has been fulfilled. In the Catholic church (and many Anglican ones) the practice of lighting votive candles serves a similar purpose. There are also votive paintings, statues, crowns and so on.

I remember seeing near Paphos in Cyprus a tree by a sacred site that was festooned with ribbons and handkerchiefs left as votive offerings. I used to live near Holywell in N. Wales, and the eponymous well was surrounded by votive offerings, often in the shape of body parts that afflicted the supplicant, or items symbolic of affliction, such as crutches. It was a mini Lourdes.

A related object is the defixio or curse tablet. These were common in the Graeco-Roman world. They were usually tin sheets on which an inscription was scratched wishing misfortune on someone. They could also be used in the hope of restoring stolen property or punishing a thief, as a means of facilitating litigation favourably, or as love spells to speed erotic ambitions. (It’s worth checking the related term ‘anathema’, if you’re interested.)

In pagan use they were addressed to infernal or liminal gods like Hecate, Charon or Pluto.

Voces Mysticae were often found on curse tablets. These were meaningless words from no known language, like Bazagra, Bescu, or Berebescu, seemingly in order to lend them a kind of supernatural efficacy. They came from no known language, and were thought to be the language that only demons could understand. Wikipedia again:

Scholars from antiquity, like Christian philosopher Clement of Alexandria (ca. 200 CE), believed that human language was not appropriate for addressing the gods. Therefore, some of the inscriptions of these curse tablets are not easily translatable, because they were “invocations and secret names” which would only be understood by the spirits themselves. Another possibility is that curse tablets were produced by professionals who wished to lend their art a degree of mystique through the use of an apparently secret language that only they could understand.

This was thought to be a way to control the natural world.

The very early Ephesia Grammata were similar magic formulae or mantras, possibly originally inscribed on cult images of Artemis at Ephesus.

Their power was believed to reside in their sound rather than meaning. If uttered by people possessed by demons, it was believed they would be exorcised.

Spells, invocations, prayers: the magic power of language. Who says ‘words will never hurt’ like sticks and stones?

Some time ago I posted on apotropaic magic – not verbal, but visual.

Asides: aumbry, chrism, laver, accolade

Bottomley Abbeys cover Frank Bottomley’s The Explorer’s Guide to the Abbeys, Monasteries and Churches of Great Britain (Avenel Books, New York, 1984) was bought by me, according to an inscription on the flyleaf, in Windsor in 1987. It’s an alphabetical glossary of terms related to eccclesiastical and monastic terminology, especially architectural and liturgical. It’s fascinating, full of arcane stuff that appeals to the ex-medievalist in me, and has delightful, rather crude, line drawings. Weirdly the front cover has the author’s name spelt wrongly, as my picture shows.

I pulled it off the shelves this morning and found at random this entry, a term I’d forgotten (definition, etc., abridged from online OED):

aumbry, n.

Mid-13C aumbry, St Matthew's church, Langford, Oxon

Mid-13C aumbry, St Matthew’s church, Langford, Oxon

Etymology (abridged): < (i) Anglo-Norman almarie … (also OF, MF armaire, MF, French armoire) niche, cabinet, cupboard, closet, bookcase, library, chest (12th cent.), and its etymon (ii) classical Latin armārium cabinet, cupboard, bookcase, in post-classical Latin also recess in a wall (12th cent. in a British source), shelf (1440 in a British glossarial source) < arma gear, tools, arms + -ārium

Perhaps sometimes associated by folk etymology with ALMONRY n., as if a place for alms…

1. A container for storing books, a bookcase; (occas.) a room where books or other documents are stored, a library, an archive. Formerly also: †a repository or compendium of knowledge, such as a chronicle or commentary (obs.). Now hist. (chiefly in the form almery) and rare.
2. More generally.
a. A place for storing things, as a cupboard, locker, safe, press, etc.; a repository; (in later use) esp. a niche or recess in a wall used for storage. Formerly also (occas.): †a storeroom or storehouse (obs.).
Earliest recorded in attrib. use.

1886 R. L. STEVENSON Kidnapped iv. 37 ‘The blue phial,’ said he—‘in the aumry—the blue phial.’..I ran to the cupboard.
1972 B. MOORE Catholics ii. 77 The Abbot crossed the cloister to a bay where there was an ambry used for storing wood.

b. Christian Church. A cupboard, locker, or recess in the wall of a church or church building, to hold books, communion vessels, vestments, etc. This is the sense in which Bottomley uses it; he gives several examples of churches where they survive. They might have also been used for storage of ‘towels for laver’ (source of my surname? French ‘laverie’):

LAVER: monastic place for washing hands before meals ‘and for performing the morning toilet’. It would also be used in the ‘maundy’ – ritual footwashing (a symbol of fraternity and humility).

Chrismatory

A chrismatory, German,1636, now in the V & A Museum, London

1555 W. WATERMAN tr. J. Boemus Fardle of Facions II. xii. 301 Upon the right hande of the highe aulter, that ther should be an almorie, either cutte into the walle, or framed vpon it: in the whiche thei would haue the Sacrament of the Lordes bodye, the holy oyle for the sicke, and the Chrismatorie, alwaie to be locked.

********   **********

Glass ambry for oil (chrism) of catechumens (candidates for baptism) and the sick

Glass ambry for oil (chrism) of catechumens (candidates for baptism) and the sick

Wikipedia points out (s.v. ‘ambry’) that it stored elements used in the Eucharistic ceremony; the pyx would also serve this purpose. In Catholic usage it is where the various holy oils are stored, including the splendidly named chrism (from the Greek for ‘anointing’ or ‘unction’). It us used in the ceremonies of Confirmation or chrismation, and the sacraments of baptism and Holy Orders; also for consecration of altars and churches. It’s made from olive oil infused with sweet perfume such as balsam.

These holy oils are stored in receptacles called chrismaria and they’re kept in…yes, an aumbry.

In the Confirmation ceremony, associated with the renewal of baptismal vows when a person has reached an age of sufficient maturity to choose to make the renewal, the bishop would accompany the final ‘pax tecum’ blessing with a touch on the cheek. The Roman Pontifical interpreted this as a ‘slap’ – a physical reminder to the recipient to be brave in the defence of the faith.

This is a concept related to the medieval chivalric accolade (from ‘col’, French for neck, Latin ‘collum’), originally a rite of passage ceremony to signify a young man’s achieving the formal status of mature knight, later coming to signify ‘embrace’ or ‘honour’. Today we’re most familiar with the gesture of ‘adoubement’ or dubbing the recipient with a tap on each shoulder with the flat blade of a sword (the English queen does this still when knighting people). There is some dispute about the earlier forms of this ritual; it seems a kiss or light blow (‘colée’) on the cheek or ear might have been originally used, and the dubbing with the sword replaced the gesture.

Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, colportage and flâneurs

A divagation away from book reviews today, inspired by my leafing through an old notebook and seeing an item from 6 years ago: notes on a review of Beatrice Hanssen’s study (published by Bloomsbury now) of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project (my copy of the text in English, trans. Howard Eiland, Kevin McLaughlin; The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass and London, 1999). This is the fascinating proto-postmodern montage of notes and essays started in 1927 and left unfinished at Benjamin’s mysterious death (suicide to escape Nazi arrest as he tried to cross the Pyrenees into Spain) in 1940, representing his musings on the 19C ‘passages’ or arcades of Haussmannised Paris, ranging from ‘physiognomy of a flâneur’ to peregrinations through the city’s streets, with Marxist aphorisms and quotations from a huge range of obscure texts interspersed.Benjamin Arcades cover

Some time ago I wrote a post about Leopardi’s similar project of collected texts, Zibaldone (link HERE), likening it to other florilegia such as that by Chamfort.

There are some striking phrases in the review, arising from the text of The Arcades: ‘The Historian as Chiffonier’; ‘Politics of Loitering’; ‘Peregrinations through Paris’; ‘anamnestic intoxication’. This adjective sent me to the online OED (thank you, Cornwall Library Service, for making it available to cardholders for free; it’s a magnificent resource): ‘the recalling of things past; recollection; reminiscence < Greek ἀνάμνησις remembrance, n. of action < ἀναμνα stem of ἀναμιμνήσκειν to remember, < ἀνά back + μνα call to mind, < μένος mind.

Then there’s ‘The Colportage Phenomenon of Space’; a ‘colporteur’, says OED, is

A hawker of books, newspapers, etc. esp. (in English use) one employed by a society to travel about and sell or distribute Bibles and religious writings.

 The etymology is curious: ‘French agent-noun < colporter, apparently < col neck + porter to carry’, referring to the practice of carrying a tray or box (of books) held by a strap round the neck.

When I first looked this up in a print dictionary, probably Chambers, I noted this entry nearby: colpopoiesis: surgical construction of an artificial vagina. There’s no entry for this word in OED, but a quick Google search took me to an online medical definition, derived from the Greek for vagina plus ‘poeisis’ – making (as in poet as ‘makar’ (Scots) or maker.

 Strange how one word leads to another.

Umbrella words and Buridan’s Ass: a bibliomantic foray

I began drafting a piece the other day on Alfred Hayes’ excellent novel My Face for the World to See, but my wife has taken my copy away with her on a working trip, so I can’t continue with it. Instead I’ve done one of my occasional bibliomantic forays into old notebooks.

Back in August 2012 I was reading Will Self’s neo-modernist Umbrella. I enjoyed it immensely; its sequel published last year, Shark, has been sitting on my TBR shelf (which doesn’t actually exist, it’s just randomly shelved with books read and unread) looking accusingly at me whenever I catch sight of it.

It’s so long since I read Umbrella, however, that I feel ill-equipped to review it here: I’d need to re-read it, and don’t have time to do so. I’ve already got the recently-purchased Patrick Modiano ‘Occupation’ trilogy lined up for my next read. Instead here’s what I was noting about the novel in my notebook back then: samples of Mr Self’s notoriously arcane vocabulary that I had to look up. Many of them reflect the novel’s location in what was then, early in the twentieth century, called a lunatic asylum, and its central theme of the treatment of people with mental health problems.

 

KYPHOTIC The OED online prefers the spelling cyphosis-cyphotic. It signifies the medical condition in which spinal curving causes the sufferer to bend over severely. It derives from the Greek for ‘hunchbacked’. First recorded 1847.

TACHYPNOEA The first element of the word derives from the Greek for ‘rapid’, the last from ‘to breathe’; it means unusually rapid respiration. From 1898.

VERBIGERATE To repeat the same words or phrases obsessively, often as a symptom of mental disease. First recorded in Blount’s Glossographia (1656) meaning ‘to speak, to talk, to noise abroad’; its clinical sense was first recorded in D. Hack Tuke (splendid name), A Dictionary of Psychological Medicine (1892). In my notebook I see I’d written this as ‘vergiberate’ – a slip of the pen (or eye – if the eye can legitimately be said to slip) that was perhaps a result of an unconscious association of the word with ‘gibber’.

[I’ll omit here opisthotonos and hypotonic]

APHERISIS Its medical meaning is either ‘amputation’ or, as Self seems to use it, the removal of a quantity of blood, eg to extract specific useful or undesirable components before returning it to the donor (which sense originates from 1880). It derives from the Greek for ‘take’ or ‘snatch’ (from which ‘heresy’ also, oddly, derives). In linguistics it means the loss of an unstressed syllable at the start of a word, as in ‘round’ for ‘around’. It was first glossed as such in 1550 with the Latin equivalent term ‘ablatio’. The introduction of an additional first syllable is called ‘prosthesis’ (hence prosthetic limbs). Omitting the final syllable(s) of a word is ‘apocope’.

BURGOO was a thick gruel or porridge served to soldiers in WWI; sailors called it ‘loblolly’ (first recorded 1750) – Capt. Marryat referred to it in Peter Simple (1834). It derives from Arabic ‘burgul’ which in turn was ‘bulgur’ in Turkish, hence bulgur wheat.

I initially searched for this word in my Encarta dictionary. It wasn’t there, but I found this lovely entry instead:

BURIDAN’S ASS: a situation used to demonstrate the impracticality of making choices

Buridan's ass

Political cartoon c.1900 depicting the US Congress in terms of this paradox, with the 2 piles of hay version, hesitating between a Panama route and a Nicaragua route for an Atlantic-Pacific canal – via Wikipedia

according to a formal system of reasoning (after Jean Buridan, 1300-1358, a French philosopher). Wikipedia defines it as an illustration of a paradox in the conception of free will:

 It refers to a hypothetical situation wherein an ass that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water [or in some versions two piles of hay]. Since the paradox assumes the ass will always go to whichever is closer, it will die of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make any rational decision to choose one over the other.

 There are plenty more Selfian terms, including: ‘hebephrenic’, ‘anhedonia’ (lack of pleasure) and this one, which I thought I knew but didn’t –

CRAPULENT The adj. from ‘crapulence’: sickness or indisposition arising from excessive drinking or eating. It’s found in Nathan Bailey’s dictionary of 1727, and Dr Johnson’s of 1755. In Greek the word signified a drunken nauseous headache; the Romans adopted it (‘crapula’, a word first used in English c. 1687) to mean ‘excessive drinking’ as well as ‘intoxication’.

And that’s probably enough verbigeration for one post. Keep hitting the dictionary, Mr Self.