07 February 2010
Reading: Language is Haunted 

... how could the ancient Latins, when they knew only how to fight war and plow fields, imagine that with the same term they were expressing the idea of prayer and that of punishment? Who taught them to call fever "purifying" or "expiating"? Are we perhaps dealing with a judgement, a genuine awareness, through which a people affirms the exactness of a term? But do you believe that judgements of this sort could have been formulated in a period when people barely knew how to write, when a dictator tilled his own field, when they wrote verses Varro and Cicero already could no longer understand? 
-Umberto Eco cribbing Joseph de Maistre, in Serendipities

Reading this passage this afternoon, I was reminded of a question that arose in one of the school's Latin sections. The kids were surprised to learn that the Latin sacer means both holy and cursed. They were wondering if sacer was an autoantonym, a word like "cleave" which possesses within itself completely opposite meanings. Sacer really isn't this kind of word, insofar as autoantonymns are considered linguistic accidents. There seems to be something intentional in sacer's double meaning. Giorgio Agamben as actually written a book on this problem--and related problems--called Homo Sacer.

Homo sacer as an obscure figure in Roman law, a man who was both banned from society for some crime (cursed) and yet whose life could not be sacrificed (sacred).  Agamben argues that homo sacer is a concept that predates the Latins, and may actually provide us with a window into primitive Indo-European society. His evidence is a similar idea present in ancient Germanic law. The banished man in this system was called wargus, a word that meant both criminal and wolf.

Paleoanthropologists tell us the wolf was the first animal to be domesticated, giving us the dog. Modern wolves are incredibly wary of humans, so how our ancestors managed this is not entirely clear. Reasoning backwards, we could imagine that the dog's ancestors were probably wolves that had been expelled from their packs, runts weeded out by the alpha males. Excluded from the hunt, they usually starved to death. Thousands of years ago, one or two such runts may have come upon the garbage outside a human fire circle. After living off the garbage for a time, the humans probably began to feed the wolves fresher meat from their own hunts. These runts, who were already more submissive than most wolves, were somehow bred for two major traits. They were to be comfortable eating with humans, and they were to be tolerant of fire.

Thus the ancient use of wolf to designate the banished man is ironic: as the wolf is the animal who is "banished" from nature and is thus welcomed into human society, so the man who is banished from human society returns to nature and becomes the wolf.

Now this information is of no special use to most people, other than to demonstrate the existence of a strange and ancient Indo-European legal principle that is perhaps more wildly attested than it is understood. However, sacer and wargus could also provide one with a somewhat magical realization. When we speak of wolves or criminals, or curses or holiness, we are making distinctions where our ancestors made analogies. When we speak in analogies, we usually call it poetry. For our ancestors, this poetry was merely language.

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