By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot! We just recently passed the Jewish holiday Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, so today we’re going to look at the word Sabbath and how it may connect to that festival.
The origins of both the word sabbath and the Jewish custom of a weekly day of rest itself are much debated and uncertain, with no real consensus after over a hundred years of modern scholarship, not to mention speculation and assertions from the ancient world. Most of the major etymological sources connect sabbath, or šabbòt in Hebrew, with the Hebrew word shabath meaning “he rested” from the Proto-Semitic tri-consonantal root *?šbt meaning “to cease, rest”, with the caron or haček diacritic looking like an upside down hat or circumflex over the <s> indicating that it makes the /ʃ/ or SH sound. That’s the way Semitic etymology works, with most words traceable back to consonantal roots, usually with three consonants. Simply put, you then add whatever vowels and non-root consonants are appropriate to the particular form of the word in the particular Semitic language. In any case, this specific etymology would connect the sabbath with the notion of God resting on the seventh day after creation as described in the book of Genesis or Bereshit in Hebrew. Though this derivation seems to be phonologically plausible, some scholars have suggested that this is a later folk etymology, both on the grounds of how the derivation would have worked (noun from verb or verb from noun), and because the idea of a day of rest wouldn’t make sense for a nomadic herding people but would for an agrarian people, which the Hebrews didn’t become until they settled in Canaan. Another early suggestion for the derivation is that it is related to the number “seven” in Hebrew, šέba in the feminine form, an idea that has been around at least since Lactantius in the 3rd to 4th c. and Theophilus of Antioch in the 2nd c. But this derivation is phonologically problematic since the word for “seven” comes from a consonantal root *šbʿ with a final glottal stop as the third consonant, whereas šabbòt clearly has a /t/ sound in that final position. This “seven” root, however, is the source of the word šò?ūaʽ meaning “week”, a fact we’ll come back to.
So since both of these Hebrew etymologies are problematic, some scholars have turned to the option of sabbath being a loanword from the Semitic language Akkadian, specifically the Babylonian dialect. And here’s where we have to get into the history of calendar systems, because the Jewish calendar was influenced, indeed largely based on the Babylonian calendar. Both of these calendars are luni-solar, that is to say they are organized around both the lunar and solar cycles, unlike the modern Gregorian calendar, which is a strictly solar calendar, such that for instance the winter and summer solstices occur on the same days every year. That’s why Jewish holidays appear to move around so much with respect to the Gregorian calendar. A purely lunar calendar, like the Islamic calendar, is based entirely on the cycles of the moon, so such a calendar and the holidays it tracks will be not be in sync with the seasons. In a luni-solar calendar, the months follow the phases of the moon, with additional intercalary months or days being added to keep the calendar more or less in sync with the solar year. In the Babylonian calendar in particular, itself based on the earlier Sumerian calendar, each month begins with the new moon, with a “holy” or “evil” day unsuitable for certain activities every seven days. The Babylonians kept these strictly lunar months in sync with the solar year by alternating between seven 13-month years and twelve 12-month years. This makes for a 19-year cycle, now called the Metonic cycle after the 5th century BCE Greek astronomer Meton even though this cycle was discovered by not only the Babylonians but also the Chinese long before Meton’s time. You see 235 lunar months coincides almost exactly with 19 solar years.
And the reason the Jewish calendar is based on the Babylonian calendar is the Babylonian captivity in which the people of the Kingdom of Judah were taken as captives into Babylon during the reign of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar sometime around the beginning of the 6th century BCE, until they were allowed to return home to Judah by Cyrus the Great, the Persian emperor who conquered Babylon in 539 BCE. The calendar is not the only thing the people of Judah brought home with them. Not only is the story of the captivity recounted in the Hebrew Bible, but we can see evidence of it in the textual history of the Torah. Biblical scholars have identified the work of at least 4 different authors in the Torah. For instance Genesis is a compilation of two distinct texts, the Priestly source, so called because it is believed to be the work of a priest around 550 BCE because it focuses on matters of priestly concern such as rituals and holy days, and uses the word Elohim to refer to God, and the J-E source, itself a compilation made in 721 BCE from the Jehovist source produced around 950 BCE which uses the word Yahweh to refer to God and the Elohist source produced around 750 BCE which uses the word Elohim to refer to God. What is clear then is that the J-E version was produced well before the captivity, whereas the Priestly version was produced either during the exile or perhaps shortly thereafter. And all of this is why there are essentially two accounts of the creation in Genesis. In the Priestly version, Genesis 1:1-2:4, humans are created last, and both male and female at the same time, after which God rests on the seventh day, whereas in the J-E version, Genesis 2:4-3:24, man is created first on the first day, then everything else is created for his use, after which woman is created. Furthermore, while the setting of the J-E version is a dry desert landscape like that of Palestine, in which we see the planting of a garden, important in a desert, the Priestly version seems to describe a wetter landscape more in keeping with Mesopotamia at the time and thus a clue that it was written during the captivity in Babylon, and the Priestly account also seems to be specifically emphasizing monotheism and refuting polytheism which the people of Judah would have encountered in Babylon. And what’s particularly important for our purposes is that this Priestly account establishes the Sabbath as a day of rest, thus showing the influence of Babylonian culture and the Babylonian calendar.
Now all of this is relevant to the word sabbath because of those “evil days” in the Babylonian calendar. Technically speaking, these special named days in the Babylonian calendar aren’t a regularly repeating cycle of seven days like a week, but instead correspond to the phases of the moon. The first day of the month, corresponding with the first sighting of the crescent moon, was called arhu meaning literally “moon”. The seventh day, corresponding to the first quarter moon, was called sebutu, derived from the word for the number “seven”, sebe in the feminine form and sebet in the masculine, from that same Proto-Semitic root we saw before. You’ll note here that the final glottal stop in the tri-consonantal root disappears, a regular sound change in Babylonian, and also that the /ʃ/ or SH sound became a /s/ or S sound. The fifteenth day, corresponding to the full moon, was called šapattu or šabattu. So at first glance, it’s tempting to derive Hebrew šabbòt from the Babylonian sebutu, though one would then, I suppose, have to account for the difference in the first consonant. But an even better phonological fit here is the 15th day šapattu or more specifically the variant form šabattu, the only problems being, why that 15th day for a repeating seven day cycle, and that there is no clear etymology for the word šapattu. One suggestion is that it comes from the dual form of the word for “seven”, so “two sevens”. We don’t have dual forms in English anymore, but they did exist, at least for some of the pronouns in Old English, so singular ic “I”, dual wit “we two”, and plural we “we”, and singular þu old-fashioned “thou” or modern singular “you”, dual git “you two”, and plural ge old fashioned “ye” or modern “you” or “y’all”. Another suggestion, figuring that the Sabbath was originally a full moon festival, appropriate to a nomadic herding people who travelled by night, before becoming a weekly cycle more appropriate to an agrarian people, as we saw earlier, connects it to the moon in some way, such as pointing out that Babylonian šapattu was equated in glossaries with the word gamaru “to complete, fulfill”, or taking it in the sense of “cycle”, or deriving it from the word šaptu “lip” from the idea that the full moon occurs when the sun and moon are in opposition, so the moon rises when the sun sets and vice versa, so it’s on the lip or edge of the day. Or it can be seen as a day of atonement or lament and so taken in the sense of “purification” or connected with the word sipdu “sighing”. The reality is it may be a convergence of a number of the proposed etymologies: šapattu, for one reason or another associated with the full moon, might have been confused with sebutu, the seventh day, and borrowed into Hebrew, which also had a similar sounding word for “seven” and “week”, to refer the seventh day, and later, perhaps when the connection with the moon was downplayed so as not to evoke the idea of moon worship, the sense of “rest” replaced the original meaning through folk etymology.
Now one thing that might come to mind upon hearing the word sabbath is the band Black Sabbath, fronted by singer Ozzy Osbourne. Well apparently they got the name from a 1963 low-budget Italian-produced horror film staring Boris Karloff and released in English under the title Black Sabbath. Before that, terms like black sabbath, witch’s sabbath, and black mass were used to refer to gatherings of people supposedly engaged in witchcraft or satanic ritual, though there’s not much evidence of these terms before the 19th century, so there is likely some degree of a romanticized imagination about them, though no doubt the use of the word sabbath in this context reflects the prevalent antisemitism from the middle ages onward.
Another thing that might come to mind is the sabbatical. Now we think of a sabbatical as an extended rest or break from work, usually in the world of academia, in which some professors are given a one-year often paid leave from teaching responsibilities, in which they can devote themselves to research and publishing, every seven years. Well this too comes ultimately from a Jewish practise known as shmita, literally “release”, as described in Leviticus 25, in which Jews in the land of Israel have to take a year long break from working the fields every seven years. This makes good sense because it would protect the soil from becoming depleted, important in a region in which the land wasn’t being refreshed every year from the flooding of a river, such as the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia and the Nile in Egypt, though of course it would present a certain kind of hardship for that one year in seven, and so it was also seen as a test of religious faith.
So another word that is at least partly related to all of this discussion about the Sabbath, is Shavuot, which is a Jewish wheat harvest festival and also commemorates God giving the Torah to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. It falls on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, which is seven weeks, in other words a week of weeks, and one day after the first Sabbath of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and is therefore called the “Feast of Weeks”, as Shavuot is the plural form of šò?ūaʽ, which as we’ve already seen comes from the number “seven” še?aʿ. By the way, this Proto-Semitic “seven” root also appears in a number of biblical names though in the rather different sense of “oath”, possibly from the idea of “to bind oneself with sevens” in swearing oaths, since seven was thought of as an important mystical number. Thus Bathsheba means “daughter of an oath” in combination with the word bat meaning “daughter” also in Bat mitzvah, and Elizabeth means “my God is an oath” also from the same root that lies behind Elohim. Now since seven weeks and a day is a total of fifty days, when the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek for the benefit of Jews who could no longer read Hebrew, Shavuot was translated as Pentecost, a Greek word that comes from the Proto-Indo-European roots for “five” and “ten”. This translation was called the Septuagint from the later Latin title Septuaginta itself from the Greek title Hebdom?konta both words descending from the Proto-Indo-European words for the numbers “seven” and “ten” in reference to the seventy scholars who produced the translation at the request of the pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus in the 3rd century BCE. You see the root *septm- becomes septem in Latin, seofon in Old English, with /p/ typically becoming /f/ in Germanic languages according to the Grimm’s Law sound change, and hepta in Greek, as /s/ typically becomes /h/ in Greek except when it comes at the end of a word or next to a stop consonant. Proto-Indo-European *penkwe “five” becomes Old English fif with that /p/ sound becoming /s/ again, pente in Greek, and through the assimilated form *kwenkwe becomes Latin quinque. The sense of “ten” in Pentecost and Septuagint comes from the root *dekm- “ten”. Now it may occur to you that the English number seven and the root it comes from *septm- kind of look a bit like Hebrew šebaʿ and its Proto-Semitic root *šbʿ, and that may in fact not be a coincidence. The etymologies of number words are often complex, and it’s not uncommon for them to be borrowed from one language to another, and so one theory is that the Proto-Indo-European root for “seven” might have been borrowed from the Afro-Asiatic language family of which Semitic is a branch. Numbers, in fact, are a late development linguistically speaking, and some languages don’t even have numbers, just words for “few” and “many”. The development of number words may, like the development of writing systems and indeed calendar systems, be linked to the urban revolutions when small groupings of people began to settle in complex cities, which demanded more complex systems of organization, like numbers. Also, abstract numbers are sometimes etymologically connected to other more concrete words, so five and its root *penkwe are related to the words finger, since we use our five fingers for counting, and fist, a group of five fingers. Now getting back to Pentecost, later on, Christianity adopted the originally Jewish festival as commemorating the Holy Spirit descending on the Apostles and other followers of Jesus when they were celebrating Shavuot in Jerusalem, as described in the Acts of the Apostles. Now the Septuagint also uses the word pentecost to refer to the year of Jubilee which occurs every fifty years. Jubilee is the year at the end of seven cycles of shmita, those sabbatical years when you weren’t supposed to work the fields. According to Leviticus, in the Jubilee year you’re supposed to sound the trumpet, and slaves and prisoners would be freed, and debts forgiven, and everyone was to return to their property. Traditionally the word jubilee was thought to come from the Hebrew word yovel meaning “ram” or the “trumpet made from a ram’s horn”, however it’s also been suggested that it might instead come from an Indo-European source borrowed into Hebrew, from the root *yu- a shout for joy, also found in English yowl and Latin iubilare “to shout with joy”, or that at least Latin iubilare influenced the word jubilee later on. The word jubilee is now used in English to refer to a 50th anniversary, or sometimes other big anniversaries such as silver jubilee for 25 years and diamond jubilee for 60 years. As for the word anniversary, it comes from the Latin word for “year” annus, ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *at- “to go”, thus indicating the idea of the period of time gone through, and the word vertere “to turn”. The English word year comes from Old English gear, ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *yer- meaning “year, season”, which also came into Greek as hora “season”, which eventually found its way into English in the words horoscope, and hour indicating a very different unit of time.
Now during Shavuot there are a number of traditional foods eaten, in particular dairy foods in reference to several biblical passages and rabbinical arguments, such as Solomon comparing the Torah to milk — “Like honey and milk, it lies under your tongue” — and in Psalm 68 Mount Sinai is referred to as Har Gavnunim “mountain of peaks”, with that word har meaning “mountain”. The word gabnon “peak, rounded summit” is etymologically similar to gevinah “cheese” since they would both go back to a tri-consonant root *gbn, though whether *gbn meaning “hunched, rounded peak” and *gbn “cheese, coagulated milk” are the same or not is uncertain, though the appearance of a rounded fermented cheese does look a lot like a rounded peak. The Septuagint translates this as oros teturomenon, basically “mountain made into cheese” or “cheesified mountain”, related to turon “cheese” part of boutyron literally “cow-cheese” or in other words “butter” giving us the word butter. The Greek is then translated into Latin in the Vulgate as mons coagulatus “coagulated mountain” or again “cheesified mountain”, so the metaphor goes back a long way. And so cheese dishes like cheese kreplach, a type of dumpling, or cheese blintzes, a kind of pancake or crepe are traditional items during Shavuot.
The word blintz, a diminutive of blin, comes into Yiddish from Old Russian blinu, the plural of which is bliny, so you’ll often hear blintzes referred to as blini. The word might ultimately come from the Proto-Indo-European root *melə- “to crush, grind”, also the source of words such as mill, meal as in cornmeal, and molar. Another use of the word blintz is in the world of origami, the blintz fold, as used in the Yoshizawa–Randlett system of diagramming origami, because of the way blintzes are folded when they are stuffed with, say, cheese, though the method of folding a blintz differs from region to region, but the fold in question here is folding the four corners of a square into the middle. The blintz is one of the basic and traditional bases from which many things can be made, along with others like the bird base also known as the crane base, since it’s used to make one of the most famous and classic origami. There is even a legend that if you fold a thousand cranes you will be granted a wish, and cranes are often given to people who are seriously ill. There is the famous story of Sadako Sasaki who was exposed to radiation at the bombing of Hiroshima when she was two years old. Later she developed leukemia and set about making a thousand cranes, but, as the story goes, seeing the other children around her in the hospital dying and realising that she too would die, she changed her wish from preserving her life to instead wishing for world peace and an end to suffering.
Though paper folding has existed for a long time in Japan, origami as we know it today was influenced by German paper folding in the 19th century. Actually the story goes right back to the 2nd century when Cai Lun, a Chinese court official during the Han dynasty, was said to have invented, though perhaps more accurately devised an improved technique for making, paper, supposedly by watching paper wasps. This new invention was championed by Empress Deng Sui, and Cai Lun was greatly rewarded by Emperor He of Han. Unfortunately Cai Lun backed the wrong woman, Empress Dou, playing a part in the death of her rival Consort Song, and later on Consort Song’s grandson Emperor An of Han ordered him to be imprisoned, whereupon he committed suicide. Soon thereafter Chinese paper folding developed, and in the 6th century Buddhist monks brought paper with them to Japan, and some would argue Japanese origami was also a borrowing from China. Except it wasn’t called origami. The various decorative paper folding techniques in Japan were called by a variety of different names, such as orisue, orikata, or orimono. The word origami, from ori “fold” and kami “paper”, originally referred to a “certificate, document of authentication consisting of a folded sheet” first attested in the 12th century. The word origami was later reintroduced in the 19th century as a sort of calque or loan translation of the German word Papierfalten literally “paper-folding”, and thus became the catch-all term for decorative paper folding in Japan. A calque, from French calquer “to trace by rubbing”, itself from Latin calcare “to tread, to press down”, is when a compound word or phrase is translated element by element from one language into another, as opposed to a loanword or borrowing, which is when a whole word is borrowed from one language into another, such as Babylonian šapattu being borrowed into Hebrew as šabbòt. Ironically, loanword is a calque of German Lehnwort, and calque is a loanword from French. The word loan comes from Old Norse lan “loan” and is related to Old English læn “loan, gift” and lænan “to lend”, which gives us the modern word lend, all from Proto-Germanic *laihwniz originally meaning “to let have, to leave (to someone)”, from Proto-Indo-European *leikw- “to leave”. And the word borrow comes from Old English beorgan originally “to lend, be surety for”, but shifted from the giving part of the transaction to the taking part of the transaction from the notion of the collateral given as a surety, coming from Proto-Germanic *burg- “pledge”, from Proto-Indo-European *bhergh- “to hide, protect”. And borrowing is what we’ve been looking at all along here, either of words or of traditions, like paper folding or calendar systems.
Now German paper folding was its own tradition going as far back as the late 18th century at least, and may have developed from napkin folding, which seems to date back as far as the 17th century. In the early 19th century, when German pedagogue Friedrich Froebel, after coming to the conclusion that young children had unique needs and capabilities, invented a play-based model of early childhood education which he called Kindergarten, he included paper folding as one of the educational activities. When Japan opened its borders in the 1860s, they imported Froebel’s Kindergarten concepts, including his system of paper folding, and hence the name origami from German Papierfalten. Now although Froebel’s paper folding included the blintz fold it doesn’t seem to have been called the blintz fold until the American cultural critic and folklorist Gershon Legman, who was of Hungarian-Jewish descent, introduced the term, which was then picked up by Samuel Randlett and Ronald Harbin, who had further adapted the notation system devised by Akira Yoshizawa, considered the grandmaster of origami whose work was introduced to Europe by Legman, to produce what is known today as the Yoshizawa-Randlett system, the standard method of origami notation. In Japanese, the blintz fold is known as zabuton, the word for a kind of sitting cushion, so the blintz fold is also sometimes referred to as the cushion fold.
Now another type of educational play developed by Froebel involved various geometric wooden blocks called Froebel gifts or Fröbelgaben in German. The idea was that the children were to be given increasingly complex geometrical forms to play with, and that, along with play-based activities, helped the children to develop their awareness and appreciation for the world around them. As it turned out, this geometric play had a great impact, inspiring abstract art, the Bauhaus movement, and modernist architecture, in particular architects such as Buckminster Fuller and Frank Lloyd Wright. Indeed Wright later gave credit to his childhood geometric play, stating “the virtue of all this lay in the awakening of the child-mind to rhythmic structures in Nature”. As an architect, Wright is known for his geometrically innovative designs, most famously including the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Fallingwater residence he designed for Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr., owner of Kaufmann’s Department Store. Wright was hired by electrical engineer Edwin Cheney to design a house for him in Oak Park, Illinois, as a result of which Wright met Cheney’s wife Mamah Borthwick. Borthwick was a modern woman and early feminist whom Wright came to see as his intellectual equal. Wright and Borthwick began an affair, leaving their respective spouses and children and running away together to Europe, causing great scandal. Borthwick began translating the work of Swedish feminist Ellen Key, whom she admired, and she and Wright were largely responsible for introducing Key’s work to American audiences. To escape the relentless criticism over their scandalous affair, since Wright’s wife refused to grant him a divorce, Wright designed and built for Borthwick his famous Taliesin estate, his dream home, which also included studio space for Wright to work in, where he designed Fallingwater and the Guggenheim. Unfortunately their time was cut short when Julian Carlton, a chef and servant from Barbados who was working there, became increasingly unstable and paranoid, having a grudge against a draftsman also working at Taliesin, so Wright had given him notice, and while Wright himself was away, Carlton took revenge by killing Borthwick, her children who were visiting at the time, and several servants with an axe and then lighting the house on fire. Carlton tried to kill himself, and died seven weeks later in prison. Wright would eventually repair his beloved Taliesin and lived there for the rest of his life.
Now Wright named his dream house Taliesin after the semi-legendary early medieval Brythonic poet because of his Welsh heritage on his mother’s side — he had changed his middle name from Lincoln to Lloyd in honour of the Lloyd Jones family after his parents had separated when he was 14, and he never saw his father again. The poet Taliesin, whose name means “shining brow”, was said to have lived sometime in the 6th century, and has been connected to various legendary kings, including King Arthur. Though many poems have been ascribed at one point or another to Taliesin, modern scholars have identified at least some poetry that seems to date to around the right time to have been written by the historical Taliesin, including some of the material in the Middle Welsh manuscript known as the Book of Taliesin. One of the poems in the Book of Taliesin, called Preiddeu Annwfn “The Spoils of Annwn”, tells of King Arthur’s dangerous journey to Annwn, the Otherworld in Welsh mythology, and the acquisition of a magical cauldron, which some have argued may be one of the sources of the legend of the holy grail, having become conflated with Christian elements, such as the holy chalice which Jesus was said to have used at the last supper. Welsh Annwn or Annwfn, related to Gaulish Antumnos, comes from Gallo-Brittonic *ande-dubnos “underworld” from Proto-Celtic *ande- “below”, from Proto-Indo-European *ndher- “under” also giving us under through Old English and inferno through Latin, and *dubnos “the deep, world”, from Proto-Indo-European *dheub- “deep, hollow” also giving words such as deep, dip, and dive. So not only does it refer to a kind of Celtic Otherworld in which deities live — note that the poem Preideu Annwfn depicts it as an island with Arthur travelling there by boat as in the usual depiction of Avalon as an island — but also a kind of underworld of the dead. Later Annwfn became conflated with both the Christian Heaven and the Christian Hell, and in modern Welsh it means “deep” or “Hell”.
The idea of an underworld is one of the most universal mythological elements found in different cultures around the world, and as a result these different traditions have often become syncretized as different cultures have come into contact. Syncretism is the blending or merging of different traditions, and it’s this process of syncretism that may lie behind the tradition of the sabbath, either borrowed or influenced by the Babylonian tradition of “unlucky days” coinciding with the phases of the moon, but transformed into weekly “rest days” in Judaism. In terms of syncretism of different traditions of the underworld, the most familiar to English speakers is the use of the word hell, which originally referred to a Germanic conception of the underworld, to mean the Christian place of punishment in the afterlife. In Old Norse the word Hel could refer to the underworld as well as the ruler of the underworld, the daughter of Loki. By the way, this is the source of the character Hela in the movie Thor: Ragnarok, where she is presented as the daughter of Odin and sister of Loki and Thor. The place Hel, located in the primordial icy region called Nifelheim meaning “dark world” (another Marvel Thor movie), containing Nifelhel meaning “dark hell” the lowest region of Hel, wasn’t exactly a place of punishment, though that is the role of Nifelhel, but it is the location of the afterlife for all those who didn’t die heroically in battle. Those who did die in battle, the Einherjar, instead go to Valhalla “the hall of the slain” in Asgard, hosted by Odin with much feasting, drinking, and fighting, awaiting Ragnarok when they will fight alongside the Æsir. The word hell comes ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *kel- “to cover, conceal, save” also the source of the words conceal, hole, and occult, as well as the words hall and Valhalla. And speaking of Ragnarok (yes, another Thor movie!), the Norse end of the world, the root *kel- is also found in the word apocalypse, the Christian end of the world, from Greek apo- “off, away from” and kalyptein “to cover, conceal”. The Christian apocalypse is told of in the Book of Revelation, and that’s literally what revelation means too, from Latin re- “opposite of” and velare “to cover, veil”. The final battle of the apocalypse is sometimes referred to as Armageddon, which is in fact the location of this battle, and that word Armageddon comes from the Hebrew placename Har Megiddon literally “mountain place of crowds”, an actual location where a number of Israelite battles took place, and you’ll remember that word har “mountain” from Har Gavnunim that cheesy mountain. Now getting back to hell, that Germanic word, again through that process of syncretism was used to translate into English various other words for the underworld. The Latin Vulgate Bible uses the word Infernus, which we saw is related to Welsh Annwn and is borrowed from the Roman conception of the underworld. The Greek Christian New Testament also uses the word Tartaros (of uncertain etymology) to refer to the underworld, which is borrowed from Greek mythology where it is the lowest level of the underworld where the wicked are punished and also where the Titans are imprisoned, much like Nifelhel in Norse mythology. In the Greek Septuagint two words are used to refer to the underworld, one a borrowing from Hebrew and the other a syncretic borrowing from Greek mythology, Hades. Hades, like Hel, refers to both the place and the ruler of the underworld, in this case the brother of Zeus, and though the etymology of the name is uncertain, it probably means “unseen” from the negative prefix a- and idein “to see” from the Proto-Indo-European root *weid- “to see”, reminding us of the derivation of Hel from ‘conceal, covered’. Greek Hades was used to refer to Hebrew Sheol (itself a word of unknown origin), a neutral term for the underworld, not specifically a place of punishment. The other Hebrew word for the underworld which simply became a loanword in the Septuagint is Gehinnom, or Gehenna in its modern English form. It literally means “the Valley of Hinnom”, again an actual real-world location where, according to the Book of Jeremiah, children were sacrificed to the Canaanite god Moloch, subsequently being thought of as a cursed place, and becomes figuratively used to refer to the underworld as place of punishment, particularly in rabbinic literature. A specific location in Gehenna, which is only mentioned in the Talmud and not the Hebrew Bible itself, is Tzoah Rotachat literally meaning “boiling excrement”. Like Nifelhel and Tartaros, it is a place of particularly harsh punishment, doled out to those who have committed certain sins, specifically “all who scoff at the words of the wise men”, and one passage of the Talmud is interpreted by some as depicting Jesus being located there. And what is particularly extreme about the punishment in that place is that those suffering there are never given relief from their punishment, not even on the Sabbath.
So we’ve seen the Jewish Sabbath being borrowed from the Babylonian calendar, the academic sabbatical borrowed from the Jewish shmita, the Christian Pentecost adapted from Shavuot, the blintz fold named after a traditional Shavuot recipe, German paper-folding lending its name to origami, paper coming to Japan from China, the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright borrowing from kindergarten toys and Welsh mythology, and a Hell of a lot of complicated syncretism of the concept of the underworld, taking us finally back to the Sabbath, and demonstrating yet again the many levels of connections in the worlds around us.
Thanks for watching! And special thanks to Mara Katz for suggesting the topic and providing some of the ideas that went into it! If you’ve enjoyed these etymological explorations and cultural connections, please subscribe, & click the little bell to be notified of every new episode. And check out our Patreon, where you can make a contribution to help me make more videos. I’m @Alliterative on Twitter, and you can visit our website alliterative.net for more language and connections in our podcast, blog, and more!