On Ridiculous Goals and Divine Tongues.

Earlier this week I stumbled across Alyxander Folmer’s post on “The Value of Sacred Language“:

I believe there’s a LOT that the we Heathens could learn from the Jewish community, but if I had to pick a starting place it would be that idea of sacred language. […] If we want to grow and embrace the depth of meaning behind the old legends, we need to promote a culture that encourages individuals to read and interpret those stories for themselves. I believe it’s time we started teaching the next generation of Heathens to define themselves, and move beyond letting others interpret our Lore for us.

When I was 20 I made a vow to learn every language with a sacred text.  I made a list: Sanskrit, Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, and a few others.  I was fascinated by the way religious traditions enshrine their tongues as sacred.  In my Buddhism course I learned that certain Vedic thinkers believed Sanskrit embodied the structure of the universe.  According to these thinkers, the connection between sound and meaning in Sanskrit is not arbitrary (as linguists would hold) but exists prior to the creation of the universe.  I read about Kabbalists who believed the Hebrew alphabet holds mystical significance.  Muslims call Arabic “the tongue of the angels.”  (I don’t know of any equivalent movement in Christianity that considers Greek a divine language.)  I thought I could learn something from these special languages.

I don’t think I need to explain how naive that goal is!  The concept of a “canon” does not apply so neatly outside Abrahamic traditions.  In Buddhism, the “canon” varies by region, so that Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhists don’t read the same books as Tibetan practitioners.  Whatever books they do share, they don’t read them in the same language.  So to read the sacred texts of Buddhism, I would at least need to learn Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, and Japanese.  A tall order — I don’t work with Sino-Tibetan languages well.

Even within Abrahamic traditions, the idea of a canon can get messy.  Take Latin.  It’s not the sacred language of the Bible for Catholics.  But they used it to read, pray, and chant those scriptures for a millennium.  So is Latin a sacred language for Catholics?

Cuneiform, anyone?

Cuneiform, anyone?

And, to respond to Folmer, I didn’t even know that neopaganism existed when I set that goal.  Folmer rattles off several tongues that a modern-day Heathen would have to learn: Old English, Old Norse, and other English and Germanic languages.  One might as well get a Ph.D. in early medieval literature.  It’s a tall order.  And that doesn’t include other neopagan/reconstructionist groups, such as the Egyptian and Near Eastern traditions.

So while learning every sacred language is a lofty goal, I think I will be dead long before I reach it.  And who’s to say that any language isn’t sacred?

7 thoughts on “On Ridiculous Goals and Divine Tongues.

  1. Brian

    Yeah, learning all these languages is probably not going to be possible. And you’ve only just mentioned languages with a strong written tradition; it is entirely possible for there to be religions that are based on oral traditions and therefore do not have sacred “texts” written down. Though I’m not sure if there is such a religion.

    Reply
    1. jdhomrighausen@gmail.com Post author

      Of course there have been – we have archaeological evidence of elements of religion (including burial rituals) dating far before the invention of writing.

      Reply
      1. Brian

        Yes, exactly. So, you probably have to learn all those other, non-written languages, in addition to all the written languages you mentioned above. 😛

        Reply
  2. Alyxander Folmer

    I agree that it IS a tall order, but I think the value is in the process rather than the completion. 90% of the Lore (The Eddas and the Sagas) is written in old Icelandic. While learning even one language is a large goal to set ourselves, it’s not impossible. From just that one area of study, I could probably find enough research material for a lifetime. I probably never will learn to read EVERY language for EVERY text that describes the lore of the Aesir and the Vanir, but I can sure try. 🙂

    Reply
    1. jdhomrighausen@gmail.com Post author

      I would normally say that one language is quite do-able. But we ARE talking Old Icelandic here! Still, if you’ve studied Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, or any other highly inflected language, it would be a lot easier. For the really insane there is graduate school, though outside of UCLA I don’t know of any place that does Norse cultures.

      Reply
    2. jdhomrighausen@gmail.com Post author

      My only other request – if you do start studying any Norse languages, do start blogging about it so I can learn something. 🙂

      Reply

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