Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Word of the day: apotropaic

A wonderful word from the Greek: apotropaic. It has something to do with turning, yes? But what? Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate has the etymology: “Greek apotropaios, from apotrepein to avert, from apo- + trepein to turn.” That which is apotropaic is “designed to avert evil,” to turn it away. It’s curious and fitting that the thing averted forms no part of the word itself. Speak no evil.

Apotropaic got me thinking about apo-, which has a range of meanings: away from, off; detached, separate; formed from, related to. Thus for instance, apocalypse, to uncover, disclose. And I now see that word in a new way, as I recall that the name Calypso in Homer’s Odyssey is related to the verb kaluptein, to cover. Keeping Odysseus on her island, removed from human culture, Calypso is a concealer, a burier.

Wikipedia has a page on apotropaic magic, with photographs of painted eyes averting evil. I got thinking about apotropaic during a trip to a museum, where I saw the word in a description of an ancient Greek drinking bowl.

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