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Abyssus abyssum invocat

Original post date: Tuesday, October 03, 2006

In English: One hell summons another.

Although I have translated this proverb using the word "hell," that is not the meaning in its original context. This phrase is first found in the Vulgate translation of the Bible, Psalm 42:
Abyssus abyssum invocat in voce cataractarum tuarum; omnes gurgites tui et fluctus tui super me transierunt

Deep calls to deep in the voice of your waterfalls: all your whirlpools and waves have passed over me.
In context, this refers to the natural world, to the deeps of the waters with their swirling waters and their waves. Symbolically, to me it seems like an expression of the soul's longing for God. The deep is the depth of division between the worshipper and God, but God sends his waters tumbling down, the waterfalls and the waves, so that the worshipper is swept over with love of God, despite the depth that divides them, low from high. There are many ways that this verse of the Psalm has been interpreted, of course. No matter what interpretation is adopted, though, it is clear that somehow it involves the deeps of the waters.

Out of context, however, the phrase has come to me "one bad thing follows another" or "one disaster follows another." This is because, as adopted into Latin, the Greek word "abyssos" (you can tell it is Greek from the "y" in the spelling), usually has negative connotations: the abyss is the bottomless pit, the land of the dead, an underground place where the spirits of the dead are confined. In other words: hell.

The use of "abyssus" to mean the depths of the ocean, as it is used here Psalm 42, is rather unusual, and reflects Greek usage more than the later Latin usage of the word. In Greek, the word is simply a compound of "a" (meaning without, lacking in) and "bussos" (bottom) - hence, anything bottomless or very deep, such as the sea.

I was prompted to choose this proverb for today in the wake of the school shooting in Pennsylvania this week, which followed two other school shootings in the U.S. in the past week, and which carries on back to the Columbine shooting in Colorado in 1999. Each of these incidents, taken separately, is simply a horrific violation of the order of things. The incident does not make sense on its own, but there emerges a chain of incidents, as if one such incident were summoning the next. The measureless depth of one of these tragedies calls for the next. Abyssus abyssum invocat. What a world we have created for ourselves here, what depths of sorrow.

Here is today's proverb read out loud:

1051. Abyssus abyssum invocat.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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