There is a passage in Homer’s Iliad 5 where he describes Athene arming herself with the aegis of Zeus, which is a shield or some similar device. He says,
Now assuming the war tunic of Zeus who gathers
the clouds, she armed in her gear for the dismal fighting.
And across her shoulders she threw the betasselled, terrible
aegis, all about which Terror hangs like a garland,
and Hatred is there, and Battle Strength, and heart-freezing Onslaught
and thereon is set the head of the grim gigantic Gorgon,
a thing of fear and horror, portent of Zeus of the aegis.
If you’ve ever heard the term “Zeus of the aegis” and wondered what was being referred to, there’s your answer.
I wanted to know more about this aegis, so I looked it up and learned something interesting. Terror, Hatred, Battle Strength, and Onslaught are all on the aegis, but nobody knows how. Is there a sign of Terror that makes people feel afraid? Is there some sort of symbolic representation that not only arouses an immediate fear but makes manifest the objective meaning of Terror? Or is Terror itself, the very force and energy of its presence, somehow emanating out of the shield?
Then there’s the question of the Gorgon. Here is a concrete object, the head of Medussa, with serpents coiling out of it in the place of hair. Is this in addition to, or is it the locus of Terror, Hatred, Battle Strength, and Onslaught? Is it a sign, placed there for its effects? Or is it a symbol, carrying the weight of its meaning? Or is it something more – a fire, a force, a power?
I read this Homeric passage while I was immersed in a reflection on a very basic question: What is a word?
It’s funny to ask that question because, let’s face it, we all know what words are. We use them all the time, right?
Then (since I’ve mentioned time), we start to think about what we know about words – and what we know slips away.
The Little Dipper (Ursa Minor) has quite a few stars that are hard to see. They are so dim that you can see them only when you look beside them. If you look straight at them they disappear.
It’s like that with time, too. Everybody knows what it is, until you think about it.
The eye struggles to see dim things but they are always there. The soul struggles to grasp time, but spends all its time in it.
It seems to me there is a parallel for words. The mind, let us say, swims in and with and by means of words. But we never quite grasp them.
But what is a word?
I got thinking about this while reading a blessed book called “Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives” by Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, a monk who lived in Serbia through the terrible trial of the 20th century.
Everything, both good and evil, comes from our thoughts. Our thoughts become reality. Even today we can see that all of creation… is nothing but Divine thought made material in time and space. We humans were created in the image of God….By his thoughts man often disturbs the order of creation.
He doesn’t use the word “word,” but it is hard for me not to apply what he is saying to words.
God created light when He said, “Let there be light.” He made the man from the dust of the earth and then He spoke in order to bless and to ordain him: “Be fruitful and multiply,” He said, and what He said became possible.
We are the image of the Lord God who uses words to create, bless, ordain, instruct, order, and even, when necessary, to judge.
God has enormous power, so much so that “He upholds all things by the Word of His power.”
As His image, do we also have that power?
In a sense, I believe we do, but only if we receive it. To be clear, we don’t have infinite power, like He does, but we have the same kind of power. But only if we receive it.
Let me try to explain what I mean by looking at how people generally understand what a word is. I suggest that there are two categories into which we generally place words, if we think about them this way at all.
- We think of words as signs that we use to bring about some change in the world around us. I think of this as words as tool-signs.
- We think of words as symbols that we use to communicate meaning. I think of this use as meaning-symbols.
Both of these understandings are correct and widely applicable. However, I believe there is another understanding of words that the Wisdom Traditions offer us: words as energies.
Let’s take a closer look at the first two, their great value and their limits, and then look more closely at the third.
What do I mean by words as tools?
I mean that words are something we use to get an object or to achieve an end, especially when it involves other people or even animals.
For example, If I want my son’s dog to sit, I say, “Sit, Winston,” and because Matthew has trained him, he sits. I used the word to achieve an end.
This is similar to the way a parrot can use a word, though of course the human use is more complex. If it has lots and lots of experiece, I am told, a parrot can learn to say a word (like cracker) in order to get the thing we use the word to name (like the cracker itself).
Thus Polly has attained immortal fame for her ever-present yearning for a cracker.
We ascribe intelligence and will to the parrot, but I would argue that it is simply aware that an end can be gained by making that sound, just as by sqawking it can protect or threaten other animals.
Many thinkers contend that humans can attain to a use animals can’t reach, and that is to use words as a symbol to communicate meaning.
I have identified a sign with the idea of a tool, and that might be idiosyncratic. If so, please indulge me for the purpose of trying to explain. When I am done, you are free to liberate “signs” from this reduction, as long as you have allowed yourself to understand what I am trying to express.
Now, the previous paragraph was an argument, in the old-fashioned, friendly sense of, say, a defense of my action. If I was successful, my argument had an effect, which is that you are now willing to allow me to continue to build my larger argument about words.
However, the reason I wrote that paragraph was not only and not even ultimately to affect you, or to move you, or even do anything to you. The reason I wrote it was to clarify or explain something. If I succeeded in explaining, then the effect will have a much better chance of occuring. But it is important in all our activities to distinguish the purpose of an action from the benefits we might derive from it.
When we speak, I believe making reality visible is more important than moving an audience. When I determine otherwise, I replace what is right with what is beneficial. More simply, I have willingly exchanged truth for a lie.
Therefore, it is very important to distinguish words as tool-signs from words as meaing-symbols.
If we fail to make and defend this distinction, we will make some serious errors when we read or teach others to read or write. If I regard reading in the context of tool-signs, and that is all I allow for, then I will teach children to read in order to draw an application or otherwise moralize the story. Obviously, there is a place for this approach. Aesop’s Fables make the morals of the stories explicit. But if that is the only way we can read a story, the best thing I can say is that we can’t read well.
A story is a symbol, meaningful, loaded with meaning, placed before us so that we can search out its meaning. But if we rush to its application, we undercut even that benefit because we’ll miss the depth of mystery that the moral needs to be, yes, meaningful.
One way to distinguish tool-sign and meaning-symbol as I am using them in this post is to look at them materially. A symbol is or at least is capable of being almost infinitely complex. A form can itself be a symbol. For example, the form of a joke is meaningful: usually, you can tell a joke is a joke around the first word. Symbols can take the form of paintings and music, books and speeches, and an almost infinite variety of things.
They can also mean a great deal more than simply, “I want that,” or, “Give me that.” They can go beyond effecting the audience or reader all the way to in-forming him.
I hope it is somewhat clear that there is a difference between tool-signs and meaning-symbols, that words are used for both purposes, and that meaning-symbols are better and more human, although tool-signs are good and have a large and valuable space.
My sense is that most people, if pressed, would argue that words are a tool-sign and some, if they kept reflecting, would determine that words are a meaning-symbol.
But not very many people get at what might be the most essential element of a word: it is an energy.
Not, it has energy, like, say, a flashlight with batteries or a car with gas or a boy with a candy bar. Rather, a word is an energy, like the electrons in an atom or the electricity that makes the heart beat.
That might sound a little odd at first, but if you think about the use of the word “word” in the Bible, is it really? And if you think about how it is used by the philosophers of language in ancient Greek or even modern Germany, is it really so odd? What if we are the ones who have odd and inadequate ideas?
Allow me to quote some more from Elder Thaddeus:
Mankind was given a great gift, but we hardly undestand that. God’s energy and life is in us, but we do not realize it. Neither do we understand that we greatly influence others with our thoughts. We can be very good or very evil, depending on the kinds of thoughts and desires we breed.
If our thoughts are kind, peaceful, and quiet, turned only toward good, then we also influence ourselves and radiate peace all around us–in our family in the whole country, everywhere. This is true not only here on earth, but in the cosmos as well. When we labor in the fields of the Lord, we create harmony. Divine harmony, peace, and quiet spread everywhere. However,… when there is evil in us, we radiate it among our family members and wherever we go.”
I find myself drawn especially to the word “radiate.” In Hebrews 1, we read that Christ is “the radiance of [God’s] glory.”
Maybe it will help to circle back and think of it this way: The Psalmist wrote, “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.”
I can understand those words to mean that God’s Word is or provides me with tools or signs. If I do, I will not be wrong. In God’s word, I receive instructions. He tells me to sit, to walk, to stand, and even to attack.
I also find explanations in the Bible about how to live life in this world. Those seem to fit under the idea of word as tool-sign as well.
But I can also understand the Psalmist to mean that God’s Word is symbolic. Here, I would discover that the Word of God is beautiful, multifaceted and multiform in its meanings, capable of ever deeper interpretations, and going far beyond instruction and explanation to meaning and relationship.
That would be wonderful. It would be a much more deeply satisfying approach to God’s word, at least for most people I know, and certainly for me (which, I admit, might be because I don’t like being told what to do).
Yet, I think there is more. If I listen to the Word and try to follow its instructions and live in the light of its guidance, that would be a good thing. Not to do so would indicate a stiffness of neck that no chiropractor could hope to cure.
If I hear the word and dive into its meanings and strive to adapt myself to all its protean forms, that would be an even better thing. Not to do so would indicate a hardness of heart no surgery could hope to reverse.
But if I receive the Word into my very being, I will be transformed. Yes, my feet will see where they should step. Yes!, my eyes will see the path lit up before me.
But I will become light.
Here it is fititng to ask, “What is light?” Does anybody know? Is it pure energy? Or perhaps when we see it, light is energy encountering matter and consuming it. This is radiance: the portion of light that can be seen because some material is being consumed. Thus we could see the glory of God when Christ became flesh and was consumed on the alter of our salvation. He is the light of the world. He told the Apostles that they also were the light of the world.
Consider these words from our Lord Jesus:
Abide in me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in Me. I am the vine, ye are the branches. He that abideth in me, and I in Him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing….
If ye abide in Me and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it will be done unto you. Herein is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit.
Here is another image of energy, in this case the energy of life itself. Jesus uses that noble and mysterious image to describe an even more noble and mysterious transfer of energy from God to man through Christ.
We are charged and invited to abide in Christ the Word as He is the vine and as branches we need His life (a form of energy) in order to bear fruit.
If we see the Bible as no more than a tool-sign or even a meaning-symbol, we run the great risk of giving the written word more authority than Christ the Word Himself. For we all know perfectly well that we can read the Bible our whole lives and gain nothing from it if we do not believe in the Christ it proclaims.
Fearing that I have just made this post very confusing allow me to conclude:
A word is a tool-sign. A word is a meaning-symbol. But most importantly and, I believe, most essentially, a word is an energy. It will bring life or it will kill. It will bless or it will curse.
Christ is the fulfillment of every word because He is the uncreated Word, the Word of all words, the meaning of all symbols, the goal of every sign and the Light of lights. When we receive Him, He radiates His meaning and His power and His glory into everything, even how we understand words.
“In the beginning was the Word.”
I do not presume to have understood words or to have sufficiently expressed the nature and power of words in this post because no matter what I or anybody can say about them, they will always transcend what we use them to achieve. I only hope we have taken a step or two toward treating them with the reverence they deserve.