Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Shadow Knows

Let’s cast some light on shadows. The Latin word for shadow was umbra, and the Greek counterpart was skia. Both roots contributed shady words to English.

Adumbrate now means to overshadow, shade, or obscure. The same concept was contained in the obsolete words obumber and inumbrate. It started life in English as an artist’s term: to shade a sketch to show light and dark surfaces.

At one point in history -- the 17th and 18th centuries -- there was a preoccupation with the way humans cast a shadow. The exotic was emphasized, and strange names abounded. Amphiscians was the name given to inhabitants of the torrid zone, whose shadows at one time of the year fall northward, at another southward. The Antiscii were those who lived on the same meridian, but on the opposite side of the equator, so that their shadows at noon fell in opposite directions; they were also called Heteroscians. The Ascians were inhabitants of the torrid zone, who twice a year had the sun directly overhead at noon, and then cast no shadows. The Periscii were inhabitants of the polar regions; their shadows revolved around them as the sun moved. These polar people were also called Macroscians because they cast a long shadow. Finally, the Sciapodes were a fabled people of Libya who were alleged to have feet so large that they could be used as sunshades. That’s analagous to the name given to the squirrel family: sciurinae, shadow-tails.

Sciamachy might be viewed as an exercise in futility: it means fighting with a shadow. To a boxer, however, it is a solo fight for exercise or practice. Shadow boxing is not as crazy as it looks.

Sciatherics was the art of constructing and maintaining a sundial, and the umber was the shadow of the pointer on a sundial. Sciomancy was divination by means of communication with the shades -- dead people. Taken to extremes, it could lead to sciotheism, a form of religion where ghosts took the place of gods.

I hope that no one takes umbrage at all of this.

SIDEBAR: The Shadow on radio

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