Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Harrowing Experience

Harrowing is a powerful adjective. Something harrowing shreds the feelings. It is deeply distressing and agonizingly painful.

The word comes from Scandinavian and Dutch terms that meant a rake, but not the household type used to gather up leaves. Instead, it was an industrial-strength agricultural tool, usually consisting of a heavy frame set with iron teeth or tines. It was used to break up clods of earth, crushing them and pulverizing them. Later versions included the disc harrow and the chain harrow.

Thus, the metaphorical extension to a person’s feelings and psyche packs a powerful impact.

Theologically, the Harrowing of Hell was a common theme in early Christian poetry and medieval drama, though it came from a different harrow. It referred to Christ’s descent into hell between his crucifixion and resurrection, a time in which he raided hell and released its inhabitants. Although the Descent into Hell is mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed and in New Testament sources, the Catholic Encyclopedia points to the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus as the primary influence on British religious literature.

Sir Walter Scott used the word in his Lady of the Lake:

Yet, witness every quaking limb,

My sunken pulse, mine eye-balls dim,

My soul with harrowing anguish torn,

This for my Chieftain have I borne!

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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