An ancient word for ‘earthling’?

Many Indo-European languages exhibit a word for ‘human being’ that is built off of PIE *dʰéɡ́ʰom- ‘earth, ground.’

  • Celtic *gdonyo- (Irish duine ‘person,’ Welsh dyn ‘man’) < *dʰɡ́ʰom-yo-
  • Germanic *guman- ‘man’ (Old English guma ‘man,’ English [bride]groom; Old High German gomo ‘man,’ German [Bräuti]gam) < *dʰɡ́ʰm̥-mon-
  • Latin homō, –minis ‘person’ < *dʰɡ́ʰm-on- (whence also hūmānus)
  • Phrygian ζεμελως ‘man (dat. pl.)’ < *dʰɡ́ʰem-el-o-

This underlying root is also well-attested with its original meaning.

  • Albanian dhe ‘earth’ < *dʰɡ́ʰom-
  • Celtic *gdon- (Old Irish , don ‘place’) < *dʰɡ́ʰom-
  • Greek χθών, -νός ‘earth’ (an English derivative of which is chthonic) < *dʰɡ́ʰom-; χαμαί ‘on the ground,’ χαμᾶζε ‘earthwards,’ χθαμαλός ‘near the ground’ < *dʰɡ́ʰem-el-o-
  • Latin humus ‘ground’ < *dʰɡ́ʰom-o-, humilis ‘near the ground’ < *dʰɡ́ʰem-el-i-
  • Sanskrit क्ष kṣa ‘field’ < *dʰɡ́ʰm̥-
  • Slavic *zemja (Polish ziemia; Bulgarian земя, Russian земля) < *dʰɡ́ʰem-yh̥2

Although Greek derives no explicit word for ‘person’ from this, ἐπιχθόνιος ‘on (ἐπί) the earth (χθών)’ is an occasional epithet of humans in Homeric verse:

“οὔ τινα γὰρ τίεσκον ἐπιχθονίων ἀνθρώπων,
οὐ κακὸν οὐδὲ μὲν ἐσθλόν, ὅτις σφέας εἰσαφίκοιτο” 415
“Not one of the people on earth did they respect—
not wicked and not noble—whoever came to them.” (Od. 22.414–415)

Sometimes it even occurs on its own, without ἄνθρωποι ‘people’ or βροτοί ‘mortals,’ and we are expected to fill that meaning in ourselves:

“εἰ μὲν γάρ τίς μ᾽ ἄλλος ἐπιχθονίων ἐκέλευεν, 220
ἢ οἳ μάντιές εἰσι θυοσκόοι ἢ ἱερῆες,
ψεῦδός κεν φαῖμεν καὶ νοσφιζοίμεθα μᾶλλον.”
“For if some other one of those on the earth had told me,
either those who are diviners or priests who make sacrifices,
we would rather call it a falsehood and distance ourselves from it.” (Il. 24.220–222)

The derived meaning of ‘person’ from ‘earth’ is not exclusive to these Indo-European examples. Hebrew, too, seems to derive אָדָם ɔādām ‘man, Adam‘ from אֲדָמָה ɔădāmâ
‘ground.’ (The underlying root ɔdm means ‘red.’)

Why these languages would have derived words for ‘human being’ from a word meaning ‘earth’ is an interesting question. I see several possibilities:

  1. the sense of earth-denizen is in opposition to sky-denizens, or the gods;
  2. there is a common myth in the Indo-European and Semitic mythologies (and elsewhere?) that humans were created out of clay or dirt;
  3. humans called themselves earthling to differentiate themselves from otherworldly visitors.

Seriously considering #1 and #2, I am inclined to think that #1 is the likeliest. To be sure, the notion that humankind was created from clay is a common belief across many world mythologies. On the Semitic side of things, in Genesis (2:7), Adam is created from the “dust of the ground”—just like in the Enûma Eliš—while the Qurɔān (55.14–15) mentions that God also created the jinn from smokeless fire. Thus the connection between ɔādām ‘man, Adam’ and ɔădāmâ ‘ground’ fits this theory very nicely.

Elohim Creating Adam 1795-c. 1805 by William Blake 1757-1827
And Elohim Created Adam by William Blake

But in these many Indo-European derivations from *dʰéɡ́ʰom- ‘earth,’ a parallel creation story wherein humans are wrought out of clay seems too good to be true; it would certainly be asking a lot of comparative mythology. For this reason I prefer #1. The Greek ἐπιχθόνιος ‘[living] on the earth’—as opposed to something like *ἐκχθόνιος ‘[sprung] from the earth’—in particular suggests that the noteworthy aspect of humankind’s relationship with *dʰéɡ́ʰom- is that it is our home. Whether or not it is also the ur-material of our bodily composition is not the central issue.

There are plenty of ancient Indo-European sources that drive home the opposition between earth-dwelling mortals and sky-dwelling immortals. Here is one of my favorite examples:

A monument (2nd cent. BC) with a dual-language inscription sums up in more concise Gaulish a dedication that has already been written in Latin:

dewogdonion

AKISIOS·ARKATOKO{K}
MATEREKOS·TOŠO
KOTE·ATOM·TEUOX
TONION·EV

Akisios Argantomaterecus gave the area (?) for gods-and-humans.

This TEUOX/TONION—for which David Stifter reconstructs the pronunciation dēwoγdoniyon—is the Gaulish equivalent of deis et hominibus ‘for gods and humans’ in the Latin text. The word is apparently a dvandva compound (which are not common in Celtic) that breaks down into dēwo– ‘god’ and γdoniyo– ‘human,’ with a plural inflectional ending. The first half is from Indo-European *deywó- ‘god’ (cf. the Germanic god *Tīwaz), which is probably an ablaut-variant of *dyew- ‘sky, day,’ and therefore related to *dyēw- ‘sky god’ (frequently with the epithet “Father”; cf. Ζεὺς Πάτηρ, Iuppiter, Dyauṣ Pitā, etc.). The second half of the compound, γdoniyo-, is our old friend *dʰɡ́ʰom-yo- ‘earthian, earthling,’ and therefore exactly cognate with Irish duine ‘person.’

Therefore this single word TEUOXTONION dēwoγdoniyon ‘for gods and humans’ perfectly encapsulates the opposition between sky-dwelling immortals and earthbound mortals. For these reasons it makes the most sense to me that, at least for the Indo-European terms, the original sense must have been ‘earth-dwelling’ (and not, say, ‘made from earth/dirt’). But perhaps the answer does not have to be one or the other.

And option #3 is always available.

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