Friday, May 19, 2017

Mare Mortuum, the Dead Sea

The Dead Sea is the lowest place on the non-oceanic face of the earth: a hypersaline lake today bordered by Israel, Jordan and Palestine. The Dead Sea is mentioned in various books of the Bible; but never under its current designation referring to a dead body of water or a lake of lifelessness and death. The Hebrew texts of the Bible mention Yam Ha-Melah (or Yam Hamelah), with “yam” meaning sea and “melah” meaning salt [1]. The Bible also contains names for the Dead Sea meaning Primordial Sea, Sea of the Plain and Eastern Sea [2,3].

There are many more names for the Dead Sea, related to the Dead Sea's geography, nature as well as human and religious history. I value Barbara Kreiger's introduction to the Dead Sea and her summary of name origins [4]:
Given the long history that has been enacted on its shores by many nations, it is not surprising that the Dead Sea has had various names. Its oldes is Yam Ha-Melah, the Salt Sea, that name first appearing in the Bible in the books of Genesis, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, where it usually serves as a geographical landmark. To the Greeks it was Lake Asphaltites because of the lumps of asphalt that were periodically thrown up from its depths, and that name persisted in the texts of medieval writers. Christians of the Middle Ages also knew it as the Devil's Sea, and their Arab contemporaries referred occasionally to the Stinking Lake, presumably because of the smell of sulphur emitted from several places along the shore. But the names that appear most frequently in Arab texts are commemorative of the cataclysm that engulfed Sodom and Gomorrah. They called it simply The Overwhelmed, “from the cities of Lot that were overwhelmed in its depths,” or the Sea of Zughar (i.e., Zoar), after the town that had escaped destruction and fluorished in the Middle Ages. Likewise the Jews, who sometimes referred to it as the East Sea, to distinguish it from the Mediterranean, or the Sea of the Aravah, referring to the valley in which it lies, but more often called it the Sea of Sodom. Except for the little used Arab name Al Buhairah al Miyyatah, the Dead Lake, the notion of lifelessness is not reflected in Arab and Jewish names, though Mare Mortuum, the Dead Sea, had appeared in early Roman texts. (In Tacitus' History we also find it called the Jewish Sea.) Today the Arabs call it Bahr el-Lut, the Sea of Lot. To Jews it is still Yam Ha-Melah.

In the term Al Buhairah al Miyyatah, also Al-bahr Al-mayyit, “al Miyyatah” refers to the deceased in Islam. Germans call the Dead Sea “Totes Meer” and most modern languages now use terms associated with the dead-sea meaning—whether in relation to human mortality or natural, supposedly life-threatening phenomena experienced around the lake.

Keywords: geographic names, etymology, notion of lifelessness, culture, religion, human history.

References and more to explore

[1] Abarim Publications: The name Yam-hamelah in the Bible [].
[2] The Dead Sea in the Bible [].
[3] Bible Study Tools: Dead Sea, The [].
[4] Barbara Kreiger: The Dead Sea and the Jordan River. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 2016.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

How Mount Diablo in the eastern San Francisco Bay Area got its name

Mount Diablo with historic, stone-built Summit Visitor Center and Devil's Pulpit (left-side, tooth-shaped monolith)
Various tribal groups of Native American peoples were living in today's Mount Diablo area before and at the time when the first Europeans arrived. Among them were the Volvon Miwok people, a tribelet living in the rugged hills southeast of Mount Diablo [1-3]. No one knows what the Volvon inhabitants called their home mountain.

Early Spanish settlers (conquerors), who began using Mount Diablo for winter grazing, named local places—including Volvon sites they occupied. One Volvon village became associated with the devil, when some of its inhabitants successfully escaped while Spanish troops tried to enforce their relocation to Mission San Jose. A board of the exhibit in Mount Diablo's Summit Visitor Center explains:
Spanish troops searching for runaway mission Indians surrounded a Miwok village in a willow thicket. Somehow the Indians escaped unseen and the angry, disappointed soldiers called the place Monte del Diablo (thicket of the Devil) - the basis for a later linguistic misunderstanding.
English-speaking settlers later translated “monte” with “mount” and called the “Miwok Mountain” Mount Diablo. This was a mistranslation—or misinterpretation—since the Spanish word “monte” can also mean “scrubland” or “thicket.”  

We will never know, if those surrounded-and-escaped Volvon people, in their language, called their traitors devils. If so, the name “Mount Diablo” has double meaning and literally serves as a reminder of unjust treatment of California native tribes.
Keywords: human history, geographic name, Contra Costa County, California.

References and more to explore
[1] Territory: Volvon [].
[2] Save Mount Diablo: Mount Diablo History [].
[3]  Legends Of The“Devil” Mountain Of California [].