the p- q- split: how the gorgons lost their ghiks, i mean how the bourbons lost their lips. 3500 words
the history of the gorgons is recorded by homer in ionic greek, but homer was clearly translating from much older material from many sources, and analysis shows that much of it was celtic. gorgon is a k-form of bourbon, which places them with a high probability in what is now france, and that suggests that the gorgons were gaulish. there’s a fair bit of linguistic evidence for this and a lot more evidence from the homeric texts and from place names and personal names some of which are still in use.
‘the p- k- split’, i call it, though mainstream historical linguists talk of a division within the celtic language group into p-celtic and q-celtic. i prefer to talk of a p- k- split for four reasons:
- no celtic language currently uses the letter q for the sound k and anyway, q represents or originally represented the combination of the letters k and u, denoting a corresponding combinations of sounds – followed by a vowel it becomes kw. look closely at the q. it is formed from a c (although we now often close the c into an o, having forgotten its origin) and a subscript u minus its upward stroke. sometimes this cursive u without its upstroke is flattened into a gentle sine wave and superimposed, but you can still readily see where it has come from. the k sound that distinguishes one of the main celtic language families from the other is not specifically the kw combination properly denoted by the letter q.
- the terms p-celtic and q-celtic don’t well differentiate between the two language groups anyway. any list of frequently used words from any of the so called p-celtic or q-celtic contains about equal numbers of p-forms and k-forms, and you often find both k- and p- forms of the same word – bearr (shave) and gearr (cut) in irish for example. the p-form irish bean (woman) appears as the k-forms guin as in guin-evere in britain or as gwen as in gwen-hwyfar in welsh, and as jen as in jen-ifer in cornish. the cornish kernow (cornwall), kewsel (speak(ing)) skol (school) kres (centre, peace) are k-forms, and yet despite clear evidence that neither k forms nor p forms were preferred or avoided, cornish is called a p-celtic language. the two groups are distinguished much more realistically by other criteria.
- the split is not by any means confined to the language group we now call celtic. it permeates european languages. it affects sanskrit. i see it in australian aboriginal languages. and it you take even a quick look at cherokee, there you have an example of a true k- type language. it as no p or b, (and no r either in surviving dialects!). in english we have both ‘colleges’ and ‘palaces’, both ‘priest’ and ‘christ’. our ‘call’ is also ‘appeal’, and in french it appears/occurs as ‘appeller‘ to call or to name. the cherokee language is almost a pure k- language. most of its words other than those it has borrowed can be pronounced without moving the lips or using the tongue tip. i have not yet encountered any language which has p sounds but not k sounds, and would be interested to hear of any.
- the k- split tends to complicate itself by a further splitting into k- and s- forms (and there are other divisions equally interesting). in english, which preserves a great many more celtic traits than some scholars seem to allow, k-forms can be pronounced as a k or as an s: candle, cinder, call, ceiling for example, and this can become optional when celtic-derived words, even the word celtic (pronounced either ‘keltic’ or ‘seltic’) itself, are concerned, or else two or more forms of the one word may occur, one spelt with a c and another with an s: colchester/silchester, for example, or kells and (a monk’s) cell. when you talk of a p- k- division rather than a p- k- or p- q- division, the ambiguity of the k- points you helpfully in the direction of this further major division in the languages and several others which become apparent as the work continues.
and now, let’s look at some possibilities concerning the origin of the p- k- split as discernible in the tale of the gorgon. as i say, this story comes to us from the greek, but there’s no guarantee that all or indeed any of the action took place anywhere near greece, as all kinds of people came and went, invaded, intermarried with and were known to the ancient greeks and those who told the stories that homer preserved seem to have been rather a cosmopolitan, sea-faring people of diverse cultures and customs. furthermore they bought and read each others books and presented them, sometimes in translation, as gifts to each other. wherever they went as migrants or brides or new colonies, they took their books with them. homer observed that about 150 different languages contributed to the bronze age culture whose legends his poems preserve, and the closer you look, the less likely it is that they were all contained within the perimeters of the lands we now call greece. by homer’s time they already had the p- k- split and you can read about it if you haven’t already in the article “minding our bronze age ps and qs: apollo = achilles”, also on this website.
but it’s the gorgons who interest us here. it’s necessary to understand that the world then was not as it is currently depicted. the major features of the civilisations of the past that are discerned or imagined by today’s historians either did not exist or were not discerned by the ancients. the sharply distinct cultural groups that today’s historians are still looking for didn’t exist as they do today. there were numerous ethnic groups but these were shading into a continuum all over europe and south and east of the mediterraneanand so were their languages. and in addition to this the pre-renaissance tower civilisation was forever mixing them, educating their elites, sending them soldiering or marrying or colonising in far distant countries and sending off individuals to seek their fortunes, be bound apprentice, or be fostered in some remote part of the world. there were pedlars and beggars and many nomads – whole nations of nomads. have done, please!!!! with tribes. they were not often tribal. clans do not resemble tribes. even the distinction between celts and others has ceased to be useful. originally the celts comprised the elite of all nations, recruited in early childhood and given a cosmopolitan education that made them literate, chivalrous, economically and politically aware, well-armed, well-travelled, wealthy and regarded with awe. towards the end, racism divided them and their dark-skinned descendents (moors and jews for example) were driven out, leaving the fair-skinned peoples we now think of as celtic. this was fairly recent, not more than a thousand years ago, maybe much less. (stay tuned.)
try to see also the commerce, trade and politics. this is an ancient polyglot world of international trade routes, networking among far-flung cities and colonies separated by vast tracts of woodland and wilderness, from continent to continent and across oceans. powerful emperors who manage emirates which deal in saleable goods send explorers to the ends of the earth in search of precious merchandise ranging from diamonds and gold to linen and wine. less egotistical, even pious missionaries, or scholarly seekers after knowledge also sailed the seven seas and sought out new overland routes to far-flung lands to further human progress. we can no longer realistically deny the mounting archaeological, linguistic and cultural evidence that they did. and politics, war and religion moved peoples, traditions and books from one place to another in surprising ways.
the gorgon, medusa, is a case in point. gor is gcor, a mutant variant of an ancient form of cathar, which is a gaulish variant of the irish cathair, a city, found in ancient greek as cwr- or cor-. the vowels have changed so we can’t tell what the original suffix was, whether –er, -ar, -or, or something neutral-sounding to the gorgons themselves. so gor means a city, a chair of residence, ultimately, a culture, a school of thought, philosophy, religion etc, a path. (path is a p- form of cath-, and python is another with a suffix equivalent to the latin –anus, and the english –an. cath is seen also in cathbad, cassandra, katmandu, katatjuta). one variant of cath is gc/ad, pronounced god.)
gon is a similarly mutated form of khan. (af)ghan, conn, ceann and ken(mara), are some other k- forms and penn, pen and ben as in penn bran, pendragon and ben nevis are p-forms of it. gon too derives from cath but with a different suffix: -an instead of –ar. gor and gon are equivalent terms then, both meaning a (specific) path or culture. it bespeaks a merger of two paths, one calling itself gor (gcath’r) and the other calling itself gon (gcath’n) of course, the c to g mutation may have happened after the merger, or before it, or at the time of it as a result of it. most such mergers were due to mass marriages. if it happened before, the bourbons are older than we dare to think!!!
the gorgons were all once beautiful. in those days that meant richly-dressed, well-groomed, and with no deformities, and hidden if not healthy. but one of them, medusa, offended athene and was punished. med- as in mediterranean, meant centre. med-ea and med-i are probably polis-specific forms, with the endings denoting specialisations which analysis might uncover, but not just now. (i intend to discuss noun gender in a later essay, so stay tuned.) medusa seems to have been a third, related polis. these names almost certainly represented not individuals but polises or schools, or systems of polises or school/s. the word medicine, despite its different spelling, probably came from medus or medusa or both, its modern spelling having being construed from medus(a)+ an, with medic and medical being back-formed from it, or else conflated with forms of the uninflected stem which denoted polises similarly famed, and this gives us our first of many clues to what may have been a preoccupation of her culture.
furthermore, asclepius, the celebrated surgeon and pharmacologist, had powerful medicines derived from medusa. asclepius learnt the art of healing from apollo (the polis, palace, college) and cheiron. (cheiron is a relation of the gorgons. as gor comes from gc/ath+’r and -gon from gc/ath+’n, so cheiron comes from cha/e(th)ir + on. and so the two are clearly related.) according to the legend, athene gave him two vials of medusa’s blood. one vial could raise the dead, the other could cause instant death. these two vials contained blood from the veins of the left and right sides of the medusa’s body. no doubt the vials were real, they were in a box and the left hand vial could cure while the right hand one could (we hope) euthanise more or less instantly, and this was garbled and given its spin through successive tellings and translations on its way to homer into the version he has preserved for us. so there’s further evidence in favour of her having been a purely or at least predominately not an individual but a medical college whose women were as wise as its men, and perhaps they had no commitment to the greed and lusts of the emperors.
so assuming she was the female component of such a college/polis, her crime was to ‘lie with’ poseidon. pos is a p-form of cath/path, and -eidon is related to eddas, to irish oideachas (education, literally edda-path), to oedipus (which is a p-form of oideachas, and to the latin educare, to educate. it’s incidental resemblance to the latin e or ex = out of + ducere = to lead, has led to the erroneous etymology now usually given for it. it is also related to the greek suffix –oides meaning idea and ode, a kind of (latin) poem or similar, and the english ‘idea’ . path of ideas/education is a fair title. this ‘path” becomes more and more evident as data accumulates, but if you don’t look for it you don’t see it. but once you realise it’s there, you start seeing it everywhere.) poseidon too represents not a man, but a culture, or more often since he is recorded only by greeks, only its shipping line because that was all they ever encountered of it.
poseidon is thought of as a sea god, implying that along with neptune, manannan mac lir and lir and many others, he sailed the sea in ships. not all such sailors were in the service of some emperor. some served the paths of knowledge with pure and pious intentions, as explorers, scientists and sociologists, and there’s no reason to imagine that poseidon wasn’t one of these. his name suggests he was.
but in those innocent days, as still today, it was usual for sailors to ‘lie with’ the women of the ports of call, to give them babies to strengthen their culture and in exchange the shore-women gave these homeless, wandering men focus, love and the chance to be fathers. in those days before syphilis was understood it was not always considered irresponsible as it usually is now, and was often institutionalised at least to some extent, with legal agreements and signed documents to prove paternity.
“so early the next morning the sailor lad arose
and into mary’s apron threw a handful of gold
saying, ‘take this, me dear, for the mischief that i’ve done,
for tonight i fear i’ve left you with a daughter or a son,
and its home boys, home….”
if it be a girl child, send her out to nurse,
with gold in her pockets and silver in her purse,
and if it be a boy child he’ll wear a jacket blue,
and go climbin’ up the riggin’ like his daddy used to do,
and its home boys, home….”
but athene took offence.
athene turned the medusa into a winged monster with glaring eyes, huge teeth, protruding tongue, brazen claws and serpent locks, whose gaze turned men to stone.
that’s pure magical nonsense, isn’t it? or is it? we get a bit more insight later on when perseus is sent to confront her.
unlike some versions, this tale admits that medusa is so ugly that people who look at her are petrified with fright, i.e., not literally turned to stone, but nevertheless it plays on this figure of speech for narrative effect.
perseus promises the medusa’s head to a friend for a wedding present. aided by athene who still persecutes the poor girl, he goes first to sunny, mediterranean samos, where images of medusa and her two sisters are displayed, so that he will recognise her, then to mt atlas where he encounters the three graeae. there’s ridicule in the description of them as having only one eye and one tooth between them, but again the figure of speech is manipulated for narrative effect when he steals the tooth and eye and blackmails them into telling him the whereabouts of the stygian nymphs who equip him for his quest with magic winged sandals, a satchel, and a helmet of invisibility.
but let’s look closely at the sandals, satchel and helmet. sandals first. it was a widespread ancient custom to use the dried wings of birds caught for food or sport or for their beauty to decorate their clothing, and conceivably for magical purposes. wings attached to sandals might lend to a runner’s feet the speed of the bird they came from. scandinavian winged helmets are familiar to us too. but i don’t think it was a pair of decorated sandals that enabled perseus to pursue medusa. she now lived, we discover, in the hyperborean realms, in a bleak, craggy, weather-ravaged land, and while he departed for it westwards from mount atlas, he must have turned north, because on his home journey he departs southward, fleeing, and ends up where he started. this means he went by sea around what is now portugal, because overland he’d have just gone straight there in a north or north-westerly direction. so there were ships, or at least one.
so rather than perpetuate the idea that our ancestors were fatuously naive and superstitious i’m inclined to believe that the sandals are probably ships and the wings sails; and he would have taken more than one ship. he had a fair bit of fighting to do when he got there. you only have to consider the similarity of words like boot, boat and the french boi^te (box) to understand the ease with which a word for sea-going vessel might be mistranslated as sandal in transition from one language to another on its way to homer. the satchel, too, could have been anything originally, but satchels are mundane things so satchel may be the correct translation.
the helmet of invisibility recalls manannan mac lir’s cloak of invisibility. considering the kind of invisibility both were after, these items might have been the uniform or customary dress of the inhabitants of the land they intended to enter secretly, wearing which they were ‘invisible’ meaning inconspicuous, to the locals, seeming only to be their own warriors. in such disguise they might enter the highest precincts without challenge.
these are guesses, but they show that it is possible to feel our way cautiously to the history behind the myth, and it’s worth the risk of error to try to do so.
so medusa was a sea journey away and she was way up north. what this means is that she had experienced some mighty extreme changes of climate, from very mild, even warm to hot, to extremely cold. med- means mediterranean. hyperborean means of, pertaining to or characterising the extreme north. it’s cold up there, and if you’re not used to it and not expecting it, you’re not likely to thrive there. the major danger is frostbite.
severe facial frostbite comes upon the unwarned novice unexpectedly. the face feels numb for a long time, and there’s no pain, and no hint of damage being done until it’s done. it isn’t until the face thaws that the pain is felt, and then it’s too late – the worst affected areas of facial flesh have already died and can’t be healed. they are destined to rot away and fall off. eyelids, noses, cheeks, lips, tongues, chins, fingers and toes are the most vulnerable and most frequently severely affected parts. imagine what a young girl would look like! sent to the hebrides (like being sent to outer siberia in more recent times) she would not know not to stand on deck, ignoring the painlessly increasing numbness of her face and hands, watching the sea and lamenting her fate, the damage would have been done before she got there. and of course, she wouldn’t have been alone – her whole entourage would have suffered the same fate.
so there you are, daring to look upon a once beautiful maiden changed by the wrath of a higher authority into a hideous, terrifying monster. her eyes are rimless – staring eyeballs in gaping sockets, as you see in ancient depictions of her. her nose is a hideous hole in her face. her huge mouth has no lips to hide the discoloured teeth, which project horribly twistedly out of the near-gumless bone-ridges of her jaw as the images show by only slightly exaggerating the effect into curving, dog-like fangs. her tongue, visible through it, is a truncated mass of stiff, ugly scar-tissue, protruding between her teeth. the bare bones of her fingers protruding through the flesh of her horribly damaged fingers look like brazen claws.
that she is winged means she has adopted the scandinavian/celtic custom of wearing wings for decoration or magical purposes, and that her hair has become snakes means that she has adopted their fashion of wearing her hair in plaits. (little girls were still referring to their long plaits as ‘snakes’ in australia in the 1950s, when i was about six or seven years old, waggling them and pretending to make them hiss to scare each other for fun.)
but the thing most interesting to us here happens when she tries to speak.
it’s probably no time for jokes, but in the words of the old song: “can you say bread and butter without moving your lips?” or perhaps rather, since it is a ventriloquists’ song, “can you say gread and gutter ghuithout ghoghing ghyour liks?”
or what if your tongue is paralysed or gone, too? liks becomes ghyiks.
now when perseus has decapitated the medusa, from her dead body spring the winged horse pegasus and the warrior chrysaor, helbent on pursuit, and perseus flees. well, not from her corpse maybe but perhaps her corps. this pun is possible because of an ancient kenning or system of kennings which depicted military forces as bodies, with heads, tails, wings, horns etc. descriptions in ancient hebrew and other texts of beasts with horns, wings and heads on their horns are usually descriptions of armies that are to be faced or raised. pegasus’s wings may be merely a feature of dress, but it may be a military term. pegasus is the horse, i.e., cavalry of medusa’s army, and the wings are a military formation.
obviously, they sprang not from her dead body, but from her retinue, and perhaps they were armies under the command of her sons. one of the main reasons for sending shiploads of women anywhere was to provide the men of distant colonies with wives, and these might have been the first generation of warriors descended from these frostbitten beauties. their fathers would have left their early upbringing including the teaching of their mother-tongue to their (unfortunately lipless) mothers, and so, even though they would have had well-formed lips and tongues, they would rarely have heard any language at all other than their mothers’ deformity-modified speech and they would have learned to imitate it as perfectly as children always learn to imitate their parents’ speech. without lips, how would you tell a child just learning to speak that s/he isn’t a little gorgon, but a bourbon?
anyway, for a practicum, try now and then speaking english, or your own native language, or any other language if it comes to that, in a ‘frostbitten’ accent, and then let the implications filter through to your perceptions of celtic, grecian, and all other cultures and languages worldwide.
and watch this website for further essays on this subject.