Follow olinrev on Twitter
Copyright 2008 Olin Revelation. All Rights Reserved.
Custom Search

Revisiting Paradise: An Etymological Stroll Through the Garden of Our Language

According to a friend of mine, the word paradise comes from Greek para-disi meaning "beyond the west" or "beyond the end (of the Earth)". The traditional etymology claims that the word paradise came from Greek paradeisos, which is claimed to derive from Avestan pairi daeza, meaning "walled around" and thus "walled enclosure" and which eventually came to mean "walled garden". Note that while para- can mean "beyond", Greek peri- means "around". The Greek word for "wall" is teixhos, and it clearly appears that the Greek was related to the Avestan daeza. It should be noted that the t sound can be seen to evolve into d (t→d) and kh can be seen to evolve into s (khkss). I would conclude on that basis that Greek periteixos most likely evolved into Greek paradeisos before evolving into Avestan pairi daeza, not the other way around, as suggested by the traditional etymology.

One should note that a wall is a barrier, and the Greek word for "west", disi, can also mean "end" or "limit". In ancient times, cities often had defensive walls, and city walls had two effects: city walls kept intruders out (i.e., acting as a barrier); but also, for those living within the walls, they served to define the limits of the residents' "world". So, conceptually, it seems clear that the idea of a "limit around" one's world (paradisos) and a "wall around" one's world (periteixos) are naturally linked. It seems highly likely therefore that the roots dis and teix share a common ancient origin connected with the walls that defined a city's limit or extent.

Note also that the city walls originally served to separate those who were good (the city's occupants) from those who were generally understood to be bad (those living beyond the city's walls). In fact, in some cases, those living "beyond the walls" or "beyond the limits" surely included former residents who were either forced to leave (exiled perhaps due to illness, superstition or other reasons) or fled the city (perhaps due to crimes they committed). Initially, life within the city walls or limits (peridis) was also surely understood to be relatively pleasant while life outside the city walls or limits (paradis) was understood to be relatively harsh.

Of course, over time, an opposing point of view clearly developed: that life outside the city walls, in the orchards that surrounded a city, was in fact idyllic while life within the city was less than idyllic, often filled with crime, illness, poverty, and other hardships. Consequently, one can begin to see a real possibility that the Biblical story of Adam and Eve is perhaps rooted in those ancient ideas related to the quality of life and its evolution within and outside a walled city rather than merely to a walled garden, such as might be found within a palatial compound.

At some point the idea of a city's limit (peridis) clearly became synonymous with the idea of a limit around the World (note that 6th century BCE Akkadian pardesu is said to translate as "domain"). Clearly that idea was firmly established when the story of the Hesperides developed. The Hesperides were nymphs known as "Sunset Goddesses" or "Daughters of Evening". The Hesperide maidens tended a garden in the far west (beyond the limits of our world), where the Sun sets. In the garden grew apples that conferred immortality to those who ate from them. The garden was supposedly owned by Hera, queen of the gods and, knowing that the Hesperides would eat from the trees if given a chance, she placed a monster named Ladon in the garden to guard over the trees and their fruit. The common elements of

(1) a garden separated from our own world,
(2) the word paradise (evident in the name Hes-perides),
(3) an East/West direction associated with the garden,
(4) women who could not be trusted,
(5) golden apples (or perhaps originally pears, which in Greek are called apion) that when eaten confer immortality,
(6) a deity's desire to prevent mortals and others from eating the apples, and
(7) a dragon (or serpent) within the garden (compare the names Ladon and Satan)

all suggest that the story of Adam and Eve and the story of the Hesperides perhaps shared a common origin.

Curiously the name Eve and the word eve (form of evening) also appear to suggest a connection between the stories as well, although linguists (perhaps driven by religious convictions) suggest no such relationship in their etymologies.

The word pardes (the Hebrew form of paradise) does not appear in the original Hebrew text of the Book of Genesis (which uses Hebrew gan instead), but it does appear elsewhere in the Tanakh in reference possibly to gardens. The word paradise (actually, Greek paradeisos) was eventually used for both pardes and gan (Hebrew for "garden") in the Septuagint (written in the 2nd or 3rd century BCE). So the use of the word paradise specifically in relation to the Garden of Eden is obviously of Greek rather than Hebrew origin. Xenophon, in fact, uses the term paradeisos in his text Anabasis, written in the 4th century BCE, to refer to walled gardens; so it seems likely that the intended or understood meaning of the word at the time the Septuagint was written was most likely "walled garden".

Nevertheless it should be clear that the story of Genesis was well known to the Greeks long before the Septuagint was written and that the word paradeisos had probably long been used by Greeks to refer to the location where Adam and Eve's story took place. For the meaning of periteixos to evolve from "wall around something" or "surrounding wall" to "wall around a garden" (a more specific meaning), something must have inspired such change. It also seems clear that the story of the Hesperides was likely influenced by the story of Adam and Eve or vice versa, with either story being the origin of the idea of a "remote garden isolated from the rest of the world".

Many English words share various forms of the same Greek prefix: dis-, des-, di-, and de-. The meaning of the prefix is "to separate" or "to remove". This can be seen in words like dissolve, divide, distribute, detach, disentangle, divorce, dissect, disbelief, disappear, dichotomy, delineate, distinguish, displace, disturb, etc. The English prefix dys- (as seen in the words dysfunctional and dyslexia) also is said to mean "difficult" or "bad", although "to separate, remove" also may suffice. Additionally, while the prefix di- or dis-, such as seen in the word dipole, also is commonly understood to mean "two", it is not difficult to see that separation produces two entities from one and that the "two" meaning stems from that simple fact.

One should also note that in ancient times, city walls were often surrounded by a ditch or moat. While many traditional etymologies suggest otherwise, it appears clear that many English words related to walls and ditches (e.g., ditch, dike, dig, dip and depression) and few more distantly related (e.g., dimple) all harken back to the idea of a separating wall and/or ditch.

This leads to another rather bold proposal. The lowercase letter d can be seen to be constructed from a circle and a line. The line can be seen as symbolizing a barrier (either a wall and/or a ditch) while the circle can be seen as meaning "encircling". While no one truly knows the ancient origin of the lowercase letter d, it seems quite reasonable to believe that the letter may have originally expressed the idea of encircling wall(s). Note that the Semitic equivalent to the letter d, dalet, from which the letter d is said to derive, is said to mean "door"; but perhaps dalet referred instead to a gate within a city wall.

I also suspect that the English word parade may have derived originally from the shared ancestor of Greek paradisi and paradeisos as well. It is easy, after all, to imagine that the word parade originally may have referred to soldiers triumphantly marching around a city's walls. The traditional etymology suggests however that the word parade derived from Latin parare, meaning "to prepare" or "to dress", which appears to have little if any relationship conceptually to a parade.

Another word to consider is the word partition. It seems completely reasonable to believe, given what has been already presented, that partition was originally paradision. Over time the word would have evolved into pardition and then simply to parde (later becoming part and party).

Similarly, as the distinction between paradis (meaning "beyond walls" and therefore "free") and peridis (meaning "surrounded by walls") began to become clearer, it lead to the coining of a new word formed in much the same manner as partition: perdition. Clearly those imprisoned in ancient times were essentially damned to a hellish world.

Even the word pardon appears to have been derived directly from the Greek parde root, rather than from Old German firgeban (the fairly obvious origin of English forgiven and possibly a corruption of paradon) as the traditional etymology suggests. After all, after a criminal is pardoned, the criminal is usually set free (i.e., released from prison).

Also one should take a good hard look at the English word separate. The traditional etymology suggests that the word derived from Latin sepire, meaning "to enclose, hedge in". It should not be too hard to see, however, that the word decomposes quite nicely into se- parate or, perhaps more precisely, se- parade. Clearly the Latin meaning "to enclose, hedge in" refers back to the Greek meaning of parade or paradis. If we examine the meaning for se- (evidenced in words such as series, sequel, segue, section, sequence, set and perhaps also season and second) we can see that it refers to related divisions of something.

[This discourse on the meaning of the word paradise, and more specifically on the meaning of separate, also leads me to think of the besieging of Alesia, where Julius Caesar constructed two walls around the hilltop fortress, one wall to separate those within the hilltop fortress from their food resources, and another outer wall to separate his own men from the enemy's massive relief force. Perhaps, much like the other claims I have made herein, there is no relationship between the etymology of the word separate and the battle of Alesia, but it certainly would make for a good story nevertheless. Wouldn't it?]

In truth, much of what has just been presented has not been proven. Real proof of such things can only come through extensive research, and such research is nowhere near complete. But I do hope that what I have provided ultimately proves to be more than mere folk etymology and that it serves to inspire others to discover for themselves a vast cache of knowledge that has been hidden away within the very language we speak.