Meaning in the Words – Where it Comes From?

“The ships leave shore,

Minerva steers.”

Homer, The Odyssey, Book Two

A very short line of only six words. What does it tell us? Does it tell us anything meaningful? Well, that depends on whether we know what or who Minerva is, but more than that – our appreciation of these words rests on our understanding of the cultural context in which Minerva was embedded. Of course, that is assuming most of us are ourselves from cultural contexts where the idea of ships leaving shores is comprehensible. Because if not – imagine a reader who comes from an entirely different world where there are no ships, no shores, no such concept of navigation as we know it – then even if the words are translated into a familiar language, they will convey no meaning. This is what 20th-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was referring to when he said: “What belongs to a language game is a whole culture.” 

Minerva (Pallas, Athena)1

Minerva was a Roman name for the goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare. Her Greek name was Athena. She was not associated with the violence of war, but rather with the smart strategic approach, a kind of symbol of civilization. This differentiation alone tells us something about the Greek cultural values (I stick with the Greek origins, as the quote is taken from the story of one of the greatest Greek heroes). Minerva steering the ship carried a rich meaning for the people in whose culture she was embedded. We can achieve at least some understanding of this metaphor largely thanks to shared cultural influences and overlaps. 

Have you ever heard of the ‘wise owls’? This bird has long been a symbol of wisdom in many cultures. In the ancient Greek culture, an owl was the bird associated with Athena (Minerva) – the goddess of wisdom. In the 19th-century the German philosopher Hegel wrote: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” Here we see the metaphor of Minerva`s owl still transferring meaning centuries after the end of its original cultural context. Perhaps, then, we should not speak of its end, since we still find these words meaningful? Because indeed, understanding of something often comes “only with the falling of the dusk“, only in hindsight. 

In the Odyssey quote above, it is wisdom and strategic art that guides the ships on their quest. I suppose saying this to the ancient Greeks (or Romans) would be pointless, a tautology. Every kid knew who Minerva was and what she stood for. For us, however, this elaboration might be useful. If we go even deeper and try to come as close as possible to the original cultural context, we might add that although they were people who were aboard those ships, they were well aware that it takes more than only their skill to be successful on their journey. This something ‘more’ they called Minerva or Athena or the immortal gods. Today, we might think of it as luck, although this, of course, only partly reflects the original meaning. Having the broader Greek cultural context in mind, we can venture to assume that they accepted the idea of people not having full control of events more readily than we do nowadays. 

Probably there are further nuances of meaning in those short six words that were easily transferred to the Greeks, and that we are missing as viewed from our 21st-century cultural contexts. The context, the entire culture, and the specific circumstances of the use of words fill them with meaning. It begins, of course, with the ability to use the language, to understand it, but that alone is not enough. As Wittgenstein put it:

“We learn this when we come into a strange country with entirely strange traditions; and, what is more, even given a mastery of the country`s language. We do not understand the people. We cannot find our feet with them./…/ If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.”

wittgenstein (philosophical investigations, 1953)

That is why, I believe, exploratory journeys are so enriching. Just think of all the ‘new worldviews’ you discover, and how that broadens yours. And what`s more – you can go on such journeys while still staying at home.  

keep exploring!

(1)Image reference: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Minerva,_RP-P-1878-A-2412.jpg#/media/File:Minerva,_RP-P-1878-A-2412.jpg

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