Saturday, December 15, 2007

Vulgate Verse: alpha et omega

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Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I have the pleasure of getting to comment on some of these verses here, focusing on the verses that seem to me to have a special significance for religious literacy and topics of general interest, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

For the eClassics ning website, I've been posting Latin holiday songs and carols, and yesterday's carol, In dulci iubilo prompted me to write something here today about "Alpha et Omega," which is repeated three times in the book of Revelation, in chapters 1, 21 and 22:

Greek: ἐγώ εἰμι τὸ ἄλφα καὶ τὸ ὦ,
Latin: Ego sum Alpha et Omega
English: I am Alpha and Omega

The Greek alphabet is being used here metaphorically, with the alpha the first letter of the Greek alphabet and omega the last letter. The Biblical text itself glosses this expression, explaining that it means God is the beginning and the end, principium et finis in Latin, or initium et finis, or primus et novissimus (in addition to meaning "newest," novissimus can also mean "latest," as we talk about the "latest fashion," or "last").

The Greek letters alpha and omega became widely used as Christian symbols, even in non-Greek-speaking lands. As you can see, the Latin Vulgate adopts the use of the Greek letters, even though "omega" was not a letter in the Latin alphabet. So, too, in English, which refers to "alpha" and "omega" rather than the letter "z," the last letter of the English alphabet (as in our expression "from A to Z," meaning everything). The word "alphabet" itself is based on the same idea, being formed from the first two letters of the alphabet in Greek, "alpha-beta."

The Greek alphabet itself was modeled on a Semitic alphabet, which is why the letters of the Greek alphabet for the most part have names that sound like the names of the same letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The Hebrew alphabet begins "aleph-bet-gimel." Compare the Greek: "alpha-beta-gamma." The Hebrew alphabet did not dedicate a letter to represent the vowel sound "o" but the Greek alphabet did, hence the unusual names for the two letters in Greek "omicron" (o-micron, "the little o") and "omega" (o-mega, "the big o"). You can read about the Greek alphabet and Hebrew alphabet at wikipedia.

For a wide variety of depictions of Alpha and Omega in Christian symbols, check out the wikipedia gallery.

The Christmas song "In Dulci Iubilo" that prompted me to write about this today is a "macaronic" song meaning that it mixes two languages, in this case German and Latin. The song dates to the fourteenth century and is attributed to the German mysic Heinrich Suso who is supposed to have had a vision of angels and to have heard them singing. He joined in the dance of the angels and then recorded the experience in this mixed German and Latin song. This German-Latin song was extremely popular, and inspired an English-Latin macaronic version. You can find the English-Latin macaronic version with a MIDI file and sheet music at the Hymns and Carols of Christmas website, along with a later adaptation into English, Good Christian Men, Rejoice.
Now let us sing with mirth and joy,
Our heart's consolation
Lies in præsepio, (= the manger)
And shines as the sun,
Matris in gremio. (=in his mother's lap)
Alpha is and O, Alpha is and O.
Although Christian scholars debate about whether the appellation "Alpha et Omega" belongs properly to God only, and not to Jesus, it is clear in this song that at this birth, Jesus is being greeted as the "Alpha et Omega."

Meanwhile, here is an image by a modern Christian artist, Roberta Williams, which she has entitled "Alpha and Omega."



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