Languages offer many surprises. Their words, their origins and their derivations, as long as one undertakes to follow them in their genesis, show the way to Heaven, – or to Hell.
In Hebrew, the word meaning ‘Arab’ ערב (‘RB) is the exact anagram of the word meaning ‘Hebrew’ עבר (‘BR).
But this word, ערב , which denotes ‘Arab’ in Hebrew, actually has a rich range of meanings that go far beyond this single ethnic designation. Pulling the thread of the ball of yarn, a whole ancient world emerges, covering a very vast territory, both geographical and semantic, from Europe to India via Akkad and Mesopotamia, and simmering a magic of subtle, brilliant and dark relationships.
The word עָרַב (‘arab) is also a verb that basically means ‘to set’ (referring to the sun or moon)i.
This Hebrew word is etymologically related to the ancient Akkadian erēbu, ‘to enter, to descend’, as in the expression erēb shamshi, the ‘sunset’ii.
Ernest Klein’s great etymological dictionary notes the kinship of the Hebrew word עָרַב (‘arab) with the Arabic gharb, غرب (‘west, the place of sunset’), with the Ethiopian ‘areba (‘he descended’), and also notes that the Greek word ‘Europe’ derives from this same etymological basis. The Greek word ‘Ἔρεβος, Érebos , which personifies Hell in mythology, also comes from the same base.
So we have the following etymological equation:
Erebos is certainly a very old word, and its deep origin reveals other surprises, as we shall see.
The god Erebos (Ἔρεϐοϛ) was born from the primordial Chaos, he is the brother and husband of Nyx, the Night, with whom he begat Ether (Heaven) and Hemera (Day), but also Eleos (Pity), Epiphron (Prudence) and Charon, the ferryman of the Underworld.
Hesiod tells us: « Then from the void were born Erebus and the black Night. From the Night came the Aether and the Day, two brothers and sisters whom she had conceived by uniting with Erebus »iii.
Homer tells of Odysseus’ descent into the Underworld and his encounter with the shadows:
« After addressing my prayers and wishes to the crowd of the dead, I take the victims, slit their throats in the pit, where black blood flows; suddenly the souls of the males escape from Erebus ».iv
Odysseus carefully observed the souls of the dead in Erebus: « I spoke in this way; but Ajax did not answer me and fled into Erebus with the crowd of shadows. There, no doubt, in spite of his anger, he would have spoken to me if I had pressed him; but all my desire then was to observe the souls of the other deadv « .
A good connoisseur of Greek myths, Moreau de Jonnès explains: « The third region of the Underworld was Erebus. This term has the meaning of « setting » in Genesis as well as in Homer and must have applied to the whole of the infernal region located in the west of Asia. According to Greek mythology, the part of Hades closest to the world of the living was so called. It is there that the spirits waited for their turn to appear before the court. Erebus, close to the Caucasus, was probably the island of Temruk, where the coffins containing the embalmed dead were first deposited. « vi
The old Greek word erebos (Ἔρεϐοϛ) refers to ‘darkness’, ‘the darkness of the underworld’ according to Pierre Chantraine’s etymological dictionaryvii, which observes that this word was also preserved in Sanskrit, Armenian and Germanic. The equivalent of erebos in Sanskrit is रजस्, rájas, ‘dark region of the air, vapor, dust’. In Armenian it is erek, ‘evening’, in Gotic, riquiz and in Norse rekkr, ‘darkness, twilight’.
Sanskrit dictionaries give the range of meanings of rájas: ‘atmosphere, cloud’ but also ‘passion, instinct, desire’, and this word allows to denote the abstraction of ‘Passion’, of the active essence of power and desire.
If we dig even deeper into the origin of the word , we find that it comes from the word rajanī, which literally means ‘the colored one’, from the verb rañj रञ्ज् ‘to be colored, to become colored’. The word rajanī denotes the color indigo, a powerful dark blue. But the root verb rañj also means ‘to blush, to flame’, like the setting sun, or like the blood of sacrifice, which incidentally is found in the ancient Greek words ῥῆγοϛ and ῥἐζω, carrying the idea of ‘to make a sacrifice’ and ‘to dye’.
Thus we see that the Hebrew word ‘arab actually comes from an ancient Sanskrit word via Akkadian, and has some connection to the blue of the night (which deepens) and the red of the sacrifice, which is ritually performed at sunset, – what the Hebrews actually called ‘the evening burnt offering’.
Indeed, the Hebrew word ערב vocalized עֶרֶב, ‘érèb, means ‘evening’ as in the verse ‘from morning until evening’ (Ex 18:14). It is also the word ‘evening’ in the famous verse ‘There was evening, there was morning’ (Gen 1:5).
Idiomatically used in the duel, it means ‘between the two evenings’, that is to say, between the day that ends and the evening that begins, in that very particular time of the day when one no longer distinguishes the limits, in that in-between time when one offers the evening sacrifice.viii
But this word also has, perhaps by a kind of metaphor based on the indistinction of twilight and evening, the meanings of ‘mixture’, ‘association’ and ‘alliance’. Hence the expression in the first Book of Kings, kol-malkhei ha-‘ereb ix, which can be translated word for word as ‘all the allied kings’, or ‘all the kings of Arabia’, or ‘all the kings of the West’, – since the word ‘ereb‘ is so ambiguous.
The Hebrew verb עָרַב (‘arab) has, moreover, a series of meanings, some related to the ideas of mixing or association, others related to the falling of the day, to darkening. Either: ‘to exchange goods, to deal; to be a guarantor; to be gentle, pleasant, good company; to mingle with’ but also ‘to make evening, to make dark’, as in ‘The day fades and the evening approaches’ (Jdg 19:9). This last meaning can have a moral sense: « All joy has faded away » (Is 24:11).
The idea of ‘mixture’, which has been assumed to derive its original intuition from the meeting of day and night, is found in other words attached to the same root עָרַב (‘arab), such as עָרֹב , ‘arob: ‘mixture of evil insects; species of flies’ word used to refer to the fourth plague of Egypt, עֵרֶב , ‘érèb: ‘links of the weft and warp of a cloth; mixture of people of all kinds, association of strangers’, as in the verse that contrasts the ‘mixed’ people and the Israelites: ‘they eliminated from Israel all the mixed ones’, kol-‘erèbx…
In the vocalization עֹרֵב, ‘oreb, the same root gives the word ‘raven’, that black, ominous bird that flies away at dusk, or the name of Oreb, a prince of Midian executed on the bank of the Jordan by the people of Ephraimxi.
Feminized into עֲרָבָה, ‘arabah, the word means ‘desert, arid place’, ‘wilderness’, but in the plural (‘arabot) it means the heavens.
Masculinized into עֲרָבִי, ‘arabi, it means ‘arab’…
The word ereb, which is thus found in Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Akkadian, and many other languages, originally comes from Sanskrit. Originally, it carries the essential idea of ‘mixture’, and more particularly of the symbolic mixture of two ‘colors’ (night blue and blood red).
From this original intuition it radiates, in Hebrew and Arabic, a whole set of semes, combining the ideas of evening, West, desert, heaven and Hell.
By extension, in Hebrew, it is used to denote the Arab, the fabric, the trade, the pests or the bird of misfortune, — the crow.
Let us add that in Arabic, curiously enough, the spelling of the word عرب, transcribed ‘arab, is very close visually to that of the word غرب, transcribed gharb or ġarb, depending on the dictionaries, as in maghreb or maġreb. The former has the sound laryngeal fricative ع (‘aïn) as its initial and the latter has the sound velar fricative غ (ġaïn) as its initial. The two letters are almost visually identical, and the semantic clouds of the words عرب and غرب may have undergone reciprocal contamination, or at least promoted metaphorical or metonymic shifts.
The word عرب means ‘Arabic‘, but etymologically the root verb عَرَب, ‘araba, has the meaning ‘to eat’, which seems to have no obvious connection with Arabness. In another vocalization عَرِب, ‘ariba, the word means ‘to be cheerful, lively, agile’. In yet another vocalization, عَرُب,’arouba, we have the meaning ‘to be essentially Arab, to be a good-natured Arab, to assimilate to the Arabs of the desert, to go and live in the desert’xii. Finally, in a vocalization enriched with some supplementary letters (عُرُوباءَ, ‘ouroûbâ’a) the word means ‘the 7th heaven’.
The spelling غرب is so close to عرب, that biblical Hebrew seems to confuse them both phonetically, when it transcribes or adapts these two Arabic words into Hebrew. From the semantic point of view, it is the second spelling that carries the basic meaning already found in the Hebrew ‘arab, and which is associated with the ideas of ‘setting’ and ‘evening’.
The verb غرب means ‘to go away, to leave, to move away; to set (sun, moon)’ but also ‘to arrive from abroad’ or ‘to go to the west’. It is with this verb that the name of Morocco is formed, ma-ghrib, literally ‘the place of the sunset’. A whole series of verbs and words based on this root denote the ideas of setting, darkness, west, western, occident, travel, foreign, strange, extraordinary, emigration, end, point, end.
For the Hebrews, ‘arab is the « foreign », the « mixed ». For the Arabs, their own name etymologically assimilates them to the ‘pure Arabic language’. The name ‘Arab’ therefore essentially means in Arabic, either the man of the desert, or (rather tautologically) ‘the one who knows how to handle the Arabic language perfectly’. But with a slight variation, by the passage from عرب to غرب, the same slightly modified word means no longer ‘Arab’, but ‘foreigner’, or even ‘Westerner’. This invites meditation.
From all this, it emerges as has already been said that Ereb, Europe, Arab are of the same origin. Hell, and the West too.
This ‘same origin’, this deeper root, the one that makes all these meanings possible, is still found in Sanskrit, in the word rañj रञ्ज्, which means the ‘mixing’ or ‘blending’ of colors, the blending of night and day, of shadow and light, of indigo and purple.
This fundamental idea of ‘blending’ is transcended, and celebrated, both in the Vedic religion and in the ancient Hebrew religion, by the ‘evening sacrifice’.
The sacrifice is to be made at the time of the ‘blending’ of light and shadow, and perhaps, of the human and the divine.
iErnest Klein. A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language. The University of Haifa. 1987
iiErnest Klein. A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language. The University of Haifa. 1987
iiiHesiod. Theogony. 123-125. Translation by Ph. Brunet, Le Livre de poche, 1999.
ivHomer, Odyssey XI, 37
vHomer, Odyssey XI, 564
viA.C. Moreau de Jonnès. Mythological times. Attempt at historical restitution. Didier’s Academic Bookstore. Paris, 1877, p.125
viiPierre Chantraine, Etymological Dictionary of the Greek Language. Histoire des mots, Klincksieck, Paris, 1977
viiiCf. the Hebrew-French Dictionary by Sander and Trenel (1859) at עֶרֶב.
ix1 Kings 10.15
xiiA. de Biberstein Kazimirski. Arab-French Dictionary, Ed. Maisonneuve, Paris 1860