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Reply To: The Air We Breathe



German is my second language. I am out of practice speaking it, but read fairly well and regularly consult works in German. (I even have the German translation of all four volumes of Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God, and wow – reading Campbell  in German actually enhances my understanding!)

You write

In German the word for breath is Atem,  it is a word that I understand in a much different way than in English [German is my mother tongue], it is a word related to the god Wotan – the root  of the verb wehenWotan and Odin, the wafting breath of the universe. This is important because Stephen’s remark about the mythical breath and our collective journey are rooted in this word, Atem.

Thank you for sharing this – I had no idea of the connection between Atem and Wotan/Odin, but marvel at one more example of the association between Breath/Wind and deity across so many mythologies.

Joseph Campbell adds another layer to such associations, citing Professor T.J. Meek’s discussion of the origin of Yahweh (the “unpronounceable” name of God, spelled in Hebrew with just the consonants YHWH):

“The name [states Professor Meek] … was foreign to the Hebrews, and in their attempted explanation of it they connected it with the word hayah, ‘to be,’ just as the Greeks, who did not know the origin and exact meaning of ‘Zeus‘ connected the name with ‘to live,’ whereas it is derived from the Indo-European dyu, ‘to shine.’ The contention that Yahweh was of Arabian origin is clearly in accord with the Old Testament records, which connect him with the Negeb and with southern sanctuaries like Sinai-Horeb and Kadesh … The most probable [origin of the name] in our opinion is from the Arabic root hwy, ‘to blow.’”

T.J. Meek, Hebrew Origins, pp. 108-109, in Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology, p. 132-133

David Abram, who explores the origin of language in the animate natural world in The Spell of the Sensuous (an elegant work I cannot recommend highly enough), points out that some scribes, to compensate for Hebrew’s lack of written vowels, adopted the Aramaean practice of using the consonants H, W, and Y to note vowel sounds. Abram then offers a brilliant insight as to why vowels are missing in Hebrew texts, shedding further light on the relationship of Yahweh (YHWH) to Breath:

While consonants are those shapes, made by the lips, teeth, tongue, palate, or throat, that momentarily obstruct the flow of breath and so give form to our words and phrases, the vowels are those sounds that are made by the unimpeded breath itself. The vowels, that is to say, are nothing other than sounded breath. And the breath, for the ancient Semites, was the very mystery of life and awareness, a mystery inseparable from the invisible ruach—the holy wind or spirit. The breath, as we have noted, was the vital substance blown into Adam’s nostrils by God himself, who thereby granted life and consciousness to humankind. It is possible, then, that the Hebrew scribes refrained from creating distinct letters for the vowel-sounds in order to avoid making a visible representation of the invisible. To fashion a visible representation of the vowels, of the sounded breath, would have been to concretize the ineffable, to make a visible likeness of the divine. It would have been to make a visible representation of a mystery whose very essence was to be invisible and hence unknowable—the sacred breath, the holy wind. And thus it was not done.

Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, p. 241-242

Different language groups, different geographical regions, vastly different cultures—yet whether Brahman, YHWH, Atem, or n’ilch’i of the Dine’, the Name of God is written in the Wind.