Increase your understanding of familar biblical words common in English for millennia

At the Wording Desk

Bill Casselman

Galilee  הגליל

In “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,”  the painting in our title graphic, Rembrandt van Rijn’s only seascape, Christ calms the tempest on the Sea of Galilee, as told in the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 4.


Galilee is a large region in northern Israel, mountainous and reasonably fertile. Galilee was the setting for the ministry of Jesus Christ. The Sea of Galilee, the countryside, and the towns—Cana, Capernaum, Tiberias, Nazareth—are mentioned frequently in the Gospels. Jesus himself was called the Galilean, and his disciples were chosen from local fishermen.

The conventional etymology of Galilee suggests that it is derived from the Hebrew and Aramaic galil ‘ring, circle’ hence ‘region’ or ‘surrounding district’ or ‘province.’ The Arabic name is الجليل‎ al-Jaleel. But it may, in fact, hark back to a much older West Semitic place name known to the ancient Egyptians as Galulu, which may have meant ‘northern part of Canaan.’

Other derivations of Galilee suggest it may spring from the triliteral Semitic root, G-L-L ‘to roll’ so that a Hebrew noun like Galil (Galilee) derived from such a verb might mean ‘rolling land’ or ‘hill country’ or ‘undulant terrain.’

Noted Use of the Word in English
The Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne was perhaps the most eloquent atheist who ever wrote in English. From Swinburne's “Hymn to Proserpine” comes the most familiar of his atheist apostrophes, one of many that rendered Victorian Christians aghast. “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from Thy breath.” Swinburne was remembering the apocryphal last words of the Roman emperor, Julian the Apostate, “Vicisti, Galilaee” Latin ‘you won, Galilean.’  Dying during the Battle of Ctesiphon in 363 CE, Julian, avowed pagan, was distressed to know but nonetheless did know that Christianity would conquer paganism and become the new state religion of the crumbling Roman empire. By some later historians, Julian's sentence was taken to mark the final breath of classical civilisation.

The God Pan Dead!
Another eloquent quotation embodying this sad knowledge of the end of the ancient world is: “The great god Pan is dead!” In his Moralia, Plutarch, Greek biographer and essayist (46- 120 CE), tells of a sailor passing by the island of Paxi who heard an otherworldly voice call across the waters, three times, this divine command: “When you reach Palodes, proclaim that the great god Pan is dead.” When the sailor obeyed and shouted his message to the islands, from shore he heard lamenting and moaning.

Although this mythic messaging was said to have happened during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, many writers of later antiquity took Pan’s death to signal the onset of the end of ancient times and the first tentative breath of an oncoming and obliterating modernity.

Plutarch said that Pan was the only Greek god who ever died. His name Πάν, Πανός stems from a Greek verb paein ‘to pasture.’  Among other godly duties, Pan was an old fertility spirit of sown fields, a god of groves and orchards and deer-haunted glens of Arcady. Each year on goaty hooves, Pan piped spring into greening Hellenic valleys. But he never really died. One hundred years after Plutarch wrote, the writer of the one of the first travel guides, the Greek Pausanias, toured all of Greece and found country shrines to Pan beside many a swatch of new-scythed hay, at the mouth of many a holy cave, and Pan altars on the banks of many a rural stream. For centuries afterward, Pan lived on in Europe where he became The Green Man whose wooden face, set up at the margin of crop fields, was kissed by virgins to bring fertile luck to their father’s crops.


Never one to intrude on a virgin's kiss, I shall reverently take my leave, tiptoeing offstage to await the vernal surge of spring, Pan-prompted and gift of Sabine Flora, goddess of seed and growth, queenly inciter of flowery meadows.




Bill Casselman, January 29, 2017

Text Copyright 2017 William Gordon Casselman

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