or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Burning Up

Today we went to see the Metropolitan Opera's production of Götterdämmerung (in a movie theatre: we're not actually in New York right now). The climax of the six-hour production is the immolation scene, in which the heroine builds a funeral pyre for the recently dead hero, sets it alight, and rides onto it with her horse, with the eventual result that, as Anna Russell says, "It's all burnt." Everything burns up, including Valhalla, the gods' home, which you might have thought was loftily celestial enough to avoid such a fate, but no: it and its residents go up in flames. The whole planet doesn't actually ignite because the River Rhine overflows its banks and puts out the fire, and it's not supposed to make sense, it's opera.

Now, mindful of the fact that I had deconstructed the word "molar" a few days before, as soon as the word "immolation" was uttered in one of the intermission interviews, I thought to myself, "'Immolation' HAS TO BE related to 'molar' in some way, because it's so obviously Latinate: in- plus -mola- plus an active suffix. But how?"

Here's how. We tend to think of "immolate" as specifically meaning "to burn (oneself) up in a fire", but it actually has a broader meaning, simply to sacrifice: fire is the most usual way, but not the only one. The "-mola-" of "immolate" is indeed related to "molar", from "molere", "to grind": Latin "mola" is not only a grindstone or a mill but also the product of that grinding, and to immolate is literally to sprinkle a pending sacrifice with meal (as a sort of purification, I think) before committing the deed.


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