Tuesday, May 29, 2007

et in Arcadia ego

Byron asked me about the origin of the phrase "et in Arcadia, ego" ("Even in Arcadia, there I am") the other day. Arcadia was an area of Greece known for its beauty, and for the simple life that its inhabitants lived. In Greek and Roman mythology it came to represent a kind of paradise or utopia, where the golden age still reigned. The above phrase is generally thought of as being spoken by Death, and conveys the idea that death is everywhere, even in a place as idyllic as Arcadia.

I told Byron with confidence that it came, of course, from somewhere in Virgil, but as I thought a bit more I became less certain. I had a vague feeling it was somewhere in the Eclogues, Virgil's pastoral poems set in the paradise of Arcadia, but it seemed odd to me that Virgil would personify death in that way. So I did some research in the best way I know how, and discovered that it's not quite that simple. The idea of death being present in Arcadia does indeed come up in Virgil's fifth Eclogue (which are set in Arcadia), where he records the following inscription on the tomb of the Nymph Daphnis:

Daphnis ego in silvis, hinc usque ad sidera notus,
formosi pecoris custos, formosior ipse.

Daphnis was I amid the woods, known from even to the stars.
Fair was the flock I guarded, but fairer was I, their master.

However the link between those lines and the phrase "et in Arcadia, ego" is, to put it mildly, not immediately obvious. In fact it's unclear where the phrase comes from. As far as I could work it first appears in Renaissance art as a memento mori- a reminder of death. Such reminders (often a skull, or an hourglass, or cut flowers) were often included in renaissance art to remind people that life is short, and to focus their attenion on the afterlife.

Some people however take it further. The authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (from which Dan Brown took many of his ideas for the Da Vinci Code) suggest that the phrase is in fact an anagram for "i! tego arcana dei."- Latin for "Go away! I hide the secrets of God", and that the painting of the same name hides a secret to the identity of Jesus.

1 comment:

byron said...

Thanks - saved me some wiki/google time! So it seems placing Death in Arcadia was a medieval invention. Before that, in Arcadia non ego?