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Alpennia FAQ: What does "De Mysteriis et Misteriis" mean?

Tuesday, October 19, 2021 - 15:54

I'm working on whittling down my email in-box, which included an email reminder to myself to copy this item over from Goodreads. (I often email myself "to do" items. It may not be a great system, but it's a system.) The question concerns the title of the book by Fortunatus that forms one of the first intellectual connections between Margerit and Barbara in Daughter of Mystery. I've left the question in the informal Q&A format in which it appeared on my Goodreads page.

Q: This has been bothering me for years now, and delving into Latin by way of Google got me nowhere. What, exactly, does De Mysteriis et Misteriis mean, and what is the difference between the two words? I mean, Mysteriis is clear, but I can't find anything about Misteriis.

A: What a fun question! To find the answer on your own, you'd probably need to look things up in a etymological dictionary rather than simple translation--so your confusion is understandable.

When I was first developing the idea of magical "mysteries" I was thinking vaguely of several uses of the word: religious rituals known as "mysteries", the idea of "craft mysteries" and the "mystery plays" of the middle ages, and of course the more everyday sense of "something unknown, something to be discovered." I wanted to make the title of the novel (Daughter of Mystery) a play on the various meanings: that there were mysteries to be solved, and that the characters were deeply involved in the creation and performance of religious mysteries.

But when I started poking around in my Latin sources for correct spellings and inflections, I was startled to discover that the English word "mystery" is used for words with two different origins. One is the Latin "mysterium" borrowed from Greek μῠστήρῐον which has the "secret, concealed" sense and was used to refer to religious rituals that were kept secret from the general public. (People may be familiar with the phrase "the Eleusinian Mysteries" referring to celebrations in honor of Demeter and Persephone.)

But there's a second sense of "mystery" that derives from Latin ministerium (also the origin of "ministry") that has a meaning along the lines of "work, craft, service". This is often cited as the origin of the phrase "mystery plays", which were ritual religious-themed plays put on by professional and social guilds, and may also be related to the idea of "craft mysteries" --not in the sense of something kept secret, but simply referring to "the practices of a specific craft profession."

When I turned up these two origins (which I'd originally thought were from the same source), it really sparked ideas about the tension between magical practice as a secret tradition and magical practice as an ordinary craft and profession, especially in how a parallel tradition of secular magical ceremonies might evolve in the world of Alpennia alongside more orthodox religious ones. With that in mind, I had the title for Fortunatus' treatise on the nature of miracles and the concept of mechanism--that mystery rituals could be approached scientifically, not just theologically. So the title of his book “De Mysteriis et Misteriis” means "Concerning Mysteries [as a secret and concealed practice] and Mysteries [as a form of craft and service]." That tension between the two concepts is a major theme in Margerit's relationship to her magical talents. I love embedding word-play like this in the books and I'm always delighted when someone notices and enjoys it too!

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