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Word of the day: legende (legend)

The word LEGENDE comes from the Latin word ‘legenda’ which means ‘things to be read’. In the Middle Ages LEGENDE referred to the lives of saints which were compulsory reading material in church. The verb ‘legere’ means ‘to read’, ‘to collect’ and ‘to select’. The Dutch verb ‘lezen’ which goes back to old Germanic roots has similar meanings. In a later post I’ll deal with this fascinating word LEZEN.

‘Things to be read’, ‘dingen die gelezen moeten worden’ are LEGENDES (legends). There are thousands of stories to be read. So many that there is no way that they can all be read. Libraries still store these stories. But soon this printed material will have been sent to the shredder and its content will have passed on to digital libraries. Wherever you are, whenever you like, you can call them up in your computer and E-reader. Very often for free.

Sounds great, but what incentives will there be to take action and read these stories? How do we select them? How will we find our way through these digital libraries and their millions of myths, tales, sagas and legends?

Once upon a time, long before print was invented, there were two holy and legendary people who received an urgent message to read. And after they followed up these messages, their lives changed completely. And so did millions of lives of people after them.

The first of these legendary holy men was 32 when he was urged to read. Augustine (354-430 CE) heard a childlike voice singing ‘tolle, lege’ (take up and read) when he was sitting in the garden. He opened a Bible at Romans and read: ‘Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.’ The bon vivant decided to convert to Christianity, which had a tremendous impact on the future of the Christian Church.

The second revolutionary ‘holy person’ lived two centuries later and is the 40 year old Muhammed. In the year 610 CE the angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad and told him: ‘Read! In the name of your Lord who created, created man from a clot. Read! And your Lord is Most Bountiful. He, Who taught by the pen, taught man what he knew not.” (Qur’an 96:1-5). Apparently he started reading and the rest is history.

Times have moved on. Divine messages don’t seem to reach us anymore. Instead we receive millions of digital messages urging us to read, read, read. Maybe there will be a message in the near future, saying: ‘Reader, it’s time to stop reading. Switch off thy computer, cast off thine E-reader and go forth in the world of exciting objects and warm living beings. And converse by word of mouth. Do great deeds and create new legends.’

For our reading hunger we require new legends. Living legends that continue the stories of older legends. The greatest legend living now is Nelson Mandela. In September 2012 a gigantic 3.5-metre high bronze statue created by the Dutch sculptor Arie Schippers was unveiled by Archbishop Tutu, today’s successor to Augustine. It stands in The Hague’s International Zone near the Omniversum on the Johan de Wittlaan. The sculpture echoes the title of Mandela’s autobiography published in 1995: ‘Long Walk to Freedom’.

Mandela wrote much of his own legend while he was imprisoned for 27 years on Robben Island by South Africa’s apartheid regime. He was an avid reader too. But serious books were forbidden. Mandela wrote in his autobiography: ‘We had access to many unremembered mysteries and detective novels and all the works of Daphne du Maurier, but little more.’ The anti-apartheid prisoners on the island shared a copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare. They called it the ‘Robben Island Bible’ and to hide its contents they stuck pink and gold Hindu images on its cover.

Why Shakespeare? Mandela once said: ‘Somehow, Shakespeare always seems to have something to say to us.’ And it is true, our culture is founded on many legends, but the Bible and Shakespeare are the two major cornerstones.

Each prisoner marked his favourite lines in the ‘Robben Island Bible’. Nelson Mandela chose the following passage from ‘Julius Caesar’, Act II, Scene 2:

‘Cowards die many times before their deaths,
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.’

‘Lafaards sterven vele keren voor ze sterven,
Slechts eenmaal proeven helden de smaak van de dood.
Van alle wonderen die ik tot nu toe heb vernomen,
Lijkt mij die het vreemdst dat mensen angst zouden hebben,
Vooral gezien het feit dat de dood, een noodzakelijk eind,
Zal komen als deze eenmaal komt.’

Mandela is one of those living LEGENDES of whom can be said that they will ‘never taste of death but once’.