“Et In Arcadia Ego…” : proposal for an hermeneutic. 


  You cannot refer to any aspect regarding the Rennes-le-Château mystery without having to analyse and interpret something, be it a statue detail or the writings left by Saunière, Bigou and/or others. I have always thought that in these kinds of speculations, the risk of “hyper-interpretation” is always present: the late John Lennon used to laugh while reading comments about Beatles’ songs written by musical critics in newspapers, who gave great import to events reported in these songs which Lennon said had happened casually during the recording sessions and were left on tapes just for fun.

Being conscious that no one can be “immune” from hyper-interpretation, I decided to give a closer look at the famous “Et in Arcadia ego…” sentence and to try to decode it, remaining as close as possible to its interpretation according to Latin language grammar and lexicon. It may appear banal but this type of investigation, although hinted at by many authors, has always remained superficial.

Starting with this intention, and looking at the “motto”, the sentence immediately appears to be lacking a “finished” sense, as the verb is not present. It seems strange for us but in the Latin language, in sentences with a paradigmatic meaning like sayings or mottoes, the verb is omitted many times. In these cases, then, we are very rarely entitled to assume that the omitted verb is a verb different from the “Sum” verb, that is to say: to be. In our case we may conjecture (by the presence of “ego”) that the subject is a first person singular so, the sentence could be: “Et in Arcadia ego sum” (and I am in Arcadia).

Even with the verb added, the sentence still sounds a bit “incomplete”. We can resolve this problem by recalling to our minds that the word “et” in Latin, is also used as a kind of short form for “etiam” meaning “also” in English. Now the sentence becomes “I am also in Arcadia”.

The normal explanation of this translation, especially with reference to the Guercino and the Poussin paintings, is that the 'who' speaks of Death, symbolized by the skull (Guercino) or the tomb (Poussin). That death, in short, claims that 'it' (death) is also in Arcadia, that is to say that even in Arcadia people die. This Greek region in literature was considered as a sort of pastoral paradise on earth, where Gods lived among men: a literary 'topos' that has been celebrated by a great number of poems through many centuries.

Above: Guercino’s ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’

    At this point, i realised that although in English you’re always obliged to express the personal pronoun in order to distinguish the grammatical person ( I went, you went, he went etc…), in Latin it is different and you’re not obliged to do that. In fact, the Latin sentence “Et in Arcadia sum”, can also mean “I am also in Arcadia” as well, because you can use the word “sum”, in connection with the first person singular only.

The Latin language however, can offer another possibility. You can also write “Et in Arcadia” and although the verb is lacking a “motto”, it can still be considered as grammatically correct. In this case, the translation changes, as a normal latin reader, would translate it as: “he/she/it is in Arcadia” because with no clues, we are entitled to use “est” only (to be 3rd person singular = “is”).

But… in this case, who is in Arcadia? The skull? (Guercino), the tomb? (Poussin), Death? (both). We cannot be sure about what the right answer is. That’s why in my opinion “Ego” is important and has not been omitted, because by doing so, the sentence could probably be interpreted in a wrong way.

Another important thing we must remember, is that Pierre Plantard, speaking about his family motto, said that it is not complete if we cut out the three dots: “ Et in Arcadia ego …”. Are they markers for lacking letters? In this case, we’re probably on the right track as the word “sum”, is composed of three letters.

At this point, the “main search” seems over: are there any other possible paths of interpretation hidden by the wood for the trees? 

   I began considering that in this short sentence, the sole meaningful word is “Arcadia” and as a consequence, I started to collect a huge amount of information about it, from the Greek region to the Italian academy and its members. Anyway, after a while, all that stuff seemed to me too general or too specific, in other words: too “hyper-interpretative”. Experience teaches that the best riddles are those where the solution is under your nose: the problem is that you do not recognize it. To cut a long story short, I was looking at a picture with the Marie de Negre tombstone and suddenly, the inspiring Requies catin paceinstead of “Requiescat in pace” struck me. I started to think that maybe, the solution could be into a different word splitting. I had one way only because, as a matter of fact, the sole and longer word I could divide in two parts was “Arcadia”: 

Arca + dia.

Above - the alleged Marie de Negre tombstone

Apart from the well known meanings for “Arca” such as “chest” and “box”, it also has some intriguing other ones like: “prison cell”, “cell”, “coffin” as well as “cistern” and “reservoir”, the last two meanings in particular, come from the Vitruvius opus “De Architectura”.

To understand what “arca” could also mean, I may quote Cicero (Pro Milone, 22 end) where he wrote:

[Servi] in arcas coniciuntur, ne quis cum iis colloqui possit
[Slaves] were put in (prison) cells to not let anyone be able to speak with them

In this case Cicero uses the word “arca(s)” to give us the idea of a room, separated from external environment to isolate someone, exactly like a prison cell does.

The meaning of “coffin”, is also pretty common as we can see in Lucanus (e.g. Pharsalia 8, 736) and others:

Da vilem Magno plebeii funeris arcam
Give to the Great [Pompeus] the poor coffin of the plebeian funeral

So, the more general meaning of “tomb” for the word “arca”, is also included, as the two can translate as “coffin” and “(closed) cell” and each meaning does not exclude the other.

As regards “Dia”, it is a rare female adjective, an archaic (but also used in the Ist century B.C.) poetic form for the more common “Diva” (from divus, -a, -um adjective) meaning “divine” in the nominative, vocative and ablative case.

“Et in arca dia ego (sum)” now, sounds really interesting as we can translate it as “I am also in the divine tomb” or better “also I am in the divine tomb”.


Above - Poussin's most famous painting depicted on his own tomb "the  bas-relief on Poussin's tomb in S. Lorenzo church (Rome) where one of the shepherds covers the  letters "-dia" of the word Arcadia allowing us to see the word "Arca" only.

 

The translation can even be improved using the past tense for the verb to be, as the sense seems to suggest, so the sentence becomes “Et in Arcadia ego (fui)”: Also I was in the divine tomb. As a matter of fact, the word “fui” (I was) is composed of three letters and can perfectly fit the three dots (if we think of them as markers for lacking letters) Pierre Plantard talked about.

The sentence could, in this way, represent a marker to recognize “those who know the secret”, as a kind of sect or elite group, who had the privilege to go inside the “divine tomb” (whatever it could be) because the clear meaning of the motto is “I also am one of those who entered the divine tomb”.

The translation of “arca” as “cistern” or “reservoir” is also interesting, as we know the famous episode of the fire in the RLC village and Sauniere’s opposition to the use of the water coming from its reservoir. In my opinion, as you can find the use of the word “arca” as “reservoir” or “water-box (for mechanisms)” only by an author too technical and specific like Vitruvius, I think that this is an happy coincidence that does not impugn (contradict/cancel) what I have written above.

LUIGI OLIVIERO

P.S Comments and considerations are welcome. Please write an email to the editor, who will forward your email to my personal address. Thank you.

[Editorial Note] As a matter of fact, as this issue was going to print I received an up date from Gino regarding his suppositions.  He said in a communication: as a supporting fact of my theory that the word "Arcadia" must be divided in two parts, there's the  bas-relief on Poussin's tomb in S. Lorenzo church (Rome) where one of the shepherds covers the  letters "-dia" of the word Arcadia allowing us to see the word "Arca" only”.  As a matter of fact the only visible letters are:" T IN ARCA EGO"   If we read them as "Tego in arca"  the english translation is: To hide [something] into a cell/coffer/casket/bier/coffin according to the meaning we give to the latin word "Arca".