“I was walking among the fires of Hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius; which to Angels look like torment and insanity” – William Blake by gags9999 / CC BY 2.0 / No Mods.

While translating a clinical survey the other day (on the subject of schizophrenic hallucinations and delusions) and I learned that, evidently, in the German language the devil would sit inside a person, at least, grammatically.  The word for “possession” in this sense is Besessenheit – and the verb is besessen, which is also a form of the verb besitzen, all of which have this be– prefix, which is the most interesting thing about this whole thing, at least to me. When I first saw this word, I let out a giggle at the thought of its literal meaning, to “sit inside”, but then, also, at the added layer of meaning with the prefix.

As I have come to understand, the prefix be- denotes direction toward the person to which the verb refers.  Though not as complex and difficult to comprehend as Heidegger’s concept of Befindlichkeit, this prefix makes discovering the multilayered meaning – so obvious and yet almost intangible – something of a pastime for those who enjoy pondering as a hobby. Other examples of words with this prefix include bekommen, befinden, berücksichtigen all of which have the same underlying idea. If one would like something to come into their personal realm, as it were, they would bekommen it, if searching for their identity, he or she would be in the process of befinden, and when needing to take something into account or consideration, that is, to assimilate information for themselves, that would be berücksichtigen. Furthermore, in addition to meaning “toward,” it seems to me that this prefix would also mean “within,” at least to some undefined degree.  So, in German, the devil “sits inside” to show ownership or possession.

I looked at a few other languages (French, English, and Spanish – possession, possession, and posesión, respectively), and the concept seems to be quite similar for all of those languages presumably because they are all came from the Latin possideō, which also has a less obvious meaning of “to occupy,” therefore, bringing it back to the German idea of occupation.  The Russian version is more similar to German in that the root verb meaning “to keep/hold” (держать)is prefixed with о- , and aspect changes (because, you know, Russian) becoming одерживать, which is like saying “hold around” or “engulf in its entirety and hold for a long time without any determined point of release, but to release is not impossible, it is just simply not the focus.”  The Russian verb одерживать also can mean “to gain” or “to control” or “to seek to gain or control” (though, in a more figurative sense than literal).

Why is this interesting and why am I wondering about it, WELL:

  • Russian and German indicate direction, to various degrees toward and there is at least an idea of action or effort in the respective words themselves whereas the French, Spanish, and English focus on the outcome of having.
  • All of the languages do express the concept of ownership.  That is to say that the devil will own his new minion in different ways in different languages.
  • The Romantic languages, English and Russian focus on the idea of holding whereas the German focuses on the idea of occupying to denote the above ownership. This is nuance, of course, and not a significant departure conceptually, but slight enough to clearly see the variance.
  • The underlying idea of toward in Russian focuses outward from a subject, whereas the German idea is focused inward by the subject.
  • Another common meaning in all of the language for this word is “obsession” with a task idea, passion, ideology, etc., adding another level of connection and interest.

Admittedly, the only reason I began to think about this was the idea of the devil that had entered my wondering mind made me giggle. This image of an annoying child who isn’t particularly socially adept. One who sits in his treehouse in the backyard where he can be the supreme ruler and make up arbitrary rules for his minions who want to come visit, while another cleaves to a security item, like a stuffed animal, on which he takes out his aggression only to tear it apart and seek out another for the same purposes. Of course, this devil could be like a squatter or thief, also.  I guess it all depends on perspective. Nevertheless, it was a distracting line of thought to get lost in for a while.

Whether the devil character of religious yore is myth or reality is not for me to say, primarily because I am nearly sure I will never know this as a fact in this life, but thinking about this archetypal character as a punk kid is entertaining, and it took my mind off of the desire to self-diagnose—  I am about 31% sure I might be schizophrenic, but hopefully I will find out that I am not after I finish translating the clinical scale and it is out of sight and out of mind.

I’m probably not schizophrenic. Probably.


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