Friday, January 09, 2009

The Exotic Allure of the Strange

What was our ancestors' attitude towards the foreign and strange? We begin with the word for strange, fremede, fremde, fremþe, all of which mean strange, foreign, external, alien, strangers, those not of one's kin. What is the root of this word?

The root of this word is, as it turns out, the root of our modern word "from", which originally denoted forward motion and advancement. There are a whole series of words that spin out from this root to be found both in Old English and Icelandic that all have to do with this basic motion of moving out and advancing forward.

While fremede means "strange" or "foreign", fremedness is an "accomplishment" or "fulfillment", in other words, a moving-forward in life. Fremfull is "beneficent" and "profitable", indicating that the move-forward holds out the promise of rich rewards and returns. Frem-sum means "kind, benign, courteous", and denotes action that helps to advance you, which is a part of moving you forward in life. It is indeed kind to help advance another.

The root fram is applied to "any motion outwards or towards the unknown" and "denotes the outer point". It indicates the outer limits, exploration, being outward-bound, that which lies on the edge of the internal and external. It encompasses that which is the furthest away, a projecting or stretching forward, the farthest on one can imagine.

The Icelandic word framandi means both "a man of distinction" as well as a "stranger", to be found in the forward-motion of the root as an "advancer" or a "far-away one". To fram-faer is to "put oneself forward" and is the opposite of shyness. It has an element of initiative and boldness to it. A fram-ganga is a "going forth", and thus denotes "exploits", deeds, valour, and advancing in battle. To be frama-leysi is to be "obscure" because one hasn't advanced very far and hasn't moved forward in life. To fram-kvama is to "come forward", and thus a fram-kvaemd is "fulfillment, success, prowess".

Fremian means to "forward", "advance", or "further". The basic idea in all of these remarkably positive connotations is a going forward in life. And when you go forward, you meet those beyond the boundaries, those living on the avante-garde, the front-lines of exploration. Those encountered in the advancement, the people met on the expedition, those whom one advances towards, offer promises of enrichment and fulfillment.

The strange is that which one meets when one is moving forward in life. The stranger is one found beyond the bounds of the familiar, out there in the beyond where all advancement is to be had. Thus, "strange", fremede, when coming off the lips of our ancestors, had an excitement to it, the air and taste of exotic adventures, the allure of the seven seas upon which one might engage discovery. It turns out that for our ancestors, their word for stranger was far from xenophobic ; in fact, with a bit of caution, and nostalgia for one's earlier a'vikings, it had almost the flavor of xenophilia. Not enough to abandon one's traditions, by no means, but just enough love of the exotic to give one's life spice.

And hey, when oats are one of one's staples, a little spice is not a bad thing.


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