Skip to main content

"Alles was Odem hat"


One thing we know about Ötzi is that he not only recognized at least one gaseous form, he also revered it. That form was air in motion. We know this, not from the scant available evidence of late Stone Age life in Northern Italy. Rather, we know it from ancient languages.

All the old languages used a single word for wind, for breath, and for soul. And some of those words linger today. Go to the last line of the Book of Psalms in any old German Bible and you will read "Alles, was odem hat, lobe den Herrn." When a choir sings either of Bach's motets, Lobet den Herrn, or Singet den Herrn, in English, that line comes out translated as "All that hath life and breath, praise ye the Lord."

The obsolete word odem means more than just breath. It means breath as the motion -- or the wind -- of the human spirit. It means life and breath. It embodies the belief that our spirit, our soul, rides upon our breath. In Sanskrit the equivalent word was atman, in Latin it was either spiritus or anima, in Hebrew it still is ruach, in Greek it was pneuma, and in Chinese it was qi (or shi). The Russians use the word duh interchangeably for breath and spirit. When we realize this, such oddities as the Buddhist wind-driven prayer wheel make more sense to our secular, and far less metaphorical, thinking.

These words with their three-fold metaphysical meanings also reflect in phrases that we still use, like "not a breath of air." The familiar expression, "her dying breath," recalls the idea that one's spirit rejoins the wind, of which it was once a part. In the old view of breath/wind/spirit, one's spirit is, at that point, returning to God.

This was a powerful way of seeing vapors and gases. It was powerful because it contained elements of the truth, I suppose. But not the whole truth. It evoked the hidden power of gases, but not their solidity. For that, we needed to engage a contradiction -- an entirely different way of seeing.