What would it be like to have wings on your back?
Imagine. Like an angel, or at least like a sculpture of an angel. To collapse them under a cape when you’re at rest, and to spread them to escape, to fly high above the streets and fields and forests and waters. Or to shelter others under them.
I happened to be listening to CBC radio this morning when they played a setting by George Malcolm of the Lenten offertorium “Scapulis suis,” which uses text taken from Psalm 91. The opening line is translated into English as “With his wings the Lord will cover you and under his feathers you will be safe.” The Latin is Scapulis suis obumbrabit tibi Dominus et sub pennis ejus sperabis. In this, “wings” (or “with wings”) is scapulis. From scapula.
You know what your scapula is, don’t you? It’s your shoulder bone. You have two of them, on your back, like two little hard wings. See a shirtless person from behind and you can see where the wings would attach. Some people’s scapulae are positively beautiful, a smooth sculpted skin landscape, almost like capsules ready to open and unfold wings.
Scapula is not the normal Latin word for ‘wing’. The usual word is ala, although they could also use pennae, which more literally means ‘feathers’ – you see it in the text above as pennis.
So what is scapula normally Latin for? ‘Shoulder blade’.
It seems so prosaic, doesn’t it, as though in one moment you discover you have wings, and in the next you discover that they are just your shoulder blades. But look again at the word.
We here and now will find assorted echoes from our own language and cultural experience: scrape, escape, scrapple, copula, cupola, Dracula, spatula, cape, capsule. But in Latin the waving flag is the ula, which is a diminutive suffix. ‘Little scapa’.
What is scapa? Not a word in Latin, not one that survived. But it is probably related to a Greek word for ‘dig’. It is generally thought that scapula had the original meaning ‘little spades’ or ‘little shovels’.
The scapulae do look like digging implements. Indeed, if you had no tools but had a skeleton of some mammal with scapulae, and you needed to dig out some earth, the scapula would be your best available shovel.
From flying in the sky to digging in the earth. What a range. What a come-down. We are dust, and to dust we return? But we are made of star dust. Quite literally: our planet is an agglomeration of the dust that swirled around our star, the sun, in its formation. Our bodies are made from the physical materials present on our planet: star dust. When you dig into the earth you are digging into what was once star dust. And our planet is just a little ball of star dust swinging through the great sidereal blackness. Whether we flap our wings and fly or we dig our shovels into the earth, we are among the stars. We are always headed towards something and away from something else, but we are often headed towards what we are headed away from as well. And we return. And we do not leave the world, the solar system, the universe. We are made of it; we take it with us.
Your scapulae. Your wings, your shovels. As you wish. When you move your arms, you flap or dig.
Do this for me: it is summer, so you will see the bare backs of others at times. Look at their scapulae. Look at their scapulae and picture them digging into the rich, nourishing earth. Look at their scapulae and picture them as wings, ready to fly or to shelter. Look at their scapulae and just see them. They can be so lovely.