peregrine

A pilgrim is someone who undertakes a life-changing journey. A peregrine is a wanderer, someone venturing far from home. A bird away from the nest. A stranger in a strange land.

Both words come from peregrinus, which in Latin meant someone from a foreign land; it appears to have been assembled from per ‘by’ and ager ‘field, territory, land, country’ (also descended to acre and agriculture). Pilgrim arrived in English first, and in fact has been in English as long as there has been an English to be in; peregrine came later, but by a more direct route (first seen in Chaucer, referring to the bird I name below).

In Rome, a peregrinus was a non-citizen resident. At one time, nearly 90% of the residents of the empire were peregrini, “foreigners,” even if they were in the land they had been born in. This meant they had fewer rights, less recourse, lower social status. A citizen would get the benefit of the doubt and had a right of appeal; a peregrinus was entitled to neither. At death their property was taken by the Roman state. Rome relied on their labour but scorned them. Pilgrims may be honoured, but peregrines – “foreigners” – are not.

On the other hand, a peregrine well known in our times is a predator: the peregrine falcon, the world’s most widespread raptor. It is also the fastest animal: it can pass 320 km/h (200 mph) when it plummets from on high to the abrupt undoing of a lesser bird. It is the lickety-split grim reaper, not a scythe but a flying sickle – Latin for ‘sickle’ is falx, believed to be the origin of falco, ‘falcon’, as in Falco peregrinus.

There are many people named Peregrine, including three saints, one of whom is the patron saint of cancer and several other diseases (he rarely sat, and this may have led to his developing a “cancer” on his leg, which was miraculously healed just before the leg was to have been amputated). He is said to have been a wise and caring person, dedicated not to destruction but to healing.

If the name has a familiar ring, however, it may be because it was also the name of a familiar of the ring-bearer – a companion of Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings: Peregrin (no e) Took, casually known as Pippin. He went with Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring and joined in battle against the orcs and the dark forces of Mordor; he was also the only one who looked into the palantír and spoke directly with Sauron. After Sauron’s defeat, he returned to the Shire, helped defeat Saruman, and became Thain of the Shire. So he wandered and returned; he had his battles and his victories.

Peregrinus makes me think of one particular battle, the battle on the ice of Lake Peipus, a large lake now on the border of Estonia (coincidentally, the country my wife’s father emigrated from) and Russia. Alexander Nevsky fought the knights of the Teutonic Order there. Sergei Prokofiev scored the movie Alexander Nevsky by Sergei Eisenstein, and in the battle scene the text of the music is “Peregrinus expectavi pedes meos in cymbalis”:

What does that mean? It’s difficult to translate – the Latin seems battle-weary and far from home. It’s really four things: ‘a stranger’; ‘I waited’; ‘my feet’; ‘on cymbals’. Various theories have been advanced about this text, a seeming musical lorem ipsum, but the most persuasive research finds that it is snippets from four psalms that were used in Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (read the whole analysis by Morag Kerr). Prokofiev and Stravinsky weren’t getting along well, and this was likely in part a shot from P at S. The words’ place in the score is as largely meaningless text expressing the mindless hypocritical religion of the Teutonic Knights.

That’s quite a far journey from the effervescence of the other end of peregrinus: a mineral water transported in glass bottles across the ocean… San Pellegrino, named for Saint Peregrine. Of course, mineral water is “good for your health,” and mainly it’s refreshing. Whether it needs to be bubbled from the earth in Italy and transported across the Atlantic to be guzzled in, say, Toronto and returned thereafter (mutatis mutandis) to the water cycle is a question to ponder at leisure; necessary or not, it happens.

And necessary or not though our wanderings and estrangements may be, they happen. We are all, in our ways, strangers in strange lands, on loan to this world and peregrinating through it before returning, dust to dust, water to water, gas to gas, spirit to spirit. Here are two of the songs I like best about this wandering and return.

To this perpetual peregrination I welcome my great-nephew, newly born to tread the earth. His name is Peregrine Toms.

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One response to “peregrine

  1. Pingback: pilgrim | Sesquiotica

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