Is There an Echo in Here?

And Other Questions About a Bat-Kol

Fairest of Them All: When Narcissus spurns Echo, he tells her, ‘May I die before I give you power over me.’
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Fairest of Them All: When Narcissus spurns Echo, he tells her, ‘May I die before I give you power over me.’

By Philologos

Published February 23, 2014, issue of February 28, 2014.
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Jeffrey Lubin writes to ask what a bat-kol is and why it isn’t a ben-kol. Since this question won’t mean much to most of you, I’d better explain.

The roughly 2,000-year-old Hebrew word bat-kol is not found in the Bible, and first appears in early rabbinic literature. Translatable literally as “the daughter of a voice,” it can mean one of two things.

One is an echo; the other is a mysterious voice that conveys a divine or oracular message. In Hebrew, the words bat, “daughter,” and ben, “son,” are sometimes used in the sense of “belonging to,” as in expressions like ben-ir and bat-ir, literally “son of a town” and “daughter of a town”— that is, a townsman or townswoman; or ben-zug and bat-zug, “son of a couple” and “daughter of a couple” — that is, a partner in a relationship.

As a rule, unless one wishes to specify that the town dweller, partner, etc., is feminine, one uses the masculine form, which is the default option in Hebrew. And yet in the case of bat-kol there is no masculine form, and one never says ben-kol, “the son of a voice.” Mr. Lubin inquires why this is.

I don’t know, but not knowing, as readers of this column are aware, has rarely kept me from guessing. I’ll start with the assumption, which is logical but not provable, that the earlier of bat-kol’s two meanings is “echo.”

This, for example, is how the word is used in a midrash, dating to the early centuries of the Common Era, that tells us, stressing the singular nature of the revelation at Mount Sinai, “When a man calls to another man, his voice has a bat-kol, but when God spoke [at the mountain], his voice had no bat-kol at all.” To this I’ll add the assumption, which is provable, that many of the rabbis of this period had some knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology, if only because it was part of the cultural milieu of the Graeco-Roman world they inhabited. And if they did, they may have known or heard of the story of Echo, the talkative woodland nymph who — as related by the Latin poet Ovid — chattered away to the goddess Juno to distract her while other nymphs were dallying with Juno’s husband, Jove.

When Juno discovered Echo’s ruse, Ovid recounts, she punished her by limiting her power of speech to a word or two that repeat the words said to her. And so when Narcissus, who spurns Echo when she falls in love with him, says to her, “May I die before I give you power over me,” she answers, “I give you power over me,” and proceeds to pine away until nothing is left of her.

Invisible, “she is seen no more upon the mountain-sides, but all may hear her, for her voice, and her voice alone, still lives in her.” Whenever we hear an echo, it is Echo we hear.


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