Thursday, February 23, 2006


I recently discussed how pesifas פסיפס - mosaic - isn't connected to the words payis or piyus. A commenter wanted to know more about the development of the word pesifas. I wrote that "Pesifas comes from the Greek psephos, meaning pebble. Interestingly, the word for the study of elections, psephology, comes from the same root, since they would count pebbles when voting."

However, what about the English word mosaic? Any connection to Moses?

Take Our Word For It gives the following explanation:

This word means, etymologically, "of the muses". It comes from Greek mouseion "of the muses". In medieval Latin it was changed to musaicus/mosaicus and passed via Italian mosaico and French mosaique into English as mosaic. The Indo-European root from which mosaic, muse, museum, and music derive is men- "to think". Different forms of the Indo-European root refer to different states of mind and kinds of thought (some other derivatives are mind, mental and amnesia). Mosaic is an entirely different word, etymologically and otherwise, from Mosaic with a capital M which means "of Moses".

The Word Detective gives a bit more background on the Muses:
The root of "mosaic" is the Medieval Latin "musaicum," meaning "work of the Muses," itself ultimately from the Latin "Musa," or "Muse." In Greek mythology, the Muses, as I'm sure we all recall, were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. The Muses were (and still are, at least metaphorically)regarded as the inspiration of all art and music.The logical connection between the Muses and mosaic artwork is a bit uncertain, but it may be that Medieval mosaics were so often dedicated to the muses that the form and the inspiration became inextricably associated. Or it may be that ancient temples dedicated to the Muses ("mouseion" in Greek, source of our modern "museum") were often decorated with mosaic murals.
So it would seem that there's no connection between Moses and mosaics.
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, in his commentary, The Living Torah, has this note about Moses's name:
Other ancient sources claim that Moses' name was preserved among the Gentiles as the legendary Musaeus, teacher of Orpheus, from whom the Muses obtained their name (Artapanus, in Eusebius, Preparatio Evangelica 9:27).
I'm not sure how likely that is, but I suppose it does leave some room for a possible connection...

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