Arcana Europa: What’s in a Name?

Arcana Europa: What’s in a Name?

Arcana Europa could be literally translated as the “Mysteries of Europe.” In a broad sense, the phrase is a fitting catch-all for the concerns and purview of our new publishing company. A brief excursion into the etymologies and deeper associations of these two words may serve to illuminate some of the reasons why this is so.

Arcana is the plural form of classical Latin arcanum, which referred to something “secret, concealed, private, trustworthy,” or, in religious contexts, a “sacred mystery” (compare the related English adjective arcane, “known or understood by only a few”). The Latin word has its roots in a noun arca, “chest,” and the related verb arcere, “to enclose; ward off, defend, protect.” Incidentally, the Latin noun is also the source for the English word ark, which can refer to a “chest,” a “boat,” or by further extension of meaning, a “shelter or refuge.”

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, arcanum in English came to denote a “hidden thing, deep mystery, or profound secret” but also “one of the great secrets of nature that the alchemists aimed at discovering; a marvelous remedy, an elixir.” An example of the latter usage occurs in the Pseudodoxia Epidemica of 1646, Thomas Browne’s early scientific treatise against popular superstition, in which he writes scathingly of Paracelsus and “The Philosophers stone, potable gold, or any of those Arcana’s.” The term arcana also came to designate the suits of cards in the Tarot deck, with the cards of the Major Arcana serving as keys for divining and more deeply understanding the mysterious forces at play in the life of a human being.

Europa is of course the ancient classical term (from Greek via Latin) for the continent that has been home to so many of our ancestors, a geographic space the Oxford English Dictionary delineates as “consisting of the western projection of the Eurasian land mass lying north of the Mediterranean and Black Seas, northwest of the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, and west of the Ural Mountains.” In Greek mythology, Europa was a princess of Tyre whose magnificent beauty so stirred Zeus that he abducted her in the form of a white bull, carried her to Crete, and enthroned her as the island’s queen. She later bore the great god three sons, one of whom was Minos, the legendary Cretan king whose wife would one day give birth to a Minotaur. The name Europa, then, is not just a region on a world map, but a link between the world of mankind and that of the gods—a matrix of myth, legend, and folklore. And what are the origins of this ancient word? It may come as no surprise that they remain shrouded in mystery...

Credit for coining the phrase “Arcana Europa” goes to Pedro Ortega and Alberto Monreal of Madrid, who edited and published the exceptional Spanish music magazine Maldoror during the late 1990s and the early years of the new millennium. In 2000 they collaborated to host a vibrant international festival of music and culture, which they called Arcana Europa, at various locations in Spain. The event had only three iterations between 2000 and 2003, and has been dormant for more than a decade, though it may be revived at some point in the future.

But the concept of Arcana Europa seemed to encompass something larger and more timeless, and when we approached Dr. Ortega and Sr. Monreal about our interest in adopting the name for our new venture, they generously gave us their blessing.

It is our aim to live up to the manifold and mysterious nature of this name, Arcana Europa, in spirit as well as substance. 


(Image: “Europa auf dem Stier” (1915–1918), sculpture by Karl Hänny (1879–1972) in the Rosengarten, Bern, Switzerland. Photo by Wattewyl.)