Thursday, December 7, 2006

Apple #210: Limbo

I was thinking about the word limbo. There's the kind of limbo you can be in, which to my way of thinking is an in-between state, neither here nor there. But there's also the dance, where you try to bend backwards and walk underneath a stick. I wondered, are the two words somehow connected, in their origins perhaps? Or are they totally different things that happen to share the same word?

Limbo the Place, or State

  • In this sense, the word comes from the Latin word limbus, which means a hem or a border that is distinctive from the rest of the garment. It could also mean anything joined on, such as a limb of one's body.
  • That concept of a border is probably what applies best here.
  • In Catholic theology, limbo is a place or a state that is neither heaven nor hell, in which unbaptized souls are suspended.

Mantegna's Descent Into Limbo
(Sold at Sotheby's for $28.5 million)

  • From this religious theory came a more secularized version. Limbo came to be the imaginary place where lost or neglected things or people went.
  • Limbo also came to refer to the situation of feeling oneself disregarded or forgotten. Or, if you say you are in limbo, you mean that you are in a state of waiting to find out what will become of you at some unknown point in the future.
  • One definition from the 1800s describes limbo as a waste basket where things are stowed that are too good to be thrown away but not good enough to use.
  • For prisoners, limbo refers to the time spent in jail awaiting trial.

Images of Mary Pickford as Priscilla, in the 1910 film "An Arcadian Maid." These images are provided as examples of films that have not been fully restored and remain unavailable to the public. The author of the Pickford Film Legacy website writes, "These Pickford titles remain in a seemingly unnecessary state of limbo." The woman herself seems to be stuck in limbo.
(Photo from the Pickford Film Legacy)

Limbo the Dance

  • The dance originated in Trinidad (in the Caribbean). It involves a stick being held up while the dancer arches backwards and scoots beneath the stick without falling over or touching the ground. Again and again the dancer passes under the stick, but each time the stick is lowered. The dance ends when the stick is so low that no one can go beneath it without falling or touching the ground.

Dancers in Grenada, which is next door to Trinidad, doing the limbo
(Photo from the Grenada Drum Festival)

  • The dance was originally meant to depict people being forced into slavery, having to bend and twist as they were forced into the hold of a slave ship. One can imagine the ship's hold becoming more and more crowded. In a less tangible sense, the dance depicts the concept of slavery itself, which makes greater and greater demands on a person so that a person struggles first to meet those demands and then simply to survive.
  • The dance as we know it may also have had its roots in an African funeral dance called the legba or legua.
  • It is possible that limbo in this sense is related to the idea of being limber, or being able to bend one's limbs.
So, there are similarities. The dance originally depicted a certain type of limbo, that of being forced into slavery, a state from which one never knows when one might be released. In both the dance and the religious theological definition, people are trying to meet someone else's expectations but not quite making it. Clearly, limbo is not a good place to be.

It's a good thing they made a dance out of it. It's sort of like the blues, and how those songs take feeling so bad and turn it into something that makes you feel good.

These people live at the South Pole, and they're doing the limbo
(they also may have been drinking alcohol mixed with fresh snow water)

This just in:

It appears that the Pope is considering declaring that limbo was never an official part of the Catholic church's teachings, and that it may not actually exist. But as far as I can tell, he hasn't made an official determination one way or another yet.

So now even the concept of limbo is in limbo.

OneLook and the various dictionaries sourced there, limbo
New Advent, Catholic Encyclopedia, Limbo
A Prisoner's Dictionary, limbo
Sonny Watson's Street Swing, Limbo
Merriam-Webster, second definition of limbo
Paul Cachia, "Limbo was never part of the official teaching of the Catholic doctrine," di-ve news, October 7, 2006
"Vatican to review state of limbo," BBC News, October 6, 2006


  1. Hey Juliet!

    Great blog. I remember a year or so ago when I first heard about the Limbo Catholic theology discussion. Thanks for the good information.

    Merry Christmas!!

    Jarred :)

  2. Dearest Apple Lady:

    I still remain confused about the difference between Limbo and Purgatory. Is Purgatory just another name for H-E-double toothpicks?

    Please elucidate, should the time permit.

    The Bad Seed


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