Conrad of Varieties of Unreligious Experience has outdone himself with a tripartite History of the Nod (Part I, Part II, Part III) that begins with the story of Cain and Abel and God’s stern judgment on the fratricidal former:

ki ta’avod et-ha’adamah lo-tosef tet-kocha lach na vanad tihyeh va’arets
‘When you work the ground, it will no longer give you of its strength. You will live as fugitive and wanderer on the earth.’ The underlined syllable, nad, denotes wandering. Strong’s Hebrew Bible dictionary gives the following list of senses for the basic root: ‘to nod, i.e. waver; figuratively, to wander, flee, disappear; also (from shaking the head in sympathy), to console, deplore, or (from tossing the head in scorn) taunt:—bemoan, flee, get, mourn, make to move, take pity, remove, shake, skip for joy, be sorry, vagabond, way, wandering.’ The word is echoed again in 4:16:
vayetse kayin milifney yahweh vayeshev be’erets-nod kid’mat-eden
‘Kayin went out from the presence of the Lord, from the east of Eden, and dwelt as a wanderer on the earth’. Here nod is a cognate of nad. (See here for a recent post on the topic by the young Jewish scholar, Simon Holloway.) Jerome (405 AD) renders 4:16 as ‘Egressusque Cain a facie Domini, habitavit profugus in terra ad orientalem plagam Eden.’ The 1370s Vulgate translation supervised by the heretic John Wycliffe offers ‘And Caym, passid out fro the face of the Lord, dwellide fer fugitif in the erthe, at the eest plage of Eden.’ Likewise, the standard Vulgate in English, translated as Catholic propaganda by Gregory Martin in 1609 and now known as the Douai-Rheims Bible, reads ‘And Cain went forth from the face of our Lord, and dwelt as a fugitiue on the earth at the east side of Eden.’
But a different tradition had arisen even before Jerome…

He goes on to explain how “a wanderer on the earth” became “the land of Nod” and the subsequent attempts to derive that factitious name from the English word; in Part II he goes into the history of the English word, the puns made possible by the homophony, and the Eugene Field poem that begins, irresistibly,

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe,—

and in Part III he discusses the anthropological and cultural significance of the gesture of nodding (“Since ancient times, the nod has been more than simply yes—it has been a powerful political instrument”). It’s all done with his patented mix of scholarship and wit, and he throws in some gorgeous illustrations for free. Go have a look.


  1. I find myself confusing Shel Silverstein’s poem “Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too” with “Wynken, Blynken and Nod”. Not sure why, I’m way more familiar with the former than with the latter; but f’rinstance yesterday when I was trying to recall “What’s that Silverstein poem about the three gremlins who sail away in a flying shoe?” all I could come up with was “Wynken, Blynken and Nod”.

Speak Your Mind