Inns, harbours and auberges

In origin, harbour and auberge are the same word. Both occur as English terms in the OED, which gives the word in Anglo-Saxon to be herebeorg, becoming the modern German herberge. Its original meaning is shelter for an army, but in English it was soon used more generally, to mean any shelter or lodging or the place of it. Its use for ships is metaphorical, not the other way around.

To harbour someone is literally to give them lodging: this is the primary meaning of that word and still its meaning in law. In one notorious murder case well within living memory, the police knew that the murderer must have been assisted by his girlfriend, but as yet had no evidence to charge her. However, after the crime he had slept at her house; so in order to take her into custody, they used an old formula, and charged her initially with the crime of having knowingly comforted and harboured a felon*: i.e. she had given him food, drink and a bed for the night.

A harbinger originally means a person who goes ahead of an army seeking accommodation for it and announcing its arrival; then more generally it came to mean any person, or even thing, that announces an impending arrival.  Useful, because there is no other word; and it has taken the fancy of poets because of its attractive sound.

The words in European languages, both now and in ancient times, for inns, guesthouses, hotels, taverns, roadhouses, lodging houses, dosshouses, boarding houses, B&Bs, etc., each with its own flavour, are bewildering—as is, in our own time, the spectrum of expectation that people have of all such places, confirmed by the extremes of contradiction to be found on a website like Tripadvisor.

So what kind of place was the inn where Mary and Joseph wished to stay, and what is the Greek word for it, as used in the relevant passage of St Luke’s gospel?
…καὶ ἔτεκεν τὸν υἱὸν αὐτῆς τὸν πρωτότοκον· καὶ ἐσπαργάνωσεν αὐτὸν καὶ ἀνέκλινεν αὐτὸν ἐν φάτνῃ, διότι οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τόπος ἐν τῷ καταλύματι.

κατάλυμα is literally an unyokery— somewhere where you could unload the animal you were leading—whether ass, mule, camel or, more rarely, horse—and get shelter for it and yourself. We can assume that it was pretty basic.

* This would not have been an offence if she had been his wife.


What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

‘Arcadia…was still practically impenetrable at the beginning of the [20th] century. Travellers ventured there only in the company of a courier (or dragoman) who supplied guides, mounts, and food… The secondary roads are hardly more than tracks…
The real Arcadia is a wild country with an austere, impressive, earthly beauty chilled by long icy winters —a frightening labyrinth of mountains rent by ravines and precipices at the bottom of which waterways flow untamed.’
Jean-Louis Vaudoyer, in Doré Ogrizek’s Greece, McGraw-Hill, 1955.

We may with confidence, if not certainty, say that Virgil never ascended into Arcadia. It was an unforgiving place in Roman times, and to some degree it still is: mysterious, certainly, isolated on its plateau in the centre of the Peloponnese: the home of Pan and the birthplace of Mercury, whom ‘fair Maia brought forth on the frozen peak of Mt Cyllene.’* The inhabitants—in their uncouth dialect—said they had been born before the moon; and popular legend made them so primitive that they lived on acorns. Music, and that alone, people said, mitigated their hard life.

Virgil’s Arcadia as a land of idyll has little to do with the actual place. It is of his own imagining, and he seems to be its author. Robert Coleman makes this clear in his note on Eclogue VII.4, where the two shepherds, Corydon and Thyrsis, are

ambo florentes aetatibus, Arcades ambo.

Coleman points out that ‘this is the earliest reference to Arcady in connection with the pastoral myth’.

Theocritus had set his idylls variously in southern Italy, on the island of Cos and especially in Sicily. But Virgil needed a place more inaccessible, which Arcadia certainly was. Professor Coleman concludes that Virgil’s Arcadia is ‘not therefore just a remote region of the Peloponnese glamourized by the poetic imagination, but a truly ideal pastoral world, based to be sure upon elements in the various traditions regarding the actual Arcadia and its inhabitants, yet ultimately detached from any specific reality and enjoying an independent existence of its own.’

Arcadia was to be an ideal place, which people might identify with landscapes of their own memory or imagination.

Of interest:

  • Vergil, Eclogues, ed. Robert Coleman, CUP 1977.
  • Richard Jenkyns, Virgil and Arcadia, Journal of Roman Studies, November 1989.


*Aeneid VIII.139