Metaphorical places—crossing the Rubicon and finding El Dorado

I find great pleasure in seeing how history is embedded in our language with words having travelled with us through many generations. I was thinking particularly about how certain places have become metaphors for the attributes that they are most well known for. Here are some of the most well-known metaphorical places

Crossing The Rubicon

In January of 49 BC Julius Caesar crossed the River Rubicon with his army. By doing so he had declared war on Rome and was therefore guilty of treason. It was a decision that could not be undone or as Caesar said, “the die is cast”. So from then on “crossing the Rubicon” has meant an irreversible decision.

Walking on the moon and climbing Mt Everest

Two thousand years later Neil Armstrong walked on the moon for the first time on 20 July 1969 making the expression “walking on the moon” not quite the unattainable feat as it had been, similarly Sir Edmund Hilary made climbing Mount Everest less than an impossible task although it is still difficult.

Road to Damascus

In 33 AD Saul a zealous Jew, who was persecuting Christians, was blinded by God on the Road to Damascus and was converted to Christianity. He became Paul, perhaps the most important Christian of all time. So when we have a great epiphany in our lives (a life changing insight) we have had a Road to Damascus moment or a Damascene moment.

Finding El Dorado

In the early 1500s, Spanish conquistadores were told tales of an Amazonian king who coated his body with gold dust and then swam in a lake to wash it off. The Spaniards called the city ruled by this king “El Dorado” meaning “gilded one”. The story of the gold-covered king grew into the legend of a country paved with gold. Now an El Dorado is any place of vast riches, abundance, or opportunity.

Mystical Avalon

In 1136 Geoffrey of Monmouth in Historia Regum Brittaniae (History of the Kings of Britain) describes Avalon as the place where Excalibur was forged and the last resting place of King Arthur. It is often identified as Glastonbury Tor (which is quite a magical place). Avalon symbolises a realm of supernatural healing or rebirth. King Arthur lives there still and will return when Britain needs him.

Where is Timbuktu

Timbuktu is a city in Mali, situated twenty kilometres  north of the Niger River in Mali. It was a wealthy city as it was the southern terminus of an important trans-Saharan trade route. Much of the gold in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries came from Timbuktu and the city has long been considered a mysterious, hidden place by Europeans and it became a metaphor for any faraway place (I want to go there).

Having your Waterloo

The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 was a decisive and final defeat for Napoleon ending all his ambitions of returning to power. A Waterloo represents the final culmination of a person’s troubles.

A Mecca

While Mecca is a place of pilgrimage for Muslims. It is used to describe t or a place that attracts many people for a particular activity.

Being sent to Siberia

Being sent to Siberia as Stalin did to dissidents is still used to denote a punishment or exile to a harsh and inhospitable place.

Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley the technology and innovation hub in California is now used more broadly to represent the global tech industry as a whole.

Behaving Babylon

Babylon was an ancient city in Mesopotamia founded 3000 years ago. It was known for its excess and decadence and is now used metaphorically to describe a place of sin and corruption (e.g. Hollywood Babylon).

Lost in the Bermuda Triangle

The Bermuda Triangle was an area in the western part of the North Atlantic Ocean, where ships and aircraft mysteriously disappeared. It is used metaphorically to describe a place where things disappear mysteriously.

Being sent to Coventry

An idiom very much used in England means to deliberately ostracise someone. The phrase is thought to originate from a 17th century English Civil War punishment (the civil war between Parliament and the Royalists supporting the King). Coventry was a Parliamentary stronghold. The king’s soldiers when they were taken prisoner were sent to Coventry, where they would be treated badly and ignored.