how many types of love are there?

greek sculpture from the fourth century b.c. photo by tilemahos efthimiadis / flickr.

in english, there is only one word to describe them all – motherly love, brotherly love, friendly love, erotic love, universal love (if that’s even a thing). where did we get this notion of a word that was all-encompassing, enough to describe so many different situations, expressions, reactions? what about religious love and worship? what about friendship? how did we decide that all these forms of affection were the manifestations of one essential energy that is love itself?

the modern english word comes from the old english lufu meaning “feeling of love; romantic sexual attraction; affection; friendliness; the love of god; love as an abstraction or personification,” which in turn comes from the germanic liebe, liefs, and gothic lieb meaning “dear, beloved”, all supposedly from the constructed proto-indo-european root leubh-, “to care, desire”. but where did these come from? where did come up with the notions of desire and care and affection. were cavemen walking about with sudden risings of warmth in their bellies that carried them to their beloved? were the beloved other cavemen, other people, or other animals, things, homes, tools? what is it that gave birth to this heated chemical reaction?

‘love’ shares its assumed PIE root with words like belief, leave and libido. this hypothetical connection gives rise to connections with the sanskrit lobhaya- “to make crazy” and the persian ahiftan “to be tangled, be hit down, be in love”. of course, who among us today who has felt the grips of love would not agree that notions of being possessed, crazy, out of mind and smacked across the face or punched in the stomach are all spot on characteristics of this heart-hitting menace? there are days when my fiance and i are only a room apart and i miss him. there are days when we are face to face, at one table, each behind their laptop working, and the mental distance makes me long to reconnect with him, as if he were not fight in front of me. is this not madness? insanity! and yet, these words are very etymologically distant from love.

of course, etymology, a lot of it being mere speculation and backwards projection, while it may be the greatest authority we have today on word meaning, cannot encompass entirely the journey of peoples and abstract concepts. as hard as it tries to map the adventures of words as they travel across deserts and distances, traverse seas and are traded like gold and copper, etymology overlooks real-time, and history escapes capture with every moment of real-life activity that takes place. the english ‘waffle’ and french ‘gaufre’ both come from the dutch ‘wafel’. how did a ‘v’ sounding dutch ‘w’ become a french ‘g’? i imagine a frenchman stumbling on some waffle-eating germans, asking them what they were eating, and deciding that the name just wasn’t pretty enough for the lightness of the french tongue. or maybe their accents were so thick that by the time he got home, the muffled, almost guttural ‘v’ sounded like a ‘gh’ to him. maybe they growled their words. maybe their throats were thicker than ours.

to the frenchman, love is ‘amour’, from the latin amor “love, affection, strong friendly feeling” but even this was used to describe a love that was sexual, erotic, a sort of lust or desire.

some say the greeks had 8 words for love. some say they had 7, others 4, still others 6. but the underlying idea is that these emotions were identified as being distinct from one another, rather than permutations of the one. but the ancient greeks were pagans, and just as love was separated into several entities, so was god himself.

the christian god, the one who governs, however quietly and unconsciously, modern western society as we know it today, had only one name, one face, and one being. he was/is the one and only, the almighty, the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-pervading. it is he who comes down to earth in the body of man and he who rides down as tongues of fire through the holy spirit.

i wonder if the reduction of love itself is not subject to the christian reduction of divinity. if the figures of the governing power were many, then there were many energies by which one might be possessed, many channels through which to access different types of affection, longing, desire, worship, acceptance, etc. but when the energy, the life-force, driving-force behind all things becomes centralized, then so does the spring of affection. for it is only through him, god, that we can know or experience love, be it for him or for those around us. so how many types of love are there? or rather, are there even types of ‘love’? is love not one thing that has been mistaken for many? or is it many that have been mistaken for one?

and for the possessed, the girl sitting across from her beloved at the table longing for a close of their mental and physical discontinuity – does it even matter what you call it?

a rose by any other name would smell as sweet

shakespeare, romeo and juliet

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