legion

“My name is Legion, for I am many.”

I first read that when I was a child. I wondered how it could make sense. For one thing, in the little town I lived in, there was only one Legion.

There aren’t many people in Exshaw now, and there weren’t then. There was, and is, only one gas station and only one store – one and the same. There was, and is, only one post office, only one credit union (the only bank), only one elementary/junior high school – and no high school.

And there was, and is, only one place a person could buy a drink. It was the only place children were not allowed, except on rare days such as Remembrance Day for the ceremonies. Then we would come in, up the stairs, into the large room with its long bar on one side, its various tables, its stage (was it? or just an open dance floor?), its hard and dirty carpet, its permanent air-paint of decades of cigarette smoke that was not just an atmosphere but the possessing spirit.

This was the Legion. Or, as I first thought it was (having heard it before seeing it), the Leejun.

Even after I learned the spelling, I thought of it as a name for a drinking place. The French Foreign Legion? What was that? A place where Frenchmen could get a drink when they were out of their country?

So obviously when I saw that quote – “My name is Legion, for I am many” – I didn’t get it at first. Why was this hoard of demons taunting Shazam calling itself a tavern?

Oh, yes. That line is from the Bible, but I first read it in a comic book and didn’t know it was a Biblical reference until a few years later. (The comic book, as I recall, slightly modified it: The King James Version of Mark 5:9 is “And he asked him, What is thy name? And he answered, saying, My name is Legion: for we are many.” The Greek source uses Λεγιὼν, which is a direct borrowing from Latin; in context it is also an echo of the word for “says” (λέγει, legei): καὶ ἐπηρώτα αὐτόν· Τί ὄνομά σοι; καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ· Λεγιὼν ὄνομά μοι, ὅτι πολλοί ἐσμεν·)

Shazam solved the problem by flying around so fast he punched all of them effectively simultaneously. Jesus just called them all out at once and they went into a herd of pigs, which ran into the lake and drowned.

So somehow legion meant ‘many’. How did that come to have anything to do with a bar, or with soldiers? Why, of all words, was it chosen?

It was chosen. That’s why. It was ‘chosen’. Latin legio, ‘largest unit of an army’, comes from lego, ‘I choose’ (also ‘I read’), which is related to Greek λέγω, which can mean ‘I choose’ or ‘I say’ (as in λέγει, ‘he says’). In the army, many are called, and many are chosen. As bottle-brush-faced Lord Kitchener said, “I want you,” and he was pointing at every young man who saw the poster. They were many. And when much fewer of them came home from the Great War, organizations were formed to give them a chance to maintain their camaraderie and mutual support – and to give them buildings where they could gather and join in spirit. And spirits. Many spirits.

And so in towns across the country, Legion halls were built. “The Legion” remained as an important social centre even when only a small part of the population were veterans anymore. They’re still there. I recently drove the two-lane road along Lake Ontario from the Greater Toronto Area to Prince Edward County. It passes through several small towns, and each has its Legion. It turns out they are indeed many. But only one per town.

But of course the Legion was and is the organization, not just the building. It still has many members, and they don’t gather only in their local halls. They have conventions. At one such convention in Philadelphia in 1976, faulty air conditioning allowed a previously unidentified kind of bacteria to grow and spread, causing a sometimes fatal respiratory ailment quickly dubbed Legionnaires’ disease. Once the bacteria were identified, they were dubbed Legionella. And if they are taking your breath away, they are many indeed.

I’ll have a drink instead, if you don’t mind. Punch, perhaps?

 

3 responses to “legion

  1. So many instances of (cultural, national, temporal?) translations in this piece, relative to the terms I’m more familiar with: Remembrance Day –> Veterans Day (both renamed from Armistice Day?) ; Shazam –> Captain Marvel (before 1972; trademark conflict, apparently); Legion –> American Legion, Lord Kitchener –> Uncle Sam (the British version came first by 3 years, it seems).

  2. When the being on Red Dwarf told Lister, Rimmer, Kryten and Cat “Call me Legion, for we are many,” it felt Biblical, but I never got around to looking it up. Thanks for saving me the effort.

  3. Sir Toby Belch thinks Legion is a devil’s name. About Malvolio: “If all the devils of hell be drawn in little, and Legion himself possessed him, yet I ’ll speak to him.)
    (Twelfth Night III, iv, 88-9)

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