Notes on Arcadia

Tracing the etymology of bucolic, rural paradise


Arcadia, proverbial land of pastoral beauty, richness and plenty. In Greek and Roman legends, it is a land where streams run full of clear, clean water, and lakes and bays are packed with fish. Its peoples live in harmony with nature; its wilderness is unspoiled.

Arcadia, a sanctuary of rural happiness and tranquility, offers respite from the complications and stresses of urban life. Nature reigns supreme in this fertile refuge of uncorrupted, unsophisticated, innocent shepherds and woodsmen.

Arcadia has existed for the longest time, the etymology of its name shrouded by the haze of ancient obscurities. In French, it’s “Acadie.” Frenchman Nicloas Poussin’s famous 17th-century painting titled Et in Arcadia Ego (“I am in Arcadia“) depicts bucolic serenity and includes, curiously, a group of shepherds inspecting an inscribed coffin. What does it mean? Who is in Arcadia? Is there an Arcadia, or Acadia, or an Acadie? Was such a heaven on earth just the stuff that dreams are made of, or does such a place really exist?

“Acadia” is the original name shown for the entire Atlantic Coast north of Virginia on one of the earliest maps drawn in the mid 1500s by Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano. By Poussin’s time, a century later, settlers from west central France were already living in Canada’s Maritime Provinces, eastern Quebec and New England all the way down to Philadelphia and, like Verrazzano, were calling it “Acadie.” Poussin must have heard of the majesty of the eastern woodlands from pioneering French compatriots. Could he have been portraying the “unspoiled” beauty of the actual East Coast American Acadia?

Why did Verrazzano choose the name “Acadia”? Was it because of its pastoral perfection and his familiarity with Greek legends? Or was it because my Mi’kmaq and Abenaki ancestors called our fertile homeland “Akadi,” so he simply adopted the local name? We still have a Tracadie in Nova Scotia, and Abenaki cousins still refer to exceptionally fertile places as “quoddy,” as in Passamaquoddy Bay. Is it a coincidence that “Akadi,” “quoddy,” “Acadie,” “Acadia” and “Arcadia” on both sides of the Atlantic, mean the same thing? Or is it all interconnected? Maybe ancient Greek or Egyptian mariners managed to navigate this far and remembered in their stories of long, long ago a beautiful and very real country, the Akadi of my forefathers.

Certainly, the depiction of the inhabitants of Acadia of the Greek Golden Age matched the reality of native, indigenous Americans of Akadi. We lived naturally, without the greed and corruption that eventually befell urbanized ancients of classical antiquity and industrialists of a more recent era.

What happened to us Akadians, inhabitants of paradise on earth? We’re still here, all around you. We’ve changed our style and names so you don’t immediately recognize us. Some of us don’t even recognize ourselves. We’ve parked our canoes, shed our beads, long linen shirts and bright red sashes, laid down our pipes filled with tobacco, and mostly adopted European ways. Many Acadians of the Maritime Provinces (now New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island) intermarried so thoroughly with the French that we created a new people called “metis” who are Frenchified Indians or Indianized French, whichever way you choose to see us.

In 1755, under the “Grand Derangement,” we were expelled from our idyllic Acadian home by British colonials. We wound up scattered from New England to the West Indies, Spain and especially to Louisiana where our name was corrupted from “Acadian” to “Cajun.” But our beautiful original namesake, Akadi, Acadia, Arcadia or Acadie, lives on. Come to New Brunswick during autumn’s splendor and see for yourself. Dig for clams on New England beaches or paddle a canoe down tributaries of the Richelieu.

Next time you look out over the water and notice a kayaker paddling down the Russian River, smile at her. She might be an Akadian adventurer far from her homeland and her people. It might be me.


Open Mic is now a weekly feature in the Bohemian. We welcome your contribution. To have your topical essay of 700 words considered for publication, write [email protected]

In which our July 23 Arcadia issue prompts an essay tracing the word’s history directly back to North America’s native peoples.

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