The Divergent Senses of λύω

Sometimes there are words whose individual senses seem to exist contrary to each other. You encounter λύω while reading a text. Maybe its usage looks foreign to you in the moment. So you look it up in your lexicon and there you find that not only does it mean ‘loosen’ or  ‘release’ like you have learned, but also ‘destroy’ which is what you see here. But still, those seem like opposites to you, one positive and one negative.

There are words that end up having two senses that mean their opposites. In English, for example, cleave can mean either ‘separate’ or ‘press together’. Similarly, the adjective moot can mean that something is so disputed that is not worth discussing or conversely, that there is so little debate that any discussion would be little more than an academic exercise. An apology is both an ardent defense of or state of contrition for a particular point of view.

Often these words are learned in such disparate contexts that it can be difficult to integrate them together into a single perspective of the same word. Understanding the relation between the two senses of apology would require a language user to take the time to educate themselves into their history, likely going back to the Greek ἀπολογία. Christian communities are more readily able to integrate the second sense of apology, given their long tradition of apologetics. But even the probable situation is that particular language users simply partition these two senses off from each other as effective homonyms—or, as they are often called, contranyms or auto-autonyms. The context of apology and its contranymity is itself predicated on a partition of sorts. Apology, a speech of defense, owns its continued existence to the conservative traditions of the academy where it has the great benefit of maintaining a close relationship with its parents in the classical languages. There it was retained and enjoyed a comfortable life, while elsewhere amongst the masses the churning waters of language change would toss it to and fro driving its shift in usage.

In the Greek verb λύω the situation is similar, edging into the domain of contranymity, but not quite there. In terms of the usages that seem at odds with each other, it can used both to refer to the release of prisoners, but also for the destruction of an object. The mechanism motivating these senses and the structure of the learning process for language users differs vastly from the English apology. Rather than usage divided by social structure and perhaps class, the growth of λύω’s semantics does not appear to be a result of a partitioning of circumstances for its usage. Instead, there’s a nature pattern of growth from one sense to another, beginning with λύω’s most central or basic usage.

When we consider how the senses of a word like λύω develop, one useful way of thinking about its meaning would be to consider the perspective of a child, how a child might encounter the word for the first time during the language acquisition process. The probability seems low that a child would first encounter the destruction of an object—2 Peter 3:12, for example, ‘the heavens ablaze will be destroyed (λυθήσονται). Nor do toddlers regularly encounter prisoners, at least not ideally, the Syrian refugee crisis notwithstanding. It is perhaps possible that a child might encounter in daily life someone forgiving someone else—Sirach 28:2, ‘Forgive your neighbor his misdeed, then when you pray, your sins will be forgiven (λυθήσονται).

No, the most likely context for a small child still learning their first language would be, even in the 1st century, the tying and untying of footwear, a basic life skill even in the 1st century. Such is the semantic starting point of a three or four year old language learner living along the Mediterranean coast. Just as John the Baptist declares he is not worthy to do to Jesus’ sandal in Mark 1:7.

  • Ἔρχεται ὁ ἰσχυρότερός μου ὀπίσω μου, οὗ οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανὸς κύψας λῦσαι τὸν ἱμάντα τῶν ὑποδημάτων αὐτοῦ
    There is one coming who is more greater than me, who I am not worth to bend down and untie the strap of his sandal.

The logical shift in the life experience of our imagined child, would be from the untying of sandals to the untying of other things in day to day life. The untying of a horse, sheep, or goat, perhaps while carrying out morning chores. The disciples do the same to a colt in Luke 19:33.

  • λυόντων δὲ αὐτῶν τὸν πῶλον εἶπαν οἱ κύριοι αὐτοῦ πρὸς αὐτούς· Τί λύετε τὸν πῶλον;
    While they were untying the colt, the owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?”

The shift from animals and the knots of normal life to bound people is rather simple now. Untying animals for work or chores is not dramatically different from the untying of people who are kept prisoner, whether bound or in a cell, such as Paul and the Roman commander in Acts 22:30.

  • Τῇ δὲ ἐπαύριον βουλόμενος γνῶναι τὸ ἀσφαλὲς τὸ τί κατηγορεῖται ὑπὸ τῶν Ἰουδαίων ἔλυσεν αὐτόν καὶ ἐκέλευσεν συνελθεῖν τοὺς ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ πᾶν τὸ συνέδριον καὶ καταγαγὼν τὸν Παῦλον ἔστησεν εἰς αὐτούς
    The next day, because he [the commander] wanted to know the reason why he [Paul] was being accused by the Jews, he released him and ordered the chief priests and Sanhedrin to assemble. Leading Paul down, he stood before them.

Once the basic principle of making a person, animal or object untied is established, all sorts of things can be construed with λύω: any situation that maps comfortably on an object or person being constrained or bounded can be set free.

A tied and rolled up scroll is bound (EsdA 9:46).

  • καὶ ἐν τῷ λῦσαι τὸν νόμον πάντες ὀρθοὶ ἔστησαν
    And when he untied the Law, everyone stood up straight.

Marriage contracts are bonds (1 Cor 7:27):

δέδεσαι γυναικί; μὴ ζήτει λύσιν· λέλυσαι ἀπὸ γυναικός; μὴ ζήτει γυναῖκα Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.

Speech impediments are bonds (Mark 7:35):

  • καὶ ἐλύθη ὁ δεσμὸς τῆς γλώσσης αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐλάλει ὀρθῶς
    And his tongue was freed and he began to speak normally.

Sin is a bond (Rev 1:5):

  • λύσαντι ἡμᾶς ἐκ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἡμῶν…
    …to the one who released us from our sins…

In each of these, we have an image schema involving a physical experience that is then mapped onto a more abstract event structures. Even though the tied-up cattle functions as a foundation for the schema that grounds all these expressions, image schema itself is much more abstract, with simple a ‘bindee’ (to coin a term; an entity that is somehow bound), a bind (i.e. binding agent of some sort) and an agent who releases the ‘bindee’.

Person Bound

There is, of course, no reason why the bindee in the image schema must be a person. A schema is, by definition, abstract with minimal detail. And there is likely too much detail already in the picture above. It merely needed to include something that would be recognizable as bond and someone/something who is bound. The purpose of the image schema is that it provides a mental model for the roles that people and things play in a given event relative to the metaphor being applied.

Animal Bound

This is why the word construal is so important for these. If the image schema is mapped onto the ending of a marriage, the relationships are shifted, and the image is reconstrued in a manner to maps appropriately onto the new situation. The bond is not to a post, but between two people. It is more volitional, albeit most often within the context of familial expectation and duty as within the context of love—unlike the prisoner who is captured, bound and then freed.

Binding Marriage

In the context of Paul’s statement about marriage bonds, he assumes the agent breaking the bond is internal to the bond itself and warns against its breaking.

These representations, however, are only half of the usage of λύω, if we recall. We want to understand how this verb can mean both release/free someone or something and also destroy something. These image schemas only account for the first of those.

At a basic level, this is a simple matter of where our attention is. If the focus in an event is on the object/person bound rather than the bind itself, then released and set free are natural glosses. But what of the attention is shifted from the bounded entity/person to the bind/binding agent? What if we place our attention on the knot itself, focusing in on it rather than the thing or person that it bound by it? Then we have an image schema that might look more like this.


Or perhaps, even better, for our first century milieu and our imagined child learning the language an ancient sandal (adapted from Williams and Morgan 1901, in the entry for ὑπόδημα).


The design of many sandals in the Mediterranean and Ancient Near East was such that to untie them was also to unmake them. The sandal was often simply a leather sole wrapped and tied in a particular manner around your toes, foot, and ankle. When untied, it was merely the constituent pieces.

Untied Sandal

In this context, and in fact with knots in general, to be untied is to be undone. The sandal and the knot do not exist as sandals and knots when untied. In this context, it is easier to understand how one might go from a sandal, such as Stephen’s paraphrase of God to Moses in Acts 7:33 (=Ex 3.5):

  • Λῦσον τὸ ὑπόδημα τῶν ποδῶν σου, ὁ γὰρ τόπος ἐφʼ ᾧ ἕστηκας γῆ ἁγία ἐστίν Untied the sandals on your feet. For the place where you are standing is holy ground.

The image can easily be reconstrued as a belt rather than a sandal, as in LXX Isaiah 5:27:

  • οὐδὲ λύσουσιν τὰς ζώνας αὐτῶν ἀπὸ τῆς ὀσφύος αὐτῶν
    Nor will they untie their belts from around their waist.

There the adjustment in the construal of the pieces of the image schema is relatively simple because it is still a shift from one kind of knot to another kind of knot, simply in a different location with a different function. The construal becomes more abstract, if not also more complicated in examples such as the following:

  • περιπεσόντες δὲ εἰς τόπον διθάλασσον ἐπέκειλαν τὴν ναῦν, καὶ ἡ μὲν πρῷρα ἐρείσασα ἔμεινεν ἀσάλευτος, ἡ δὲ πρύμνα ἐλύετο ὑπὸ τῆς βίας
    The ship struck reef and they ran aground. The bow got stuck and would not budge, all the way the stern was being broken up by the powerful currents (Acts 27:41).
  • καὶ ἐνεπύρισαν τὸν οἶκον τοῦ κυρίου, καὶ ἔλυσαν τὰ τείχη Ἰερουσαλήμ, καὶ τοὺς πύργους αὐτῆς ἐνεπύρισαν ἐν πυρί
    And they set the house of the Lord on fire and destroyed the walls of Jerusalem (EsdA 1:52).
  • εἰ περιτομὴν λαμβάνει ἄνθρωπος ἐν σαββάτῳ ἵνα μὴ λυθῇ ὁ νόμος Μωϋσέως, ἐμοὶ χολᾶτε ὅτι ὅλον ἄνθρωπον ὑγιῆ ἐποίησα ἐν σαββάτῳ;
  • If a person is circumcised on the Sabbath such that the l
    w of Moses is not undone, why are you angry with me for making a man whole on the Sabbath? (John 7:23)

These are ordered with the instances involving physical destruction first, so the shift to more abstract domains of usage becomes easier. Note that all these examples, both physical and non-physical, involve things that are readily conceived of as containers. They exert control over their contents. City walls delimit and bind the city and its inhabitants. The hulls of ships exert a protective control over sailors and cargo from the water outside. The Law of Moses binds the people of Israel to a code of conduct and behavior. It exerts control through moral, theological, political influence and force.

In the first example of destructive λύω in 2 Peter 3:12, the heavens in ancient cosmology were conceived as a dome above that contained the earth and its inhabitants.

  • προσδοκῶντας καὶ σπεύδοντας τὴν παρουσίαν τῆς τοῦ θεοῦ ἡμέρας, διʼ ἣν οὐρανοὶ πυρούμενοι λυθήσονται καὶ στοιχεῖα καυσούμενα τήκεται·
  • waiting and hastening the coming of the Day of God, because on that day, the heavens ablaze will be destroyed and the elements will melt as they are consumed by the heat (2 Peter 3:12).

To summarize the semantic situation of λὐω, then, we have a basic image schema that motivates all the usages, by varying the participants and things involved. As such we can summary the semantics of λύω in the following way:

  • Primary schema: Untying something
    • Secondary Schema #1: Untying someone/something tied up
      • Alternative Physical Construal: Freeing someone something from a bounded space
      • Alternative Abstract Construal: Undoing or breaking someone out of an abstract bond or contract (e.g. marriage)
    • Secondary Schema #2: Untying something knotted or tangled
      • Alternative Physical Construal: Breaking a container down to its constituent pieces
      • Alternative Abstract Construal: Violating/breaking an abstract boundary (social, moral, etc.)


Recommended Reading on Image Schemas and Lexical Semantics

Evans, Vyvyan. 2009. How Words Mean: Lexical Concepts, Cognitive Models, and Meaning Construction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hampe and Grady. 2005. From Perception to Meaning: Image Schemas in Cognitive Linguistics. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter.

Johnson, Mark. 1990. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sweetser, Eve. 1991. From Etymology to Pragmatics: Metaphorical and Cultural Aspects of Semantic Structure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


White, John Williams and Morris H. Morgan. 1901. An Illustrated Dictionary to Xenophon’s Anabasis. Boston: Ginn & Co.