Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Et in Arcadia Ego

The phrase translates as "And I too in Arcadia". Its source is unknown, but it first came into currency in 17th-century Italy, where it served as shorthand for a sentiment which could be rendered as "Even in Arcadia I, Death, can be found". In contemporaneous paintings set in Arcadia the phrase is sometimes shown ornamentally inscribed on tombs set in sylvan glades, and can be understood as a straightforward memento mori. Soon, however – in particular through paintings by Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665) – the meaning began to shift, and the phrase started to refer not to Death but to the occupant of the tomb, who was thought fortunate. "Et in Arcadia ego" was by now a deliciously melancholy boast that can be translated as "I too lived in Arcadia". This meaning is today primary and has some relevance to fantasy, serving as a catch-phrase for a nostalgia for a Golden Age that has – perhaps irrecoverably – passed. Much sentimental fantasy exploits this nostalgia, though relatively few 20th-century texts refer specifically to Arcadia itself; but the impulse to cast one's longing gaze backwards to a place of safety and tranquillity and (it may be) eternal life remains powerful. Because "Et in Arcadia ego" points back in time, and focuses upon an imaginable (though perhaps entirely imaginary) place, its meaning is almost precisely the opposite of Sehnsucht. [JC]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.