I always thought this was just his own idiosyncratic creation, and maybe it was. But, I’ve recently come to realize that this expression might have a long history of its own.
I’ve been reading the journal of beaver trapper Osborne Russell, a fascinating account of his life as a woodsman and hunter in the Rocky Mountains of the 1830s. Not long ago, I ran across a familiar-sounding phrase in a passage where Russell describes how – when traveling with a companion up the Rocky Fork of the Yellowstone in the autumn of 1837 – he became surrounded after nightfall by a stampeding herd of spooked bison.
“…we proceeded on our journey until sometime after dark when we found ourselves on a sudden in the midst of an immense band of Buffaloe who getting the scent of us ran helter skelter around us in every direction rushing to and fro like the waves of the ocean, approaching sometimes within 10 ft. of us We stood still for we dare not retreat or advance until this storm of brutes took a general course and rolled away with a noise like distant thunder and then we hurried on thro. egyptian darkness a few 100 paces when we found a bunch of willows where we concluded to stop for the night rather than risk our lives any further among such whirlwinds of beef” (emphasis mine).
It struck me how strange that an itinerant hunter enveloped in pitch-blackness on the high plains of North America would be reminded of faraway Egypt, unless this was a common expression of the day.
If this was, in fact, a 19th century cliché, I have discovered (thanks to Google) a plausible source for the saying “Egyptian darkness”. A Biblical source, naturally.
When Moses was lobbying Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from Egypt, he got some supernatural assistance in the form of a series of plagues, as in this passage:
“Yahweh then said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand towards heaven, and let darkness, darkness so thick that it can be felt, cover Egypt.’ So Moses stretched out his hand towards heaven, and for three days there was thick darkness over the whole of Egypt.” (Exodus 10:21-22)
Three days? If’s that’s the Biblical standard for oppressive darkness (in Egyptian terms), then there’s no doubt Finns are made of sturdier stuff than the ancient residents of the Nile Valley. Three days is nothing. The short, cloudy days of the Finnish autumn, though not continuously pitch-black, can be much more oppressive than any three days of darkness.
And, though autumn is behind us and today, for a change, Helsinki is enjoying some brilliant winter sunshine (all six hours of it), right now in northern Lapland, where the sun set in late November and won’t rise until mid-January, there really is darkness around the clock. Okay, maybe it’s more a faint twilight, what the Finns call kaamos. But, still it lasts for more than three days.
So, I would suggest my college buddy should replace his old expression with something else, something like “It’s as dark as Utsjoki in here.” Not as romantically evocative as ancient Egypt maybe, but certainly more factually correct.