Monday September 25, 2006


Here's a puzzler.  The opening to Rush's early prog-rock-meets-D&D masterpiece "By-Tor and the Snow Dog" goes:

The Tobes of Hades
Lit by flickering torchlight
The Netherworld is gathered in the glare
Prince By-Tor takes the cavern
To the north light
The sign of Eth is rising in the air
By-Tor, knight of darkness,
Centurion of evil
Devil's prince

(Bonus points if you now have the song running through your head.)  The question, gentle reader, is this: what the hell are tobes?

I'm not mishearing it, either, it's definitely tobes—the subtitle of the first movement of the song, as printed on the album, is "At the Tobes of Hades".  Hmm.  Let's bypass the lesser reference books and go straight to the top.  The OED doesn't have an entry for the plural form tobes, but there is a singular tobe:

A length of cotton cloth (see quot. 1889), worn as an outer garment by natives of Northern and Central Africa, and in some parts used as currency.

The etymology given is "a. Arab. thaub (locally pronounced toːb, soːb) a garment."

This doesn't seem very likely to be the answer, though.  You could maybe argue that the lyrics refer to the clothing of the inhabitants of the Netherworld, especially since "the Netherworld is gathered" two lines later seems to imply a crowd.  However, that doesn't account for the subtitle "At the Tobes of Hades"—"At the Garments of Hades" certainly lacks the necessary Robert E. Howard gravitas.  Instead, it seems clear that Neil Peart had a meaning like 'gates' or 'depths' in mind.  Why, then, did he use the apparently invented word tobes?  I don't have a theory; feel free to speculate in the comments.

By the way, there's reason to think that the "sign of Eth" mentioned in line six is the familiar-to-linguists character ð or Ð.  Neat!

ObYouTube: the animated video that played during the instrumental third movement of the song ("Of the Battle") during the Vapor Trails tour, in which animated avatars of Geddy Lee (bass) and Alex Lifeson (guitar) engage in a series of contests of awesomeness.  Spoiler: Neil wins.

[Now playing: "Beneath, Between & Behind" by Rush]

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Tracked on Sep 25, 2006 9:29:49 PM


Perhaps these tobes are slithy? Tobes seems to be a not unheard of misrendering of toves.

Posted by: includedmiddle at Sep 25, 2006 10:44:58 PM

Here's a pretty thobe

Bet it'd look great lit by flickering candlelight.

Posted by: at Sep 26, 2006 10:28:38 AM

I vote "tomes" + freak, brief head cold.

Posted by: Matt at Sep 26, 2006 10:06:07 PM

"sign of Eth" mentioned in line six is the familiar-to-linguists character ð or Ð

Presumably, the "Ðëvíl" has some deep je ne sais quoi the the mere "Devil" does not.

And, just perhaps, "Tobes" might be a corruption (by way of a misspelling/mishearing/mispronunciation) of "Tombs". I offer it simply because it seems more germane than either garments or books.

Posted by: Owlmirror at Sep 29, 2006 10:13:08 PM

Or perhaps instead (after messing about a bit with Unicode),


Posted by: Owlmirror at Sep 30, 2006 12:45:50 AM

My initial thought was tobes is "drums", although I am doubtlessly influenced by by Romanian word tobe "drums". But if the word occurs in other Romance languages, it's plausible that it could have worked its way into Rush's lexicon. And "The Drums of Hades" sounds nice.

Posted by: JS Bangs at Sep 30, 2006 4:41:59 PM

I always thought that the tobes were these drape-like curtains of hell. That makes the most sense to me. The garments of the damned that are hung while they are whipped and beaten by the dark one. I've got it right. I win. Especially since I have the song actually playing while I scribe this rant.

Posted by: John McMahon at Dec 16, 2006 9:53:29 PM


Posted by: nathan at Mar 13, 2007 3:30:51 PM

by the tobes of ancient hades
there stands a giant bell
it tolls for all those maybes
who missed the trip to hell

I wrote the above poem before I ever heard of Rush, when I was too young to even know what the hell I was writing about.

They are like towers, stairways to heaven so to speak, as in the tower of Babel. Spiral staircases that go to the top...similar to the Lord of the Rings tower where Sauron lived and where the wizards worked.

I vote not deaf, not freak, but avid Rush fan.

Closer to the heart.

Posted by: nathan at Mar 13, 2007 3:34:06 PM

"Tobes" is a shortened version of Etobicoke. Google it and it will all make sense.

Posted by: Rich at Jul 28, 2008 6:43:03 AM

I always envisioned "Tobes" as roughly synonymous with "Gates" but now I must admit Rich's comment above on Etobicoke is compelling.

Posted by: Drukarzun at Mar 30, 2009 12:15:26 PM

I think nathan has it right. According to the Urban Dictionary Tobes is the short form for the greater toronto area of Etobicoke.

Posted by: Keith at Jan 12, 2010 11:18:17 AM

Tobes - The short form for the greater toronto area of Etobicoke.

Posted by: 2112 at May 1, 2010 9:07:13 AM

A quote from Neil in the "Backstage Club," 1990:

My friend's dad always said "colder than the Tobes of Hell," that's all. I don't know what it means.

Posted by: g at Aug 4, 2012 12:41:02 PM