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Gods and English Words: The Roman Gods 2 (Advanced)

A multitude of Roman Gods continue to live on in English in different guises, largely because the Romans seemingly had a god or a goddess for every conceivable occasion, and a disproportionate number of randy gods and goddesses who safeguarded and promoted fertility. English has rapaciously borrowed words from Latin and French that were derived from the names of these deities. Just getting through the day would see the average Roman interact with numerous gods, great and small. First up was Somnus, the Roman equivalent of the Greek Hypnos, and the god of sleep. A number of English words come from this root, notably insomnia, the chronic inability to sleep, and insomniac, a person suffering from this condition. English also has other rarer words from somnus, including somnolent - "sleepy", somnific - "sleep-inducing" and somnambulism - "sleepwalking".

 

aurora borealis 744351 640Aurora BorealisWaking to the dawn, our Roman would view the sunrise while contemplating the goddess Aurora, personification of the dawn. According to the Romans, Aurora would renew herself every morning and then fly across the sky, announcing the arrival of the sun. Her two siblings were Sol, god of the sun and Luna, goddess of the moon. Aurora seemed to spend most of her time having sex with a variety of willing mortals, presumably passing the time before her early morning work-out. Romantic English poets often prefer aurora to the more prosaic dawn, and the adjective auroral - "pertaining to the dawn" is also used. The word is also commonly used in the term aurora borealis - the Northern Lights. The word aurora is a descendant of the Proto-Indo-European root *ausus- "dawn" from *aus- "shine". This root also gave the Indo-Europeans their dawn goddess Hausos, the Greeks Eos and the Old English their springtime and fertility goddess Eostre, whose name lives on in Easter. The same root is also responsible for very many Indo-European words for east, which of course is where the dawn breaks, although it is also responsible for the Latin word auster "south" - either due to a misconception about the orientation of the Italian peninsula or referring to the blazing heat from that point of the compass. Thus the same root gives us Austria from Medieval Latin marchia austriaca "eastern borderland" or in German Österreich "eastern kingdom," but also Australia "southern land".

 

How the day might transpire for our Roman would depend on the vagaries of the goddess Fortuna, the Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess Tyche. Fortuna could bring good or bad luck, fortune or misfortune, according to the caprices of life. She was the goddess of fate, and also the protector of the grain supply, a deity whose wheel would bring mortals from triumph to disaster as Seneca states in his tragerdy Agamemnon: "Whatever Fortuna has raised on high, she lifts but to bring low." If our Roman was a homebody, perhaps he or she would first attend to the hearth, perhaps praying to the goddess Vesta at the same time. Vesta was the virgin goddess of hearth and home, the goddess of sacred fire and the family. She was the only Roman deity to have a full-time college of priestesses devoted to her - the Vestal Virgins. Vestal was first recorded in English from the 16th century, meaning "chaste, virginal and pure". At the hearth, there may have been a nod to Vulcan, god of fire, volcanoes and metalworking, the Roman equivalent of the Greek Hephaestus. One of the myths featuring Vulcan is that he set up his smithy beneath Mount Etna in Sicily. Every time his wife, Venus, was unfaithful, a furious Vulcan would beat the red hot iron in his smithy so hard that it would cause a volcanic eruption. Charles Goodyear, the famous tyre manufacture, developed the process of making rubber more durable by adding sulphur. He called this vulcanisation after the Roman god.

 

William Bouguereau Lamour à lépine 1894Cupid: William Bouguereau: L'amour à l épine 1894Later, our Roman might wish to go for a stroll in the garden or in the countryside, to take a look at the flora and fauna, or relax in an idyllic sylvan setting. Flora was the goddess of flowers and one of a number of fertility goddesses in the Roman pantheon. Her festival, the Floralia, was held between April 28 and May 3 and symbolised the renewal of the cycle of life, drinking, and flowers. Latin flos gave French fleur, from which English has taken flower, floral, flour and floret among others. Faunus was the god of the forests, plains and fields. One of his main roles was to make cattle fertile, and in this aspect he was known as Inuus from Latin ineo "enter". The half-goat half-man fauns also come from this root. Fauna was the female counterpart of Faunus, variously described as his wife, sister or daughter - or a combination of these. The great Swedish botanist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus adopted fauna as a companion word to flora, and the terms flora and fauna have stuck for plants and animals respectively. Silvanus was the god of fields and woods. He protected field boundaries and defended cattle from wolves, while protecting their fertility (the cattle, not the wolves, obviously). No doubt Silvanus, Faunus and Flora all encouraged a lot of sylvan frolics in the forest too, to create new generations of Sylvias, Sylvesters and Sylvies all of which mean "of the forest". Another god who protected boundaries was the god Terminus, terminus being Latin for boundary stone. Terminus would receive an annual offering of the bones, ashes, and blood of a sacrificial victim, as well as crops, honeycombs, and wine from Romans anxious to safeguard their property. English has taken terminal, termination, terminate and terminus itself from this root.

 

With all of these fertility gods and goddesses around, it would come as something of a shock if our Roman didn't feel inclined to join in the fun, in which case the libertarian god Liber might be the deity to turn to. Liber "the free one" was the Roman God of viticulture, wine, liberty and (of course) fertility. Over time, Liber adopted many of the traits and characteristics of the Greek God Dionysius (romanised as Bacchus). He was a liberal libertine whose festival, the Liberalia, was a coming of age ceremony for boys to manhood. It featured processions, risqué songs and a huge sacred phallus which the devotees carried throughout the countryside to bring the blessing of fertility to the land and the people and to protect the crops from evil. Bacchus came later to the Italian peninsula as part of a Greek influenced mystery cult featuring mass drunkenness and sexual debauchery with his bacchanalian orgies. The cult was suppressed by the Romans and a more sanitised less decadent Bacchus was conscripted into the Roman pantheon as an aspect of Liber so the two became more or less interchangeable.

 

Another deity who caught the lusty Roman eye was Salacia, a beautiful nymph and goddess of the sea. She became the respected wife of Neptune. Her name derives either from Latin sal "salt" or salio variously "leap", "spring forth" or, somewhat inevitably, "mount for copulation". Salio gave English sally and salient, and its adjectival Latin derivative salax "prone to leaping" and "lascivious" gave English salacious, which is somewhat at odds with the less bawdy image of the goddess herself. The Roman Cupid, on the other hand, was an altogether more erotic figure, which is fitting as his Greek counterpart was Eros. Cupid was the god of lust and desire, but also shared some attributes with the goddess Victoria, showing the Roman desire for power and glory as well as sexual lust. In spite of the erotic associations with this arrow-wielding, chubby boy-god, cupidity in English is mainly associated with a desire for wealth and possessions.

 

101px Victoria Goldelse Siegessaeule BerlinVictoria: Sculpture on the Goldelse Siegessaeule, BerlinOther Roman gods and goddesses are personifications of different concepts encountered in life and are more or less what they say on the tin. Victoria is the personification of victory, and is the Roman equivalent of the goddess Nike. She was a symbol of victory over death and determined who would be successful in war. Both Nike and Victoria have stated that they bear no responsibility for the hideous football kits on display at the European Championship 2016, however, although they will doubtless ensure that the English national team are not victorious. Concordia is the goddess of harmony and agreement and marriage in society. Latin concordia, literally "hearts together" gave English concord and French concorde, the French spelling being chosen for Concorde, the Anglo-French supersonic jet as a symbol of the harmony between the two nations. Typically, there was a trans-channel row over whether or not the plane should be spelt with or without the final e, Harold Macmillan renaming it Concord after a spat with Charles de Gaulle, before Tony Benn changed it back again. Morta is the goddess of death who warns in advance of the pain of death to be endured by the person fated to die. Her name comes from the Latin mors "death" and mortalis "destined to die", from which English has mortician, mortal, mortuary, morgue and many others.

 

The god Orcus also has an enduring legacy in English. He was a hairy, bearded giant, a god of the underworld and the deity who meted out punishment to those who broke their oaths. Orcus took pleasure in continuing to torment evil-doers in the afterlife. His name was also given to the land of the dead itself, and so meant "underworld", or "hell". The apex predator that is the killer whale or orca, (Latin Orcinus orca), originates from this source. Italian derived orco from Orcus meaning "monster that feeds on human flesh". The French equivalent of this was ogre, which first appeared in Charles Perrault's fairy tales, whence it passed into English. Old English also derived the ogrish orcþyrs from the Latin orcus root. This word was revived by JRR Tolkien for the brutal orcs of Middle Earth. In fact, Tolkien borrowed heavily from Old English when naming his characters in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Hence there are the tree-like giants the Ents, derived from OE ent "giant", Frodo from OE frod "wise", Theoden from OE þeoden "ruler, prince" and Shelob from she + OE lobbe "spider" among many others.

 

Another interesting Roman concept that has left its mark on English is that of the genius, that is, the divine instance present in every individual, place or thing. The genius was akin to the soul and stayed with each man from birth to the moment of death. The Greek equivalent of the genius (plural genii) was the daemon, a benevolent spirit or guardian angel, not like the demonised demons that are derived from their name. The root of genius is Proto-Indo-European *gene- "produce, beget" which has generated numerous progeny: a plethora of words, such as genus, generation, genial, gentle, gonad, germgeneralingenious, genesis, kin, kind, nature, natural, naive and nation through a variety of linguistic processes too convoluted to go into here. The same ancient root has given a number of modern Romance languages their name for "people", for example French gens, and Italian, Spanish and Portuguese gente.

 

Now use some of the words derived from the Roman gods italicised above to complete this dubious morality tale. 

(Hover your mouse over the question marks or tap on them on your mobile to reveal the answers).

Roger Nefarious was a wealthy lover of life, a rich _____questionmark_____ who believed in the tired adage that "a man should have a wife for the family and a mistress for pleasure". In fact, Roger didn't limit himself to one mistress and so was often the subject of _____questionmark_____ gossip in the high society circles in which he mixed. Others looked on the money he had amassed and his notorious sexual exploits in envy, or more accurately _____questionmark_____ . Roger's long-suffering wife, Mildred, couldn't sleep until Roger drunkenly ventured home and would often give vent to _____questionmark_____ explosions of temper when he deigned to return from his carousing, screaming that he was a monster, an _____questionmark_____. One night when Roger still hadn't come back from his hedonistic revelry and Mildred was once again battling _____questionmark_____, she decided that she had had enough. This time, instead of getting angry, she became icily calm and resolved to murder her husband, or as she put it coldly to herself "_____questionmark_____ his good-for-nothing life" - he was a mere _____questionmark_____ after all. This time when Roger came back, Mildred met him with a smile and a glass of wine and an invitation to have a drink on their fifth storey balcony. Relieved at escaping the anticipated fury, Roger assented and lurched upstairs after Mildred with the bottle in hand. _____questionmark_____ for Roger, that was as good as it was going to get. Mildred leaned against him amorously and then hoisted her unsuspecting husband over the balcony from where he fell to the ground, breaking his neck. Then she calmly went to bed. Next morning, she phoned the police and told them her husband must have lost his balance and tumbled to his death. The police believed her story and noted the alcohol in his blood. Roger was taken to the _____questionmark_____, while Mildred inherited his entire _____questionmark_____. Her _____questionmark_____ was complete.

 

 

Cupid: William-Adolphe Bouguereau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Victoria: By Lichtjäger at the German language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=505435


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