Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.01.22

Hubert Petersmann, Lingua et Religio: ausgewählte kleine Schriften zur antiken Religionsgeschichte auf sprachwissenschaftlicher Grundlage, herausgegeben von Bernd Heßen. Hypomnemata: Supplement-Reihe 1.   Göttingen:  Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 2002.  Pp. 304.  ISBN 3-525-25231-5.  EUR 56.00.  

Reviewed by Eugene N. Lane, University of Missouri-Columbia (
Word count: 3738 words

The common trait which binds this collection of articles by the late Prof. Petersmann together is that they treat aspects of ancient religious phenomena which are explicable through the methods of comparative Indo-European grammar. The use of comparative grammar brings with it also comparative folklore of a rather Frazerian nature. The methodology is also in other ways somewhat old-fashioned, e.g., when the author mentions magic, he does not get involved in the recent controversies over magic in antiquity, but is content with the traditional notions of sympathetic magic, etc. All articles but the last one ("Das ursprüngliche Wesen der römischen Laren in neuem Licht") have been previously published. That article was worked up by the author's widow from lectures which her husband had given between 1991 and 1999. The articles are for the most part in German, but there is one in French, a tour-de-force in Neo-Latin, and two in English. Let us examine the articles in succession. The first ("Beobachtungen zu den Apellativen für Gott") makes the interesting point that the Indo-European languages do not share a common word for "God." P. rather divides the words into three categories: 1) words derived from how one approaches the divinity; 2) words derived from the nature, form and place that divine power manifests itself; and 3) words derived from the actions of the gods. The Germanic words for God provide an example of the first group. Being cognate to Greek χέω and Latin "fundo," God is originally the being to whom drink offerings are made. Greek and Latin provide instances of the second group: the Indo-European root from which Latin "deus," "divus," etc. come, as well as more specifically Latin "Jovem" and Greek Ζεύς, have to do with light, daylight, and the heavens. The third category is exemplified by "numen" (cognate to Greek νεῦμα) meaning "nodding" (God is the one who nods assent); δαίμων, probably connected with δαίομαι, "distribute" (God is the one who assigns us our lot); and θεός, connected with τίθημι (God is the one who arranges, puts things aright) .

The second article ("Les dieux anciens et leurs professions") speaks to the obvious point that Greco-Roman divinities had distinct fields of action, and that men thanked them for their efforts by sacrifice. An interesting point is that οὐρανός can be connected with ἕρση, "dew," thus showing us that this divinity originally had rain, rather than the sky, as his province. (But can one assume that "Ouranos" was first a theonym, rather than a common noun?) The discussion of the root for "light" is extended to include "dies," meaning "day." But the Greeks "decided" (as Petermann says) to use an entirely different word, ἡμέρα, and thus lost track of Zeus's original function. The regular Greek word for "god," θεός is connected with τίθημι. Gods put things in order. The article concludes with more reflections on the verb τίθημι and its relatives.

The third piece ("Quam vim nomen in religionibus ac superstitionibus gentium habeat") is a fairly general treatment of the power of names in antiquity. The Egyptians considered a person to consist of a body, a soul, and a name, all inextricably bound together. The word could be used to refer to an entire people, e.g. "nomen Latinum," for "populus Latinus" in the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus.

We are still taught to pray "hallowed be thy name." Later church authors use "nomina" to talk about church members. In general a name was considered identical to the person or thing it referred to. A person who knew the name of a deity or demon could summon, control, even turn himself into that deity or demon. Pagan gods are limited in space, need food, live a life similar to man's. Hence the power of sacrifice to increase or diminish a god's power. The simplest form of sacrifice involves only prayers, in which the name is all-important. An augur takes his name from the fact that he increases (auget) the god's powers. On the other hand the powers of a divinity could be diminished by the use of a bad name, a curse. The Romans tried to propitiate the gods by calling them by every conceivable name, the most spectacular example being the second chapter of the eleventh book of Apuleius' Metamorphoses. Even the dead have to come when their name is spoken thrice, as we see in the Nekyia of the Odyssey. The story of the sorcerer's apprentice, first occurring in Lucian's Philopseudes, illustrates the use of names both to animate objects and to turn them back to what they were. The curse tablets show vividly the importance of the name(s) of one's opponent(s) in bringing them failure, pain and suffering. The word tabu has been adopted from an Australian language to indicate that a word has been taken out of human usage and made sacred to gods or demons. This can result in words completely disappearing from a language and being replaced by euphemisms. People could have secret names known only to their parents. Rome too had a secret name known only to the priests. This applies also to fierce animals. The Proto-Indo-European word for "bear," reflected in Greek ἄρκτος and Latin "ursus," is replaced in other languages by words of originally different meaning, like our "bear," which originally meant "brown one." Sometimes just reversing or altering the sounds in a word suffices: perhaps this way the discrepancy between Greek λύκος and Latin "lupus" is to be explained. (Again, P. has people making conscious decisions about such matters.) The Romans abandoned the word cognate to English "son" and replaced it with "filius" i.e. suckling child (cognate to Greek θηλάζω, etc.), perhaps feeling that this would confuse the evil spirits. Sometimes people are even given disgraceful or obscene names, to fool the demons. In sacrifice, the three animals, pig, lamb, and calf, are not mentioned but all rolled up into the word "suovetaurilia." There are also euphemistic names for deities, such as the Greek εὐμενίδες or the Latin Bona Dea. Such are some of the themes treated in P.'s Latin showpiece, liberally backed up by parallels from other cultures of past and present. There is nothing really new in all this, but they are points which we do well to remember.

The fourth article ("Religion, Superstition and Parody in Petronius Cena Trimalchionis) has as its main thesis the fact that Trimalchio is boorish and ignorant not only in fields such as literature but also in whatever concerns religion and superstition. It is clear that neither Trimalchio nor anyone else at the party had any serious religious views, but they are commonly held to be unduly superstitious. P.'s contribution is to show that they get the superstitions all wrong too. Trimalchio wears rings at meals -- a gaffe according to Pliny's Natural History. When a cock crows -- normally a good omen -- Trimalchio is perturbed and orders wine poured under the table (it should have been water, according to Pliny). Further, he orders the cock killed and served up. Since the cock is often a sacrificial animal, Trimalchio here may be assuming divine honors for himself, an impression already created by the parody of entering a temple when one enters Trimalchio's abode. Furthermore Trimalchio has statues of three Lares brought out, with individual names of a materialistic nature (Lares do not have names), and Trimalchio appears as a fourth Lar, to be worshipped by the assembled guests. P. ventures the opinion that the whole Cena is intended as a parody of imperial cult in general and of Nero in particular, certainly a risky business. My difficulty in summarizing the article, however, may reflect a fuzziness in its construction. And P.'s linguistic interests are not to be found here.

They are back, however, with a vengeance in the curiously inconclusive (and where conclusive, perverse) little article (Εὐσέβεια, θρησκεία and religio) which is the fifth of this compilation. It is pointed out to us that religio occurs first in the sense of "holy scruples, awe," even "prohibition," as in "Equo Dialem flaminem vehi religio est," meaning that the Flamen Dialis was not supposed to ride a horse. After this P. launches into a discussion of the well-worn subject whether we should derive this word from religere (= re + legere or from religare -- a debate which had been going on since antiquity. P. opts for the former, but never really tells us why, especially on semantic grounds, this should be preferable. Rather he gets involved in a discussion, based entirely on other scholars' work, of the possible relevance of the Greek words ἀλέγω, ἀλεγίζω, even ἄλγος, without reaching any conclusion. Regarding εὐσέβεια, P. states that the main problem is to discover the original meaning of the root σεβ-. According to LSJ the basic meaning is "to feel awe or fear before gods, feel shame." But the causative σοβέω, which means "scare away," as well as of related words such as σοβαρός, which means such things as "violent" or "pompous," has caused linguists to seek the original meaning in the idea of "hastening away." P. goes so far as to remove the directionality and thinks the word meant "to move (impressively) either to or away from somebody or something." Thus the exhortation of Agamemnon in Iliad 4, 242 in which he asks his men οὔ νυ σέβεσθε;" should be translated not "Have you no shame?" but "Why aren't you getting a move on?" After this original but unlikely suggestion, the discussion of θρησκεία comes as an anticlimax. It is rightly pointed out that the word is of Ionian origin and that after initial use by Herodotus in the sense of "ritual," the word goes underground to appear in the Roman period as the word for "religion" as we know it now. As far as etymology is concerned, however, P. can only point weakly to a number of Hesychios glosses which are all over the place semantically, and possible kinship with Homeric ἀθερίζω "to take no notice of."

By now the reader should have gotten a fair idea of the strengths and weaknesses of this book, so I will treat the remaining articles in more summary fashion. The sixth article ("Zu einem altrömischen Opferritual") discusses the notoriously difficult chapter 141 of Cato's de agricultura, especialy the ritual prayers of the suovetaurilia in the lustratio agri of the Ambarvalia. P. generally rehashes old scholarship, concluding that the word immolare is used in its etymological sense of sprinkling the victim with mola salsa and consequently refers to the preliminary part of the sacrifice, not to the actual slaying. As far as the slaying is concerned, in the corrupt sentence "nominare vetat Martem neque agnum neque vitulum," "porcum" should be read instead of "Martem," and we are dealing with a name-tabu which does not allow the actual victims to be named at the moment of sacrifice.

In the seventh article ("Lustrum: Etymologie und Volksbrauch") P. discusses various etymologies that have been proposed for the word. Some have to do with cleansing (luere, lavare) but there are problems with the quantity of the u, as well as with the fact that we have no other evidence of cleansing as part of this ritual. Others wish to connect it with luceo, lux, λεύσσω, λευκός, but the semantic connections between "illuminating" on the one hand and "passing in review" or "going around" are difficult. The phrase "lustrum condere" also poses difficulties. P. prefers to see a procession lighting its way with torches and candles. "Lustrum condere" would mean literally to put a fire together, probably by friction of wood or stones. Fire of course holds demons at bay, as well as keeping life going, and P. finds many parallels in modern practice.

The eighth article ("Springende und tanzende Götter beim antiken Fest") begins with P.'s observation that there is no Indo-European word for dancing. Greek dancing is probably derived from pre-Greek sources. In Latin, dancing is connected with jumping ("salire" or "saltare"), something which does not occur in Greek. The Greek concept of a god joining his worshippers in a dance is inconceivable to the proper Roman, who never danced except in occasional rituals. These rituals involved Mars and the Lares, who themselves were called on to dance, and people danced in emulation of them. Best-known of the Roman war dances is the tripudium (three-step) of the Salii, whose blood-red garb also drove away demons and promoted fertility. Greek dances were on the other hand much more enjoyable things, especially where Dionysus was involved. Only the armed Pyrrhic dance remained of the old Indo-European heritage, but it too can be connected with the authochthonous dance tradition, as in the case of the Curetes. We come full circle when the Greek gods are also connected with jumping (θρῴσκω), such as even Athena τιθρώνη.

The ninth, rather rambling article ("Altgriechischer Mütterkult") starts with the observation that mother goddesses are not as prominent in Greek religion as elsewhere among the Indo-Europeans. They are there, however, in the form of Demeter and Kore (Persephone). The Greeks also had group divinities (e.g. the Muses) just as other peoples had groups of mother goddesses. Demeter and Kore are inextricably bound and referred to frequently as τὼ θεώ and occasionally as δαματέρες. Likewise they may be represented by double figurines, in which two heads share one body. P's particular spin on Demeter is to emphasize her connection with Dodona, a place name which he wishes to derive from a reduplication of "Do-" a form of the problematical first syllable of her name. Demeter thus becomes a pre-Indo-European mother goddess, encountered by the Illyrians and the invading Greeks in the Balkans. She becomes identified with Greek χθών, etc. P's slant on Persephone is to see her as a sun-goddess, primarily on the basis of Hittite texts. The daily rise and set of the sun, as well as her nightly travel through the underworld, mirrors the story we all know about her. All this strikes me as extremely arbitrary. Next the variable number of the mother-goddess(es) worshipped in Sicily is explained by the idea of "Damateres" and the double-headed idols. Some of the functions of these goddesses are those of bringers of order (θεσμοφόρω), dispensers of fertility, goddesses of birth and of the upbringing of small children (κουροτρόφω, goddesses of marriage, saviors in time of need and comforters in death, finally as goddesses of fate. In short there is little which is denied them in the way of functions.

I will pass over the next four articles ("Der homerische Demeterhymnus, Dodona und südslawisches Brauchtum," "Demeter in Dodona und Thrakien," and "Persephone im Lichte des altorientalischen Mythos"), which are elaborations of some of the ideas put forward in the article just discussed.

The next article (no. 13, "Tithrone also Epiklese der Athene") is one of the most convincing of the lot. According to Pausanias, in the Attic deme of Phlya an Athena Tithrone is worshipped alongside Demeter Anesidora, Zeus Ktesios, Kore Protogone, and the Semnai. P. makes a sound linguistic argument connecting this adjective with the verb θρῴσκω, which means "to jump," but as is well attested, may also have the sense of "to impregnate, to fertilize." This may be a surprising epithet for a goddess normally seen as a virginal protectress of citadels, but is perfectly in line with Athena's company in the temple mentioned by Pausanias. Nor is the instance isolated. In Elis, for example, Athena the Mother was once the recipient of prayers from women who wished to become pregnant. When they did in fact immediately become pregnant by their husbands, they founded a temple to Athena by that name. (This too is from Pausanias.) P. adduces some other examples of Athena's motherliness, and the article in spite of disorganization works.

The next three articles (nos. 14-16) concern themselves with Aeschylus' Oresteia. The first ("Die Moiren in Aeschylus' Eumeniden 956-967") discusses a corrupt passage (lines 959-960), for which P. proposes and defends the reading ἀνδροτυχεῖς βιότους δότε κύρι' ἔχοντες θεῶν, Μοῖραι, ματροκασιγνῆται, and translates, "Männergesegnete Leben gebt, die ihr Macht habt unter den Göttern, o Moiren, ihr Muttergeschwister." But the article has tangential discussions involving many references to Modern Greek and other folk beliefs. The second ("Nochmals zu Aischylos Agamemnon 560 ff.") concerns the messenger speech in that tragedy. Let me cite the passage:

ἐξ οὐρανοῦ δὲ κάπὸ γῆς λιμώνιαι
δρόσοι κατεψάκαζον, ἔμπεδον σίνος
ἐσθημάτων, τιθέντες ἔνθηρον τρίχα.

P. is drawn to the passage by the use of a masculine participle (τιθέντες) to modify a feminine noun (δρόσοι), a phenomenon which interests him and presumably belongs to popular speech. But here he is drawn aside into a discussion of the punctuation of this passage, and especially into the meaning of τιθέντες ἔνθηρον τρίχα. He concludes quite rightly that given ancient beliefs about spontaneous generation of vermin out of the dew the expression is to be taken quite literally. ἔνθηρος θρίξ is hair full of lice and fleas. I am glad to see that LSJ has now abandoned its previous euphemistic attempt to take the word as meaning merely "wild." In this article P. approaches elegance. But the third article of this group ("Orests Schuld und Sühne bei Aischylos") is not a scholarly article at all. It reads like a general introduction to a translation of the Oresteia for the average educated reader.

The seventeenth article of the collection ("Vom Märchen zur epischen Sage") concerns the Meleager-story of Iliad 9, which clearly has folktale elements in it. In a folktale the characters are types and need not have names. When the tale is incorporated into the epic, they acquire appropriate names: Althaia from ἄλθος, meaning "warmth" of "healing," Meleager from μέλειν, "concern" and ἄγρα, "hunting." Oineus stands aside from this. He was not originally a part of this story, but probably a local wine-god. There is also discussion of the name of Cleopatra, Meleager's wife.

The eighteenth ("Neptuns ursprüngliche Rolle im römischen Pantheon") shows perhaps most clearly of all articles the strengths and weaknesses of P.'s approach. This approach is certainly confident: "Erkennt man die etymologie eines Wortes oder Begriffes, so versteht man auch das eigentliche Wesen, das mit der entsprechenden Bezeichnung zum Ausdruck gebracht werden sollte." But is this confidence justified? Neptune is already early on an important god in Roman worship. Apparently he is originally god of fresh water, becoming god of salt water and seafarers only through identification with Poseidon. Particularly the name of his spouse, Salacia, has been used to support the idea of him as god of the force of springs. (We lose sight of the fact in English that our word for a water source arises from their "jumping" out of the land.) It has also been used less convincingly by connecting it with sal, to see him as a god of salt, and salt-water. Now P. believes that "Neptunus" can be connected with such words as "nebula, Nebel" and νέφος. Neptune is thus originally the god of moisture, especially moisture from the heavens. The name of his spouse (originally a personified power of the divinity) Salacia is connected with the more salacious aspects of jumping and thus emphasizes his role as a god of fertility. His other "spouse," Venilia, is etymologically connected with such words as Wonne and venustas, venia, and emphasizes his role as god of fair-weather clouds. Now all this is a nice, consistent construction, but does it have anything to do with historical reality? P. is hard-pressed to find any evidence, eventually drawing on his construct to explain the lasting popularity of the Neptunalia into early mediaeval times, in spite of the church's opposition. This is far-fetched. One can hardly hope to find in historical events reflections of something completely unknown to people in general until it was discovered by the cleverness of a late-twentieth-century scholar.

The nineteenth essay ("Lucina Nixusque Pares: Die Geburtsgottheiten in Ovids Met. IX 294") falls into two parts. The first, Lucina, is a rambling discussion of the variants of the myth in which Juno tries by magical means to prohibit Heracles' birth. P. sees an Homeric tradition and a local Theban tradition both at work. Ovid is given credit for successfully synthesizing elements of both in his account in the Metamorphoses. The second part of the article attempts to explain the mysterious "Nixus pares" who are invoked by Alcmena together with Lucina. The subject is fraught with difficulties in the manuscript readings, to say nothing of the scholarly conjectures that have been made. P. believes that the Nixus are masculine personifications of the birth pangs who are viewed as helping with the delivery. They may be Ovid's invention but are more likely split-offs of Lucina's function who came to be worshipped as separate entities.

The twentieth and last essay in this collection ("Das ursprüngliche Wesen der römischen Laren in neuem Licht") has been patched together from versions of a lecture given at various venues between 1991 and 1999. It is internally divided in a clear fashion so as to make the argument followable. P. mentions that many authorities, ancient and modern, have regarded the Lares as ancestral spirits, but this interpretation is to be rejected as they are always kept distinct from the Manes. Rather P. sees them originally as guardian divinities of the hearth (lares familiares), generally conceived of as a pair from the earliest times, some of whom become, so to speak, delegated to guard the family's land and cattle. When several properties meet at one point (compita, then the Lares of the various landowners become Lares compitales. But the hearth is also sacred to Vesta, even though she increasingly becomes a civic goddess, not one of the family. This leaves for the Lares the function of male fertility gods, represented by the hearth fire. The rest of the article is given over to finding testimonia for this idea, to the identification of the Lar with the Genius, as well as with Greek heroes, and the proposal of an etymology which would associate the name with such words as lascivus and go back to a basic meaning as "dancer," something not incompatible with the representation of the Lares in art.

All in all, then, the essays in this volume cover a large amount of ground in both Greek and Roman religion. But the new approaches are relatively few, and when they do occur, are generally conjectures, such as the one about the name of Neptune, incapable of proof or disproof.

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