Divine names – or how Latin is no longer a living language

There’s been a small conversation on Facebook about Janus and the various deities the ancient Romans called by that name. Or were they different aspects of the same god? This may be a simple case of personal faith, much like Minerva and Athena being the same goddess or not. But it can also be something else, a deeper issue linked to core aspects of reconstructionism.

To most of us, the Gods’ names are just that: names. Jupiter, Juno and Janus are something along the lines of John, Mary and Edward. That’s because most of us don’t speak Latin, but things were different for the ancient Romans. Latin was their native language, so what we see as words with a fixed sense, they saw as fluid terms they could use freely. To the point, iuno meant something along the lines of “woman” or “female”, so the ancient Romans employed it when referring to more than one goddess and even a personal spirit: Diana is called Juno Lucina by Cicero (Natura Deorum 2:68) and, just as every man has his genius, every woman has her iuno. In iuppiter, the ancient Romans could see the element pater or “father”, so Dis Pater, god of the underworld, was also Jupiter in Hades or the father bellow. And ianus means “door” or “passage way”, so naturally the ancients saw a Janus in every door or bridge. In short, what we see as first names, the Romans used as common words too and would therefore employ them freely when referring to different deities. This is an issue of linguistic fluidity, of the differences between a language used by native speakers and seen by someone who’s foreign to it. And it raises two issues.

The first is theological. Is Father Janus, the God of Beginnings, the same as Janus Patulcius or Clusivus, who presided over the opening and closing of doors and gates? Were the Romans referring to the individual spirit of each door, a housewight of sorts, by means of a common term for passage way (ianus) or did they see the god Janus present in every door? In other words, was Janus Patulcius to every entrance what a juno is to each woman, i.e. an individual spirit, or a manifestation of a greater god? This may have been a non-issue for the ancient Romans, who probably looked at the whole thing fluidly because the name of the deity was also a common word for door. To us, however, who no longer use Latin as a native or even a living language, this issue inevitably arises.

This, in turn, points to another problem: the need to know ancient tongues! Especially for reconstructionists or reconstructionism-inspired polytheists, it is important that we have not just a basic, but a considerable grasp of the languages used by pre-Christian worshipers. Because, let’s face it, they were the last ones practising the traditions we’re trying to bring back to life and adapt to the modern world. Understanding their minds – and that includes the language they used for their thoughts – is to understand how they saw the Gods. And this is more than an academic exercise: it’s a valuable tool when one wants to give the Powers their due.

It doesn’t mean that we’ll all reach the same conclusions. Faith is still personal and practice is influenced by our individual beliefs, so some will see an individual spirit in every door while some will see Father Janus (or perhaps a bit of both). And indeed there are many things we’ll never know or fully understand, either because the information has been lost or they’re mysteries hidden from all but the Gods. But when you’re trying to bring back a religion, it helps if you can get into the mindset of those who practised it as an unbroken and living tradition. It helps if you understand their language and word games.

9 thoughts on “Divine names – or how Latin is no longer a living language

  1. Interesting. Sort of reminds of Shinto’s idea of kami being both the kami of a type (like the kami of rhinos, let’s say) and a kami of an individual (like the kami of a particular rhino).

    • Well kami means something along the lines of spirit or numen. Interestingly, it is believed that a kami can be “divided”, which is what the Japaneses do when they want to enshrine the same deity in different temples. I’ve seen it compared to lighting a candle using another: the flame is thus shared and it burns equally in both places, without removing strength from the original candle. I wonder if this could be applied to Father Janus and the janus at the door, with the latter being a “footprint” or “division” of the former.

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  4. In my household we do our domestic practice “in the Roman fashion” as it were, and I find that same fluid ambiguity. I find myself referring to “Janus” and “my Janus,” the God Himself and then the actual spirit of my door. It’s also similar when talking about Vesta; there is Vesta and also, “my Vesta.” It becomes even more complicated due to the fact that we aren’t able to give Her a continuously burning flame; not only do I have *the* Vesta and our home’s personal Vesta, there’s also “the spirit of this particular flame that is currently Her body.” There is a concurrency to their beings, it seems, like Russian nesting dolls.

    • I never actually considered an individual spirit of my fireplace, “my” Vesta, but it makes sense. Then again, I call my Penates the “genii of my house” in my morning prayers, so maybe I’ve been paying tribute to my janus and vesta as a group.

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