Case by case
In the past, this has led me to conclude that Hephaestus is different from Volcanus, for while they are both fire gods, the former is that of the forge – and hence civilized fire – whereas the latter is that of the wild and inner earth, which translates into a much more primal and violent force. Just because several deities are tied to the flames, it doesn’t mean that they’re the same. Otherwise, you might have to conclude that Hephaestus and Hestia are identical, despite the gender difference, because they both deal with fire. It’s the nature of the flame that matters. On the opposite end of the topic, I’ve come to conclude that Hermes and Mercury are the same, since the latter was not a part of the earliest Roman pantheon – as suggested by the lack of a flamen – and the location of His temple outside the pomerium, while not an infallible proof, nonetheless also hints at an originally foreign cult. The Greek colonies of southern Italy may well be the point from where Hermes entered Roman religion. And between equation and distinction, I’m unsure about Jupiter, for while His name is an etymological match to that of Zeus, both Latin and Greek are Indo-European languages, so if you’re going to name a sky god, chances are that you’ll use something that’s linguistically identical to what’s being employed in another tongue of the same group. Simply put, it could be a mere case of different gods being identified by means of common words.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with believing differently, because 1) these are not orthodox or exclusivist religions and 2) it ends up being a bit indifferent. After all, if they’re the same, that just means you’ve been worshipping the same deity all along, whereas if they’re not, then you’ve been honouring the ones you name according to a chosen ritual praxis. And again, yes, simplistic and sometimes even contradictory equation was a very common thing in the ancient world. But when I look at pre-Christian authors claiming that the Egyptians worshipped Aphrodite (meaning Hathor) or that the Germans honoured Mercury (i.e. Wodan), I remind myself of what happened when Vasco da Gama reached India, in 1498, and the Portuguese mistook Hindu deities for Catholic saints. True, they found it odd that they had multiple arms, big teeth and weird heads, but that wasn’t an immediate disqualifier, in as much as Vasco da Gama is said to have prayed to a Hindu goddess thinking it was the Virgin Mary. Or at least that’s the account of Lopes de Castanheda, published in 1551, in his History of the Discovery and Conquest of India by the Portuguese (Book I, chapter 16). And the reason for the confusion is that, in the minds of Gama and his men, there were only three religions at the time: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. They were not particularly aware of any other. They may have heard about tribal African religions, though it’s unclear how they saw them exactly, but in any case, when confronted with the large stone buildings of Hinduism, with its many colours and statues, the only point of reference they had in living memory was Catholicism, since neither Jews nor Muslims worship images. And thus, the obvious conclusion was that the Indians were Christians.
This is how I often – though not always – look at classical equations: a simplistic reasoning born out of the fact that people had a limited knowledge of other religions and naturally assumed a sameness that filled in the blanks; or alternatively, an implicit statement of self-importance, in that you see yourself as superior or at the centre of things and so of course other people do the same as you. Much like modern, often ill-informed individuals may assume that what’s true for their country is true elsewhere in the world, because all they know is basically what they deal with daily or they see themselves as important enough for their specifics to be universal. And in the particular case of the ancient Romans, it was also an issue of the grass being more educated on the Greek side of the fence, so they claimed that it too was Roman.
Again, this doesn’t mean that there’s no merit in equation. It’s a valid theological perspective, one that I share in some instances, and, as said, this is not a matter of orthodoxy. But I cannot take it at face value, accept it simply because that’s what ancient authors did, no more than I can conclude that two or more gods are the same just because they share functions or looks. If human life is similar, of course you’re going to find different deities attached to similar spheres of influence. And iconography, like names and legendary elements, can move around and get tied to multiple things and entities that are nonetheless separate. Look at how the Japanese wind god Fujin is depicted with a bag or cloak similar to that of the Greek Boreas, not because they’re necessarily the same, but because the artistic convention was slowly carried over from Greece to Japan by way of conquest and trade. Consider also how the depiction of the Virgin Mary partially derives from that of pre-Christian goddesses like Isis, not because they’re the same entity, but because the iconography of the latter was used to depict the former. Or in a weirder, yet enlightening example, how peasants from 13th-century France transferred the name and martyr status of a human saint – Guinefort – to a greyhound they worshipped. They’re not the same character – one is a man, the other a dog – but the former’s name and title was used for a canine cult (Schmitt 2009: 91-105). And in a clearer case of imported elements being attached to a native figure, the words in hoc signo vinces, which were said to have appeared to Constantine before the battle of the Milvian bridge, in 312, are also part of a much later legend pertaining to the first Portuguese king and his victory at Ourique in 1139 (Pereira 1993: 436). Check Camões’ The Lusíadas III: 45 for an allusion to it. In short, parts of things can move and get attached to other, independent things. It’s a bit like clothing fashion, in that it too gets passed around between people, communities and cultures. But just because two or more individuals wear the same outfit, that doesn’t mean they’re the same person or of the same country.
A complex case
My most recent dive into the brainstorm that are such matters concerns Minerva. I’ve been going back and forth with it, sometimes leaning towards distinction, others towards equation with Athena, and a few days ago I revisited the matter and went a bit deeper, down a rabbit hole of sorts, you might say, and came out with a more solid conviction on the identity of a goddess to whom I perform a monthly sacrifice on the 19th day.
I started with the simplest and most common belief, that They are the same deity given the similarity of roles and an identical iconography. She was known among the Etruscans as Menrva and what little is known of their religion suggests a strong Hellenic influence that could have included the plain appropriation (*gasp*) of Athena, whose name would have been replaced with a native one. After all, as in Greek myth, Menrva is the daughter of the sky god, from whose head She was born, pairs up with the hero Hercles (i.e. Herakles) and is depicted in much the same way as Athena, with an aegis, spear, helmet and shield. This would seem to suggest that They’re the same, but take a closer look and you’ll start spotting differences. Namely, that Menrva was seen as a wielder of lightening, appears to have had a connection with divination and perhaps also with children, though it is unclear to what extent. Maybe just as an educator, but it could also be something else, enough for some to question whether She was seen as virginal as Athena (Grummond 2006: 72-5). So They’re not exactly the same goddess. The crucial question is whether the differences came before or after the Hellenization of Etruscan religion.
If one opts for the latter, then the distinctions are simply a form of regionalization, i.e. the product of Athena’s integration into the Etruscan context. Old gods in new places are often reinterpreted, with roles being dropped, stressed or added according to the needs, customs or experiences of the host culture, which may not be common to those of others, and so the differences may be no more than Athena’s Etruscan flavour. Yet they could also be traces of an older Menrva, one that pre-dates much of the Hellenic influence and is therefore a separate deity, but on which layers of imported Greek elements were superimposed, attached to Her like a new outfit, leaving only a few distinctive features as remnants of a previous self.
This is where linguistics becomes of particular importance, because Menrva is a name of Indo-European stock. It comes from the Italic meneswo (intelligent, understanding), which is rooted in men- or “thought” (Cor de Vaan 2008: 380-1). This is unlike what happens in the case of Tinia, whose name may come from the Etruscan tin (day), or Turms, whose etymology is unknown (Grummond 2006: 53 and 122). But here’s the thing: the Etruscan language was not Indo-European and thus the name of the goddess, which is attested as early as the 6th century BCE, was imported from elsewhere. Where exactly is unclear, but the Latin, Faliscan and Umbrian areas of central Italy have been put forward as possibilities (Cor de Vaan 2008: 381). Which is curious, because the traditional or standard interpretation is that the Romans acquired Minerva from the Etruscans. But if etymology is anything to go by, the truth is perhaps the other way around. And there may be a circumstantial indication of that in the fact that Menrva seems to be absent from the Piacenza liver, which was found in what used to be northern Etruria, but there was a temple to Her at Veii, which was closer to Rome (Simmon 2006: 59.1). So we have a goddess whose name is an import and whose cult may not have been present in a uniform fashion. Thus, if the theonym has a southern origin and, perhaps, She was more popular in the Etruscan south, then maybe that’s where one needs to look in order to find Her origins: south! And in ancient Italy, the further you went in that direction, the closer you were from the Greek settlements of Magna Graecia, some of which were founded in the 8th century BCE.
So what to make of it?
Now, as said, the further back you go in History, the less certainties you get and that’s exactly the case here: I’m trying to make sense of fragments of information on the origins of a particular goddess, knowing that in the end I’ll only have a theory and not a certainty. But having said that, where do I stand?
I’m leaning strongly towards believing that Menrva/Minerva is the same as Athena, though not as a direct Etruscan appropriation of a Greek goddess – or at least not at first – but an indirect one via non-Greek communities in central Italy. That is to say, people like the Latins, Falisci or Umbri picked up the cult of Athena from their contacts with Magna Graecia, changed Her name along the way and then the Etruscans, thanks to their proximity to central Italians, themselves took Her in already renamed as Menerwa. Hence Her Indo-European name in a non-Indo-European culture and the apparent possibility that She was more popular in southern as opposed to northern Etruria. And this could also explain the differences between Minerva and Athena, in that the former would be a bit like a translation of a translation – twice interpreted and hence somewhat distinct from the original.
Since the transmission would have taken place sometime between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE, it is fair to ask why then was Minerva absent from the traces of the older pantheon of ancient Rome? Specifically, why is there no flamen Minervalis? Perhaps because in the early period She was not popular enough for it. After all, just because the knowledge or even worship of a goddess gets passed around between people and communities, it doesn’t mean that it automatically becomes a State cult. That may have come later and in a reverse movement to how it started, i.e. from north to south, from Etruria to Latium and Rome.
Again, not a certainty, but it is a more solid basis than just feeling right that Minerva and Athena are the same. Because when things involve historical processes of some sort – like the origins and expansion of a cult – this is how I tend look at it. Through enquiry and critical thinking, not a mere acceptance of accounts or looks. Which come to think of it, is a very minerval thing to do, to make use of your ability to reason and construct ideas.
COR DE VAAN, Michiel Arnoud. 2008. Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the Other Italic Languages. Leiden, Boston: Brill.
GRUMMOND, Nancy Thompson de. 2006. Etruscan myth, sacred History, and legend. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
SIMON, Erika. 2006. “Gods in Harmony: the Etruscan pantheon”, in The religion of the Etruscans, eds. Nancy Thompson de Grummon and Erika Simon. Austin: University of Texas Press, pp. 45-65.
PEREIRA, Paulo. 1993. “A conjuntura artística e as mudanças de gosto”, in História de Portugal, volume III, dir. José Mattoso. Lisboa: Círculo de Leitores, pp. 423-467.
SCHMITT, Jean-Claude. 2009. The holy greyhound, trans. Martin Thom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.