Friday, April 3, 2009

Interpretatio Prisca (Prisca Theologia, Part Three)

It was widely assumed among ancient Greeks and Romans that religion, as they knew it, was a universal feature of all human societies and had always been so. Although different groups of people had different (sometimes very different - at least seemingly so) Gods, nevertheless it was taken for granted that all humans worship the Gods. As often as not all human beings were even thought of as worshipping, in some meaningful sense, the same Gods - albeit under differing names and in differing ways. We need look no further than Homer: the Achaeans of the Iliad and Odyssey worshiped the same Gods as their Asian enemies, the Trojans. In fact, Homer definitely gives the impression that all human beings everywhere had always worshiped the same Gods.

In addition to the Homeric Epics, the ancient story of Jason and the Argonauts also portrays the "barbarians" of far off Colchis as people who worship the same Gods as the Greeks. Medea, the barbarian wife that Jason brings back with him, is portrayed by Euripides as praying to Artemis, Themis, and even Zeus - so apparently these "Greek" Gods were not viewed as exclusive to the Greeks.

It is not just in myths that foreigners like the Trojans and the inhabitants of Colchis are portrayed as co-religionists of the Greeks. Herodotus in his Inquiries famously not only assumes that the different peoples he describes have overlapping pantheons, he even provides correspondence tables between the Gods of one people and those of another (using the "Greek" Gods as the common point of reference, naturally). Herodotus even takes time to single the only group of people he knew of who presented an exception to this general rule: the Caunians, who, in Herodotus' words "differ greatly from all other men" because they "determined that they would no longer make use of the foreign temples which had been long established among them, but would worship their own old ancestral gods alone."

Just as the Greeks had their Interpretatio Graeca, the Romans had their Interpretatio Romana. Tacitus provides the earliest example of explicit use of the phrase "interpretatione romana" in his Germania, where he discussed the sacred grove of the Naharvalians. This grove was sacred to a pair of Gods called the Alcis, and Tacitus states that "according to the interpretation of the Romans" these Gods were none other than Castor and Pollux, who were, of course, as much (if not more) Greek than Roman in the first place. That is, Tacitus is applying a "Roman interpretation" according to which two Germanic Gods are identified with the Greek Dioscuri. It should be emphasized, however, that the Dioscuri were not "late borrowings" from the Hellenes - they were already worshipped in Lavinium in the 6th century BC, and a temple to the Castores was part of the Roman Forum early in the 5th century BC. The Dioscuri were also revered by the Etruscans - and it is likely from them that they were first introduced to the Romans.

Speaking of the Etruscans, why is it that no one ever speaks of an Interpretatio Etruria? The Etruscans (aka Etrurians), not only revered the Dioscuri, as mentioned above, but also Bacchus, Apollo, Artemis, Janus, Hercules, Mars, Minerva, Saturnus, Silvanus, Semele, etc. For that matter why not an Interpretatio Lydia? Did not the Lydians worship the Olympian Goddess Artemis? In fact, it was the Lydian king Croesus who initiated construction of the great Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Herodotus also recalls that this same Lydian King was spared from a fiery death by the direct intervention of the Olympian God Apollo, to whom Croesus prayed for deliverance at the last moment.

But since the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was completed by the Persians, perhaps there should also be an Interpretatio Persia? But since Ephesus is itself located in Lycia, why not an Interpretatio Lycia? At what point do we abandon the notion that there was anything peculiar about the Greek "interpretation"? After all, we have already noted that Herodotus insisted that the Carians were unique in their rejection of "foreign" Gods. Perhaps we should think in terms of an Interpretatio Prisca?

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