Latin Language and Pagan Religion

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Latin is one of several Italic dialects along with dialects in the Greek, Celtic and Etruscan languages which were once widely spoken in the Italic peninsula. Eventually all these languages were overtaken by the language of imperial Rome, but they left their mark on Latin. Following the collapse of the Roman empire, forms of Latin became the standard language in Spain, France, Romania and several smaller regions, where they absorbed elements from still more languages, mostly forms of the Celtic languages. Eventually they developed into the vernacular languages that we know today as Italian, Spanish, French, Romanian and other closely related languages of the Romance language family, itself part of the larger Indo-European Language family.

Divus Augustus Pater, coin struck by Tiberius in Rome, from Coinarchives auction site Geography and History
The Italic tribes appear in the peninsula of Italy by about 800 BCE according to archaeologists, although not yet with any writing. This is one of the few times that a language-speaking culture can be identified with an archaeological culture because the archaeological remains were stable and identifiable up to the time when writing appears in this culture. However the earliest inscriptions in Latin date more recently, and they are extremely prevalent through the classical period all over Europe and the middle East. By 400 CE the capital of the classical world moved to Constantinople and Rome disintegrated, resulting in the development of Christianity as a form of emperor worship.

Certainly Latin is well-known, however it is rare to find a clear understanding of the historical development of Latin among Latin teachers. The appearance of names in the Celtic and Etruscan languages among the pantheon of Roman Gods seems to confuse many scholars.

Primary Sources
The earliest religious texts in Latin consist of a few scraps of verse or prayers in Saturnine verse form, and a small number of inscriptions known from carved stones. However, this is followed by a large number of inscriptions including votive offerings, temple dedications and related information published in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinorum (CIL) books and elsewhere. In addition there is a certain amount of religious poetry, such as the Odes of Horace and records of religious institutions that can be examined for information about Roman religion. Most of the native reports on Roman religion, such as Varro’s De Re Religio have not survived, though we know that linen books were once kept at the temples. These consisted of records of the rituals performed. However the formal Roman Pagan liturgy of the Vates (Pagan priests, probably actually Celtic) continued in use in the Catholic Church, so that is well known.

Very little remains of what is thought to have existed as Roman Pagan mythology and most of it is identified as the legendary “history” of Rome, in which the Pagan Gods and Goddesses are seen as Roman kings and queens, in for example, the History of Livy and Virgil’s Aeneid. Works from the classical period such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, are often lifted bodily from Greek mythology and give no actual information about Roman myths except possibly the names of the Gods and Goddesses, a point which has sometimes confused scholars into believing that the myths of the Greeks and Romans were identical.

Secondary Sources
One of the better known secondary sources is the great collection of the Golden Bough by James Frazer. This certainly draws together a great deal of information from different sources, but it suffers under some false theories, and certainly dwells too much on the most irrelevant details.

By late classical times, the Romans recognized a pantheon of twelve Gods and Goddesses, based on the Greek model. They list Minerva, Jupiter or Jove, Juno, Vesta, Neptune, Ceres, Diana, Apollo (originally Pales), Venus, Mercury, Mars, and Vulcan. Minerva, Jupiter and Juno are actually Etruscan Gods and the earliest temple in Rome was for the three of them. The Romans themselves were largely unaware of the Etruscan origin of these Gods along with much of their civilization, although Livy gives the Roman tradition of the introduction of Juno into the Roman pantheon, at the time the Romans conquered the major Etruscan city Veii. Etruscan is a difficult case because it is not thought to be an Indo-European language. The problem with this is that most of the names of Etruscan Gods are noticeably Indo-European, either because it is an Indo-European language (possibly a descendant of Lydian, related to the Anatolian languages like Hittite), or possibly because the Gods were borrowed from Greek colonists in the Italic peninsula as early as the 8th century BCE.

Many Roman Gods and Goddesses clearly are cognate Indo-European Deities. Dea Dia, Dis Pater and Jove are forms of the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) Goddess *Devi; Aurora is the Roman form of *Aeusos; and Venus and Priapus are forms of *Pria. Pluto and Latona are forms of *Pleto, and the Gemini are equated to *Yama, where they are referred to as the Dioskuri in Greek and Latin sources and christianized as Sanctos Geminos and eventually various forms of Saint James.

Roman Pantheon, from an old engraving The Roman Pagan Gods and Goddesses are well known, although they are often misunderstood in the western tradition. This is mainly because they were treated as abstract representations of ideas due to the development of analysis and borrowing from classical culture that took place in the Renaissance. The names of Latin deities and many of the words for religious processes, objects and personnel were borrowed from the variety of other languages spoken in the Italic peninsula including Celtic, Etruscan and Greek. An additional difficulty is that many aspects of the Pagan religion were demonized, perverted or misconstrued by early Christians and this unfortunately continues up to the present.

Roman Pagan Calendars are recorded from about the 2nd century BCE in wall paintings. The information about festivals is amplified by the rather creative report for the first six months written by Ovid, known as the Fasti. Other sources also give details, but the information has often been confusing, mainly because the calendar of the Roman Pagans (in manuscript form, known as the Calendar of Philocalus, dated to 345 CE) became the religious calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. The names of the Roman Gods and Goddesses were simply changed to saints and the festivals of the Roman Pagan calendar became the feast days of the Roman Catholic church. Classical Roman festivals are the Poplifugia and the Festival of Romulus which fall on July 5th and 7th respectively and the Vestalia which runs from June 9-15th. There is a short article on the April 15 Fordicalia festival which is to protect the winter grain crops.

There certainly was extensive information on Roman religion in, for example, several of the books by Varro, but that seems to have been destroyed by hostile Christians like Augustine of Hippo. On the other hand, it is widely recognized that Roman myths were historicized, so that the ancient Indo-European myths appear as events in the lives of the legendary kings of Rome. Among these are the story of Romulus and Remus, which is thought to be a form of the myth of the Creation of the World from the body of a Cow, but there certainly are no extensive mythologies known from Roman sources that are the equivalents of Greek or Norse mythology.

A few formulas are known of the Roman Pagan rites from ancient times, recognizable because they are written in the older Saturnine verse form. These are quoted in Varro and Cato and include exact instructions for an offering to make farm land fertile. Additional phrases and parts of prayers are known from other sources, but they tend to be fragments. The Odes of Horace are a collection of poems in Latin, and some are in the form of invocations to the Gods. Some of these were written specifically to be performed at festivals for certain deities, and they are very beautiful, especially the Secular Hymn.

Food offerings
As usual among the Indo-Europeans, offerings of food made up one of the most important rituals of the Romans. Cato and some other sources give the exact recipes for the foods that were prepared as offerings to the Goddesses. Cato gives a recipe for what is clearly cheesecake; this is the Mediterranean form of the dairy offering that is one of the high-status types of food offerings that are typical of all the Indo-Europeans, though with variations in different countries. These include ghee, butter and yoghurt in India, milk and cheesecake in Greece and Rome and reportedly cheddar cheese in northern England.

In Rome, some priestly functions were limited to members of the patrician families, but others were not. Worship and offering were normally done at home or in temples, and female priests were the norm until they were suppressed by the Roman emperor. Some clans had clan Gods, such as the Fabians or Antonines, and the proper worship of these Gods was limited to them. Of course in the very hierarchal Rome, emperors participated in rituals such as performances, including games, which were very showy and professionally organized. Both Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus made themselves Pontifex Maximus, or chief priest of the Roman priesthood. Dumézil argued that there were three Roman flamens, that is, priests assigned to maintain the rites for a particular God, the Gods corresponding to the three classes of society, but in fact, there were at least a dozen different flamens and the Gods who had flamens assigned to them do not fall into any particular category except that they were important enough to have a state cult in Rome.

Emperor Worship
Caesar Augustus (Octavian, died 14 CE) “reformed” religion in Rome, rebuilt and renamed many of the temples and endowed the colleges of priests with the requirement that they always make the first sacrifice to him, his spirit and his family. He built a temple in Rome to Julius Caesar whom he liked to consider his father. This tradition of worship continued among the Roman emperors that followed him, with the sacrifices being made to the current emperor, to his spirit, and to his heir which was usually thought to be his son though this rarely worked out. These people are known by the names Divine Father (Divus Augustus Pater, see coin on front page, struck by Tiberius for Augustus) the name that Augustus Caesar liked to be called; his Numa (spirit); and his heir apparent, understood to be the emperor’s son (filius), later referred to as Caesar which was understood to mean “heir.” This deification of the emperors and their spirits and heirs continued among the Vates or Roman priesthood until Rome ran out of emperors in the fourth century, which led to the development of Christianity.

Christianization of Roman Paganism
The colleges of priests that had been organized, controlled and endowed by Caesar Augustus continue as the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church. The deified humans who are the main objects of worship in the Roman Pagan religion (at least in the public or state cult among the patrician classes) continue in Christianity as worship of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, while the rest of the Roman Pagan liturgy became the liturgy of the western Christian Church with very little change until recently.

Continuation of Pagan Traditions
Italian, French, Spanish, Romansh, and Romanian folklore all include elements of the Pagan religion of the Romans which were brought in with the Roman language and mixed in with elements of the native language and culture, see especially Pagan Saints for a brief look at the way the Roman Pagan Goddesses and Gods were turned into saints in the Roman Catholic Church. In Italy there is considerable information about Italian witchcraft which includes traditional beliefs and practices (see Charles Leland, Etruscan Roman Remains, 1892). French folk lore is a little more difficult because it picks up an extensive Celtic underlay, but it is generally possible to pick this out and benefit from it by a linguistic analysis which can usually distinguish Celtic names from Latin names. [fuggle26]

An example of the continuation of Paganism is Mardi Gras or the festival of Great Mars, which was probably originally set to March 1st. The lesser festival of Mars would be in the fall, later the feast day of St. Martin, Nov. 11. This wide reach in the holidays is typical of a country like Italy (the source of the calendar for the Roman Catholic Church) which has a very long warm season. These two holidays represent the beginning and the end of the “campaigning” season or time of war every year. Imperial Rome considered war an honorable way of making a living--and they expected all able-bodied men to join the army and spend the summer looting the neighbors, for the good of the state. This wide schedule makes no sense in a country like England, where the soldiers had better get home before the winter rains start and November is too late.

• Gamkrelidze, Thomas V., and Ivanov, Vjaceslav V., Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans: A Reconstruction and Historical Analysis of a Proto-Language and a Proto-Culture (Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs 80, 2 Vol. Set), with Werner Winter, ed., and Johanna Nichols, translator (original title Indoevropeiskii iazyk i indoevropeistsy), M. De Gruyter, Berlin & NY, 1995.
• Mallory, J. P. and Adams, Douglas Q., Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
• Mallory, J. P. and Adams, Douglas Q., Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, Fitzroy Dearborn, London, 1997.
• Müller, (Friedrich) Max, Comparative Mythology, Arno Press, NY, 1909, 1977.
• Puhvel, Jaan, Analecta Indoeuropaea, (a collection of articles), published by Innsbrucker Beitrage zur Sprachwissenschaft, Innsbruck, 1981.

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