Sunday, August 15, 2010

Etymology of My Gods, Redux

While Bob Patrick was writing up his recent guest post on polytheism and divinity, I was busy gathering my thoughts on Bonewits' version of modern American polytheology, and doing a bit of research and etymological digging of my own. Exploring the roots of words like "god," "deity," and "spirit" gave rise to the contemplative-poetic piece posted a few days ago. But I thought it would also be valuable to share — in solid, trustworthy prose — the results of my digging.

Words for the Many, Words for the One

courtesy of Amancay Maahs, via flickrdeity

From the Latin deus, "god." Related to the Proto-Indo-European root *dewos-, which gave rise to various words for god, spirit or demon in languages like Latin, Persian, Sanskrit, etc. The PIE form comes from the base *dyeu-, which means "to gleam, to shine," and also gave us words like sky and day. It seems the term "deity," related to the name of Zeus, originally evoked the idea of a being or spirit of light, whether a solar-god or a god of lightning. The word "divine," also from the Latin deus, when used as a verb (as in "to divine the future") originally suggested the ability to see by a supernatural light.


Through the Proto-Germanic *guthan, from the PIE *ghut-, meaning "that which is invoked" (from the base *gheu(e)- meaning "to call, to invoke," although some suggest it is also related to *gheu-, "to pour," as in the pouring of libations). Originally the word "god" was gender-neutral and only came to have a specifically masculine meaning (with the feminine form being "goddess") after the influence of Christianity. In this way, the word "god" in Old English might have been closer in meaning to the Latin word numen (which meant "divine will," and suggested divine approval, coming from the root nuere, meaning "to nod").

The Proto-Germanic most closely related to the Latin deus might have been *ansuz, but this word was only used to refer to Germanic or Norse gods, not to the gods of foreigners. It was never used to refer to the monotheistic god of Christianity. The related Old Norse áss or óss became "ans" in Old High German, with meanings such as yoke or stave, beam, pole, pillar or mountain-ridge, all images suggesting a bond or bound group that, together, sustains and upholds the heavens or the universe. "Ansuz" is also the name of the A-rune of the Elder Futhark, and is related to the name of the Æsir, one of two clans of gods in the Norse/Asatru tradition. In Norwegian and Anglo-Saxon rune poems, the A-rune "ansuz" is said to mean either estuary or mouth, suggesting a threshold or opening between land and sea, inner and outer.


Meaning the animating or vital principle or essence, from the Latin spiritus, meaning "soul, courage, breath," and is related to spirare, "to breathe," from the PIE *(s)peis- meaning "to blow." (Through the Latin, it also gives us words like inspire and expire.) Interestingly, the Old English word gast (meaning "soul, spirit, life, breath" and giving us our modern word "ghost") comes through the Proto-Germanic *ghoizdoz from the PIE base *ghois-, "to be excited, frightened." Through both the Latin and the Proto-Germanic roots we have ideas of fear, excitement and courage, in addition to the association with breath.

Words for Practice on the Path

Although my previous post was based on contemplations of the above (as well as research into the etymologies of the names of my gods), I thought it would also be interesting to follow up on a few of the terms Bob used in his post, to dig a little deeper into their meanings.

poly- and many

The Old English monig, manig gives us the word "many" from the Proto-Germanic *managaz, traced back to the PIE *monogho-, meaning "much, many, frequent." The Greek combining form "poly-," cognate of the Latin plus, from the PIE base *ple- and likely related to the PIE base *pele-, meaning "to spread." The PIE base gives rise in many languages to words with meanings such as much, mostly, multitude, fullness, wealth and abundance.

If we remember the roots of words such as "deity" and "god," we discover a complexity of meaning that might evoke a sense of "a fullness of light or breath," "a spreading and pouring forth of abundance," or "an invocation of the multitudes." Though not a literal translation of the term "polytheism," such metaphors and phrases help to give insight into the experience of what it means to have "many gods."


Through the Proto-Germanic *ga-laubjan, meaning "to love, to hold dear," from the PIE base *leubh-, "to care, to desire, to love." To "believe on" (rather than "believe in") was common usage in the sixteenth century, and to my mind suggests other phrases such as "to dote on" or "to ponder." In this sense, belief is not merely the acceptance of a statement as true, but involves the idea of being lovingly devoted to and full of care for truth, or what is true and real. In a religious or spiritual sense, belief in the gods (or a single God) can be characterized as an act or action on the part of the believer. The believer is not simply receptive to the truth or existence of deity in a passive manner, but is responsive and engaged with that existence or reality in an active and loving way.

Under the modern influence of secularism and humanism, this religious understanding of belief has come to be interpreted as similar to "making things up" or holding fast to ideas as true even when they cannot be proven. Belief is often contrasted with knowledge in this context, and it is often asserted that belief is no longer necessary once one "knows" the truth for certain through examination and experimentation. Yet the original sense of belief as engagement with and loving trust in something or someone can still be seen in statements like "I believe in the rights of all people" or "I believe in my brother, because he's never let me down." With its associations with love and desire, the term "to believe" actually shares something in common with "to know," from the Proto-Germanic *knoeanan, which preserves in English the double sense of factual understanding and intimacy or sexual intercourse with another.


From Old English worðscip, meaning "condition of being worthy," as well as "honor, renown," from weorð ("worthy") and -scipe ("state, condition of being"). The word weorð itself (as a noun, "worth") comes from the Proto-Germanic *werthaz meaning "towards, opposite" and gives the sense of being equivalent or equal in value. It may derive from the PIE *wert-, "to wind, to turn," from the base *wer-, "to turn or bend." Interestingly, an archaic meaning of the word "worth" was "to come to be," from the Proto-Germanic *werthan, "to become," also from the PIE *wert-, in the sense of "turning into" something.

Poetically, we might think of worship then as an act of reverence or adoration which is itself a "condition of turning," — turning towards the gods in love and belief — as well as a "becoming of being" — an act or process of becoming or turning into someone in harmony and loving relationship with the gods. It is a word that in some ways turns back in on itself in movement and paradox, engaging both the gods and the worshippers, changing and shaping both. Worship moves us towards them; it bends our lives to their influence; it offers adoration and honor that is equal in value and worthy of being received by the gods, and in so doing it lifts up rather than demeans the worshippers who make the offering, turning us into people of worth as well.

1 comment:

  1. This reminds me so much of why I love words... And you. <3