Interpretatio graeca

methodology for cultural comparison

Encyclopedia from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The goddess Isis (seated right) welcoming the Greek heroine Io into Egypt, as depicted in a Roman wall painting from Pompeii

Interpretatio graeca (Latin, "Greek translation") or "interpretation by means of Greek [models]" is a discourse[1] used to interpret or attempt to understand the mythology and religion of other cultures; a comparative methodology using ancient Greek religious concepts and practices, deities, and myths, equivalencies, and shared characteristics.

The phrase may describe Greek efforts to explain others' beliefs and myths, as when Herodotus describes Egyptian religion in terms of perceived Greek analogues, or when Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Plutarch document Roman cults, temples, and practices under the names of equivalent Greek deities. Interpretatio graeca may also describe non-Greeks' interpretation of their own belief systems by comparison or assimilation with Greek models, as when Romans adapt Greek myths and iconography under the names of their own gods.

Interpretatio romana is comparative discourse in reference to ancient Roman religion and myth, as in the formation of a distinctive Gallo-Roman religion. Both the Romans and the Gauls reinterpreted Gallic religious traditions in relation to Roman models, particularly Imperial cult.

Jan Assmann considers the polytheistic approach to internationalizing gods as a form of "intercultural translation":

The great achievement of polytheism is the articulation of a common semantic universe. ... The meaning of a deity is his or her specific character as it unfolded in myths, hymns, rites, and so on. This character makes a deity comparable to other deities with similar traits. The similarity of gods makes their names mutually translatable. ... The practice of translating the names of the gods created a concept of similarity and produced the idea or conviction that the gods are international.[2]

Pliny the Elder expressed the "translatability" of deities as "different names to different peoples" (nomina alia aliis gentibus).[3] This capacity made possible the religious syncretism of the Hellenistic era and the pre-Christian Roman Empire.


A Roman fresco from Herculaneum depicting Hercules (from Etruscan Hercle and ultimately Greek Heracles) and Achelous (patron deity of the Achelous River in Greece) from Greco-Roman mythology, 1st century AD

Herodotus was one of the earliest authors to engage in this form of interpretation. In his observations regarding the Egyptians, he establishes Greco-Egyptian equivalents that endured into the Hellenistic era, including Amon/Zeus, Osiris/Dionysus, and Ptah/Hephaestus. In his observations regarding the Scythians, he equates their queen of the gods, Tabiti, to Hestia, Papaios and Api to Zeus and Gaia respectively, and Argimpasa to Aphrodite Urania, whilst also claiming that the Scythians worshipped equivalents to Herakles and Ares, but which he doesn't name.

Some pairs of Greek and Roman gods, such as Zeus and Jupiter, are thought to derive from a common Indo-European archetype (Dyeus as the supreme sky god), and thus exhibit shared functions by nature. Others required more expansive theological and poetic efforts: though both Ares and Mars are war gods, Ares was a relatively minor figure in Greek religious practice and deprecated by the poets, while Mars was a father of the Roman people and a central figure of archaic Roman religion.

Some deities dating to Rome's oldest religious stratum, such as Janus and Terminus, had no Greek equivalent. Other Greek divine figures, most notably Apollo, were adopted directly into Roman culture, but underwent a distinctly Roman development, as when Augustus made Apollo one of his patron deities. In the early period, Etruscan culture played an intermediary role in transmitting Greek myth and religion to the Romans, as evidenced in the linguistic transformation of Greek Heracles to Etruscan Her[e]cle to Roman Hercules.

Interpretatio romana

The phrase interpretatio romana was first used by the Imperial-era historian Tacitus in the Germania.[4] Tacitus reports that in a sacred grove of the Nahanarvali, "a priest adorned as a woman presides, but they commemorate gods who in Roman terms (interpretatione romana) are Castor and Pollux."[5] Elsewhere,[6] he identifies the principal god of the Germans as Mercury, perhaps referring to Wotan.[7]

Gilt bronze head from the cult statue of Sulis Minerva from the Temple at Bath

Some information about the deities of the ancient Gauls (the continental Celts), who left no written literature other than inscriptions, is preserved by Greco-Roman sources under the names of Greek and Latin equivalents. A large number of Gaulish theonyms or cult titles are preserved, for instance, in association with Mars. As with some Greek and Roman divine counterparts, the perceived similarities between a Gallic and a Roman or Greek deity may reflect a common Indo-European origin.[8] Lugus was identified with Mercury, Nodens with Mars as healer and protector, Sulis with Minerva. In some cases, however, a Gallic deity is given an interpretatio romana by means of more than one god, varying among literary texts or inscriptions. Since the religions of the Greco-Roman world were not dogmatic, and polytheism lent itself to multiplicity, the concept of "deity" was often expansive, permitting multiple and even contradictory functions within a single divinity, and overlapping powers and functions among the diverse figures of each pantheon. These tendencies extended to cross-cultural identifications.[9]

In the Eastern empire, the Anatolian storm god with his double-headed axe became Jupiter Dolichenus, a favorite cult figure among soldiers.

Application to the Jewish religion

Roman scholars such as Varro interpreted the monotheistic god of the Jews into Roman terms as Caelus or Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Some Greco-Roman authors seem to have understood the Jewish invocation of Yahweh Sabaoth as Sabazius.[10] In a similar vein, Plutarch gave an example of a symposium question 'Who is the god of the Jews?,' by which he meant: 'What is his Greek name?' as we can deduct from the first speaker at the symposium, who maintained that the Jews worshiped Dionysus, and that the day of Sabbath was a festival of Sabazius. We don't know what the other speakers thought, because the text is incomplete.[11]

From the Roman point of view, it was natural to apply the above principle also to the Jewish God Jehovah and equate him with Jupiter. However, the Jews – unlike other peoples living under Roman rule – rejected out of hand any such attempt, regarding such an identification as the worst of sacrilege. This complete divergence of views was one of the factors contributing to the frequent friction between the Jews and the Roman Empire – for example, the Emperor Hadrian's decision to rebuild Jerusalem under the name of Aelia Capitolina, a city dedicated to Jupiter, precipitated the bloodbath of the Bar Kokhba revolt.

In late antiquity mysticism, the sun god Helios is sometimes equated to the Judeo-Christian God.[12]

Interpretatio germanica

Greco-Roman equivalents

The following is a list of Greek, Roman, Etruscan, Egyptian, Hindu, and Phoenician equivalents, based on usage among the ancients themselves, supported by the analyses of modern scholars. "Equivalent" should not be taken to mean "the same god". For instance, when the myths or even cult practices of a particular Roman deity were influenced by the Greek or Etruscan tradition, the deity may have had an independent origin and a tradition that is culturally distinctive.

Greek Greek (Romanized) Roman Roman (Anglicized) Etruscan Egyptian Sumerian Phoenician Hindu Parthian

(Hellenistic period)

Ἄδωνις Adonis Atunis Osiris Dumuzid[13][14][15] Adōn/Tammuz Balarama agriculture; resurrection
Ἀμφιτρίτη Amphitrite Salacia Hatmehit sea goddess
Ἀνάγκη Ananke Necessitas force, constraint, necessity
Ἄνεμοι Anemoi Vayu Vayu-Vata winds
Ἀφροδίτη Aphrodite Venus Turan Hathor, Isis Inanna[16][17][18][19] Astarte Rati Anahita beauty; sex; love
Ἀπόλλων (Apollōn) /
Φοῖβος (Phoibos)
Apollo / Phoebus Aplu Horus Resheph Rudra Mithra light; prophecy; healing; plagues; archery; music; poets
Ἄρης Ares Mars Laran Anhur Nergal[20] Kartikeya Verethragna war
Ἄρτεμις Artemis Diana Artume Bast Kotharat Bhadra Drvaspa hunting, the hunt; wilderness, wild animals; virginity, childbirth; Diana: lit. heavenly or divine
Ἀσκληπιός (Asklēpios) Asclepius Aesculapius / Vejovis Vejove Vetis Imhotep Eshmun Aswini kumaras healing
Ἀθηνᾶ (Athēnā), Ἀθήνη (Athēnē) Athena / Athene Minerva Menrva Neith, Isis Inanna[21][22] Anat Saraswati Anahita
Ohrmazd / Ahura Mazda
wisdom; strategy; the arts and crafts; weaving
Ἄτλας (Átlas) Atlas Aril Atlas[23] holder of the celestial spheres
Ἄτροπος Atropos Morta Leinth Atropos: lit. inflexible; death
Βορέας Boreas Aquilo Andas North Wind or Devouring One
Καλλιόπη (Kalliopē) Calliope "beautifully voiced"; muse of eloquence and epic poetry
Χάος (Kháos) Chaos Nu Apsu chasm, vast void, abyss; the formless, primordial state of existence
Naunet Nammu
Χάριτες (Kharites) Charites Gratiae Graces grace; splendor; festivity; charity
Χάρων (Kharōn) Charon Charun fierce, flashing, feverish gaze (eyes)
Χλωρίς (Khlōris) Chloris Flora Chloris: lit. greenish-yellow, pale green, pale, pallid, fresh; Flora: lit. flower
Κλωθώ (Klōthō) Clotho Nona spinning; thread
Κρόνος (Kronos) Cronus Saturnus Saturn Satre Geb Ninurta[24] El Shani Zurvan Time
Κυβέλη (Kybelē) Cybele Magna Mater Magna Mater: lit. Great Mother
Δημήτηρ Demeter Ceres Zerene Isis Ashi grains, agricultural fertility; Demeter: lit. Earth Mother
Διόνυσος (Dionysos) /
Βάκχος (Bakkhos)
Dionysus / Bacchus Liber / Bacchus Fufluns Osiris wine and winemaking; revelry; ecstasy; Liber: lit. the free one
Εἰλείθυια Eileithyia / Ilithyia Lucina Ilithiia Tawaret childbirth, midwifery
Ἐνυώ Enyo Bellona Enie Sekhmet war
Ἠώς Eos Aurora / Matuta Thesan Tefnut dawn
Ἔρεβος (Érebos) Erebus Scotus darkness
Ἐρινύες Erinyes Dirae / Furiae Furies Furies
Ἔρις Eris Discordia Eris Anat strife
Ἔρως Eros Cupido / Amor Cupid Erus sexual love
Eὐτέρπη Euterpe Euturpa / Euterpe "she who delights"; muse of music (especially flute music) and song; later, also of lyric poetry
Εὖρος (Euros) Eurus Vulturnus East Wind
Γαῖα Gaia / Gaea Terra / Tellus Cel Antu[25] Zam the earth
ᾍδης (Hāidēs) /
Πλούτων (Ploutōn)
Hades / Pluto Dis Pater / Pluto / Orcus Aita Anubis / Osiris Mot Yama Angra Mainyu the underworld. Hades: lit. the unseen
Ἥβη (Hēbē) Hebe Iuventas Juventas Renpet youth
Ἑκάτη (Hekatē) Hecate Trivia Heqet Ereshkigal[26] will; Hecate: trans. she who has power far off [27]
Ἥλιος Helios Sol Usil Ra Utu[28] Chemosh(?) Surya sun
Ἡμέρα Hemera Dies day
Ἥφαιστος (Hḗphaistos) Hephaestus Vulcanus Vulcan Sethlans Ptah Kothar-wa-Khasis[29] Atar metalwork, forges; fire, lava
Ἥρα Hera Iuno Juno Uni Mut, Hathor Shala Armaiti marriage, family
Ἡρακλής (Hēraklē̂s) Heracles Hercules Hercle Heryshaf Melqart Rostam (Heracles) Heracles: lit. glory of Hera
Ἑρμῆς Hermes Mercurius Mercury Turms Anubis, Thoth Nabu[30] Taautus[31] Budha Shamash transitions; boundaries; thieves; travelers; commerce; Hermes: poss. "interpreter"; Mercurius: related to Latin "merx" (merchandise), "mercari" (to trade), and "merces" (wages)
Ἕσπερος (Hesperos) Hesperus Vesper evening, supper, evening star, west[32]
Ἕστία Hestia Vesta Anuket hearth, fireplace, domesticity
Ὑγίεια Hygeia Salus health; cleanliness
Ὕπνος Hypnos Somnus sleep
Εἰρήνη (Eirēnē) Irene Pax peace
Ἶρις Iris Arcus / Iris Nut rainbow
Ἰανός Ianus Janus Culsans beginnings; transitions; motion; doorways
Λάχεσις (Lakhesis) Lachesis Decima Lachesis: lit. disposer of lots; luck
Λητώ Leto Latona Demureness; mothers
Μοῖραι (Moirai) Moirai / Moerae Parcae / Fatae Fates Apportioners
Μοῦσαι (Mousai) Musae Camenae Mus Music; inspiration
Νίκη Nike Victoria Meanpe victory
Νότος (Notos) Notus Auster South Wind
Νύξ (Nyx) Nyx Nox Nephthys night
Ὀδυσσεύς Odysseus Ulixes / Ulysses Ulysses Uthste hero
Παλαίμων (Palaimōn) Palaemon Portunus keys, doors; ports, harbors
Πᾶν Pan Faunus Min nature, the wild
Περσεφόνη Persephone Proserpina Proserpine Persipnei poss. "to emerge"
Φάων Phaon Phaun / Faun / Phamu mortal boatman given youth and beauty by Aphrodite
Φήμη Pheme Fama fame; rumor
Φωσφόρος (Phōsphoros) Phosphorus Lucifer Attar Agni lit. light bearer
Ποσειδῶν Poseidon Neptunus Neptune Nethuns Varuna Apam Napat sea; water; horses; earthquakes
Πρίαπος (Priapos) Priapus Mutunus Tutunus / Mutinus Titinus fertility; livestock; gardens; male genitalia
Προμηθεύς Prometheus Prumathe Enki[33] forethought
Ῥέα Rhea Opis / Magna Mater
(See Cybele, above)
Ops Nut Asherah Rhea: lit. flowing. Ops: lit. wealth, abundance, resources.
Σελήνη Selene Luna Losna Isis Chandra Mah moon
Σειληνός Silenos Silvanus Selvans Silvanus: lit. of the woods
Θάνατος Thanatos Mors Leinth Anubis Mot Yama death
Θέμις Themis Iustitia Justitia / Justice Maat law of nature
Τύχη (Tykhē) Tyche Fortuna Fortune Nortia Lakshmi luck, fortune
Τυφῶν ("Typhon") Typhoeus Typh Set "whirlwinds, storms, chaos, darkness"
Οὐρανός (Ouranos) Uranus Caelus Anu[34] Asman sky
Vertumnus Voltumna the seasons; change
Ζέφυρος (Zephyros) Zephyrus / Zephyr Favonius West Wind; Favonius: lit. favorable
Ζεύς Zeus Iuppiter / Iovis Jupiter / Jove Tinia Amun Enlil,[35] Bel Dagon / Hadad Indra Ohrmazd / Ahura Mazda Sky Father

In art

Examples of deities depicted in syncretic compositions by means of interpretatio graeca or romana:

See also


  1. ^ Characterized as "discourse" by Mark S. Smith, God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008, 2010), p. 246.
  2. ^ Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Harvard University Press, 1997), pp. 44–54 (quotation p. 45), as cited by Smith, God in Translation, p. 39.
  3. ^ Pliny, Natural History 2.5.15.
  4. ^ Tacitus, Germania 43.
  5. ^ "Praesidet sacerdos muliebri ornatu, sed deos interpretatione romana Castorem Pollucemque memorant."
  6. ^ Tacitus, Germania 9.
  7. ^ Odom, Robert Leo (2003-01-01). Robert Leo Odom, Sunday in Roman Paganism (TEACH 2003 ISBN 978-1-57258242-2), pp. 251-252. ISBN 9781572582422. Retrieved 2013-01-24.
  8. ^ John T. Koch, "Interpretatio romana," in Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia (ABC-Clio, 2006), p. 974.
  9. ^ Koch, "Interpretatio romana," in Celtic Culture, pp. 974–975; Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, p. 45.
  10. ^ (Valerius Maximus), epitome of Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings, i. 3, 2, see EXEMPLUM 3. [Par.]
  11. ^ Plutarch. Symposiacs, iv, 6.
  12. ^ Eleni Pachoumi, The Religious and Philosophical Assimilation of Helios in the Greek Papyri
  13. ^ West 1997, p. 57.
  14. ^ Kerényi 1951, p. 67.
  15. ^ Cyrino 2010, p. 97.
  16. ^ Breitenberger 2007, pp. 8–12.
  17. ^ Cyrino 2010, pp. 49–52.
  18. ^ Puhvel 1987, p. 27.
  19. ^ Marcovich 1996, pp. 43–59.
  20. ^ Cochrane, Ev (1997). Martian Metamorphoses: The Planet Mars in Ancient Myth and Tradition. Aeon Press. ISBN 978-0-9656229-0-5. Retrieved 2008-02-07.
  21. ^ Penglase 1994, p. 235.
  22. ^ Deacy 2008, pp. 20–21, 41.
  23. ^ Remler, Pat (2010). Egyptian Mythology, A to Z. Infobase Publishing. p. 24. ISBN 9781438131801. Retrieved 6 October 2014.
  24. ^ Iroku, Osita. A Day in the Life of God (5th ed.). ISBN 978-061524194-4. Retrieved 5 May 2021.
  25. ^ Ward, Dan Sewell (2003). "Cronus and Zeus". Halexandria Foundation. Retrieved 5 May 2021.
  26. ^ Hans Dieter Betz, "Fragments from a Catabasis Ritual in a Greek Magical Papyrus", History of Religions 19,4 (May 1980):287-295
  27. ^ "Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, ἕκα^τος". Retrieved 2013-01-24.
  28. ^ Steele, Laura D. (2002). "Mesopotamian Elements in the Proem of Parmenides? Correspondences between the Sun-Gods Helios and Shamash". The Classical Quarterly. 52 (2): 583–588. ISSN 0009-8388.
  29. ^ "Kothar – Semitic Deity". Encyclopædia Britannica. 2021. Retrieved 5 May 2021.
  30. ^ Green, Tamara M. (1992). The City of the Moon God: Religious Traditions of Harran. Leiden: E.J. Brill. ISBN 9004095136. Retrieved 2017-01-04.
  31. ^ Philo of Byblos.
  32. ^ Collins Latin Dictionary plus Grammar, p. 231. ISBN 0-06-053690-X)
  33. ^ Stephanie West. "Prometheus Orientalized" page 147 Museum Helveticum Vol. 51, No. 3 (1994), pp. 129–149 (21 pages)
  34. ^ Burkert 2005, p. 295.
  35. ^ Pleins, J. David (2010). When the great abyss opened : classic and contemporary readings of Noah's flood ([Online-Ausg.]. ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. p. 110. ISBN 978-0-19-973363-7.

Further reading

  • Assmann, Jan (2008). "Translating Gods: Religion as a Factor of Cultural (Un)Translatability". In de Vries, Hent (ed.). Religion: Beyond a Concept. Fordham University Press. ISBN 9780823227242.
  • Kaspers, Wilhelm. "Germanische Götternamen." Zeitschrift Für Deutsches Altertum Und Deutsche Literatur 83, no. 2 (1951): 79-91.
  • Pakkanen, Petra (1996). Interpreting Early Hellenistic Religion: A Study Based on the Mystery Cult of Demeter and the Cult of Isis. Foundation of the Finnish Institute at Athens. ISBN 978-951-95295-4-7.
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