Encyclopedic Isidore of Seville was one of the most widely-read early Christian writers. His analysis of ancient mythology in Etymologies summarized and extended a tradition that combined several components: Etymologies of the names of gods; euhemerist interpretation of myths as enhanced accounts of historical events; and moral indignation at the crimes of the gods. 

For instance, of Jupiter, he writes: “Jupiter (Iuppiter) is as if the name were iuvans pater (“helping father”), that is, providing for all. They also called him, with a special title, ‘Jupiter the Best’ (Iuppiter Optimus), although he was incestuous among his own family, and shameless among others. 35. They imagine that he was at one time a bull on account of the rape of Europa, for he was in a ship whose standard was a bull. At another time he sought to lie with Danae by means of a shower of gold, where it is understood that the modesty of a woman was corrupted by gold. At another time he appeared in the likeness of an eagle because he carried off a boy for defilement; at another time a serpent, because he crawled, and a swan, because he sang. 36. And therefore these are not figures of speech, but crimes in plain truth. Whence it was shameful that gods should be believed to be such as humans ought not to be” (8.34-36).

Isisdore’s etymological panache is on display in his discussion of Mercury: “Mercury (Mercurius) is translated as “speech,” for Mercury is said to be named as if the word were medius currens (“go-between”), because speech is the go-between for people. . . .  46. He is also said to preside over commerce (merx, gen. mercis), because the medium between dealers and buyers is speech. So he is imagined to have wings, because words run to and fro quickly. Whence also he is represented as rapid and roving; the wings on his head and feet signify speech taking flight through the air. 47. He is called the messenger, because all thoughts are expressed by speech. They also say he is the master of trickery, because speech deceives the minds of those who listen. He holds a staff with which he separates serpents, that is, poisons.48. Thus, opponents and antagonists may be calmed by the speech of mediators, whence, according to Livy, legates of peace are called caduceatores (lit. “bearers of the herald’s caduceus”). Just as wars were declared through fetiales,so peace was made through caduceatores. 49. Hermes is named after the Greek term K_______ (“interpretation”) in Greek, in Latin ‘interpreter’; on account of his power and knowledge of many arts he is called Trimegistus (i.e. Trismegistus), that is, thrice great (termaximus). And they imagine him with a dog’s head, they say, because among all animals the dog is held to be the most intelligent and acute species” (8;45-49).

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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