24 Jun 2010

The 'god' word in Europe

I'm mired in a giant can of worms here. After pondering deeply the past week on all the exact details of the origin of the Etruscan word ais 'deity', I find myself not only skeptical of the direction this word traveled but also even more intrigued now of how widespread a common set of mythic traditions are. Most authors seem to be writing that the word ais spread from Etruscan into the various Italic languages. Whereas another interesting possibility I'm exploring is that it went in the other direction, from some Italic language (probably Umbrian *aisos) into Etruscan before 700 BCE.

If the Italic form was *aissos (perhaps from *h₂éisdtos '', let's say), it's interesting that the Germanic form for 'god' is so similar, *ansuz. At first I was thinking that maybe the *-n- isn't really there, maybe an etymological fantasy. However the association between different variants of the same names in different Germanic languages (eg. Ásgeir vs. Ansgar, literally 'god-spear') would assure us that the *-n- was probably there. It would almost look like a borrowing if it weren't for that *-n- in place of *-i-. Then again, what if the Germanic word were a borrowing and were originally **aisuz. With later contamination with the similar word *ansaz 'beam' due to a cosmic analogy between the structure of their universe and the structure of a house (ie. the roof = sky, the beams = gods, the supports = dwarves, etc.), we have a motive for the odd theoretical change.[1]

Curiously, we also have the Celtic god Esus which, after reading up on the basics of his myth, I'm convinced he's equivalent to one the aspects of the Etruscan solar trinity, Tinia Thufl 'Tinia of Oath'. I've spoken of this trinity before. Esus is also part of a Celtic triad involving Taranis and Teutates, which again can be matched perfectly with Etruscan Tinia Thneth 'Tinia of Thunder' and Tinia Cilensl 'Tinia of Darkness' respectively.

So now I wonder if there's a chance that these forms spread from Italic to Celtic and onward to Germanic particularly between 500 and 200 BCE. I'll have to think through this some more. There's still so much to read. Will I live long enough to know everything? ;o)

[1] Bandle/Elmevik/Widmark. The Nordic languages: An international handbook of the history of the Germanic languages (2002), p.400 (see link); Liberman, An analytic dictionary of English etymology: an introduction (2008), p.49 (see link).


  1. Dear Sir,

    If you want to postulate Pgm *ansiz/ansuz as a cognate to a reconstructed root for god in Etruscan it is not enough to come up with a plausible scenario, but one must also come up with a reason why the scenario one proposes is better than the alternatives. I personally find the accepted etymological cognate to Pgm *ansuz in Avestan anhu quite convincing.

  2. Peter: "[...] but one must also come up with a reason why the scenario one proposes is better than the alternatives."

    That reason should be apparent: It avoids a farfetched assumption that world-view in Western Europe is predominantly of an Indo-European origin instead of the product of more recent traditions spread through trade (ie. the outmoded Dumezilian view).

    It's simultaneously undeniable of how extensive Etruscan influence was to Celts through trade during the first millennium BCE. To the contrary, it's suspect whenever anyone insists vehemently on PIE origins when more recent origins are tenable.

    Finally, in this specific case with Germanic *ansuz and Etruscan ais, these words both not only refer to 'deity' but to a class of deity (celestial ones). The mythic tradition revolving around this word is surely recent.