9 Nov 2008

Getting the origins of Mars and Vulcan right

I just noticed a distracting piece of nonsense from a book published by Oxford University Press and it just proves why a healthy dose of skepticism is important to sway us from the ignorance born from credentialism. The moment we see some impressive name like “Oxford”, it's human nature to accidentally believe, “Oh, Oxford University! Well, anyone from there is surely never misinformed.” Guess again. We're only human, no matter where we come from.

As I was doing my daily perusal of Google Books, I came across The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World[1] with a table of reconstructed Indo-European deities, therein claiming that the theonym Mars may be derived from an Indo-European root *Māwort- (c.f. Sanskrit Marutas) and that the theonym Vulcan may stem from *Wĺ̥keh₂nos. Now, in matters of theory, one may appeal somewhat to the mysterious unknown since it can never be known with absolute certainty whether an etymology provided is a correct one. However, we can know with reasonable certainty whether something is incorrect by way of a little bit of old fashioned deduction.

What's silly about these claims is that it's been known for some time now that Mars was originally an agricultural god[2], not a war god, and was further an import from Etruscan mythology. The Etruscan name for this god of the fields was Maris with an extra -i- between the ar and ess, which makes it rather clear that the name must have been borrowed into Latin from Etruscan, not the other way around. The Sanskrit name Marutas on the other hand specifically refers to wind gods. So neither of these pseudocognates can seriously be connected to this ad hoc reconstruction **Māworts. For what it's worth, I've suggested that the purely Etruscan name Maris is built on a verb mar “to harvest” which would be more fitting afterall for the name of an agricultural deity. A little more theoretically plausible at least than what's in this book, dare I be too bold to say lest future comments from studious viewers like you prove me otherwise.

Now onward to the name Vulcan or in Latin, Vulcānus. This name is likewise borrowed from Etruscan Velchan and its Etruscan origin is further substantiated by the several Etruscan deities whose names and epithets end in -an. Names such as Turan, Sethlans and Alpan, for example. Personally I would suggest that Velchan can be broken down in the Etruscan language as velχ “hidden” (< vel “to hide”) and is then a direct Etruscan parallel to Greek Hades (said to be from αιδης aidēs “unseen” < PIE *n̥widḗs)[3] which means the same. (Interestingly, the name of the Egyptian god of the setting sun, Amon, also means “hidden”[4]. Coincidence?) Then the fact that the chthonic functions of both Hades and Velchan overlap also helps out my hypothesis nicely.

Later on page 410, we read: “[...] the amount of irregular sound change one has to assume, in the absence of an exact semantic equation, is more than most historical linguists are prepared to accept.” However, this is a naive assessment of these etymologies since historical linguists quite rightly should not be prepared to accept something that is ignorant of important historical facts.

Despite this controversy, other names reconstructed for Proto-Indo-European such as *H₂éusōs “Dawn” and *Dyēus-Ph₂tḗr “Sky Father” are much better attested and may be considered more genuine.

[1] Mallory/Adams, The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World (2006), p.409 (see link).
[2] Funk, Thereby Hangs a Tale - Stories of Curious Word Origins (2007), p.184 (see link).
[3] Padel, In and Out of the Mind (1994), p.99 (see link).
[4] Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion (2000), p.22 (see link).


  1. I have that book and it is full of typos and errors. It seems that OUP didn't take the time to edit it properly before publication.

  2. Dear M. Gordon,

    I do not speak in favor of Mallory/Adams, I really can't ...

    "Some decades ago in Satricum (SW Latium) a stone was found, giving evidence that about 500 BCE a certain Poplios Ualesios had erected a temple to Mamartei (dative), who surely was a god of war.

    This Mamart- (in Etruscan Laran `War-God`) even could protect in March - the prefered time of those former razzias - (< martius < *mamartio-) the young cereals in the fields from being trampeled upon by foreign warriors. The Oscan/Samnites far from any direct Etruscan influence called the God Mamert-, and the month Mamerttio-. Anyway, in the Latin language (we remember *kwatwortos, do you?) a strange dissimilation occured, leading to the complete loss of the second -m-.

    When ignoring the by-way *Mauort- (cp. the Latin female praenomen Quorta in Praeneste) we have a straightforward line: Mamart- > Maart- > /ma:rt-/ (long vowel still seen by Mawrth "thursday, march", loan into Welsh), and accordingly Mamar{*ko-} > *maarko- (in Greek transcription as trisyllabic Maarkos) > Marcus (some attestation of the length of a are known to latinists). Etruscans took as loans first (before 700) Mamarce and later on Marce"

    Do you succeed to integrate the Etruscan noun marish (Steinbauer translates as "boy; servant) into this Italic scenario?

    Kind regards from the world's best etruscologist,

  3. I've let your comment through, Turskina, despite your empty Blogger profile page coupled with the likely personal misrepresentation and rhetorical pomp exhibited by "Kind regards from the world's best etruscologist, D.H.Steinbauer". No matter, let's discuss. :)

    Mavors is, as far as I know, only attested in later classical poetry and so does not necessarily suggest an archaicism. The name Maurs, which is merely assumed to be a later contraction of a supposedly ancient form Mavors, is only attested in the 3rd century BCE (CIL I2, 49). Given such weak evidence, I see no way to seriously justify a Proto-Italic deity *Māworts, let alone an Indo-European one. Then again, you did say that you wouldn't speak in favour of Mallory's and Adams' claims.

    So concerning the reduplicated form, there is indeed the inscription from 500 BCE showing the name in an early dative case, Mamartei. However, this is dated centuries after Etruscan civilisation had already established itself in Italy. Your mention of Mars protecting "young cereals in the fields from being trampled on" only strengthens the Etruscan etymology that I've provided. Even if it can be argued that the Oscans were "far from Etruscan influence", they were hardly far from Latin influence. (And let's ignore the proximity of the Rhaetic language for now.) Your appeal to dissimilation is weak considering that the change of word-medial m to v is an otherwise unheard-of process in Latin. Very weak, I'm afraid.

    The solution then is simple. The name Mars is in origin from Etruscan Maris and literally meant "Harvester" since he started out as a god of the *fields*, not of war. The theonym was then loaned into Old Latin during the Orientalization Period where it subsequently acquired a reduplicated form Ma(r)mart-. Other analogical changes were enacted on the name (such as the poetic Mavors, connected by Cicero to magna vorteret) to suggest added ahistorical meanings as pertaining to his legend.

    Turskina: "Do you succeed to integrate the Etruscan noun marish (Steinbauer translates as "boy; servant) into this Italic scenario?"

    Steinbauer's translation is completely ad hoc and holds no weight. He no doubt was seduced by the Proto-Indo-European root *meryo- "young man" but I will repeat for the millionth time: Etruscan is *not* an Indo-European language. So I would surmise that the name is built on the verb mar "to harvest" seen also in the inanimate plural marunuχva (TLE 175) and the diminutive marza (TCap x). I try to base my arguments on context and morphological analysis, not on idle artistic interpretations or random appeal to Indo-European roots. These words have to make sense in a sentence too, afterall, not just on their own.

  4. Also see page 630 of Mallory/Adam, Encyclopedia of Indo-European Language and Culture (1997) where the authors manage to disprove their own reconstruction of *Mawort-(!!):

    "Still, the equation Mārs:Maruts, attractive as it may be if the basic function of Mārs is war, is usually rejected where Mārs's agrarian connotations rather suggest a rural deity of the peasant-soldier."

    ... As I just said.

  5. Also consider the meaning of "Hel" as the "covering", "hider".

    Of course, that's arguably quite late and firmly European.
    Even worse, Hel's ruler is a she. ;)

  6. Higginsweorx,

    Yes, but Hel's gender isn't an issue considering that the underworld's an inanimate, abstract concept that lacks any gender by definition. Deities which represent abstract concepts seem to 'switch' gender a lot throughout history between cultures and languages (eg. consider the sun god/goddess).

    The epithet 'Hidden one' seems to be a very common epithet associated with the earth and the below because it's not just attested in the names Hades and *Velχan but also in Egyptian Amon, the setting sun as it enters the underworld.

  7. Hiya Geln, I know, hence the ;).

    The sun, Sunna, is indeed female in my native tongue(s).

    The moon is masculine. Some connect him with the ancestor Mannus.

    I'm sure there is some reason for it.

    Like your blog. I don't understand half of it, but the geek part I totally get. :P

  8. Thanks for the vote of confidence.

    In Germanic languages, a strong reason for the sun being feminine rather than masculine may be the grammatical gender of the nouns in question that underlie these names. And the gender of a deity may seem 'switched' between cultures/languages in the same way as I mention in Paleoglot: Interpretatio Tusca: Thoughts on Etruscan world-view where I note that Etruscans adopted foreign deities, even with switched gender, as a means to find religious commonality in foreign belief systems.

    It's important to realize in all of this that no two deities between cultures is ever exactly the same and so there will be differences involving gender, nuance, scope of power in the pantheon, etc.

  9. Maybe I'm not getting something, but how do you account for the /t/ in the Latin stem? After all, it's Mart- in the oblique cases. Do you see this as an Italic stem extension or do you assume that the /t/ was there in Etruscan (Maris from *Marits??)as well?

  10. Hans: "Maybe I'm not getting something, but how do you account for the /t/ in the Latin stem? After all, it's Mart- in the oblique cases."

    It just so happens that Latin nouns ending in -ars in the nominative always end in -artis in the genitive (eg. ars/artis, pars/partis). I know of none that show a pattern of -ars/-arsis. Do you?

    Simple grammatical analogy must be the cause. Loanwords are certainly capable of being naturalized into a language this way.

  11. You're right, the only cases of a nom. sg. in -rs I can find that don't have a stem in /rt/ are derivations of cor "heart" (e.g. misericors), which have /rd/. So I agree, the only existing pattern that an Etruscan mars could join was -Vrs/-Vrt-.

  12. Being a blacksmith I find the origin of Vulcan extremely interesting, as was the entire post . I have been lurking around for awhile, enjoying your posts, and the discourse that follows, heated or otherwise. My question to you is what/who /how is Laran related to Mars/Maris or not?
    Is Laran the Etruscan war god? Is Maris?
    Please be gentle, I'm just a confused history nerd.

  13. Hahaha, nerds with good questions are always welcome. When I look at the name Laran, I prefer first to break it up linguistically. So I see an underlying Etruscan verb *lar 'to protect, to guard'.

    I put the asterisk before this verb because it's not been found directly in written artifacts but it pops up in Laran, in male names like Laris and Larθ (Larth), and in the Roman term lares that refers to guardian deities.

    So if Laran is the "Guardian, Protector, Hero", it sounds a lot like a duplicate of Hercle, which is a Greek name that found its way on some bronze Etruscan mirrors instead of native Etruscan terms.

    In a nutshell then, I'm thinking Laran equals the heroic Hercle. Blacksmithy must be the domain of Seθilans "The Striker" (compare with Celtic god Sucellos). Keep in mind that it's currently hard to tell whether a given name is a genuine main name of a god or merely a byname.