Interpretatio graeca (Latin, "Greek translation") or "interpretation by means of Greek [models]" is a discourse 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.
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.
Pliny the Elder expressed the "translatability" of deities as "different names to different peoples" (nomina alia aliis gentibus). This capacity made possible the religious syncretism of the Hellenistic era and the pre-Christian Roman Empire.
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.
The phrase interpretatio romana was first used by the Imperial-era historian Tacitus in the Germania. 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." Elsewhere, he identifies the principal god of the Germans as Mercury, perhaps referring to Wotan.
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. 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.
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. 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. Tacitus, on the topic of the Sabbath, claims that "others say that it is an observance in honour of Saturn, either from the primitive elements of their faith having been transmitted from the Idæi, who are said to have shared the flight of that God, and to have founded the race", implying Saturn was the god of the Jews.
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.
Emperor Julian, the 4th century pagan emperor, remarked that "these Jews are in part god-fearing, seeing that they revere a god who is truly most powerful and most good and governs this world of sense, and, as I well know, is worshipped by us also under other names". However, Julian doesn't specify which "other names" the Jewish god was worshiped under.
The following table is a list of Greek, Roman, Etruscan, Egyptian, Sumerian, Phoenician, Hindu, and Parthian 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
|Ἀνάγκη||Ananke||Necessitas||force, constraint, necessity|
|Ἀφροδίτη||Aphrodite||Venus||Turan||Hathor, Isis||Inanna||Astarte||Rati||Anahita||beauty; sex; love|
|Ἀπόλλων (Apollōn)||Apollo||Aplu||Horus||Resheph||Rudra||Mithra||light; prophecy; healing; plagues; archery; music; poets|
|Ἄρτεμις||Artemis||Diana||Artume||Bastet||Kotharat||Bhadra||Drvaspa||hunting, the hunt; wilderness, wild animals; virginity, childbirth; Diana: lit. heavenly or divine|
|Ἀσκληπιός (Asklēpios)||Asclepius||Aesculapius / Vejovis||Vejove||Veiove||Imhotep||Eshmun||Aswini kumaras||healing|
|Ἀθηνᾶ (Athēnā)||Athena||Minerva||Menrva||Neith, Isis, Thoth||Inanna||Anat||Saraswati, Ganesha||Anahita||wisdom; strategy; the arts and crafts; weaving|
|Ἄτλας (Átlas)||Atlas||Aril||Shu||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||Yam||Parabrahman||chasm, vast void, abyss; the formless, primordial state of existence|
|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||El / Elus||Shiva, Mahakala||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)||Dionysus||Liber / Bacchus||Fufluns||Osiris||wine and winemaking; revelry; ecstasy; Liber: lit. the free one|
|Ἠώς||Eos||Aurora / Matuta||Thesan||Tefnut||Ushas||dawn|
|Ἐρινύες||Erinyes||Dirae / Furiae||Furies||Furies|
|Ἔρως||Eros||Cupido / Amor||Cupid||Erus||Kamadeva||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||Geb||Antu||Bhumi||Zam||the earth|
|ᾍδης (Hāidēs)||Hades||Dis Pater / Pluto / Orcus||Aita||Anubis / Osiris||Mot||Yama||Angra Mainyu||the underworld. Hades: lit. the unseen|
|Ἑκάτη (Hekatē)||Hecate||Trivia||Heqet||Ereshkigal||will; Hecate: trans. she who has power far off |
|Ἥφαιστος (Hḗphaistos)||Hephaestus||Vulcanus||Vulcan||Sethlans||Ptah||Kothar-wa-Khasis||Vishvakarma, Agni||Atar||metalwork, forges; fire, lava|
|Ἥρα||Hera||Iuno||Juno||Uni||Mut, Hathor||Indrani||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||Taautus||Narada||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|
|Ἕστία||Hestia||Vesta||Anuket||hearth, fireplace, domesticity|
|Ἶρις||Iris||Arcus / Iris||Nut||rainbow|
|Ἰανός||Ianus||Janus||Culsans||Ganesha||beginnings; transitions; motion; doorways|
|Λάχεσις (Lakhesis)||Lachesis||Decima||Lachesis: lit. disposer of lots; luck|
|Μοῖραι (Moirai)||Moirai / Moerae||Parcae / Fatae||Fates||Apportioners|
|Μοῦσαι (Mousai)||Musae||Camenae||Mus||Music; inspiration|
|Ῥαμνουσία (Nemesis)||Nemesis, Rhamnousia||Invidia||Shani||"retribution"|
|Νότος (Notos)||Notus||Auster||South Wind|
|Ὀδυσσεύς||Odysseus||Ulixes / Ulysses||Ulysses||Uthste||hero|
|Παλαίμων (Palaimōn)||Palaemon||Portunus||keys, doors; ports, harbors|
|Πᾶν||Pan||Faunus||Min||Aranyani, Budha||nature, the wild|
|Περσεφόνη||Persephone||Proserpina||Proserpine||Persipnei||poss. "to emerge"|
|Φάων||Phaon||Phaun / Faun / Phamu||mortal boatman given youth and beauty by Aphrodite|
|Φωσφόρος (Phōsphoros)||Phosphoros||Lucifer||Attar||Agni||lit. light bearer|
|Ποσειδῶν||Poseidon||Neptunus||Neptune||Nethuns||Yam||Varuna||Apam Napat||sea; water; horses; earthquakes|
|Πρίαπος (Priapos)||Priapus||Mutunus Tutunus / Mutinus Titinus||fertility; livestock; gardens; male genitalia|
|Ῥέα||Rhea||Opis / Magna Mater
(See Cybele, above)
|Ops||Nut||Asherah||Rhea: lit. flowing. Ops: lit. wealth, abundance, resources.|
|Σελήνη||Selene||Luna||Losna||Isis, Thoth, Khonsu||Yarikh||Chandra||Mah||moon|
|Σειληνός||Silenos||Silvanus||Selvans||Silvanus: lit. of the woods|
|Θέμις||Themis||Iustitia||Justitia / Justice||Ma'at||law of nature|
|Τύχη (Tykhē)||Tyche||Fortuna||Fortune||Nortia||Gad||Lakshmi, Ganesha||luck, fortune|
|Τυφῶν ("Typhon")||Typhoeus||Typh||Set, Apophis||Vritra||"whirlwinds, storms, chaos, darkness"|
|Οὐρανός (Ouranos)||Uranus||Caelus||Nut||Anu||El||Akasha||Asman||sky, heavens|
|Vertumnus||Voltumna||Baal||the seasons; change|
|Ζέφυρος (Zephyros)||Zephyrus / Zephyr||Favonius||West Wind; Favonius: lit. favorable|
|Ζεύς||Zeus||Iuppiter / Iovis||Jupiter / Jove||Tinia||Amun||Enlil, Bel||Hadad||Indra||Ohrmazd / Ahura Mazda||weather, storms, lightning, |
Examples of deities depicted in syncretic compositions by means of interpretatio graeca or romana:
Syncretized figure from the Eastern provinces, perhaps a Genius (1st century BC – 1st century AD)
Worshipper before Zeus–Serapis–Ohrmazd (Bactria, 3rd century AD)
- Aion (deity)
- Mystery religions
- Honji suijaku, in Japan
- Interpretatio germanica
- Interpretatio Christiana
- Celtic deities
- Proto-Indo-European religion, a reconstructed religion that relates Greek deities to other Indo-European deities
- Shinbutsu-shūgō, a Japanese amalgamation of Buddhist and Shinto deities
- Three teachings, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism as harmonious aggregate in Chinese philosophy.
- 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.
- 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.
- Pliny, Natural History 2.5.15.
- Tacitus, Germania 43.
- "Praesidet sacerdos muliebri ornatu, sed deos interpretatione romana Castorem Pollucemque memorant."
- Tacitus, Germania 9.
- 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.
- John T. Koch, "Interpretatio romana," in Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia (ABC-Clio, 2006), p. 974.
- Koch, "Interpretatio romana," in Celtic Culture, pp. 974–975; Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, p. 45.
- (Valerius Maximus), epitome of Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings, i. 3, 2, see EXEMPLUM 3. [Par.]
- Plutarch. Symposiacs, iv, 6.
- Tacitus, Histories 5.4
- Julian, Letter XX to Theodorus, translated by Wilmer Cave Wright (1913)
- Eleni Pachoumi, The Religious and Philosophical Assimilation of Helios in the Greek Papyri
- West 1997, p. 57. sfn error: no target: CITEREFWest1997 (help)
- Kerényi 1951, p. 67. sfn error: no target: CITEREFKerényi1951 (help)
- Cyrino 2010, p. 97. sfn error: no target: CITEREFCyrino2010 (help)
- Breitenberger 2007, pp. 8–12. sfn error: no target: CITEREFBreitenberger2007 (help)
- Cyrino 2010, pp. 49–52. sfn error: no target: CITEREFCyrino2010 (help)
- Puhvel 1987, p. 27. sfn error: no target: CITEREFPuhvel1987 (help)
- Marcovich 1996, pp. 43–59. sfn error: no target: CITEREFMarcovich1996 (help)
- 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.
- Penglase 1994, p. 235. sfn error: no target: CITEREFPenglase1994 (help)
- Deacy 2008, pp. 20–21, 41. sfn error: no target: CITEREFDeacy2008 (help)
- Remler, Pat (2010). Egyptian Mythology, A to Z. Infobase Publishing. p. 24. ISBN 9781438131801. Retrieved 6 October 2014.
- Ward, Dan Sewell (2003). "Cronus and Zeus". Halexandria Foundation. Retrieved 5 May 2021.
- Hans Dieter Betz, "Fragments from a Catabasis Ritual in a Greek Magical Papyrus", History of Religions 19,4 (May 1980):287-295
- "Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, ἕκα^τος". Perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 2013-01-24.
- 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. doi:10.1093/cq/52.2.583. ISSN 0009-8388. JSTOR 3556423.
- "Kothar – Semitic Deity". Encyclopædia Britannica. 2021. Retrieved 5 May 2021.
- Green, Tamara M. (1992). The City of the Moon God: Religious Traditions of Harran. Leiden: E.J. Brill. ISBN 9004095136. Retrieved 2017-01-04.
- Philo of Byblos. sfn error: no target: CITEREFPhilo_of_Byblos (help)
- Collins Latin Dictionary plus Grammar, p. 231. ISBN 0-06-053690-X)
- Stephanie West. "Prometheus Orientalized" page 147 Museum Helveticum Vol. 51, No. 3 (1994), pp. 129–149 (21 pages)
- Burkert 2005, p. 295. sfn error: no target: CITEREFBurkert2005 (help)
- 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.
- 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. www.jstor.org/stable/20654522.
- 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.