Interpretatio graeca

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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] in which ancient Greek religious concepts and practices, deities, and myths are used to interpret or attempt to understand the mythology and religion of other cultures. It is thus a comparative methodology that looks for 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.


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.

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] Lugh 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. 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.

Interpretatio germanica

Interpretatio germanica is the practice by the Germanic peoples of identifying Roman gods with the names of Germanic deities. According to Rudolf Simek, this occurred around the 1st century of the Christian era, when both cultures came into closer contact. Some evidence for interpretatio germanica exists in the Germanic translations of the Roman names for the days of the week:

  • Sunday, the day of Sunnǭ (Old Norse: Sunna, Sól; Old English: Sunne; Old High German: Sunna), the sun (as female), was earlier the day of Sol Invictus, the sun (as male)
  • Monday, the day of Mēnô (Máni; Mōna; Māno), the moon (as male), was earlier the day of Luna, the moon (as female)
  • Tuesday, the day of Tīwaz (Týr; Tīw; Ziu), was earlier the day of Mars, god of war
  • Wednesday, the day of Wōdanaz (Óðinn; Wōden; Wuotan), was earlier the day of Mercury, god of travelers and eloquence
  • Thursday, the day of Þūraz/Þunraz (Þórr; Þunor; Donar), was earlier the day of Jupiter, god of thunder; in other contexts, Þūraz, the mighty and popular son of Wōdanaz, the supreme god, was identified by means of interpretatio romana with Hercules, the mighty and popular son of Jupiter, the supreme god
  • Friday, the day of Frijjō (Frigg; Frīg; Frīja), was earlier the day of Venus, goddess of love

In most of the Romance languages, which derive from Latin, days of the week still preserve the names of the original Roman deities, such as the Italian for Tuesday, "martedì" (from the Latin "Martis dies"). This is also the case with Saturn in some West Germanic languages; such as the English "Saturday," the West Frisian "Saterdei", the Low German "Saterdag" and the Dutch "zaterdag" all meaning Saturn's day.[1]

Simek emphasizes the paucity of evidence and notes that comparison with Roman gods is insufficient to reconstruct ancient Germanic gods and equate them definitively with those of later Norse mythology.[10]

Greco-Roman equivalents

The following is a list of Greek, Roman, Etruscan, and Egyptian 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 Functions
Άδωνις Adonis Adonis Atunis Osiris lord, master, or patron
Ἀμφιτρίτη Amphitrite Salacia Amphitrite: lit. the third surrounding [the sea][11]
Ἀνάγκη Ananke Necessitas force, constraint, necessity
Ἄνεμοι Anemoi Venti winds
Ἀφροδίτη Aphrodite Venus Turan Hathor love or sexual desire
Ἀπόλλων (Apollōn) /
Φοῖβος (Phoibos)
Apollo / Phoebus Apollo / Phoebus Aplu Horus light; prophecy; healing; plagues; music and poetry; Phoebus: lit. shining one
Ἄρης Ares Mars Laran war
Ἄρτεμις Artemis Diana Artume Bast hunting, the hunt; wilderness, wild animals; virginity, childbirth; Diana: lit. heavenly or divine
Ἀσκληπιός (Asklēpios) Asclepius Aesculapius / Vejovis Vetis healing
Ἀθηνᾶ (Athēnā), Ἀθήνη (Athēnē) Athena / Athene Minerva Menrva Neith wisdom; strategy; the arts and crafts; weaving
Ἄτροπος Atropos Morta Leinth Atropos: lit. inflexible; death
Βορέας Boreas Aquilo Andas North Wind or Devouring One
Χάριτες (Kharites) Charites Gratiae Graces
Χάρων (Kharōn) Charon 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
Κυβέλη (Kybelē) Cybele Magna Mater Magna Mater: lit. Great Mother
Δημήτηρ Demeter Ceres Cels Isis 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
Ἐνυώ Enyo Bellona war
Ἠώς Eos Aurora / Matuta Thesan dawn
Ἐρινύες Erinyes Dirae / Furiae Furies Furies
Ἔρις Eris Discordia strife
Ἔρως Eros Cupido / Amor Cupid sexual love
Εὖρος (Euros) Eurus Vulturnus East Wind
Γαῖα Gaia / Gaea Terra / Tellus Cel the earth
Ἁδης (Hādēs) /
Πλούτων (Plouton)
Hades / Pluto Dis Pater / Pluto / Orcus Aita the underworld. Hades: lit. the unseen
Ἥβη Hebe Iuventas Juventas youth
Ἑκάτη (Hekatē) Hecate Trivia Heqet will; Hecate: trans. she who has power far off [12]
Ἥλιος Helios Sol Usil Ra sun
Ἥφαιστος (Hḗphaistos) Hephaestus Vulcanus Vulcan Sethlans Ptah metalwork, forges; fire, lava
Ἥρα Hera Iuno Juno Uni Mut, Hathor marriage, family
Ἡρακλής (Hēraklē̂s) Heracles Hercules Hercle Khonsu Heracles: lit. glory of Hera
Ἑρμῆς Hermes Mercurius Mercury Turms 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[13]
Ἕστία Hestia Vesta hearth, fireplace, domesticity
Ὑγίεια Hygeia Salus health; cleanliness
Ὕπνος Hypnos Somnus sleep
Εἰρήνη (Eirēnē) Irene Pax peace
Ἰανός Ianus Janus Ani beginnings; transitions; motion; doorways
Λάχεσις (Lakhesis) Lachesis Decima Lachesis: lit. disposer of lots; luck
Λητώ Leto Latona
Μοῖραι (Moirai) Moirai / Moerae Parcae / Fatae Fates Apportioners
Μοῦσαι (Mousai) Musae Camenae Muses
Νίκη Nike Victoria victory
Νότος (Notos) Notus Auster South Wind
Νύξ (Nyx) Nyx Nox night
Ὀδυσσεύς Odysseus Ulixes / Ulysses Uthuze
Παλαίμων (Palaimōn) Palaemon Portunes / Portunus keys, doors; ports, harbors
Πᾶν Pan Faunus Min nature, the wild
Σειληνός Silenus Silvanus Selvans Silvanus: lit. of the woods
Περσεφόνη Persephone Proserpina Proserpine poss. "to emerge"
Φήμη Pheme Fama fame; rumor
Φωσφόρος (Phōsphoros) Phosphorus Lucifer lit. light bearer
Ποσειδῶν Poseidon Neptunus Neptune Nethuns sea; water; horses; earthquakes
Πρίαπος (Priapos) Priapus Mutinus Mutunus fertility; livestock; gardens; male genitalia
Ῥέα Rhea Magna Mater / Ops
(See Cybele, above)
Isis Rhea: lit. flowing. Ops: lit. wealth, abundance, resources.
Σάτυροι (Satyroi) / Πάνες Satyrs / Panes
(See Pan, above)
Fauni Fauns
Σελήνη Selene Luna moon
Σεμέλη Semele Stimula Semla
Θάνατος Thanatos Mors Leinth, Charun death
Θέμις Themis Iustitia Justice law of nature
Τύχη (Tykhē) Tyche Fortuna Fortune Nortia luck, fortune
Ουρανός (Ouranos) Uranus Caelus sky
Vertumnus Voltumna the seasons; change
Ζέφυρος (Zephyros) Zephyrus / Zephyr Favonius West Wind; Favonius: lit. favorable
Ζεύς Zeus Iuppiter / Iovis Jupiter / Jove Tinia Amun 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.
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  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. Simek, Rudolf. (2007) Translated by Angela Hall. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. D.S. Brewer, p. 74. ISBN 0-85991-513-1
  11. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths 1960.
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  13. Collins Latin Dictionary plus Grammar, p. 231. ISBN 0-06-053690-X)

Further reading

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