Interpretatio graeca

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A Roman wall painting showing the Egyptian goddess Isis (seated right) welcoming the Greek heroine Io to Egypt

Interpretatio graeca (Latin, "Greek translation") or "interpretation by means of Greek [models]" is a discourse[1] 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.

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.


A Roman fresco from Herculaneum depicting Hercules (from Etruscan Hercle and ultimately Greek Heracles) and Achelous (patron deity of the Achelous River in Greece) from Greco-Roman mythology, 1st century AD

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.

Interpretatio romana[edit]

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] 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.[9]

In the Eastern empire, the Anatolian storm god with his double-headed axe became Jupiter Dolichenus, a favorite cult figure among soldiers.

Application to the Jewish religion[edit]

Roman scholars such as Varro[citation needed] 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.[10] 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.[11] 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",[12] implying Saturn was the god of the Jews.

From the Roman point of view, it was natural to apply the above principle to the Jewish God. 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".[13] However, Julian doesn't specify which "other names" the Jewish god was worshiped under.

In late antiquity mysticism, the sun god Helios is sometimes equated to the Judeo-Christian God.[14]

Cross-cultural equivalencies[edit]

The following table is a list of Greek, Roman, Etruscan, Egyptian, Sumerian, Phoenician, Hindu, Parthian, Celtic, and Norse equivalencies via the interpretationes. These are not necessarily gods who share similar traits (as viewed by modern scholarship or readers, at least), and rarely do they share a common origin (for that, see comparative Indo-European pantheons); they are simply gods of various cultures whom the Greeks or Romans identified (either explicitly in surviving works, or as supported by the analyses of modern scholars) with their own gods and heroes. This system is easily seen in the names of the days of the week, which were frequently translated according to the interpretio.

Greek Roman Etruscan Egyptian Sumerian Phoenician Hindu Parthian Celtic Norse Functions
Achilleus Achilles Achle hero
Achlys Caligo divine mist
Adonis Atunis Osiris Dumuzid[15][16][17] Tammuz (Adōn) Balarama agriculture; resurrection
Amphitrite Salacia Hatmehit sea goddess
Ananke Necessitas force, constraint, necessity
Anemoi Venti Vayu Vayu-Vata winds
Aphrodite Venus Turan (Apru) Hathor / Isis Inanna[18][19][20][21] Astarte Rati Anahita Frigg beauty; sex; love
Apollo Aplu Horus Resheph Rudra Mithra Belenus / Maponos / Borvo / Grannus light; prophecy; healing; plagues; archery; music; poets
Ares Mars Laran Anhur Nergal[22] Kartikeya Verethragna Toutatis / Nodens / Neton Týr war
Artemis Diana Artume Bastet Kotharat Bhadra Drvaspa hunting, the hunt; wilderness, wild animals; virginity, childbirth; Diana: lit. heavenly or divine
Asclepius Aesculapius / Vejove Veiove Imhotep Eshmun Ashvins healing
Athena Minerva Menrva Neith / Isis / Thoth Inanna[23][24] Anat Saraswati Anahita Sulis / Belisama / Senuna / Coventina / Icovellauna / Sequana wisdom; war strategy; the arts and crafts; weaving
Ganesha / Kartikeya
Atlas Aril Shu[25] holder of the celestial spheres
Atropos Morta Leinth Atropos: lit. inflexible; death
Boreas Aquilo Andas North Wind or Devouring One
Castor and Polydeuces (Dioscuri) Castor and Pollux (Gemini) Castur and Pultuce (Tinas cliniar) twins
Chaos Nu Apsu Yam Parabrahman chasm, vast void, abyss; the formless, primordial state of existence
Naunet Nammu
Charites Graces grace; splendor; festivity; charity
Charon Charun Aqen fierce, flashing, feverish gaze (eyes)
Chloris Flora Chloris: lit. greenish-yellow, pale green, pale, pallid, fresh; Flora: lit. flower
Clotho Nona spinning; thread
Coeus Polus axis
Cronus Saturn Satre Khnum El (Elus) Mahakala Time, generation, dissolution, agriculture
Cybele Magna Mater Magna Mater: lit. Great Mother
Demeter Ceres Zerene Isis Ashi grains, agricultural fertility; Demeter: lit. Earth Mother
Dionysus Liber / Bacchus Fufluns Osiris Cernunnos wine and winemaking; revelry; ecstasy; Liber: lit. the free one
Enyo Bellona Enie Sekhmet war
Eos Aurora / Matuta Thesan Tefnut Ushas dawn
Erebus Scotus darkness
Erinyes Furies (Dirae) Furies
Eris Discordia Eris Anat Shahar Nirrti strife
Eros Cupid (Amor) Erus Kamadeva sexual love
Euterpe Euturpa / Euterpe "she who delights"; muse of music (especially flute music) and song; later, also of lyric poetry
Eurus Vulturnus East Wind
Gaia Terra / Tellus Cel Geb Antu[26] Bhumi Zam the earth
Hades Dis Pater / Pluto / Orcus Aita Anubis / Osiris Mot Yama Angra Mainyu the underworld. Hades: lit. the unseen
Hebe Juventas Renpet youth
Hecate Trivia Heqet Ereshkigal[27] Matronae will; Hecate: trans. she who has power far off [28]
Helios Sol Usil Ra Utu[29] Shamash (Utu) Surya Mithra Sól sun
Hemera Dies Ushas day
Hephaestus Vulcan Sethlans Ptah Kothar-wa-Khasis[30] Vishvakarma, Agni Atar Gobannos metalwork, forges; fire, lava
Hera Juno Uni Mut / Hathor Indrani Armaiti marriage, family
Heracles Hercules Hercle Heryshaf Melqart Rostam Ogmios Thor Heracles: lit. glory of Hera
Hermes Mercury Turms Anubis, Thoth Nabu[31] Taautus[32] Narada Shamash Lugus / Viducus Odin transitions; boundaries; thieves; travelers; commerce; Hermes: poss. "interpreter"; Mercurius: related to Latin "merx" (merchandise), "mercari" (to trade), and "merces" (wages)
Hesperus Vesper evening, supper, evening star, west[33]
Hestia Vesta Anuket hearth, fireplace, domesticity
Hygeia Salus Sirona health; cleanliness
Hypnos Somnus sleep
Ilithyia Lucina Ilithiia Tawaret childbirth, midwifery
Irene Pax Shalim peace
Iris Arcus / Iris Nut rainbow
Janus Culsans Ganesha beginnings; transitions; motion; doorways
Lachesis Decima Lachesis: lit. disposer of lots; luck
Leto Latona Letun Demureness; mothers
Maia Rosmerta growth
Moirai (Moerae) Fates or Parcae Apportioners
Muses Camenae Music; inspiration
Nemesis or Rhamnusia Invidia Shani "retribution"
Nike Victoria Meanpe Kartikeya Bodua / Brigantia / Nemetona victory
Notus Auster South Wind
Nyx Nox Nephthys Ratri night
Odysseus Ulysses or Ulixes Uthste hero
Palaemon Portunus keys, doors; ports, harbors
Pan Faunus Min Aranyani nature, the wild
Persephone Proserpina Persipnei poss. "to emerge"
Phaon Phaun / Faun / Phamu mortal boatman given youth and beauty by Aphrodite
Pheme Fama fame; rumor
Phosphoros Lucifer Attar Agni lit. light bearer
Poseidon Neptune Nethuns Yam Varuna Apam Napat sea; water; horses; earthquakes
Priapus Mutunus Tutunus fertility; livestock; gardens; male genitalia
Prometheus Prumathe Enki[34] forethought
Rhea Ops / Magna Mater (see Cybele above) Nut Asherah Rhea: lit. flowing. Ops: lit. wealth, abundance, resources.
Selene Luna Losna Isis, Thoth, Khonsu Yarikh Chandra Mah Máni moon
Silenos Silvanus Selvans Sucellus Silvanus: lit. of the woods
Thalassa Mare sea
Thallo Thalna blossoms
Thanatos Mors Leinth Anubis Mot Yama death
Themis Justitia Ma'at law of nature
Tyche Fortuna Nortia Gad Lakshmi luck, fortune
Typhon Set / Apophis Vritra "whirlwinds, storms, chaos, darkness"
Uranus Caelus Nut Anu[35] El Akasha Asman sky, heavens
Vertumnus Voltumna Baal the seasons; change
Zephyr Favonius West Wind; Favonius: lit. favorable
Zeus Jupiter or Jove Tinia Amun Enlil[36] / Bel Hadad Indra Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd) Taranis Odin /Thor weather, storms, lightning,
Sky Father

In art[edit]

Examples of deities depicted in syncretic compositions by means of interpretatio graeca or romana:

See also[edit]


  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.
  7. ^ 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.
  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. ^ (Valerius Maximus), epitome of Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings, i. 3, 2, see EXEMPLUM 3. [Par.]
  11. ^ Plutarch. Symposiacs, iv, 6.
  12. ^ Tacitus, Histories 5.4
  13. ^ Julian, Letter XX to Theodorus, translated by Wilmer Cave Wright (1913)
  14. ^ Eleni Pachoumi, The Religious and Philosophical Assimilation of Helios in the Greek Papyri
  15. ^ West 1997, p. 57.
  16. ^ Kerényi 1951, p. 67.
  17. ^ Cyrino 2010, p. 97.
  18. ^ Breitenberger 2007, pp. 8–12.
  19. ^ Cyrino 2010, pp. 49–52.
  20. ^ Puhvel 1987, p. 27.
  21. ^ Marcovich 1996, pp. 43–59.
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ Penglase 1994, p. 235.
  24. ^ Deacy 2008, pp. 20–21, 41.
  25. ^ Remler, Pat (2010). Egyptian Mythology, A to Z. Infobase Publishing. p. 24. ISBN 9781438131801. Retrieved 6 October 2014.
  26. ^ Ward, Dan Sewell (2003). "Cronus and Zeus". Halexandria Foundation. Retrieved 5 May 2021.
  27. ^ Hans Dieter Betz, "Fragments from a Catabasis Ritual in a Greek Magical Papyrus", History of Religions 19,4 (May 1980):287-295
  28. ^ "Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, ἕκα^τος". Retrieved 2013-01-24.
  29. ^ 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.
  30. ^ "Kothar – Semitic Deity". Encyclopædia Britannica. 2021. Retrieved 5 May 2021.
  31. ^ Green, Tamara M. (1992). The City of the Moon God: Religious Traditions of Harran. Leiden: E.J. Brill. ISBN 9004095136. Retrieved 2017-01-04.
  32. ^ Philo of Byblos.
  33. ^ Collins Latin Dictionary plus Grammar, p. 231. ISBN 0-06-053690-X)
  34. ^ Stephanie West. "Prometheus Orientalized" page 147 Museum Helveticum Vol. 51, No. 3 (1994), pp. 129–149 (21 pages)
  35. ^ Burkert 2005, p. 295.
  36. ^ 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.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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.
  • 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.