Etymology: Our Pagan World
Author: Willow Grove
Most of the Pagan community has read many articles regarding the “borrowing” of certain holidays and yearly traditions by modern society. We have heard that the December 25th birthday of Jesus was taken from Mithras, and we know that Easter was originally Eostar or Ostara, a spring fertility festival. Groundhog’s Day falls on Imbolc, and both holidays involve an animal predicting the coming spring.
Even our modern secular traditions of grilling out and shooting off fireworks could be linked to the ancient fire festivals held in summer. It is our natural human tendency to give thanks for the harvest in the fall, be it with Thanksgiving turkey or Lammas bread. But is that it? Do our Pagan roots extend only to the days we celebrate?
To Pagans, it may seem that we live in a world that is not accepting of our religion, and in many cases seems to be at odds with our beliefs. Certain groups in society denounce the pagan origins of celebrating Halloween, and may even go so far as to ban their children from dying Easter eggs. While that is of course their right to make that choice, the Pagan influences on every day life go a bit deeper than most people realize. This is especially obvious when looking at the origin of some of our common words.
Few people realize that in their every day speech, they may use words of Pagan origin and not even know it. Take this simple sentence for example: “This morning I woke up after a night of insomnia and had a bowl of cereal.” There are two words in this sentence that have Pagan origin. If you had a bowl of cereal this morning, thank the Goddess! “Cereal” comes from Ceres, Roman counterpart of Demeter, Goddess of agriculture, harvest and grains. “Insomnia” comes from Somnus, the Roman counterpart of Hypnos, god of sleep.
Pagan etymology includes our calendar. Take for example the days of the week. The connections between Sunday and the sun, between Monday and the moon, and between Saturn and Saturday are the more obvious references. But what about the etymology of the other days? A lesser-known fact is that every one of the seven days of the week has a name firmly rooted in Paganism.
The Germanic god of war was Tiu, whose name became part of Tuesday. Wednesday is a modification of Woden’s Day, being named for the Anglo-Saxon god of the wild hunt. Norse god Thor is the basis of the name Thursday, and Friday is named for the Norse mother goddess Frigg, wife of Odin. When looking further, we can see that the names of the months also have Pagan etymology. The Roman god Janus was ruler of gateways and new beginnings; hence we celebrate the New Year by honoring him through the name of January. In ancient Rome, a festival of purification and cleansing was called Februs.
Since it was held at this time every year, the month was given the name February. March comes from the Roman god of war, Mars. April was derived from the Roman word for “open”, because the spring flowers did just that in this month. June is appropriately the most common month for weddings given that its name comes from Juno, goddess of marriage. The remaining months have names that stem from Latin, mostly based on numbers such as “octo”, but it is easy to see that our calendar as we know it in modern times is most certainly influenced by our Pagan past.
So we can see that our language has some Pagan influence, but what about our government? So many in our society claim that America was formed on Christian values and ideas. If that is so, where are the monuments in Washington depicting Jesus Christ? The simple fact is that there are none. There are however, several examples of Pagan influence to be found.
Take for instance the U.S. Capital Building itself. Prominently displayed to the right of the main entrance, you will find a statue of Mars, Roman god of agriculture and war. The Great Hall of the Justice Department Building is home to a statue of the Spirit of Justice, based on the goddess of Justice herself, Justitia. (Here we also find another word in our language with pagan origins: justice.)
Even in the military we can see the presence of the ancient divine. The Army’s Medal of Honor features the Roman goddess of wisdom and martial prowess, Minerva. However, the largest and most obvious example of Pagan influence in our capital has to be the Washington Monument, which is, without a doubt, an Egyptian Obelisk.
Even in the realm of corporate America there is an influence of our Pagan past. Look closely at the glossy magazine ads and the slick television commercials and you may find the touch of a goddess. Disposable razors blades for women are named for the Goddess of Beauty, none other than Venus. Cars are named Saturn, Taurus, Equinox, and Solstice.
Do a search on the internet for Osiris and you will find not only much information about the Egyptian god, but also a line of skateboarding shoes, an IT company, and a medical research company all named for him. In fact, one of the most successful and well-known brand names of our time is named after a Pagan deity. Modern society may think of athletic shoes when they hear her name, but the ancient Greeks knew her as Nike, Goddess of Victory.
The influence of ancient Paganism is found in every culture throughout the farthest reaches of the world, even right here in the United States. When we as Pagans acknowledge and embrace this cultural heritage, it is sure to bring us a deepened sense of belonging in a world that often struggles with our acceptance. While it is easy for us to feel a little disconnected from modern society, looking back on the past and the influence the ancient deities have had on our everyday, mundane lives can indeed strengthen our connection to them, to each other, and to the world we live in.