Wandering the savage garden…

Something’s been bothering me from my word study

Something about my word study on Philippians 4:19 has been bothering me for a few days.

I referred to the Greek word plouton (or more accurately, ploutos, πλοῦτος, both translated typically as “riches” or “wealth”), and made an association to Pluto and Ploutos, the Roman and Greek gods of wealth.

The cultural shift in the reference to Pluto as an association to a Greek word – has been a gadfly for me.

Was I incorrect in making the association at all? Wouldn’t Ploutos – the Greek reference, not the Roman – be the right reference to use?

Well, maybe… but probably not.

I think of two “ages” in culture from the Hellenistic era in Roman antiquity: a time when Greek culture ruled from Greece, and then the time when Greek culture ruled from Rome.

The Romans took Greek mythology and translated it, occasionally importing names directly but usually equating Greek gods to generally Roman equivalents. Therefore, Zeus became Jupiter, Hera became Juno, Heracles (the son of Zeus, named “Heracles” to mollify the endlessly jealous Hera) became Hercules, Odysseus became Ulysses, etc. etc. etc.

The Greek Hades became the Roman Pluto.

Pluto sounds roughly like ploutos does, and one aspect of Pluto was that he was the god of wealth in addition to the lord of the realm of death. (Mythological tradition around his exact role is horribly confused; generally it depends on what source you pull from and in which era, because his role and identity shifted quite remarkably over time.)

Why, though, would I think a sentence in Greek would have a reference to the Roman god of wealth?

Well… because it probably did. Paul was writing in a time that was not Greek, but definitely Roman; Greek was simply the lingua franca, the language of commerce and culture at the time.

Paul wouldn’t have cared about the names of the Greek gods when writing to a Roman audience (an audience under Roman authority) in Greek. He would have used references and associations that made sense for the time and audience. (Even the writer of the book of Hebrews used Greek, despite writing to a distinctly Hebraic audience.)

So my thought is this: while I still dislike the reference to Pluto, a Roman name for a Greek god, as an associated word to plouton, a purely Greek word referring to riches, the etymology of the name “Pluto” validates the reference – Pluto is a Romanization of the original Greek word, and therefore is less Roman than Greek in the first place.

My concerns over an invalid association are not as valid as I feared.

Incidentally, the study of Pluto is a fascinating exercise in and of itself. Apparently the Roman equivalent was Dis pater and Orcus, and Pluto was used because it was a positive reference to the god, as opposed to one that caused fear (as “Hades” did as well). The poor mythological guy – he never really seems to have been understood.

(Originally published January 31, 2012.)

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