Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Tacitus, Germania c.40: a mysterious goddess.

When Tacitus published his Germania around 98, he intended this work not only as a kind of anthropological and geographical description, but also as a critique of Roman society. The Germani are depicted as noble savages, who bath summer and winter in rivers and have high moral standards, well they have anyway high morals concerning marriage. This in contrast to Roman society, which in the eyes of Tacitus has completely drifted away from old Roman values.
As for me, though  being a descend of such noble savages, I definitely prefer more a Roman bathhouse with hot water and a Roman lady with questionable morals, than swimming in winter with a chaste Germanic woman.
Particularly interesting is chapter 40, in which a common cult of various tribes in Denmark is described. They venerate a goddess – a terra mater - called Nerthus, who resides on an island, but is regularly taken around in a wagon amongst the tribes. Much ink has been spoiled over this goddess, as her name can hardly be separated from the Norse sea god Njörd and so we have a problem with a sea god and a terra mater, having a common name. I refer to the link below for further details.

Tacitus, De Origine et Situ Germanorum Liber, caput 40.

Contra Langobardos paucitas nobilitat: plurimis ac valentissimis nationibus cincti non per obsequium, sed proeliis ac periclitando tuti sunt. Reudigni deinde et Aviones et Anglii et Varini et Eudoses et Suardones et Nuithones fluminibus aut silvis muniuntur. Nec quicquam notabile in singulis, nisi quod in commune Nerthum, id est Terram matrem, colunt eamque intervenire rebus hominum, invehi populis arbitrantur. Est in insula Oceani castum nemus, dicatumque in eo vehiculum, veste contectum; attingere uni sacerdoti concessum. Is adesse penetrali deam intellegit vectamque bubus feminis multa cum veneratione prosequitur. Laeti tunc dies, festa loca, quaecumque adventu hospitioque dignatur. Non bella ineunt, non arma sumunt; clausum omne ferrum; pax et quies tunc tantum nota, tunc tantum amata, donec idem sacerdos satiatam conversatione mortalium deam templo reddat. Mox vehiculum et vestes et, si credere velis, numen ipsum secreto lacu abluitur. Servi ministrant, quos statim idem lacus haurit. Arcanus hinc terror sanctaque ignorantia, quid sit illud, quod tantum perituri vident.

contra (adv.): by contrast (In the previous chapter the tribe of the Semnones is treated, whoe were quite numerous.)
Langobardos paucitas nobilitat: fewness honours the Langobards (In Latin and Greek we often see that an abstract noun or an emotion is the subject of a sentence, where in English a passive construction is preferred `The Langobards are distinguishes by fewness’ or make the noun into an adjective e.g. not `anger seized him’, but `he became angry’.)
cingo cinxi cinctum: to surround
obsequium: servility 
periclitor periclatus sum: to be bold (cf. periculum)
Reudigni deinde et Aviones et Anglii et Varini et Eudoses et Suardones et Nuithones: all tribes of which Tacitus has nothing to say. How could he know that the Anglii would evolve into tea drinking Englishmen with an empire that once by far exceeded the Roman Empire? The coffee there is awful…
munio munivi munitum: to defend
in singulis: individually  (understood subject: these tribes.)
intervenio interveni interventum: to intervene (often constructed with the dat.)
invehi populis: not `to be carried  by people’, but  `to go to her people’(by a wagon as is clear from the following. inveho + dat. is rare, but it balances rebus humanun.)
castum nemus: a sacred grove
dico (dicare): to consecrate, dedicate
veste contectum: covered with a cloth
(in) penetrali: in the inside
bubus feminis: by female cattle (bubus is generally used for the uncontracted form bovibus)
prosequor prosecutus sum: to accompany, follow
festa loca, quaecumque adventu hospitioque dignatur: places are festive, whom she considers worthy for her arrival and stay
clausum omne ferrum: every sword is put away (rather than `object of iron’  as in the translations in the link to Nerthus.)
tunc tantum...donec: then only ….till
satiatam conversatione mortalium deam: the goddess, having enough of being amongst morals
si credere velis: an ironical remark by Tacitus
abluo ablui ablutum: to wash
haurio hausi haustum: to swallow
quid sit illud: what this phenomenon is
perituri: those who are to die

Link with two (obsolete) translations:

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