Etymology of “Theoi”: Plato, Cratylus 397d

“It seems to me that the earliest people in Greece had a notion of only those gods whom the majority of barbarians now recognize: the Sun, the Earth, the Stars, and the Sky. Now, because they noticed that these things were always moving in a circle and ‘running’ (theonta), they called them gods (theous) from the nature of that running (thein). Later, once they came to acknowledge the existence of other gods, they continued to use the same word, ‘gods’ for them as well.”


φαίνονταί μοι οἱ πρῶτοι τῶν ἀνθρώπων τῶν περὶ τὴν ῾Ελλάδα τούτους μόνους
[τοὺς θεοὺς] ἡγεῖσθαι οὕσπερ νῦν πολλοὶ τῶν βαρβάρων,
ἥλιον καὶ σελήνην καὶ γῆν καὶ ἄστρα καὶ οὐρανόν• ἅτε οὖν
αὐτὰ ὁρῶντες πάντα ἀεὶ ἰόντα δρόμῳ καὶ θέοντα, ἀπὸ ταύτης
τῆς φύσεως τῆς τοῦ θεῖν “θεοὺς” αὐτοὺς ἐπονομάσαι• ὕστε-
ρον δὲ κατανοοῦντες τοὺς ἄλλους πάντας ἤδη τούτῳ τῷ ὀνό-
ματι προσαγορεύειν.


Do you love spurious etymology? Then keep checking back, because there is a lot more of this on the way!

12 thoughts on “Etymology of “Theoi”: Plato, Cratylus 397d

  1. Running and runners, because they are “‘Swift (..) proceeding from the Father, they run (θεειν) to him.'” (Proclus on Cratylus)

    1. Thanks for catching that! I myself, in RUNNING through this translation, was for some reason thinking of θεάομαι.

      1. Also of course, I forgot to mention, the gods are caled θεοὺς because they are θοαι, swift, and running swiftly.

      2. But you might be right as well regarding θεάομαι. The Gods Observe and are observed. I don´t know why, but also translates θέω and its form θέειν as “shine and gleam”. Either way, illumination, the property of the gods, is also connected to observation and sight.

      3. I also think that the confusion between θείω “to run” and forms of θεάομαι “to watch” is not only forgivable but appropriate. Think of ionic forms like θέημα for θεάμα, the adjective θεῖος or the later denominative verb θειόω (“to smite with brimstone”). Give us some time and we can probably find etymologies that link θεός with forms of τίθημι like the participle θείς. Ancient Greeks were not masters of the diachronic history of their language, and, more to the point, even if folk etymologies are wrong from a diachronic perspective it doesn’t mean that they don’t have meaning on the synchronic plane.

      4. Yes. The names and words that had a religious and mythological use and significance didn´t have an exact etymology, and perhaps even betrayed the most obvious one. They played with words as one plays a puzzle, particular letters to mean one thing (theta, the solar symbol=God), and several interconnected ideas in one single word (running+shining+seeing, etc…).

  2. This also illustrates another point besides bad etymology. The Greeks had a habit of attributing beliefs or customs that they had moved on from as still prevalent among barbarians. For example this, quoted by Jasper Griffin in the Oxford history of the classical world to illustrate this point.

    We should add to what we have just said that after Hercules had been made into a god, Zeus persuaded Hera to adopt him as a son and to give him her maternal love in the future for all time. They say the adoption was like this. Hera got onto her bed and clasping Hercules next to her body let him down onto the ground through her clothes, copying a real birth. Something which up to the present day barbarians do when they want to adopt a son.

    προσθετέον δ᾽ ἡμῖν τοῖς εἰρημένοις ὅτι μετὰ τὴν ἀποθέωσιν αὐτοῦ Ζεὺς Ἥραν μὲν ἔπεισεν υἱοποιήσασθαι τὸν Ἡρακλέα καὶ τὸ λοιπὸν εἰς τὸν ἅπαντα χρόνον μητρὸς εὔνοιαν παρέχεσθαι, τὴν δὲ τέκνωσιν γενέσθαι φασὶ τοιαύτην: τὴν Ἥραν ἀναβᾶσαν ἐπὶ κλίνην καὶ τὸν Ἡρακλέα προσλαβομένην πρὸς τὸ σῶμα διὰ τῶν ἐνδυμάτων ἀφεῖναι πρὸς τὴν γῆν, μιμουμένην τὴν ἀληθινὴν γένεσιν: ὅπερ μέχρι τοῦ νῦν ποιεῖν τοὺς βαρβάρους ὅταν θετὸν υἱὸν ποιεῖσθαι βούλωνται.

    Diodorus Siculus . 4.39.2

    1. Yes, but mythology speaks of immaterial, divine dynamics. The fact that it´s presented in analogy to human habits is just to create a bridge between our own understanding and the understanding of these things, for us to be able to relate to it. Otherwise mythology wouldn’t exist.

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