Etymologies for Kerberos



If you do a little searching on the internet you might find the assertion that the Greek word Kerberos is cognate with Sanskrit karbarah, sabalah “spotted, speckled;” and, therefore, that it is related to our pet name “Spot”.  This is a nice story, but like many nice stories, it is probably not true.

Pierre Chantraine lists this as a “doubted for good reasons”.  (Here’s a link for a free download of the dictionary). I don’t really have a better suggestion, but I can quote some equally valid nonsense from antiquity.

Etymologicum Gudianum (Byzantine Era)

Kerberos: From “karbaros” which is from having a heavy head. For the dog in Hades had three heads, as the story goes about the dog Kerberos.

Κέρβερος, παρὰ τὸ κάρβαρος, ἢ παρὰ τὸ τὴν κάραν βαρεῖν· τρικέφαλος γὰρ ἦν κύων ἐν ᾅδου, ὡς μυθεύεται κύωνος κέρβερος.

Cf. κάραβος (karabos) “horned beetle”


Also consider from Hesychius the Lexicographer:

Kerberioi: Weak-men. They also call the Kimmerians Kerberians. And some call their city Kerberia, but others call it Kimmeria. Others say that Kimmê is as place in Hades.

κερβέριοι· ἀσθενεῖς. φασὶ δὲ καὶ τοὺς Κιμμερίους Κερβερίους· καὶ τὴν πόλιν οἱ μὲν Κερβερίαν καλοῦσιν, οἱ δὲ Κιμμερίην· ἄλλοι δὲ †Κιμμη. ἔστι δὲ τόπος ἐν ᾅδου (λ 14).


I eagerly await other (and better) suggestions!


“Pas d’etymologie”: Ancient Traditions on the Lexical Roots of Erinys and Eris

On the discussion board for the course HeroesX, someone asked about the etymology of the word Erinys (Fury).  I had never really thought about this before, so I started to look into it.  The inquirer started by citing some decent etymological texts:

“For Ἐρινύες, Chantraine says there isn’t etymology (DEG p. 371 s. v. ἐρινύς); but A. Carnoy (Dictionnaire étymologique de la mythologie gréco-romaine, Louvain 1957) links the word to ἐρινύειν, arcadic form of ὀρίνω, to stir, raise; so Ἐρινύες should mean “the Furious”.”

I looked more deeply and found nothing really that satisfying.  But, since I enjoy a false etymology as much as anyone, I decided to share some findings here.  The Etymologicum Magnum, a text created in the 12th century in Byzantium, has some interesting things to say about the etymology of Erinys.

“Furies, vengeful goddesses of paternal transgressions. They pursue the children of those who have committed wrong. The name comes from the fact that they live in the earth [era, reconstructed from the form ἔραζε], which means they live in the earth.

Or, something that comes from the earth is called eranus, which becomes erinus. For the Fury is a khthonic goddess.

The name is also said to come from “completing curses” as if aranus (curse-bringer?) also becomes erinus, since she brings curses or fateful things to pass. Another explanation is that the particle eri [inseparable elsewhere as an intensifier] is added to “completing” [to anuein], since she “accomplishes greatly”.

Another explanation is that the name comes from “resting” [to elinuein], which means to be at peace, and that erinus forms from elinus, for the “one who is at peace”.  This is a construction based on an opposite idea, since she is not one who is actually at peace.”

᾿Ερινύες: Θεαὶ τιμωροὶ τῶν πατρικῶν ἀσεβημάτων, ἤγουν τῶν εἰς τοὺς γονεῖς ἁμαρτημάτων· παρὰ τὸ ἐν τῇ ἔρᾳ ναίειν, ὅ ἐστιν οἰκεῖν ἐν τῇ γῇ.

῍Η ἡ ἐκ τῆς γῆς ἀνερχομένη, ἐρανὺς, καὶ ἐρινύς· καταχθονία γὰρ ἡ δαίμων. ῍Η παρὰ τὸ τὰς ἀρὰς ἀνύειν, οἱονεὶ ἀρανύς τις οὖσα καὶ ἐρινὺς, ἡ τὰς ἀρὰς ἢ τὰ αἴσια ἀνύουσα καὶ ἐκτελοῦσα. ῍Η παρὰ τὸ ἐρι καὶ τὸ ἀνύειν, ἡ μεγάλως ἀνύουσα. ῍Η παρὰ τὸ ἐλινύειν, τὸ ἡσυχάζειν, γέγονεν ἐλινὺς καὶ ἐρινὺς, ἡ ἡσυχάζουσα, κατὰ ἀντίφρασιν, τουτέστιν ἡ μὴ ἡσυχάζουσα.

This image is on Pinterest. Seriously.
This image is on Pinterest. Seriously.
  1. I love the fact that there is an entire category for etymologies that come from the opposite of what something really is.
  2. I also love the fact that this text just throws everything out there.
  3. I had always tacitly assumed some connection with Eris, especially since in Hesiod (Works and Days and Theogony), Eris is associated with the earth. The Etymologicum Gudianum (and others) associated Eris with the act of speech: “Eris comes from “speaking” [eirô], which is the same as legô; this is a type of conflict that comes from words…

῎Ερις· παρὰ τὸ εἴρω, τὸ λέγω· ἡ διὰ λόγων φιλονεικία.

On Eris, Chantraine is similarly unhelpful, writing “Pas d’etymologie”…, although he points to ἐρέθω as a possible origin.

Any other ideas?

PS: Chantraine is available online! I cannot tell you how many car-trips, subway journeys, and other odysseys I have made in the past to consult this text.  Do the young know what charmed lives they are living?