My Friend Paul Veyne

Paul Veyne (1930-2022) passed away on September 29. Honorary professor at the Collège de France, he was one of our most knowledgeable scholars of ancient Rome. A tribute.


“Dear colleague, I have read your letter. You are right, the state of Latin is getting worse and worse.” Ten years ago, when I was entering the first year of my studies, I received, by way of reply, this letter from Paul Veyne, so touching, so personal and so pleasant. Imagine the effect it had on a young greenhorn lad who was destined for literature. Imagine today my emotions at the announcement of the death of this professor, and myself, still as green as ever, now a Latin teacher.

“Am I going to follow in the footsteps of my elders? Yes, but I allow myself to choose my own path,” recalled Seneca in a letter to Lucilius. Veyne shared very different ideas from mine. Some would perhaps regard them bitterly. Veyne was a man of the left; rather relativistic, it is true; neither patriotic nor anti-patriotic; a Communist in his youth; a Gaullist in 1969; then a liberal and progressive. He had very early broken with Catholic practice, which he judged to be ancient folklore, and remained suffused with the memory of the war, the collaboration, and the anti-Semitism that he pinned on the old France of his parents. Paul Veyne did not accept any absolutes. “Nihil amirari“: everything passes away: human rights, ideas, Christianity, the Roman Empire and the American Empire. Everything passes away, yes, but everything makes sense in the course of history where nothing is lost, nothing is created but everything is transformed.

For all that Paul Veyne was an atypical gentleman, who has written a classic on the history of Rome. While I was talking to him with admiration about his work, he raised his arms heavenward, cursing his fate: “What I have written is particularly bad, confused and really only slog-work. I have no work. What I have written will be replaced in fifty years by others and will be unusable.” When you read his books from a long and general view, you realize with interest that they oscillate between a clear lesson and a light and exquisite exposé—unlike at times his unreadable peers, whose books are heavy as elephants, tangled in jargon, twisted like Lacan’s language.

There are so many Marmorean figures of Latin letters in France and yet Veyne easily stands out among them. Men such as Pierre Boyancé, Pierre Grimal or Jérôme Carcopino who was a minister under Vichy and the writer of a life of Julius Caesar which is still a milestone. All this has the odor of good black ink in school notebooks. The tireless music of rosa, rosae always sends us back to the same bed of roses. Grimal touched ancient Rome with white gloves. As for Paul Veyne, he was part of the serious avant-garde.

Belles-lettres shook precisely when historians, at the beginning of the 1950s, coming from the Annales school, wanted to take a complex look at history. They no longer sought to produce books that went date-by-date, event-by-event, and by conventional biographies. They found refuge under the aegis of Fernand Braudel who, in The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, expounded his ideas: the layering of temporalities, the longue durée, or even material civilization as prisms through which the historian observes the world and goes far beyond traditional history by opening up to sciences such as geography, economics, ethnology, sociology, or archaeology.

Paul Veyne had his sight on all Latin literature, from Appius Claudius Caecus to Boethius, including also the inscriptions and epitaphs of Romanity, for which he combed the manuals and syllogi of the great libraries. Such certainly was the master’s background and backroom work for half a century. This was also the influence of the archivism of ideas that the obscure and marginal Michel Foucauld defended as intangible proof of the real and the concrete. But before going over to Harald Fuchs, Veyne attended sociology classes at the Collège de France taught by Raymond Aron and applied the theories of the humanities and economics, oriented towards liberalism, from Simmel to Schumpeter, to Roman society, at a time when the class struggle was foolishly plastered onto history by the passive Trostko-Maoist bourgeoisie.

Veyne had a talent for unfolding phenomena, trying methodically, with a strong lucidity close to skepticism, to understand appearances, types, behaviors in Roman society. This rigorous observation went hand-in-hand with a keen sense of historical narrative. In Comment on écrit l’histoire (How We Write History), Veyne did not consider his discipline as a raw and crude science but as “a true novel.” A novel exposes reality, takes refuge in Danton’s phrase in The Red and the Black, “the truth, the bitter truth,” and, at the same time, hits you in the gut, touches you, makes you sensitive, agitates you, fascinates you. In his writing, so many such comparisons and analogies have been carried out with seriousness and accuracy while denoting much originality.

Veyne did not try to tell us that the Romans were superior to us, exotic or grandiose. He did not sigh with ecstasy at the mere name of Rome. He demythologized and even demystified the Romans, placing them in the spotlight. He stopped admiring them, and instead wanted to understand them. Roman society was its own organism, had its own special functioning, its principles, its totems and its taboos. The role of the historian is to deconstruct the strata of society. At the term “deconstruct,” one might gladly take out his magnum 44, ready to do some serious damage. But it is best to put it away, and out this term to use in the same way that Lévi-Strauss did— by understanding that it is not a question of deconstructing our own society but to undertake a disassembling of an ancient society, to disentangle what is complexus-entangled—in order to understand its mechanics; to detach the cogs of the machine, and to observe (as one would take out an organ from a body) the specific purpose of this ancient society.

In Bread and Circuses (1976), Veyne brought out the little-known and crucial role of the euergetes in that complex mechanism present in Roman society. The euergetes was the notable par excellence who, in his city, financed the games, the theater, the baths, with a view to social cohesion—a symbol of Romanity in the face of the barbarians: “imagine a city where the big bourgeois in the corner finances the cinema, the theater, the casino and offers you an aperitif as a bonus, and well, that’s how Roman cities functioned.” One must read the articles in L’empire gréco-romain (The Greco-Roman Empire) [2005] to understand the full complexity of the ancients in relation to their tastes, religion, the idea of faith, entertainment, economics and social class differences. Veyne enlightened us on the status of the gladiator, on the intellectual preoccupations of an intelligent pagan like Plutarch, the splendor of Palmyra, the morality of the couple in the second century even before the advent of Christianity, the existence of a middle class in Rome, between the great families and the plebs sordida. The chapter on Trimalchio in Roman Society (1991) is a true painting of the parvenu, embodied by the degenerate nouveau riche of Petronius’ The Satyricon, who rises by cunning, gets rich by speculating on land, and shows off his flashy wealth.

Veyne was interested in literature. We owe him some splendid pages full of pragmatism on Seneca. We owe him the L’Elégie érotique romaine (Roman Erotic Elegy) [1983], a book in which he explains that ancient poets, such as Tibullus, Catullus, Propertius, are not romantics before the term was invented, or even beatniks, but poets who only seek to play with the codes and conventions of their society, formulating love stories invented from scratch. In the last years of his life, a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid crowned a remarkable work in which one can savor the Swan of Mantua as one would listen to Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. A freshness of air, a gracefulness, a precious accuracy that buries the unhealthy translation of Jacques Perret of the Belles-lettres.

It will certainly become necessary to write a beautiful book on the life of Paul Veyne. Of all the men I have known, Veyne was the gentlest, the most generous. Not a word against any other. Treat others as equals and call the woman you love with “vouvoie.” Veyne was concerned with the little people until the end of his old age. A local celebrity in Bédoin, at the foot of Mont Ventoux, not far from the friendly monks of Le Barroux, he was among his own people. He was not imperious in any way, always very polite, replying with, “Thank you, master” to anyone who called him by the same title. He did not play the role of the wise old man, scowling and lecturing, and never quick to play the role of the intellectual for women readers on holidays. He always shirked merits and honors without ever refusing them. There was a great humility to the man.

What impressions do I have of him? I see him offering his housekeeper champagne to congratulate her on an ethereal dessert. I still see him offering a glass of whisky to his dog, Clover; making the sign of the cross while talking about General Leclerc; driving a two-wheeler at night while reciting Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in the original. I still admire him telling me, at eighty-seven years old, the “Voyage to Cythera” at the dinner table, the living room caught in the sunset like a beetle in amber, with a glass of red wine resting on his cheek: “What is this sad and black island? It is Cythera, we are told, a country famous in songs, a banal Eldorado for all old bachelors. Look at it. It is a miserable land after all…” I always imagine him in his office, a great clutter, manuscripts on the floor; on the shelves, broken-backed books, volumes of poems, and a parade of trinkets that ranged from a postcard of Santa Maria Maggiore to a plastic woman’s leg that lay in front of Augustine and Cyprian of Carthage, a Mongolian knife and a photograph of his late son.

Veyne was a friend of Michel Piccoli, whom he met during a conference in Tunis. The actor knocked on the door of his room, the professor opened: “Mr. Veyne, excuse me. You know, I did not study. I am a little ashamed to appear next to you.” And Veyne replied: “You know, you create; through your performance, you participate in works. I do not create anything. I am unable to. I try to understand what guys more or less like you have done in a distant era. I have no merit.”

The master of Bédoin was a lover. When he received the Femina prize for his memoirs, I congratulated him, saying. “I imagine that you don’t care.” And he replied, “Of course I don’t care, but it pleases my wife, and if it pleases her, then it pleases me too.” That was pure Veyne. There was in this small, cramped, hunchbacked man, a sensual temperament. “Since you write love poems,” he wrote to me, “we can be on familiar terms.” He loved women, he who was ugly as a louse, because of a facial deformity. He loved the arts, the poetry of René Char who sometimes succumbed to an ecstasy on the telephone and sometimes to a tantrum; the paintings of Pignon-Ernst and Paul Jenkins, his contemporaries. He loved Italy, Stendhal and Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni, which he could recite by heart, and all the art of which Italy is capable—Giotto in Assisi, the Basilica of San Zeno in Verona, the Parmigianino Madonna of the Long Neck, Piero della Francesca and his Flagellation, Jupiter and Io by Correggio, the Seven Works of Mercy by Caravaggio in Naples.

Paul Veyne was not like other academics, who are often full of vinegar and proud. He was not prim and proper. He had this crazy side that made him eccentric and unpredictable, always ready to play a prank, a dare, a joke. At the University of Aix, he used to hang out on the tenth floor of the building during breaks, to prepare for his passion—mountaineering. He knew the summits of Europe, felt the vertigo of the crevasse, the shortness of breath of the altitude, the illusion of the snow and the perfume of the ice. He knew also the summits of his institution, the Collège de France, plus all the honors that the Americans, the English, the Italians and even the Turks gave him.

And how Veyne suffered in a stoic silence at seeing the people die around him—his son, who committed suicide, his son-in-law who died of AIDS. His marriages were long agonies, recounted in his memoirs—the abortion by his first wife; the hysteria of a Hellenist, daughter of a specialist in Plutarch; a notable village woman, suffering from dementia and depression, the love of his life; and a last marriage, three years ago, cut short because of the cancer of his wife. Beneath the appearance of a grandfather with a singing accent, kind and gentle, there must have been torments, storms and regrets that in ten years of friendship I was never able to pierce. Perhaps a liver sickened by the libertarian intoxication of post-1968.

My old and faithful friend is now on the other side. One morning, at breakfast, with coffee and foie gras, we talked about eternity. Veyne did not believe in God and was sorry not to believe in Him. He wanted to, but could not. For a long time, he had thought of suicide, as a practical exercise in getting all in a tizzy. But he would end up an old man. Eternity, the passage between the world of the living and a filled nothingness, inhabited or not, titillated his mind. It took courage, then, to cross the great cold without hope, with his eyes on death. May the Lord welcome him into His wide-open arms. Last Thursday, he joined Virgil, Seneca and Damien, his son. He will not be bored.


Nicolas Kinosky is at the Centres des Analyses des Rhétoriques Religieuses de l’Antiquité and teaches Latin. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef.

Reality and the Notion of the Just War

Any conflicts that have been fought between nations and states have always raised the basic question—on whose side is justice? In some cases, such as Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union, it is quite obvious that justice was on the side of the USSR, although there are still revisionists and falsifiers who try to find fault with the actions of the Soviet Union. But there have been controversial moments in history, where a succession of historical events has made the positions of opposing sides less clear. As well, an important topic has always been—can offensive hostilities be a just war? Or, does it refer only to defensive actions? For example, according to UN documents, only defensive warfare is just, although there are a number of reservations, from peacekeeping forces to special resolutions that essentially give carte blanche to wage war. Such an example is UN Security Council Resolution 1973 of March 17, 2011 on Libya. The document regulated the creation of a no-fly zone, but effectively freed NATO’s hands for strikes on Libyan territory and support for terrorists. In general, the UN has long lost credibility as the organization of last resort in international law, and precedents for this were laid by Western countries (NATO’s aggression against Yugoslavia in 1999 and the occupation of Iraq by US forces in 2003).

In this context, a special military operation in Ukraine is especially relevant, especially because Western politicians constantly try to accuse Russia not only of “aggression” and “global hybrid warfare,” but also often consider the denazification of Ukraine as a prologue to further wars in Europe. Although if one follows US and EU case law, there should be no questions about Russia at all, neither on Crimea, nor on the special military operation launched on February 24, 2022.

Of course, notions of justice may be different in the West and in other parts of the world, just as the values under which the EU now presents a policy of imposing same-sex marriage and similar perversions. Nevertheless, for the subject of justice there is a certain criterion that has universal properties: that of Roman law. The same Hugo Grotius, when he derived the concept of just war, relied primarily on Roman law. But before him, the same views were expressed by Augustine, who appealed to a Christian worldview. However, if the question of just war is considered in a longer historical retrospective, we encounter an older Roman custom, a prototype of ius ad bellum and ius in bello, namely, the fetial law, ius fetiale, which regulated the conduct of wars. According to Cicero, the ius fetiale was a set of religious and legal norms characteristic of the Roman community which regulated relations between Romans and foreigners whom the ancient Quirites (citizens of Rome) regarded as enemies (hostes).

The feudalists were members of a college of twenty patricians charged with applying the ius fetiale, which was the cornerstone of international relations of the period—they were in charge of declaring war, making peace and treaties, as well as of asserting claims and settling such claims. They acted as parliamentarians, going to the other side to demand satisfaction if a treaty had been violated. If they refused, they had the power to declare war. In such a case, the pater patratus (father declared, i.e., head of the college of fetians) would go to the border of the violator’s land and in the presence of witnesses would throw a blood-stained spear on that land, uttering a formula for declaring war. Over time, this practice was transformed. The function of ambassadors was taken over by legates appointed by the Senate. During the Imperial period the role of pater patratus began to be performed by the emperors themselves. According to Pierangelo Catalano the norms and principles of the ius fetiale had legal force also in relation to peoples with whom Rome had no treaty. It was thus a universal practice.

Although the United States tries to position itself as heir to the Roman tradition, both on the aesthetic level (expressed, for example, in the architecture of the Capitol or the symbol of the eagle) and on the legal level (from the format of the Senate to the imitation of imperial traditions), it is clear that in the latter issue we see rather a simulacrum, an imitation of ancient foundations without proper justification with obvious manipulation to the benefit of certain groups. Obviously, without the neoconservatives in power under George W. Bush, there would have been no invasion of Iraq, just as there would have been no invasion of Panama in 1989, had it not been for the political crisis associated with the elections (Washington has since deftly used and even provoked such crises, which have been called “color revolutions”). Earlier, the provocation in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 led to the Vietnam War, which the U.S. lost with shame. And the aggression against Iraq in 2003 was based on false justifications. Although the political rhetoric of U.S. leaders was clearly tinged with God’s choice, at least recall Bush’s words that, supposedly, God told him to strike Iraq. The current statements of the U.S. leadership are based more on human rights and deterrence strategy to protect national interests (where Russia, China, DPRK, and Iran are named as adversaries), although the need to preserve the imperial grandeur of the United States and the unconditional right of Washington to determine which actions are acceptable and which are not are implied.

However, Russia has more right to consider itself the heir to the Roman tradition. Regular appeals to Ukraine by the Russian leadership to stop violence against the inhabitants of the Donbass bear the spirit of ius fetiale quite well. And the signing of agreements with the DNR and LNR on February 23, 2022, legitimized the use of military force against Ukraine, just as in ancient Rome assistance was provided to allies against offenders. Although diplomatic relations were severed between Ukraine and Russia on the eve of the special military operation, we know that ius fetiale also applies to parties with whom there were no treaties. Thus, a number of speeches made by Russian President Vladimir Putin in the days before the start of the operation became a metaphorical spear dipped in blood, which pater patratus threw into the territory of Ukraine. As we can see, they were treated without due attention both in Ukraine and in the West, just as the warnings in December 2021 that NATO expansion would be responded to appropriately (Moscow’s proposals to the United States to negotiate the creation of a new European security architecture were ignored). Incidentally, the Moscow-Third Rome formula thus acquires an additional dimension. After all, the ius fetiale is quite applicable to other hostes, which we have now defined as unfriendly countries.


Leonid Savin, is Editor-in-Chief of the Geopolitika.ru Analytical Center, General Director of the Cultural and Territorial Spaces Monitoring and Forecasting Foundation and Head of the International Eurasia Movement Administration. This article appears through the kind courtesy of Geopolitika.


Featured: Folio 188 of the Roman Vergil, ca. 5th century AD.

Georges Dumézil: Discovery of the Indo-European Mind

Georges Dumézil was born on March 4, 1898. Associated with the Class of Letters (of the Royal Academy of Science, Letters and Fine Arts of Belgium) since May 5, 1958, where he presented two very learned papers, one on July 3, 1961, the other on January 11, 1965. The Academy also published one of his studies.

In his brief eulogy to Georges Dumézil on November 3, 1986, announcing the death of the French scholar, André Molitor, at the time vice-director of the Class, described the deceased in the following way: “He was in France, and one can say in the world, one of the leading figures in the humanities today… His work led him to search for, and then to progressively decipher, what we may call a ‘key to understanding’ the Indo-European societies of old, which is expressed both in their structures and in their great fundamental myths.” Please allow me to elaborate somewhat on these very accurate and very compact sentences.

If we disregard his activity—however important—as a linguist (especially in the field of Caucasian languages and Quechua), Georges Dumézil was essentially a specialist in Indo-European studies, and we can compare his work mutatis mutandis with that of the pioneers of comparative grammar. These great scholars of the nineteenth century, we remember, had succeeded not only in demonstrating the indisputable kinship of what were called “Indo-European languages” but also in finding certain characteristics of the mother language, this hypothetical language from which all the others had come by transformation and which was called “Indo-European.”

If we want to schematize – with all that schematization has of outrageousness – we will say that Georges Dumézil prolonged, by widening it, the work of comparative grammar. He set out to discover, no longer the language as the great linguists of the last century had done, but the thought, the mental universe of the Indo-Europeans. To do this, he studied and compared the culture of the various ancient peoples descended from the Indo-Europeans, and in particular the privileged manifestations of these cultures, namely the religions, the mythologies and the literatures. This research concerned Nordic societies as well as ancient Rome, the Indo-Iranian world as well as the Caucasus; it was carried out on texts as different (to take a few examples) as the Vedic hymns, the Mahabarata, the Iranian Avesta, the Scandinavian Eddas, the Irish mythological cycle, the Ossetian Nartean epic, or the account of Titus Livius on royal Rome. And the scholar—this deserves to be emphasized—always worked first hand on the texts he used; in other words, he knew (that is, read and deciphered) a good thirty languages.

His method was the comparative method. But where his unfortunate predecessors (for there had already been unsuccessful attempts in the 19th century in the field of comparative mythology) compared proper names, isolated details, relatively minimal facts that only a superficial examination would allow one to believe to be similar, Dumézil attacked, in order to compare them, facts that were homologous in depth, that is to say, different perhaps at first sight, but between which, once these differences had been criticized and analyzed, identical patterns appeared.

For Dumézil was a structuralist. In his work, the comparisons always concerned structured sets of the same meaning, never isolated details. He showed, for example, that it is the same myth, or in any case the same story, Indo-European, that is found at work in four different societies: in Rome (the war and the alliance between the Romans and the Sabines, which, in its origins, founded founded Roman society); in Scandinavia (the fight and the fusion between the Aesir gods and the Vanes gods which, in the Scandinavian mythology, founded the first divine society); in Ireland (the war that led to the fusion of the Túatha Dé Danann and the Fomore during the second battle of Mag Tured, and which, in the Irish mythological cycle, opens the history of Ireland); in India (the conflict, then the close association, of the superior gods and the Nāsatya in Vedic mythology). Four stories, profoundly different in their external presentation, and yet homologous in that they have the same meaning and that they are articulated around the same fundamental notions. In reality, they are illustrations, variously updated, of the same original scheme which showed how our distant ancestors represented (we are in the domain of imaginary representation) the definitive constitution of a viable society.

Thus, by means of the comparison of structured sets, significant as sets, and borrowed from civilizations that are all Indo-European, certainly, but sometimes very distant in time and space, Dumézil sought to find, to bring to light, certain aspects of the Indo-European mentality or imaginary, aspects that had—should we say?—completely escaped his predecessors.

Thus, the Indo-Europeans had not only transmitted their language to their descendants; they had also transmitted ideas to them—at times a particular framework of analysis, let us say a certain vision of the world (the famous “ideology of the three functions”), sometimes specific conceptions (on the night and diurnal light, on the conduct of the warrior, on marriage), even at times narrative or epic patterns, “fragments of literature” in some way. This is indeed the fundamental contribution of Dumézil—to have shown that, in the Indo-European societies of old, the Indo-European heritage was not limited to language, that it also included ideas, representations, narrative schemes; and that it was possible to find them.

There is no question here of entering further into the maze for details of Dumézil’s work—the fruit of more than sixty years of patient and fruitful work, it includes several hundred articles and some sixty books, from Le crime des Lemniennes and Le festin d’immortalité, both published in 1924, to Entretiens avec Didier Éribon, published in 1987, that is to say, one year after his death.

An immense work that took place on the fringes of the French university proper, like that of Claude Lévi-Strauss—a similarity that Pierre Bourdieu underlines in his Homo academicus. Marginal is a characteristic of Dumézil’s career. Let us recall some of the major milestones.

He was demobilized in 1918—he was twenty years old at the time—and remained a high school teacher for only six months, living on various means before taking up a series of posts abroad, which enabled him to learn languages and to become acquainted with different cultures.

First, he was a French lecturer at the University of Warsaw. He did not enjoy it, but, as Claude Lévi-Strauss noted, it was a “good opportunity for him to learn Polish and Russian.” Then Turkey, where in 1925, Georges Dumézil was giving a course in the history of religions at the University of Istanbul. “Mustapha Kemal,” observed the same Lévi-Strauss, “had been told that in France, this kind of teaching had served the struggle against clericalism, and he wanted to try the remedy on his Muslim compatriots. Thanks to him and to [Dumézil], the Faculty of Letters of Istanbul was, for five years, the only one in the world where any degree included a compulsory examination in the history of religions.”

It was during this stay that Dumézil discovered the Caucasians of Turkey and the USSR, in particular the Ossetians, the last descendants of the Scythians, whose language and culture he would save.

He left Turkey in 1931 for Sweden, as a lecturer in French at the University of Upsala. For two years, he resumed his “Indo-European project through Swedish, Old Scandinavian and the folklore of Northern Europe.”

Finally, he returned to France, but remained still outside the “canonical” university: first to the École Pratique des Hautes Études from 1933l then in 1948 to the Collège de France, where he taught for 20 years until his retirement in 1968, as the holder of what would eventually be called the “Chair of Indo-European Civilization.”

His work was only slowly recognized, encountering, perhaps even more in France than abroad, the opposition, the hostility even, of certain solidly established figures. It was the Scandinavian scholars (Swedish, Danish, Norwegian) who first accepted his work with warmth, shortly after 1945. The dissemination of his work remained for a long time limited to a narrow circle of specialists, not always benevolent, and sometimes a little outdated. Dumézil had to fight bitterly, even polemically (we will talk about this later), to get his ideas across. But gradually his influence widened. As early as 1968, Pierre Nora regularly included his books in the prestigious “Bibliothèque des sciences humaines,” thus putting his work before the eyes of the general educated public. “What readership I do have,” said Dumézil, “I owe to Gallimard and to this collection.” But Gallimard was not the only one; Payot and Flammarion also published his works in collections for the “educated general public.”

Official honors followed: the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, then the Académie Française, where he was received in 1979, along with that other outsider who was also his friend, Claude Lévi-Strauss. International recognition also came to him, in the form of numerous invitations for courses or conferences. In the United States, we can mention the University of Chicago, where his friend Mircea Eliade invited him, the University of California in Los Angeles, the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton; in Belgium, the University of Brussels and the University of Liège.

After scientific recognition, came the supreme recognition of our time—that which comes from the media. In 1984, Pierre Dumayet met Dumézil for more than an hour for the program “D’Homme à Homme,” which he presented on TF1. But this was only the beginning. 1986 became the “Dumézil year.” Every self-respecting weekly wanted an interview with the scholar (Magazine littéraire, April 1986; Le Point, June 1986, Le Vif-L’express, September 1986). But the apotheosis was the special broadcast of Apostrophes that Bernard Pivot devoted to Dumézil, on July 18, 1986, a few months before his death. But Dumézil was not beguiled by this media hype: “Half a century ago, who would have thought of asking Meillet, Sylvain Lévi, for a public presentation of their discoveries on a music-hall stage? With television, we are there, and well beyond.”

In any case, Bernard Pivot went to interview him at his home, at 82 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs in Paris, an apartment that was, it was said, a “cathedral of books.” The meeting was memorable, and our colleague André Molitor evoked it in this very room, on November 3, 1986: “Those of us who recently saw on television this 88-year-old man explain his work, with simplicity, were struck and conquered by his strong personality.”

And it is true: the image that the scientist gave was endearing; his simplicity, his reserve, his authority, his conviction, the clarity of his presentation, the art with which he was able to convey a particularly difficult subject, all this was impressive and demanded admiration. In fact, practically until his death, he preserved a lucidity and a vigor of spirit.

And then there were those precious interviews with Didier Éribon, which also date from the last months of his life (between February and July 1986). Dumézil, for the very first time, discovered himself in public with simplicity and lucidity, evoking less perhaps his work than his life and his personal path, speaking very freely about his teachers, his friends, his literary and philosophical tastes, his political temptations of youth, life, religion, death.

He died a few months later, on October 11, 1986, at 88 years of age, after having left behind him an immense, innovative, disturbing work, a work also which one is easily characterized as fluid, because it does not present anything fixed; and it is also what sometimes made its access difficult. In fact, as the creator of a new discipline in the field of Indo-European studies, Dumézil had to develop his own method, and when one innovates, trial and error are inevitable. His approach and his thinking were progressively clarified and corrected from one study to the next; and the critics, who eagerly to followed his work, were often behind this evolution. The fact, moreover, that he himself disavowed what he had written up to 1938 on the grounds of a methodological flaw, dismayed some who preferred to “wait and see.”

I will not say anything here about the political recuperations that some people, in particular in the French New Right, have tried to make of Dumézil’s theories, recuperations that have nothing to do with scientific research, and which have at times contributed to the visceral and passionate rejection of his theses.

In any case, this grandiose work is that of a discreet and modest scholar, even if his polemic was bitter, formidable, and full of a ferocious spirit. He had to fight constantly, almost until the end, to have his ideas recognized: “I spent my time,” he said, “polemicizing, but only because I was attacked. One can count on the fingers of one hand the offensives that I myself have initiated against someone, without him having first opened hostilities.” Dumézil felt that he had nothing to impose on anyone; that he had no right to do so. “I am not,” he said, “a master of thought.” This was true in the scientific field, where he systematically refused to have disciples, to direct works; it was also true in political matters. He admitted to a brief “political temptation” for Action Française at the end of the First World War, but the figure of the committed intellectual, so common in the French tradition, was absolutely foreign to him: “I even feel,” he confided to his interlocutor, “a kind of repulsion for people who hold this role.”

It is because deep down, this enthusiast, author of a work as fascinating as it is impressive, this polemicist who fought ceaselessly to have the importance of his discoveries recognized, this master who unquestionably transformed the field of Indo-European studies, was a skeptic. Someone once compared him to a rationalist of the Enlightenment: “You flatter me,” he replied. “I would have liked to be a man of the eighteenth century, but with the feeling that these great minds did not have, for the ephemeral, for the inaccessible.” He became a Freemason in a workshop of the Grand Lodge shortly after his return from Sweden (in 1933), and declared more than 50 years later: “I am still a Freemason; initiation is like baptism, irreversible. But I am in sleep, as they say.” He was agnostic: “Of this self, what will remain after my death, does not worry me. Most probably, nothing will remain of it.”

But perhaps the best example of his “detachment” is his attitude towards his work and the fate it would have after his death. He provides for us an extraordinary lesson.

In fact, when Jean Mistler presented him with his academician’s sword in 1979, Dumézil gave an address, in which he emphasized the relative and provisional character of his work: “I know, because it is a law without exception. I know that this work, in fifty, perhaps in twenty, in ten years, will only be of historical interest; that it will be, by putting things at their worst, ruined, by putting things at their best—which is my hope—pruned, re-trimmed, transformed.” He took up the same idea seven years later in his Entretiens avec Didier Éribon: “Believe me, I have a very strong feeling of the incomplete, relative character of my results. I seem to be modest, but it’s true; I think so deeply. The results of our teachers were also relative and provisional—but where would we be without them?”

And Entretiens avec Didier Éribon ends in the following way.

Éribon: “One day, you told me: if I am wrong, my life has no meaning.”

Dumézil: “My scientific life, yes. But even that is not true: even if I am wrong; it will have had a function; it will have amused me. In any case, today it is too late to do it again. I can no longer escape it. Supposing I am totally wrong, my Indo-Europeans will be like Riemann’s and Lobachevsky’s geometries: constructions outside the real. This is already not so bad. It will mean changing me from one shelf to another in the libraries: I will pass into the ‘novels’ section.”

He was sincere in his expression—full of his usual humor—of the provisional and imperfect character of his work. And yet, his influence, in all sectors of Indo-European studies, is considerable today, and we can say, paraphrasing slightly the words of André Molitor, that his work, long disputed, still sometimes discussed, has now acquired the right to be cited.

And I will leave it to Claude Lévi-Strauss to conclude by welcoming Georges Dumézil under the dome of the Quai Conti: “In your person, Sir, we salute a master of more than encyclopedic knowledge, whose genius was able to establish, between fields that were apparently very distant from one another, and that had until then remained the jealously guarded preserve of specialists, connections that upset everything we thought we knew about the distant past, and which also opened up entirely new perspectives on what you call ‘the dynamics of the human mind.'”


Jacques Poucet is a Belgian philologist, who specializes in ancient Rome. He is Professor Emeritus of the Université catholique de Louvain. [This article was [The original version was published in the Bulletin de la Classe des Lettres et des Sciences Morales et Politiques (6e série, t. 3, 1992) of the Royal Academy of Science, Letters and Fine Arts of Belgium].


Featured image: Georges Dumezil at his office, August 29, 1984.

A Case For Teaching The Humanities

“I am Roman because Rome, from the time of the consul Marius and the divine Julius to Theodosius, drafted the first form of my France. I am Roman, because Rome, the Rome of priests and popes, has given eternal solidarity of sentiment, of morals, of language, of worship, to the political work of Roman generals, administrators and judges. By this treasure, which it received from Athens and transmitted that deposit to our Paris, Rome means without question the civilization of humanity. I am Roman, I am human: two identical propositions.” These words from the pen of Charles Maurras in Barbares et Romains (Barbarians and Romans) form a vibrant praise not only of Rome, the sweet anaphora, but also of civilization, conveying tradition and transmission and not oblivion and renunciation; perpetuation and not the clean slate; community and not individuality; permanence and not rupture.

For a few days now, the Minister of National Education has seemed inclined to see the teaching of Latin and Greek return to middle and high schools. The Latinist that I am and who used to unveil to students the mysteries of rosa, rosae can only be pleased. However, I am not fooled by these dupes. This kind of announcement is certainly enough to make a whole section of the conservative university and academic intelligentsia of the center-right feel good about the woke and progressive drifts already well underway, with inclusive language, the satanic and non-gendered pronoun “iel” and the convoluted discussions about male domination in language.

We shouldn’t imagine that the Macronian renaissance is about to be launched, as other renaissances were in the course of our history. Minister Blanquer is a liberal-conservative, certainly, but does not have the courage to be conservative. Is he the most cynical of the bunch? That is quite possible—he has already sabotaged the BA degree, reduced to a pittance, and is in favor of the digital school and even of the digital kindergarten.

If I were naive, I would believe that this sudden impulse is inspired by the spirit of Lucien Jerphagnon, whose death, ten years ago, we are commemorating and whose birth we are celebrating a hundred years later. Father Jerph was one of those sparkling, light spirits that contrast with the dullness and pomposity of academics. He was inhabited by joy, the kind of joy that delights youth, lifts the heart, sharpens the soul, and makes it rise above all misfortunes, torments, and distresses. The true joy of knowledge. Lucien Jerphagnon was neither of the Left, nor of the Right, nor a Marxist, nor an intellectual at the forefront of research. He was freelance and classical; close to Paul Veyne by originality, Désiré Nisard by taste, Jean Bayet by academic outlook.

His was a strange life: he dressed like a monk and was ordained a priest; then, a passionate lover, turned into a happy husband and ended up as a patriarch. He was in turn a theologian, historian of ideas, translator and philosopher; of high class, of good style, careful to be versatile if he could not manage the modern complexity of reality. Plotinus was his tender companion, with whom one shares a cigarette and a glass of cognac. In love with Augustine, he knew how to render the full measure of this author. A gifted young scholar, who became a professor in Milan in his thirties when others were at the Collège de France in their twilight. Jerpha revived Madauros, a university town in northern Algeria, that supreme and delicate refinement of Romanization, where Augustine, the orator Maximus, Apuleius and Martianus Capella lived. His biography of Julian the Apostate seeks to understand how a philosopher-emperor thought he could return to paganism and make Christianity a footnote in history. An unresolved death by the side of Mosul clinched it—Christianity would triumph.

Jerphagnon was a philosopher of time and banality. Influenced by Vladimir Jankélévitch, he was concerned with understanding the everyday, the alltäglichkeit, as Heidegger politely said, pretext to all the astonishments, typical of the wise. He was a serious discoverer of forgotten authors such as Marcus Varro or Favorinus of Arles; a historian of ideas of high caliber who made us understand, in les Divins Césars (The Divine Caesars), why the emperors of the 2nd century thought they were the sun and who envisaged Rome as the center of a cosmos—all the while writing with amusement and enjoyment a formidable history of Rome.

The young Lucien at the high school in Bordeaux was bored during a mathematics class. On his knees, he flipped through a book containing a few photos of the ruins of Timgad, the Palmyra of Algeria: “That’s where I want to live and die,” the young lad said to himself. From heaven came down a voice: “Jerphagnon, you will make up two hours!” Then his teacher stuck a future specialist in the Greco-Roman world. “I could never get used to the fact that Rome was dead,” confessed the wise old man to José Saramago, “because I loved it since my 6th grade. I lived my life there, faithful to this love of Roman civilization.” What a beautiful profession of faith!

If Lucien Jerphagnon is to be made an exemplum, let’s not forget that in matters of education, the Left is chopping our legs and causing us many problems. And this is not the end of the story! I hold as proof Vincent Peillon who writes in la Révolution française n’est pas terminée (The French Revolution is not Finished) that it is necessary to reinvent the revolution of the spirit, with the aim of destroying at all costs the Catholic religion and to invent a republican religion. This requires the total conversion of the elites and the young to the sciences and the disappearance of Latin and Greek, languages of the old regime, of Catholicism, of bourgeois domination.

Such is the pinnacle of the freemasons: radical leftists yesterday, social-democrats today; old-fashioned, stuck in the Third Republic, detached from reality and perfectly barbaric, since they claim, shamelessly, not to transmit any more, to cut themselves off from tradition and civilization. They swear only by individualities in the perspective of human rights. Now they promise inclusiveness, flattering the youth, corrupting it with vague ideas about freedom and equality.

In an interview given on TV in 1958, Pagnol felt the problem looming: specialization, the end of the humanities and the science of the technocrat. Specialization, by reducing the fields, reduces the possibilities of linking the fields. To have a rational mind is precisely to see relationships. But if the objects no longer exist, the relationships can no longer be made. It can only result in an impoverishment of thought. National education goes even further, since it has given up training literate people, to preparing only future employees for the labor market. The best will be slug-brain specialists, dumbed down like tabletops, the least good will be cashiers at Franprix, salesmen at Prisunic.

The professors stuff the heads of young people with new ideas, smelling of Pierre Bourdieu, ready-made and passed off as revealed truths, so they themselves can continue to dine at the faculty club during silly seminars on anti-racism in literature, and history colloquiums on North African minorities in the gay Paris of the 1920s. The education of yesteryear has degenerated into a total moron-factory based on the ideological teaching of soft sciences. We are far from the gentleman, far from the humanist, far from the cosmopolitan scholar.

Getting beyond her gavel, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem completed the work, explaining that Latin classes would be for the children of the rich and privileged, that elective classes had to be abolished, and that antiquity had to be made accessible to all by diluting Latin in French courses, thus putting ancient language courses to death in a gentle way; a bit like euthanasia.

Between this caricatured, barbaric Left, in the very sense in which Maurras took it, some have retained the opinion of Raymond Aron in this matter, like Paul Veyne, our dear friend, whose opinion that Latin and Greek should be abolished in secondary school and that a national establishment should be created to train solid scientists and researchers, I do not quite understand. This is a mistake. To dedicate Latin to research is to render it autistic; to leave it in the hands of the colloquium-makers who titillate the coffee-brewers and the editors of scientific articles in obscure journals is to render it mute, invisible, extinct.

It doesn’t matter if people are interested in Aristophanes’ scholia, or in the placement of an accent on a word in a twelfth-century manuscript in the Vatican library. One does not ask young people to read the Pharsalus in the original, even yours truly would not be able to do so. But to have a good head, made robust by the training in, and knowledge of, Greek tragedy, the functioning of the Athenian city, the Peloponnesian war told by Thucydides, the epic of Alexander the Great, Latin and Greek rhetoric, the work of Cicero, Caesar and Augustus, the personality of Seneca, elegiac poetry, Virgil, the bloody and mannered histories of Tacitus, the orientalism of the emperors, 312 and our world that has become Christian. It is grand to arrive, by love of the rei latinae, to the character of Des Esseintes in À Rebours by Huysmans who, in chapter III, gives us the menu of his likes and dislikes of all literature, criticizing the Chickpea (Cicero), judging the verses of a phony and vain poet, and preferring in the “fin de siècle” Roman authors the rot and the carrion, and at times the supreme refinement of precious stones and topazes.

I do not believe in progressivism and personal development, nor even in the scientific and academic elitism left to the Giscards of thought. I firmly believe in the tradition of inheriting and transmitting, of passing on the work of Hellenic-Christian civilization, from generation to generation. This is achieved through solid and serious learning of civilization, through language and grammar, literature, philosophy and history. It is necessary to go through the pain of declensions and conjugations; to make the effort, as in Pétanque, to have access to the texts, to their style; to reflect on the words and their concepts in order to understand the civilization. Nothing is more precious than to know the feeling of the language, to understand the spirit of an era.

This apparent need for Latin and Greek can take three forms: as a declaration in an electoral context; resistance and head-on opposition to progressivism; or a reconciliation with Wokism. The problem is not so much what Minister Blanquer says or thinks, but what the left-wing ideological machine, the Éducation Nationale, is capable of producing. The teacher conforms to the Houellebecquian image of the tired West. The teachers are mostly mediocre, cowardly and subscribe, under contract, to all the sickness of the modern world: deconstruction, diversity, immigration, inclusion, in the public as well as in the private. If this impulse for antiquity gets mixed up, dare I say it, with this kind of progressive thinking, it would do equally bad things for the mental health of our young people. I can already imagine the titles of the courses: “Migratory Crisis in Roman Gaul;” “the Roman Baths: A Space of Hybridization for Minorities;” “Conspiracy and Fake News: The Catiline Conspiracy;” “Being a Slave and Gay in Ephesus;” “Transidentity in Rome.” What a wonderful antiquity!

What we need are professors who are like Hussars in full cavalry at Jena—scholars like Bernard Lugan, like Marc Fumaroli; focused minds concerned with civilization—like Valéry, Thibaudet; intransigent polemicists—like Bloy or Julien Benda. The rest will follow. I began with Maurras, I end with Charles Péguy and Notre Jeunesse (Our Youth): ” What this entry was for me, in sixth grade, at Easter— the astonishment, the newness before rosa, rosae, the opening of an entire world, completely different, an altogether new world. That is what needs to be said, but that would get me tangled up in fondness. The grammarian who just the one time, the first, opens the Latin grammar on rosa, rosae will never know on which flowerbed he is opening the child’s soul.”


Nicolas Kinosky is at the Centres des Analyses des Rhétoriques Religieuses de l’Antiquité. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef.


Featured image: “Etruscan Vase Painters,” by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, painted in 1871.

The Five “Gods of Noah” In The Qur’an

We often hear about alleged polytheism in Arabia during pre-islamic times, the so-called ǧāhilīya, which was seemingly filled with mušrik practicing various forms of širk in honour of various deities. Naturally, this Arabic root does not refer to a plurality of deities, but rather to “partnering” or associating others with Allah who is unique (tawḥīd)—it is a polemic reference to the Christian notion of the Trinity, in which Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost also participate equally (šarika) in the Godhead.

The question is to what extent polytheism still persisted in the Greco-Roman Middle East of Late Antiquity, which, as was the case with the Roman Empire in general, seems largely to have been permeated by monotheistic traditions before the seventh century. The Qur’an would seem to support this notion—it is (un)surprisingly vague in this regard. In the alleged Satanic Verses (53,19-20), “Have you thought of al-Lāt and al-‹ Uzza and Manāt, the third, the other?” we find a vague reference to three pan-Semitic goddesses, who were venerated by many peoples in many places at many times. The only other concrete reference is 71, 23: “And they say: Forsake not your gods, nor forsake Wadd, nor Suwa’, nor Yaghuth and Ya’uq and Nasr,” the gods of those condemned to perish in the Deluge (cf. Gen 7,24-8,14).

The mention of these five deities of antediluvian times, and allegedly worshipped by Arab tribes until the arrival of Islam, understandably caused some unpleasant difficulties for later Islamic exegetes, not to mention the modern reader—how can the knowledge or the cult of them have survived that global eradication? According to Ibn al-Kalbī’s Book of Idols (Kitāb al-Aṣnām), a compendium of legends and not an historical source, they are said to have washed up on the beach of Jeddah (the nearest port city from Mecca) after the Flood, where they gradually silted up until the fortune teller Amr ibn Luhai was told their location by his demon Abu Ṯumāna.

Be this as it may, we must remember that the Quranic account is based on (see above) the biblical one, which in turn, probably during the Captivity, was derived from Mesopotamian myths (e.g., the Atraḫasis epic, and the reworking of this narrative in the Twelve Tablet version of the Gilgamesh Epic): in the Mesopotamian version, the myth serves to explain why humans die, and does not function, as in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, as a divine punishment for otherwise unspecified sins. In Mesopotamia (lit. “Land between rivers”), inundations were rather commonplace, in contrast to Israel or more to the point, the arid Hijaz (and we note here in passing, that the Greek flood story around Deucalion also has a Semitic background [cf. Lucian, De dea Syria 13], cf. Iapetós of the “Catalogue of Women,” attributed to Hesiod, probably has something to do with the son of Noah, Japheth, Gen 10,2 ).

In any case, these Quranic deities are unknown in Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian literatures. Their mention here remains Delphic, as has been noted in the past, e.g.: “Why Muhammad lists five deities as Noahite in Sur. 71,22ff. cannot be explained” (Fr. Buhl, Das Leben Muhammeds, reprint Hildesheim 1955, 74). “Admittedly, they must have been rather insignificant local deities at that time and in Mecca only known by name, if Muhammed can put them into the pre-Flood times” (J. Wellhausen, Reste arabischen Heidentums, reprint Berlin 1961, 13).

The first god mentioned in this Quranic verse, Wadd, i.e., “beloved” in the non-sexual sense (wdd – therefore probably more of an epithet than a divine given name) is known from numerous inscriptions as the chief god of the Minaeans, a Yemeni kingdom which especially during the last centuries before Christ dominated trade along the incense route, eventually being subjugated by the Sabaeans after the campaign of Aelius Gallus in 25/24 BC. At first sight, we are dealing with an authentic old-Arabian god, which could indeed have been worshipped in the Hijaz. However, epigraphic finds are by no means limited to Ma‛īn, but is, as is to be expected with such a trading empire, spread further beyond the actual homeland. So, for example, a bilingual Greco-Minaean inscription on a marble altar was found on the Greek island of Delos, dated to after 166 BC, which mentions this deity in both languages:

Minaean (RÉS 3570)

1) Ḥnʾ w-Zydʾl ḏy Ḫḏb Ḥnʾ and Zydʾl, the two of the tribe Ḫḏb,
2) nṣb mḏbḥ Wdm w-ʾlʾlt built this altar to the Wdm and the gods
3) Mʿn b-Dlṯ of Maʿīn on Delos.

Greek (ID 2320)

Ὄδδου [Belonging to] Oaddos/Wadd
θεοῦ the god
Μιναίων of the Minaeans
Ὀάδδῳ [Dedicated to} Oaddos/Wadd.

This find alone makes it clear that the cult of this god, or rather this divine epithet, although certainly originating in Yemen (which is not a synonym with Hijaz, but an entirely different culture), had travelled far beyond, accompanying his worshippers on their mercantile journeys. We thus have a deity that on the one hand was not originally at home in the Hijaz, but could have been brought there sometime by Minaean traders; on the other, however, as with the three goddesses mentioned above, he attracted some following in a geographically vast region.

As for the second deity, Suwāʿ our only sources are contradictory reports from later Islamic traditions, some of which mention him, others which do not (e.g. Wāqidī mentions the destruction of his idol in Mecca, but this is not mentioned in the Prophet’s hagiography by Ibn Isḥāq)—”these stories of the destruction of the idols on behalf of Mohammad become more and more complete as the tradition moves further away from its origin, and the narratives are contradictory” (Wellhausen, op. cit. 19). Apart from such historically worthless information and some possible attestations as a theophoric element in early Islamic onomastics, we know literally nothing at all about this god. Did he even exist? I rather have the impression that there is a polemical intention behind this name, cf. Syriac šū/ōʿā (šwʿ >arab. swʿ) “stone, rock,” i.e., “petrified,” in the sense of a stone idol (Arab. waṯan, a loan-word from Sabaean, where the word has the meaning “boundary stone, stele”), which later was misunderstood not as a generic term for an idol, but rather as the name of a specific idol.

As for the third of the three here, Jaġūṯ, we again find colourful discrepant and paradoxical stories in the Islamic tradition. But as Jaġūṯ in Arabic means “he who helps—the helper” (possibly related to Jeush in Gen 36,14), this term is rather an epithet that could be applied to any (benevolent) god. Even if the Islamic tradition(s) actually contain(s) authentic materials here and there, it would be impossible to determine whether one and the same deity was meant in all cases.

The fourth God supposedly revered by Noah’s contemporaries according to the Qur’an, Jaʿūq remains shrouded in even more mystery than his already mentioned partners. There is no independent evidence for this god, and even his name does not seem to be Arabic. Wellhausen, who noted (op. cit. 23) “we are dealing with a South Arabian name,” thought of the closely related Ethiopian verb jǝʿuq (basic meaning “to observe, to be careful, to preserve; to manifest (reveal)”), although this root seems to be not of Semitic but rather of Cushitic origin, i.e., an African loan word in the Ethiosemitic languages.

Our findings up till now are somewhat meagre, even antediluvian with regard to what we actually know. It is thus of some relief that about the fifth god, Nasr, we actually have some data. In modern Arabic this word means “vulture” (perhaps originally denoting a totem animal). In the Talmudic treatise Avoda sara 11b, in a discourse on idolatry, we find the assertion:

אמר רב חנן בר רב חסדא אמר רב ואמרי לה א”ר חנן בר רבא אמר רב חמשה בתי עבודת כוכבים קבועין הן אלו הן בית בל בבבל בית נבו בכורסי תרעתא שבמפג צריפא שבאשקלון נשרא שבערביא

“Rav Ḥanan bar Rav Ḥisda says that Rav says, and some say that it was Rav Ḥanan bar Rava who says that Rav says: There are five established temples of idol worship, and they are: The temple of Bel in Babylonia; the temple of Nebo in the city of Khursei; the temple of Tirata, which is located in the city of Mapag; Tzerifa, which is located in Ashkelon; and Nashra, which is located in Arabia.”

This passage in turn is reminiscent of one found in the famous Doctrina of the Apostle Addai (Phillips edition, p.23f.):

ܿܡܢܘ ܗܢܐ ܢ ܼܒܘ ܦܬܟܪܐ ܥܒܝܕܐ ܕܣܓܕܝܢ ܐܢܬܘܢ ܠܗ܃ ܘܒܝܠ ܕܡܝܩܪܝܢ ܐܢܬܘܢ ܠܗ܂ ܗܐ ܓܝܪ ܐܝܬ ܒܟܘܢ ܕܣܓܕܝܢ ܠܒܪܬ

ܢܝܟܠ ܐܝܟ ܚܪ̈ܢܝܐ ܫ ̈ܒܒܝܟܘܢ܂ ܘܠ ܼܬܪܥܬ ܼܐ ܐܝܟ ܡ ̈ܒܓܝܐ܂ ܘܠܢܫܪܐ ܐܝܟ ܥܪ̈ܒܝܐ܂ ܘܠܫܡܫܐ ܘܠܣܗܪ ܼܐ ܐܝܟ ܫܪܟܐ ܕܚܪ̈ܢܐ ܼ

ܕܐܟܘܬܟܘܢ܂ܠܐܬܫܬܒܘܢܒܙܠܝ̈ܩܐܕܢܗܝܪ̈ܿܐ܂ܘܒܟܘܟܒܬܐܕܨܡܚܐ܂ܠܝܛܗܘܓܝܪܩܕܡܐܠܗܿܐ܂ܟܘܠܿܡܢܕܣܿܓܕ ܼ

ܠܒܪ̈ܝܬܐ܂ ܐܦܢ ܓܝܪ ܐܝܬ ܒܗܝܢ ܒܒܪ̈ܝܬܐ ܕܐܝܟ ܪܘܪ̈ܒܢ ܡܢ ܚܒܪ̈ܬܗܝܢ܂ ܐܠܐ ܟܢ ̈ܘܬܐ ̈ܐܢܝܢ ܕܚܒܪ̈ܬܗܝܢ ܐܝܟ ܕܐ ܿܡܪܬ ܼ

ܠܟܘܢ܂ܟܐܒܐܗܘܓܝܪܡܪܝܪܐܗܢܐܕܠܝܬܠܗܐܣܝܘܬ ܿܐ܂

“Meanwhile, I saw this city teeming with paganism, which is against God. Who is this Nabû, [but] an idol [made by men] whom you worship, and Bêl whom you worship? Behold, there are among you people those who worship Bath Nikkal such as the people of Harran, your neighbours, and Taratha [as venerated by] the people of Mabug, and Nashara by the Arabs, or as are the Sun and the Moon worshipped by the rest of Harran, as you do too. Do not be deceived by rays of light and by the bright star, for all creatures will be cursed by God.”

Nabû was a well-known Mesopotamian god of the first millennium BC (the son and quasi successor of Marduk, whose name means “the announcer, the called one”—cf. Nebuchadnezzar, Nabī “prophet”); Bêl is the Mesopotamian, and later Aramaic realisation of Baal, whose cult was well-known, i.a. at Palmyra; Bath Nikkal (“the daughter of N.”)—Nikkal is a goddess known in the Western Semitic world and among the Hurrians (derived < Sumerian NIN.GAL “great mistress”); the Sun and Moon, resp. Shamash and Sîn were naturally also worshipped in Mesopotamia as deities. Taratha is apparently another designation of the well-known goddess, Atargatis or the Dea Syria, who was worshipped at Ashkelon (cf. Diodorus Siculus, Library, II.iv.2, where, among other things, it is described how and why she took the form of a fish—cf. the fish symbolism in Christianity: ΙΧΘΥΣ). Of particular significance is the fact that Nashara is also regarded here as a god of the Arabs. This god is particularly well known among the Mandaeans in southern Mesopotamia and in Iran (e.g., the Mandaean Great Book of John, §73), and also attested by Jacob of Serug (451-521), who reports that the Persians were tempted by the devil to create an “eagle” (Nashara) as an idol. A similar account can be found in the Armenian History by Movses Khorenatsi (where the gods are called Naboc’us, Belus, Bathnicalus and Tharatha).

In all of these cases, including Qur’an 71,23 (supra), we are dealing with a formulaic warning against apostasy, that is to say against a falling away from the true faith in the one true (Jewish, Christian, Mandaean or Islamic understanding of) God. In all cases, his (exclusive) worship is contrasted in a list of five heavenly idols which were seemingly self-explanatory at the time. The Talmudic passage would seem to have used the same, or very close to that of the Doctrina Addai, although somethings seem to have been lost in transmission:

Mapag (מפג) is not a deity but, as in Syriac, the place

Mabug (ܡܒܘܓ “the spring” or Hieropolis, because it was the cult centre of the Dea Syria; today Manbij);

Tirata (תרעתא) as already mentioned is Atargatis resp. the Dea Syria and not a place(-name)—a well-known site (see above) of her cult was Askelon. The gods mentioned here are חמשה בתי עבודת כוכבים בתי עבודת כוכבים “the five temples of star worship.” that is, celestial bodies: Nabû= Mercury, Bêl=Jupiter, Nikkal= a moon goddess, Taratha=Venus, and Nashara is the name of a star (see P. De Lagarde, Geoponicon in sermonem syriacum, 5:17 1860 ,Versorum quae supersunt, Leipzig,  ܥܕܡܐ ܠܕܢܚܗ ܕܢܫܪܐ ܕܐܝܬܘܗܝ ܡܢ ܢܐܘܡܝܢܝܐ ܕܟܢܘܢ ܐܚܪܝ “until the rise of the Naschara, which is the beginning of the month of January;” The seven wandering [planets]…

ܕܐܝܬܝܗܘܢ ܫܡܫܐ ܘܣܗܪܐ ܘܟܐܽܘܢ ܘܒܝܠ ܘܢܪܝܓ ܘܒܠܬܝ ܘܵܢܒܘ

…are Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Moon, Venus and Mercury”—C. Kayser, The Book of Truth, or, The Cause of All Causes, Leipzig, 1889, 55:5).

The mention of Arabia, in connexion with Nashara, cannot be taken as confirmatory evidence in support of the assertion made by Islamic tradition that Nashara had been a deity in and around Mecca. Perhaps this was so—but we simply do not know. The Arabs who venerate “a bird” as god can here only be the Arabs of Mesopotamia—the Talmud as well as the Doctrina Addai do not concern themselves with the Hijaz

This area, roughly identical to the so-called Ǧazīrat al-‛Arab, comprises the lowlands of the Chabur, Euphrates and Tigris in northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and northwestern Iraq. It was also referred to as “Arabia” in ancient times. Here we find e.g., a Ἀραβάρχης (“Arab-archēs—Arab princes”) in Dura-Europos (cf. C. B. Welles et al., The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Final Report V, Part I [New Haven, 1959], 115 No. 20, 5); in Sumatar Harabesi, present-day Turkey, five inscriptions are documented which were found at the old cemetery and bear the Syrian equivalent of this term:- šulṭānā d-ʿarab “Governor of Arab(ia)” (cf. H. J. W. Drijvers & J. F. Healey, The Old Syriac Inscriptions of Edessa and Osrhoene [Leyden, 1999], p. 104f. et passim); in Hatra, a mlk’ dy ʿrb(y) “King of Arabia” is documented (see B. Aggoula, Inventaire des inscriptions hatréenes [Paris, 1991], 92 No. 193, 2; 135f. See also Pliny’s Natural History, V.xxi.86: “Arabia supra dicta habet oppida Edessam, quæ quondam Antiochia dicebatur, Callirhœm, a fonte nominatam, Carrhas, Crassi clade nobile. Iungitur præfectura Mesopotamiæ, ab Assyriis originem trahens, in qua Anthemusia et Nicephorium oppida. … 87] ita fertur [scil. Euphrates] usque Suram locum, in quo conversus ad orientem relinquit Syriæ Palmyrenas solitudines, quæ usque ad Petram urbem et regionem Arabiæ Felicis appellatæ pertinent. This is also the “Arabia” that Paul must have visited (Gal 1:17). It is noteworthy that Fredegar (Chronicon lxvi) locates the Hagarenes even more to the north: “Agareni, qui et Sarraceni, sicut Orosii [Boh. Eorosii] liber testatur, gens circumcisa a latere montis Caucasi, super mare Caspium, terram….” This location can explain the Mandaean and Iranian evidence (see above) of Nashara.

This area, in the north of Mesopotamia, is where historical-critical research locates the crucible of Islam. It is here that the linguistic (the forerunners of Quranic Arabic as well as the heavy Syro-Aramaic impact on the Quranic theological vocabulary) as well as other theological and cultural threads come together, where the Christians in the Sassanid Empire, after the conquest of Heraclius, were suddenly confronted with Christological formulations (Chalcedon) foreign to them, after over two and a half centuries of separation, since the death of Julian Apostata. Here, the only unambiguously identifiable deity of Sura 71,23, scil. Nasr, seems to be certainly at home. Locating his cult to the South, in Arabia deserta, in the empty Hijaz—whose historical and cultural vacantness would only later become the ideal(ised) theological projection surface—has no historical support—and in addition, one would not only have to invent Christianity in the Hijaz, but also Manichaeism!

Sura 71/Sūrat Nūḥ deals with tergiversation, abandoning God/Allah: Noah has warned his contemporaries at God’s behest—”My Lord, I have called my people by night and day (to faith). But my call only caused them to run away more and more: and whenever I called them that Thou mightest forgive them, they put their fingers in their ears, and wrapped themselves in their garments, and persisted (in their state), and became overly arrogant. Then I called on them in public. Then I preached to them in public, and I spoke to them in secret, and I said: ‘Seek forgiveness from your Lord: for He is Oft-Forgiving: He will send down rain for you in abundance; and He will strengthen you with good things and with children, and He will give you gardens, and He will make rivers flow for you…’” (71,4-12). Furthermore, in verses 14-15 Noah asks, “Have you not seen how Allah created seven heavens stacked one on top of the other and set the moon as a light in them?”—i.e., the sky with all its contents, including the sun and moon, bear witness to the existence of God; they themselves are not gods. But Noah finds no hearing; the people remain on their chosen path and say, “do not leave your gods; do not leave Wadd, nor Suwāʿ, nor Jaġūṯ, Jaʿūq and Nasr.”

Contextually speaking, this interpretation of the latter passage fits in the theme of the Sura as a whole, and is quite similar to the admonition found inter alia in in the Doctrina Addai. Taken in this light, we have here a not unfamiliar pious topos, which here the Koranic authors put in Noah’s mouth because it was apparently felt to be somehow appropriate. The theonyms, however, as is also the case in the Talmudic example, where they were conflated with toponyms, have become garbled, yet a further indication that polytheism had long since ceased being an historical reality.

It is in this understanding, however, that this Quranic verse becomes understandable, seeing that, as was just noted, the creation of the heavens, moon, sun etc.—i.e., they are not to be understood as gods, is mentioned just several verses previously. The inexplicable gods mentioned in verse 23 may be just local epithets of the (divinised) celestial bodies, Nsr, the “eagle,” at the same time an astronym, would seem to favour such a proposal. In a Minaean dedicatory inscription (RÉS 2999 from Barāqish in the southern Jawf), the builders self-identify themselves as ʾdm Wdm S2hrn “servants (cf. Arabic ʾādam) of Wdd, the moon.” In this light, it is clear that Wdd could be understood as a(n epithet of) lunar deity. Perhaps then one might be partial to interpreting Suwāʿ as an Arabic realisation of Aramaic shrʾ “moon?” Jaġūṯ, as already been mentioned, is etymologically transparent, “the helper,” a term that might be appropriate for the moon (as attribute) or possibly the sun god?

Be that as it may, however one may choose to etymologise the five “Gods of Noah” in the Qur’an, they are most certainly designations for the (divinised) Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. As we have sown in the preceding the Classical planets, designated variously, were a common theme in Jewish and Christian polemics against the true faith in the one God. The Qur’anic renditions, as the Talmudic, have been somewhat garbled by later copyists. It is clear that we are dealing here with a topos known in the Syro-Mesopotamian region of Late Antiquity. This is by no means antediluvian and also has nothing to do with the Hijaz, nor originally even with Islam.


Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).


Featured image: The Almaqah Panel, which bears a Sabaean inscription, mentioning the god Wadd. Likely Ma’rib, Yemen, ca. 700 BC.