Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

By the gods! – Cursing in Latin redux

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A while back I did a post about cursing in Latin and Ancient Greek.
In my Aculeo & Amunet stories, Latin and Classical Greek swearwords are often used as a replacement for English-language swearwords – it’s fun, it adds a nice period-feel, makes happy the philologists among my readers and allows my characters to talk dirty without actually being dirty.
Because irrumator is a lot better than a##hole.

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But what about invoking the name of the gods?

Heracles-457x642R.E. Howard’s Conan used to curse By Crom! and (especially in the L. Sprague de camp stories) By Mithras!… and indeed Aculeo does use the latter form1.
Mithras was after all a popular deity in the Third Century AD, and one favored by soldiers.
The Roman centurion also swears By Heracles!, which is fine as Heracles/Hercules was the symbol of his Legion, Legio II, Traiana Fortis.

Which leads us to the gods proper.
The ancient Romans had an army of gods, and they were all there ready to be called upon in moments of tension, frustration or in face of pure surprise.
By Jupiter!
Or were they?

It has been pointed out that a few gods were rarely called in vain.
By Mars! was not used – not even by soldiers – the God of War and Violence being probably a little too much to take in case he got irritated by mortals invoking his name.
Vengeful but generally aloof goddesses Juno, Diana and Minerva were not mentioned. They were the cursing kind, according to legend, and highly susceptible.
Nor was Vulcan, the blacksmith god, invoked without a good cause – he was another sort liable to respond using a blunt instrument if called in vain.

There remained a good selection of minor gods available – according to classical sources, women did swear by Castor and Pollux (invoked as Edepol by men and as Pol by women). Demigods, minor heroes, Muses and other denizens of the Classical pantheon were free targets.

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Egyptian gods were, of course, a whole different story.
Amunet usually blurts Mother of Seth or Mother of Thot, in my stories.
Both expressions are highly apocryphal.
Seth, the Egyptian god of storms and violence, was the son of Geb, the Earth goddess. Mother of Seth is therefore the equivalent of By Geb!
Thot, god of knowledge and magic, on the other hand, has no mother listed on record, and the utterance becomes therefore even more dubious.

More authentic are expressions such as Lord of Eternity! and Lord of Truth! – both being epithets of Ptah, god-architect of Egypt, and both better than By Ptah!, which sounds like a sneeze.

An interesting curse already mentioned by Socrates is By the Dog of Egypt! – and it may be a reference to jackal-headed Anubis… but apparently it is a variation on a Cretan curse, the simpler By the Dog!

All in all, with all the gods being venerated in the late Roman Empire, there was ample choice of targets for curses and such.
There was only, probably, the matter of those gods taking umbrage at the usage.


  1. either Aculeo or Amunet might in future swear By Skelos!, as it would be a nice touch to bring the apocryphal Hyborian element into play, as a hommage. 
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Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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