Misdemeanors against Etymology: “May”

In a delightful article about a contemporary celebration in Greece, one can stumble upon a misdemeanor against etymology committed by Greek City Times, drawing likely from conventional wisdom:

Maios (May) took its name from the Goddess Maja, whose name comes from the ancient word Maia, nurse and mother.

This is false: the name of the month of May comes from Latin, and if it comes from a deity, it comes from one the Romans had before they adopted Greek customs.

It is certainly true that the Ancient Greeks had a goddess named Μαῖα (Maia), who was the mother of Hermes and victim of rape at the hands of Zeus. It is also true that the Romans had a goddess Maia who took on the tales of the Ancient Greek Μαῖα. But they were not the same, historically and etymologically speaking. It’s an understandable mistake. After all, one of the great misconceptions about the Classical world is that the Romans simply renamed most of the Greek gods. This is pointedly false. Iuppiter (Jupiter in English) was worshipped by the Romans long before they had heard of Ζεύς, as both incarnations of the god arose from their shared proto-Indo-European heritage, influenced by the complex religious borrowing that had been going on for millennia across North Africa and Eurasia. “Juno” was not a new name appended to Hera, nor “Neptune” a reboot of Poseidon. The Roman deities didn’t perfectly match the Greek ones, either. Mars, often reduced to a god of war, was markedly different from the Greek Ares with whom he was eventually equated.

When the Romans did directly borrow deities from the Ancient Greeks (with Etruscan intermediaries), the names barely changed. For instance, Ἀπόλλων (Apollon) became the Latin Apollo. Likewise, Ἡρακλῆς (Heracles) became Hercules. The Romans lacked comparable figures, so they took the myths and the names.

However, sometimes the history and mythology can be tricky. Mythology books will often claim the Romans called the Greek Dionysus “Bacchus.” Well, they did, but Βάκχος (Bacchos) was originally a Greek name, whereas the Roman wine god was originally called Liber. Dis Pater was the ruler of the underworld, and the Ancient Greeks had their own Hades, also called Πλούτων (Plouton). Young learners are often told that Bacchus was the Roman Dionysus, and Pluto the Roman Hades, but in fact, all four of those names were Greek.

Whether they were visiting Aegyptus, Mesopotamia, or Germania, Romans would have encountered the images and tales of a storm-wielding male deity defeating a serpentine monster (as with Set, Marduk, and Thor), or an underworld deity forced by family to take the unpleasant throne of the dead but eventually cheered by the company of a deity more suited to the land above (as with Osiris, Ereshkigal, and Hel). Accepting the Roman ancestral Dis Pater as the same as the Greek Pluto would have been no issue: the commonalities across cultures simply confirmed that their ancient faith more or less reflected the divine reality. A name is just a name after all.

Back to May: the Roman goddess Maia was likely part of their pantheon before they met the Greeks. Though it seems like a Heracles/Hercules or Plouton/Pluto situation, Maia’s name likely comes from an proto-Italic word that by coincidence sounded like the Greek goddess’ name. “Maia” was a fertility spirit to the Romans (among other things), and it’s fitting that her name might have been related to a root word for “great, greater.” By contrast, the Ancient Greek μαῖα could mean “midwife,” or “nurse,” or even be a term of respect for an older woman.

The Romans had a month that they generally associated with Maia which roughly matched our May, but the ancient Greeks as a rule did not. If we look at the modern Greek calendar, we see that it is derived from the Roman one:

January –  Ιανουάριος

February –  Φεβρουάριος

March – Μάρτιος

April – Απρίλιος

May – Μάιος

June – Ιούνιος

July – Ιούλιος

August – Αύγουστος

September – Σεπτέμβριος

October – Οκτώβριος

November – Νοέμβριος

December –  Δεκέμβριος

All the thorny twists of the Roman-derived calendar are there: a month named for Julius Caesar (July), a month named for Augustus (August), a month named for the Roman war god (Mars, not Ares), four months whose names no longer make sense in order (December being originally the Roman “tenth month”), and right where an English speaker would expect it, May. The Athenians of Attica had a month named Μαιμακτηριών (Maimakterion), but this was in November or December. It has nothing to do with “May.” The Ancient Greek world didn’t have calendar, but many calendars.

It’s a simple narrative that many repeat: the Romans adopted Greek civilization. The more accurate narrative is that the Romans and Ancient Greeks blended their cultures, and the Greek-speaking part of the Roman world carried the torch of the Roman Empire long after Rome the city “fell.”

While May 1 features an important celebration in modern-day Greece, the name of the month (in modern Greek or in English, Spanish, etc.) does not come from Ancient Greek mythology or customs. The article about the holiday of Protomagia is incorrect: May is not truly named after the Greek goddess, and its presence in the modern Greek calendar is due to Roman influence. Ancient Rome and global civilization has owed the Hellenic world much, but not very much about May in this case.

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