Saturday, August 18, 2007


Names of Gods

Mohammed Abdelrahman & Nicolien den Boer, Let's call God Allah:
The Bishop of Breda, Tiny Muskens, wants people to start calling God Allah. He says the Netherlands should look to Indonesia, where the Christian churches already pray to Allah. It is also common in the Arab world: Christian and Muslim Arabs use the words God and Allah interchangeably.


Muskens doesn't expect his idea to be greeted with much enthusiasm. The 71-year-old bishop, who will soon be retiring due to ill health, says God doesn't mind what he is called. God is above such "discussion and bickering". Human beings invented this discussion themselves, he believes, in order to argue about it.
The notion that "God doesn't mind what he is called" would have puzzled the ancient Greeks and Romans. Plato, Cratylus 400 d-e (tr. H.N. Fowler), thought that the gods preferred some appellations over others:
But there is a second kind of correctness, that we call them, as is customary in prayers, by whatever names and patronymics are pleasing to them, since we know no other.
Because the ancients could not be sure exactly what "names and patronymics are pleasing to" the gods, they hedged their bets and used a variety of names simultaneously, in hopes that one, at least would be pleasing.

Eduard Norden, Agnostos Theos. Untersuchungen zur Formengeschichte religiöser Rede, 6th ed. (Stuttgart: B. G. Teubner, 1974), pp. 144-147, gives many examples of this practice, of which I choose one (Horace, Carmen Saeculare 13-16, tr. Christopher Smart):
O Ilithyia, of lenient power to produce the timely birth, protect the matrons [in labor]; whether you choose the title of Lucina, or Genitalis.

Rite maturos aperire partus
lenis, Ilithyia, tuere matres,
sive tu Lucina probas vocari
    seu Genitalis.
In John Conington's verse translation this is:
Blest Ilithyia! be thou near
    In travail to each Roman dame!
Lucina, Genitalis, hear,
    Whate'er thy name!
Simon Pulleyn, Prayer in Greek Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), chapter 6 (Magic and Names), also discusses this topic, but I don't have full access to this book. On p. 96, according to Google Book Search, Pulleyn quotes R.M. Ogilvie as saying "Gods, like dogs, will answer only to their names."

A tip of the hat to BigHominid for drawing my attention to Bishop Tiny's remarks. If God doesn't mind what He is called, maybe Tiny won't mind if I call him by his first name.

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