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Etymological Meaning of Devil

By John Fiske, "Myths and Myth-Makers - Old Tales and Superstitions Interpreted By Comparative Mythology"

The most striking illustration of this process is to be found in the word devil itself: To a reader unfamiliar with the endless tricks which language delights in playing, it may seem shocking to be told that the Gypsies use the word devil as the name of God.[96]

This, however, is not because these people have made the archfiend an object of worship, but because the Gypsy language, descending directly from the Sanskrit, has retained in its primitive exalted sense a word which the English language has received only in its debased and perverted sense. The Teutonic words devil, teufel, diuval, djofull, djevful, may all be traced back to the Zend dev,[97] a name in which is implicitly contained the record of the oldest monotheistic revolution known to history. The influence of the so-called Zoroastrian reform upon the long-subsequent development of Christianity will receive further notice in the course of this paper; for the present it is enough to know that it furnished for all Christendom the name by which it designates the author of evil.

To the Parsee follower of Zarathustra the name of the Devil has very nearly the same signification as to the Christian; yet, as Grimm has shown, it is nothing else than a corruption of deva, the Sanskrit name for God. When Zarathustra overthrew the primeval Aryan nature-worship in Bactria, this name met the same evil fate which in early Christian times overtook the word demon, and from a symbol of reverence became henceforth a symbol of detestation.[98] But throughout the rest of the Aryan world it achieved a nobler career, producing the Greek theos, the Lithuanian diewas, the Latin deus, and hence the modern French Dieu, all meaning God.

If we trace back this remarkable word to its primitive source in that once lost but now partially recovered mother-tongue from which all our Aryan languages are descended, we find a root div or dyu, meaning "to shine." From the first-mentioned form comes deva, with its numerous progeny of good and evil appellatives; from the latter is derived the name of Dyaus, with its brethren, Zeus and Jupiter. In Sanskrit dyu, as a noun, means "sky" and "day"; and there are many passages in the Rig-Veda where the character of the god Dyaus, as the personification of the sky or the brightness of the ethereal heavens, is unmistakably apparent.

This key unlocks for us one of the secrets of Greek mythology. So long as there was for Zeus no better etymology than that which assigned it to the root zen, "to live,"[99] there was little hope of understanding the nature of Zeus. But when we learn that Zeus is identical with Dyaus, the bright sky, we are enabled to understand Horace's expression, "sub Jove frigido," and the prayer of the Athenians, "Rain, rain, dear Zeus, on the land of the Athenians, and on the fields."[100]

Such expressions as these were retained by the Greeks and Romans long after they had forgotten that their supreme deity was once the sky. Yet even the Brahman, from whose mind the physical significance of the god's name never wholly disappeared, could speak of him as Father Dyaus, the great Pitri, or ancestor of gods and men; and in this reverential name Dyaus pitar may be seen the exact equivalent of the Roman's Jupiter, or Jove the Father. The same root can be followed into Old German, where Zio is the god of day; and into Anglo-Saxon, where Tiwsdaeg, or the day of Zeus, is the ancestral form of Tuesday.

[96] See Pott, Die Zigeuner, II. 311; Kuhn, Beitrage, I. 147. Yet in the worship of dewel by the Gypsies is to be found the element of diabolism invariably present in barbaric worship. "Dewel, the great god in heaven (dewa, deus), is rather feared than loved by these weather-beaten outcasts, for he harms them on their wanderings with his thunder and lightning, his snow and rain, and his stars interfere with their dark doings. Therefore they curse him foully when misfortune falls on them; and when a child dies, they say that Dewel has eaten it." Tylor, Primitive Culture, Vol. II. p. 248.

[97] See Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie, 939.

[98] The Buddhistic as well as the Zarathustrian reformation degraded the Vedic gods into demons. "In Buddhism we find these ancient devas, Indra and the rest, carried about at shows, as servants of Buddha, as goblins, or fabulous heroes." Max Muller, Chips, I. 25. This is like the Christian change of Odin into an ogre, and of Thor into the Devil.

[99] Zeus--Dia--Zhna--di on ............ Plato Kratylos, p. 396, A., with Stallbaum's note. See also Proklos, Comm. ad Timaeum, II. p. 226, Schneider; and compare Pseudo-Aristotle, De Mundo, p. 401, a, 15, who adopts the etymology. See also Diogenes Laertius, VII. 147.

[100] Marcus Aurelius, v. 7; Hom. Iliad, xii. 25, cf. Petronius Arbiter, Sat. xliv.

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Posted by: Starglider.

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