Monday, May 05, 2008

monsters and portents

If you had to guess the meanings of the Latin words monstrum and portentum, chances are you'd go with their English derivations; 'monster' and 'portent' (i.e. an omen, or sign from the gods). And you'd be right. For example, have a look at the following passages:

huic monstro Volcanus erat pater: illius atros
ore vomens ignis magna se mole ferebat.

Vulcan was the father of this monster: vomiting his father’s black fire from his mouth he would move around with his huge bulk.
Virgil, Aeneid VIII.198-9

tum memorat: 'ne vero, hospes, ne quaere profecto
quem casum portenta ferant: ego poscor Olympo.’

Then [Aeneas] declared: ‘There is no need, my friend, no need to ask what these portents mean: I am called for by Olympus.'
Virgil, Aeneid VIII.532-3

That seems fairly straight forward. Except monstrum doesn't usually mean 'monster'- its basic meaning is 'portent'; portentum on the other hand, can sometimes mean 'monster'. In the following passages for example:

Ecce autem subitum atque oculis mirabile monstrum,
candida per silvam cum fetu concolor albo
procubuit viridique in litore conspicitur sus;

Now suddenly before his eyes there appeared a portent. There through the trees he caught sight of a white sow with offspring of the same colour, lying on the green shore.
Virgil, Aeneid VIII.81-3

namque me silva lupus in Sabina...
fugit inermem.

quale portentum neque militaris
Daunias latis alit aesculetis,
nec Iubae tellus generat, leonum
arida nutrix

For in the Sabine forests a wolf fled from me... unarmed as I was. A monster such as not even warlike Daunia rears in her broad oak forests, nor the land of Juba, that barren nurse of lions.
Horace, Odes I.22.9, 12-16

Why is this so? The basic meaning of each word is to do with signs and omens; each noun derives from a verb- monstrum from monstro, monstrare (to show; cf ‘demonstrate’) and portentum from portendo, portendere (to reveal), thus both words mean something which has been shown or revealed. The secondary meaning of ‘monster’ comes from the idea that monsters are somehow sent from the gods, often as a punishment for some kind of wrong doing (eg the Minotaur, the Calydonian Boar), or that they are able to show the will of the gods in some way.

[These two articles also discuss the word monstrum and related English words]


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