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Neptune Roman God of Water and Sea
|Practices and beliefs|
Neptune (Latin: Neptūnus) was the Roman god of freshwater and the sea in Roman religion. He is the counterpart of the Greek god Poseidon. In the Greek-influenced tradition, Neptune was the brother of Jupiter and Pluto, each of them presiding over the realms of Heaven, our earthly world and the Underworld, respectively.
Depictions of Neptune in Roman mosaics, especially those of North Africa, are influenced by Hellenistic conventions. Neptune was likely associated with fresh water springs before the sea. Like Poseidon, Neptune was worshipped by the Romans also as a god of horses, under the name Neptunus Equester, a patron of horse-racing.
The etymology of Neptunus is unclear and disputed. The ancient grammarian Varro derived the name from nuptus i.e. covering (opertio), with a more or less explicit allusion to the nuptiae, marriage of Heaven and Earth.
Among modern scholars P. Kretschmer proposed a derivation from IE *neptu-, moist substance. Similarly R. Bloch supposed it might be an adjectival form in -no from *nuptu-, meaning "he who is moist". Dumézil though remarked words deriving from root *nep- are not attested in IE languages other than Vedic and Avestan. He proposed an etymology that brings together Neptunus with Vedic and Avestan theonyms Apam Napat, Apam Napá and Old Irish theonym Nechtan, all meaning descendant of the waters. By using the comparative approach the Indo-Iranian, Avestan and Irish figures would show common features with the Roman historicised legends about Neptune. Dumézil thence proposed to derive the nouns from IE root *nepot-, descendant, sister's son.
More recently, in his lectures delivered on various occasions in the late years of the last century, German scholar H. Petersmann proposed an etymology from IE rootstem *nebh- related to clouds and fogs, plus suffix -tu denoting an abstract verbal noun, and adjectival suffix -no which refers to the domain of activity of a person or his prerogatives. IE root *nebh-, having the original meaning of damp, wet, has given Sanskrit nábhah, Hittite nepis, Latin nubs, nebula, German nebel, Slavic nebo etc. The concept would be close to that expressed in the name of Greek god Όυράνος, derived from IE root *h2wórso-, to water, irrigate and *h2worsó-, the irrigator. This etymology would be more in accord with Varro's.
A different etymology grounded in the legendary history of Latium and Etruria was proposed by Preller and Müller-Deeke: Etruscan Nethunus, Nethuns would be an adjectival form of toponym Nepe(t), Nepete (presently Nepi), town of the ager Faliscus nearFalerii. The district was traditionally connected to the cult of the god: Messapus and Halesus, the eponymous hero of Falerii, were believed to be his own sons. Messapus led the Falisci and others to war in the Aeneid. Nepi and Falerii have been famed since antiquity for the excellent quality of the water of their springs, scattered in meadows.
The theology of Neptune may only be reconstructed to some degree as since very early times he was identified with Greek god Poseidon: his presence in the lectisternium of 399 BC is a testimony to the fact. Such an identification may well be grounded in the strict relationship between the Latin and Greek theologies of the two deities. It has been argued that Indo-European people, having no direct knowledge of the sea as they originated from inland areas, reused the theology of a deity originally either chthonic or wielding power over inland freshwaters as the god of the sea. This feature has been preserved particularly well in the case of Neptune who was definitely a god of springs, lakes and rivers before becoming also a god of the sea, as is testified by the numerous findings of inscriptions mentioning him in the proximity of such locations. Servius the grammarian also explicitly states Neptune is in charge of all the rivers, springs and waters. He also is the lord of horses because he worked with Athena to make the chariot.
He may find a parallel in Irish god Nechtan, master of the well from which all the rivers of the world flow out and flow back to.
Poseidon on the other hand underwent the process of becoming the main god of the sea at a much earlier time, as is shown in the Iliad.
In the earlier times it was the god Portunes or Fortunus who was thanked for naval victories, but Neptune supplanted him in this role by at least the first century BC when Sextus Pompeius called himself "son of Neptune." For a time he was paired with Salacia, the goddess of the salt water.
Neptune was also considered the legendary progenitor god of a Latin stock, the Faliscans, who called themselves Neptunia proles. In this respect he was the equivalent of Mars, Janus, Saturn and even Jupiteramong Latin tribes. Salacia would represent the virile force of Neptune.
The Neptunalia was the festival of Neptune on July 23, at the height of summer. The date and the construction of tree-branch shelters suggest a primitive role for Neptune as god of water sources in the summer's drought and heat.
Georg Wissowa had already remarked that festivals falling in a range of three days are complementary. Dumézil elaborated that these festivals in some way were all related to the importance of water during the period of summer heat (canicula) and drought, when river and spring waters are at their lowest.
Founding his analysis on the works of Palladius and Columella Dumézil argues that while the Lucaria were devoted to the dressing of woods, clearing the undergrown bushes by cutting on the 19, then by uprooting and burning on the 21, the Neptunalia were devoted to works of conservation and draining of superficial waters, thus corresponding to the Lucaria of 19, that required only work above the ground.
Then the Furrinalia of July 25, sacred to Furrina goddess of springs and wells, were devoted to those waters which had to be captured by drilling, i.e. required the work of man, thereby corresponding to the Lucaria of 21, which equally entailed human action upon the soil. The Furrinalia are explained by Dumézil on the grounds of the hydraulic works prescribed by Palladius on this day, i.e. the drilling of wells to detect and capture underground water: the visible and the hidden waters are thus dealt with on separate, albeit next, occasions: the Neptunalia and Furrinalia. This complementarity between Neptunalia and Furrinalia corresponds to that between the first and second Lucaria, forming in fact two complementary couplets.
In recorded times the Neptunalia were spent in outings under branch huts (umbrae, casae frondeae), in a wood between the Tiber and the Via Salaria, drinking springwater and wine to escape the heat. It looks the Neptunalia were a time of general, free and unrestrained merrymaking, during which men and women mixed without the usual Roman traditional social constraints. This character of the festival as well as the fact that Neptune was offered the sacrifice of a bull would point to an agricultural fertility context.
In Rome Neptune had only a temple. It stood near the Circus Flaminius, the Roman racetrack, in the southern part of the Campus Martius. It already existed in 206 BC. It appears on a coin struck by Gn. Domitius Ahenobarbus around 40 BC doubtless because of a restoration carried out by this personage. It contained a famous sculpture of a marine group by Scopas Minor. The Basilica Neptuni, was built on the Campus Martius and dedicated by Agrippa in honour of the naval victory of Actium. This building substituted the older temple, which in its turn substituted a more ancient altar.
Neptune is one of the only three Roman gods to whom it was appropriate to sacrifice bulls, the other two being Apollo and Mars. The wrong offering would require a piaculum, if due to inadvertency or necessity. The type of the offering implies a stricter connection between the deity and the worldly realm.
During the war with Veii in 393 BC the level of Lake Albanus rose to an unusual height even in the absence of rain. This prodigy was believed to be relevant on the siege of Veii because a haruspex from Veii recited some lines of a prophecy that illustrated the relationship between the level of its waters and either the safety or the fall of the town to the Romans. It foretold that as long as the waters of the lake remain high Veii would be impregnable to the Romans. If the waters of the lake were scattered in an inland direction on the other hand Veii would fall; but if they were to overflow through the usual streams or channels toward the sea this fact would be unfavourable to the Romans as well. Dumézil ascribed this story to the Roman custom of projecting religious legendary heritage onto history, considering it as a festival myth, aimed at giving relevance to an exceptional event which would have happened during the Neptunalia. This legend would show the scope of the powers hidden in waters and the religious importance of their control by man: Veientans too knowing the fact had been digging channels for a long time as recent archaeological finds confirm. There is a temporal coincidence between the conjuration of the prodigy and the works of derivation recommended by Palladius and Columella at the time of the canicula, when the waters are at their lowest.
Paredrae are entities who pair or accompany a god. They represent the fundamental aspects or the powers of the god with whom they are associated. In Roman religion they are often female. In later times under Hellenising influence they came to be considered as separate deities and consorts of the god. However this misconception might have been widespread in earlier folk belief. In the view of Dumézil, Neptune's two paredrae Salacia and Venilia represent the overpowering and the tranquil aspects of water, both natural and domesticated: Salacia would impersonate the gushing, overbearing waters and Venilia the still or quietly flowing waters. Duméail's interpretation has though been varied as he also stated that the jolt implied by Salacia 's name, the attitude to be salax lustful, must underline a feature characteristic of the god.
Salacia and Venilia have been discussed by scholars both ancient and modern. Varro connects the first to salum, sea, and the second to ventus, wind. Festus writes of Salacia that she is the deity that generates the motion of the sea. While Venilia would cause the waves to come to the shore Salacia would cause their retreating towards the high sea. The issue has been discussed in many passages by Christian doctor Aurelius Augustinus. He devotes one full chapter of his De Civitate Dei to mocking the inconsistencies inherent in the theological definition of the two entitites: since Salacia would denote the nether part of the sea, he wonders how could it be possible that she be also the retreating waves, as waves are a phenomenon of the surface of the sea. Elsewhere he writes that Venilia would be the "hope that comes", one of the aspects or powers of the all encompassing Jupiter understood as anima mundi.
Servius in his commentary to the Aeneid also writes about Salacia and Venilia in various passages, e.g. V 724: "(Venus) dicitur et Salacia, quae proprie meretricum dea appellata est a veteribus": "(Venus) is also called Salacia, who precisely was named goddess of mercenary women by the ancient". Elsewhere he writes that Salacia and Venilia are indeed the same entity.
Among modern scholars Dumézil with his followers Bloch and Schilling centre their interpretation of Neptune on the more direct, concrete, limited value and functions of water. Accordingly Salacia would represent the forceful and violent aspect of gushing and overflowing water, Venilia the tranquil, gentle aspect of still or slowly flowing water.
Preller, Fowler, Petersmann and Takács attribute to the theology of Neptune broader significance as a god of universal worldly fertility, particularly relevant to agriculture and human reproduction. Thence they interpret Salacia as personifying lust and Venilia as related to venia, the attitude of ingraciating, attraction, connected with love and desire for reproduction. L. Preller remarked a significant aspect of Venilia mentioning that she was recorded in the indigitamenta also as a deity of longing, desire. He thinks this fact would allow to explain the theonym in the same way as that of Venus. Other data seem to point in the same direction: Salacia would be the parallel of Thetis as the mother of Achilles, while Venilia would be the mother of Turnus and Iuturna, whom she mothered with Daunus king of the Rutulians. According to another source Venilia would be the partner of Janus, with whom she mothered the nymph Canens loved by Picus. These mythical data underline the reproductive function envisaged in the figures of Neptune's paredrae, particularly that of Venilia in childbirth and motherhood. A legendary king Venulus was remembered atTibur and Lavinium.
German scholar H. Petersmann has proposed a rather different interpretation of the theology of Neptune. Developing his understanding of the theonym as rooted in IE *nebh, he argues that the god would be an ancient deity of the cloudy and rainy sky in company with and in opposition to Zeus/Jupiter, god of the clear bright sky. Similar to Caelus, he would be the father of all living beings on Earth through the fertilising power of rainwater. Thishieros gamos of Neptune and Earth would be reflected in literarature, e.g. in Vergil Aen. V 14 pater Neptunus. The virile potency of Neptune would be represented by Salacia (derived from salax, salio in its original sense of salacious, lustful, desiring sexual intercourse, covering). Salacia would then represent the god's desire for intercourse with Earth, his virile generating potency manifesting itself in rainfall. While Salacia would denote the overcast sky, the other character of the god would be reflected by his other paredra Venilia, representing the clear sky dotted with clouds of good weather. The theonym Venilia would be rooted in a not attested adjective *venilis, from IE root *ven(h) meaning to love, desire, realised in Sanskrit vánati, vanóti, he loves, Old Island. vinr friend, German Wonne, Latin Venus, venia. Reminiscences of this double aspect of Neptune would be found inCatullus 31. 3: "uterque Neptunus".
In Petersmann's conjecture, besides Zeus/Jupiter, (rooted in IE *dei(h) to shine, who originally represented the bright daylight of fine weather sky), the ancient Indo-Europeans venerated a god of heavenly damp or wet as the generator of life. This fact would be testified by Hittite theonyms nepišaš (D)IŠKURaš or nepišaš (D)Tarhunnaš "the lord of sky wet", that was revered as the sovereign of Earth and men. Even though over time this function was transferred to Zeus/Jupiter who became also the sovereign of weather, reminiscences of the old function survived in literature: e.g. in Vergil Aen. V 13-14 reading: "Heu, quianam tanti cinxerunt aethera nimbi?/ quidve, pater Neptune, paras?": "Whow, why so many clouds surrounded the sky? What are you preparing, father Neptune?". The indispensability of water for its fertilizing quality and its strict connexion to reproduction is universal knowledge. Takács too points to the implicit sexual and fertility significance of both Salacia and Venilia on the grounds of the context of the cults of Neptune, of Varro's interpretation of Salacia as eager for sexual intercourse and of the connexion of Venilia with a nymph or Venus.
Müller-Deeke and Deeke had already interpreted the theology of Neptune as that of a divine ancestor of a Latin stock, namely the Faliscans, as the father of their founder heroes Messapus and Halesus. Sharing this same approach Fowler considered Salacia the personification of the virile potency that generated a Latin people, parallel with Mars, Saturn, Janus and even Jupiter among other Latins.
Poseidon was connected to the horse since the earliest times, well before any connection of him with the sea was attested, and may even have originally been conceived under equine form. Such a feature is a reflection of his own chtonic, violent, brutal nature as earth-quaker, as well as of the link of the horse with springs, i.e. underground water, and the psychopompous character inherent in this animal.
There is no such direct connexion in Rome. Neptune does not show any direct equine character or linkage.
On the other hand Roman god Consus was associated with horses: his underground altar was located in the valley of the Circus Maximus at the foot of the Palatine, the place of horse races. On the day of his summer festival (August 21), the Consualia aestiva, it was customary to bring horses and mules in procession crowned with flowers and then hold equine races in the Circus. It appears these games had a rustic and archaic character: they marked the end of the yearly agricultural cycle, when harvest was completed. According to tradition this occasion was chosen to enact the abduction of the Sabine (and Latin) women. The episode might bear a reflection of the traditional sexual licence of such occasions. On that day the flamen Quirinalis and the vestal virgins sacrificed on the underground altar of Consus. The fact the two festivals of Consus were followed after an equal interval of four days by the two festivals of Ops (Opeconsivia on August 25 and Opalia on December 19) testifies to the strict relationship between the two deities as both pertaining to agricultural plenty, or in Dumezilian terminology to the third function. In Dumézil's view this fact shows the radically different symbolic value of the horse in the theology of Poseidon and of Consus. Tertullian (De Spectaculis V 7) states that according to Roman tradititon Consus was the god who had advised Romulus on the abduction of the Sabines because of his quality of god of hidden counsels and quotes an inscription that was on the southern meta of the circus corroborating his assertion: Conso consilio Marte duello Lares + covillo potentes: Consus is powerful in counsel, Mars in war, the Lares in meeting. A. Von Blumenthal and G. Radke have proposed to read consivio instead of consilio, though this correction is not generally accepted: the inscription is not extant and it was visible only on the days of the sacrifices to Consus, so some scholars argue it may have been misread.
Perhaps under the influence of Poseidon Ίππιος Consus, whose festival entailed horse races, was reinterpreted as Neptunus equestris and for his underground altar also identified with Poseidon Ένοσίχθων. Moreover the etymology of Poseidon understood as from Posislord, husband and Degrain or Earth, may have contributed to the identification of Consus with Neptune. The archaic and arcane character of his cult, which required the unearthing of the altar, are signs of the great antiquity of this deity and of his chtonic character. He was certainly a deity of agrarian plenty and of fertility. On the basis of Augustine (De Civitate Dei IV 8 about the role of Tutilina in assuring the safety of stored grain) Dumézil interprets its name as derived from verb condere to hide, store, as a verbal noun in -u parallel to Sancus and Janus, meaning god of stored grains.
Martianus Capella places Neptune and Consus together in region X of Heaven: it might be that he followed an already old interpretatio graeca of Consus or he might be reflecting an Etruscan idea of a chthonic Neptune apparent in the recommendation of the De Haruspicum Responso about the need of expiations to Neptune for the prodigy of the cracking sounds perceived underground in the ager latiniensis. Etruscans were particularly fond of horse races.
Nethuns is the Etruscan name of the god. In the past it has been believed that the Roman theonym derived from Etruscan but more recently this view has been rejected.
Nethuns was certainly an important god for the Etruscans. His name is to be found on two cases of the Piacenza Liver, namely case 7 on the outer rim and case 28 on the gall-bladder, (plus once in case 22 along with Tinia). This last location tallies with Pliny the Elder's testimony that the gall-bladder is sacred to Neptune. Theonym Nethuns recurs eight times on columns VIII, IX and XI of the Liber Linteus (flere, flerchva Nethunsl), requiring offerings of wine.
On a mirror from Tuscania (E. S. 1. 76) Nethuns is represented while talking to Uśil (the Sun) and Thesan (the goddess of Dawn). Nethuns is on the left hand side, sitting, holding a double ended trident in his right hand and with his left arm raised in the attitude of giving instructions, Uśil is standing at the centre of the picture, holding in his right hand Aplu's bow, and Thesan is on the right, with her right hand on Uśil's shoulder: both gods look intent in listening Nethuns's words. The identification of Uśil with Aplu (and his association with Nethuns) is further underlined by the anguiped demon holding two dolphins of the exergue below. The scene highlights the identities and association of Nethuns and Aplu (here identified as Uśil) as main deities of the worldly realm and the life cycle. Thesan and Uśil-Aplu, who has been identified with Śuri (Soranus Pater, the underwold Sun god) make clear the transient character of worldly life. The association of Nethuns and Uśil-Aplu is consistent with one version of the theory of the Etruscan Penates (see section below).
In Martianus Capella's depiction of Heaven Neptune is located in region X along with the Lar Omnium Cunctalis (of everybody), Neverita and Consus. The presence of the Lar Omnium Cunctalis might be connected with the theology of Neptune as a god of fertility, human included, while Neverita is a theonym derived from an archaic form of Nereus and Nereid, before the fall of the digamma. For the relationship of Neptune with Consus see the above paragraph. Martianus's placing of Neptune is fraught with questions: according to the order of the main three gods he should be located in region II, (Jupiter is indeed in region I and Pluto in region III). However in region II are to be found two deities related to Neptune, namely Fons and Lymphae. Stephen Weinstock supposes that while Jupiter is present in each of the first three regions, in each one under different aspects related to the character of the region itself, Neptune should have been originally located in the second, as is testified by the presence of Fons and Lymphae, and Pluto in the third. The reason of the displacement of Neptune to region X remains unclear, but might point to a second appearance of the triads in the third quarter, which is paralleled by the location of Neth in case 7 of the Liver. It is however consistent with the collocation in the third quadrant of the deities directly related to the human world.
Bloch remarks the possible chtonic character and stricter link of Nethuns with Poseidon to which would hint a series of circumstances, particularly the fact that he was among the four gods (Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Tellus in order) the haruspices indicated as needing placation for the prodigy related in Cicero's De haruspicum responso 20, i.e. a cracking sound perceived as coming from the underground in the ager latiniensis.
Among ancient sources Arnobius provides important information about the theology of Neptune: he writes that according to Nigidius Figulus Neptune was considered one of the Etruscan Penates, together with Apollo, the two deities being credited with bestowing on Ilium its immortal walls. In another place of his work, book VI, Nigidius wrote that, according to the Etrusca Disciplina, his were one among the four genera, types of Penates: of Iupiter, of Neptune, of the underworld and of mortal men. According to another tradition related by a Caesius, also based on the same source, the Etruscan Penates would be Fortuna, Ceres, Genius Iovialis and Pales, this last one being the male Etruscan god (ministrum Iovis et vilicum, domestic and peasant of Jupiter).
The French Department of Subaquatic Archaeological Research divers (headed by Michel L'Hour) discovered a lifesize marble statue of Neptune, in the Rhone River at Arles; it is dated to the early fourth century. The statue is one of a hundred artifacts that the team excavated between September and October 2007.
Etruscan representations of the god are rare but significative. The oldest is perhaps the carved carnelian scarab from Vulci of the 4th century BC: Nethuns kicks a rock and creates a spring. (Paris: Bibliothčque Nationale, Cabinet des Medailles).
Another Etruscan gem (from the collection of Luynes, inscribed Nethunus) depicts the god making a horse spring out of the earth with a blow of his trident.
A bronze mirror of the late 4th century in the Vatican Museums (Museo Gregoriano Etrusco: C.S.E. Vaticano 1.5a) depicts the god with Amymone, daughter of Danaus, whom he prevents being assaulted by a satyr and to whom he will teach the art of creating springs. Nearby are a lion head pouring water from its open mouth and a container with handles.
A bronze mirror from Tuscania dated to 350 BC also in the Vatican Museums (Museo Gregoriano Etrusco E. S. 1. 76). Nethuns is talking to Usil and Thesan. In the lower exergue is an anguiped demon who holds a dolphin in each hand (identification with Aplu-Apollo is clear also because Uśil holds a bow). Nethuns holds a double-ended trident, suggesting he might be one of the gods who can wield lightningbolts.
The Renaissance brought with it a revival in pagan art, and many pagan gods were depicted in the same classical models used in Greek and Roman times. However, with Neptune few such models existed, allowing the artists of the Renaissance to depict Neptune however they chose. The results included a face and actions that seemed more mortal, as well as associations with Hercules. The overall effect was to change Neptune's image to a less deified state.