Erditze, an inscription review: how her ancient devotees can inform our modern praxis

(Portrait of God)

interpretation by Eugene Camoreyt, Revue de Gascogne, 1896

Sometimes when studying an inscription, there is only so much you can learn from the piece of stone, carved 2000 years ago, itself. Some words may make sense; some may elude meaning because we lack the frame of reference ancient peoples had upon the initial carving and dedication of the votum.

When first studying the one inscription we had of Erditze, some of it made sense to me. ERDITSED(EO) refers to a deity named Erditse, a formulaic phrase stating the deity’s name followed by their designation as a deity that we recognize from other Roman votive offerings.

The middle of the inscription remained vague. One can see in the word CONSACRAN(I) influence upon our English word “consecrated,” and see that it belays some idea of sacredness. BORODATES eluded my etymological understanding entirely. French antiquarians did note that it seemed to refer to the group of people that put up the votive altar, but there was no meaning noted beyond mention by the French scholar Camoreyt that it seemed to be of Aquitanian phonology, with -ates being particularly common “amongst groups in primitive Aquitaine.” This left us with an interpretation loosely of “consecrated peoples,” equally tantalizing and frustrating to myself.

It stayed like that for the last year: “To the god Erditze, consecrated peoples willingly and dutifully fulfilled their vow.” Recently, while giving a talk about Erditze for Touta Galation’s Comreton Calleios, feedback received in the chat about a potential idea for the meaning of BORODATES inspired me to take another look at the enigma of these “consecrated peoples.”

In this article, we will take a brief etymological and comparative look at other uses of CONSACRAN on inscriptions and in reference to peoples across the Roman world, as well as a potential morphological pattern that originates BORODATES in Latin before transforming it into Aquitanian. In the end, these studies may enlighten somewhat the nature of those peoples who put up their votive altar to Erditze in Toulouse some 2000 years ago, as well as serve as a source of inspiration guiding those who wish to honor Erditze in modern praxis.

Etymology, usage, and analysis of CONSACRAN

The closest Latin word to our CONSACRAN is the present participle of consacro, consacrans. The present participle in Latin describes the circumstances of the main verb. A participle can also be more narrowly defined as “a word derived from a verb and used as an adjective.” Our base verb in the Latin here is consecro, “to consecrate, dedicate; to hallow or sanctify; to deify.” From this purely grammatical standpoint, CONSACRAN might indicate a translation as “consecrating, dedicating.”

CONSACRAN does appear on other inscriptions throughout the Roman Empire. While we have two inscriptions in Aquitania, and Erditze’s inscription in Narbonensis, most of the inscriptions using this term are further east: Dalmatia, Galatia (2), Germania Inferior, Macedonia, Moesia Inferior (3), Moesia Superior, Roma, and Venetia et Histria (search text 1: consacran).

Scholars make brief mentions comparing CONSACRAN to terminology we still have access to and to other recorded groups of the time, which allows us a glimpse into possible equivalences in status and meaning from these further eastern religious practices. 

CONSACRANI are mentioned most generally as a cultic association (pg 127) or a religious group or group of artisans (pg 47).  If we’re going to look further into the usage of cultic as a descriptor, we can’t rely on modern definitions of the word.  Instead, we will look back at its Latin origins, in colo (History and Etymology for Cult).  

From colo, we derive cultus, which as a verb can mean cultivated, nurtured, protected, worshiped, honored, or adorned. As a noun, cultus can mean the act of tilling, the act of worshiping, a religious group or sect, or refinement (for even more meanings, consult here). It is important to look at these other meanings when we consider a cult association as it would have functioned in the ancient world. Since we are reading from modern scholars to derive these potential comparisons, we cannot assume either way whether they are intending cult with its modern associations (cult of personality, the connotations when someone is recruiting for a cult, etc), or if they are considering these original meanings.

From a reconstruction perspective, the original meaning of the Latin term can enlighten us to associations in the ancient world beyond our modern paradigms. While we won’t know if these sacred peoples would have used the exact term cultus to describe themselves, if they ever did, we can posit from above that it encompassed a lot more than what our modern, fast-paced societal interpretation of the word is.

In regards to any of those verbs listed above, they all indicate a serious investment of time. Working on a farm, raising a child, fighting a war, spending time in religious devotion when you could be doing any of the above; these are all trade-offs of the limited amount of time each person has during the day. Again, with the meaning of cultus as a noun, we can interpolate cultivation of land, relation to religion, and of the self. This cultivation takes time, and further deepens the investment that accompanies this term.

We do also derive some comparisons from scholarship, with CONSACRANI as the Latin equivalent of the Greek symmistai (pg 72), and within a hierarchy of Metroac worshippers out of Phyrgia (modern day Turkey). The commentary available in both instances remains vague. The symmistai are noted as a private association, or those initiated into a mystery cult. Within the hierarchy of Metroac worshippers, there is brief mention of CONSACRANI being less involved than the misti (those who are loyal solely to the goddess, in this case the imported Magna Mater, from the Phrygian Cybele), but as more involved with the goddess than those attracted to the cult as an opportunity to express loyalty and respect to the Roman emperor and state (search: consa).

Finally, we also have brief commentary analyzing a funerary monument in Mysia, which notes that it’s not certain whether symmistai were a private association or initiates into a mystery cult. This shows that even with the comparison available, the source of the comparison also has an enigmatic nature, and we can only access so much from it.

Latin to Aquitanian: BORODATES

The other word in question is BORODATES.  We have commentary from the French antiquarian Camoreyt that says this name reflects Aquitanian phonology, with BORO- being found in other names used in the region, and -ATES being common among “groups in primitive Aquitaine.”  Otherwise, a German encyclopedia from the 1890’s lists it as a German municipality in southern Gaul only known from this inscription.  

Neither of these, for my personal understanding of the inscription and nature of these peoples, is a particularly satisfying explanation. If this is a German municipality but we only know it from this inscription, how was that conclusion reached? Looking into the Aquitanian substrate and finding the components in Basque for BORODATES has also been personally an unfruitful search.

A viewer during my Comreton Calleios talk brought up in the Zoom chat Gaulish BOU- “cow,” as in perhaps, cow-peoples. The location of the altar’s discovery is listed as the Palace of Toulouse, which to the best of my ability to determine, seems to have been within the Roman city layout, now the modern day city. Prior to Roman occupation, Tolosa sat 9km to the south, by a large plain beneficial for agriculture. Had this altar been discovered in the old city, prior to Roman occupation, the suggestion of a cow-peoples placing this votive altar would have seemed more contextually plausible to me. While cow-peoples could ostensibly come into a city center and place an altar, I consider that less likely than the CONSACRANI, a possible group of initiates into a mystery cult in a thriving economic and cultural hub of the region, placing one instead.

That suggestion did give me an idea, however. Commentary and the regional placement of BORODATES may point to an Aquitanian phonology, but was it an Aquitanian word to begin with?

Besides the tentative cow connection, Gaulish did not yield anything reasonably close in word structure, and on first glance, neither did Latin, so I went back to the Basque.  As I read through R.L. Trask’s Etymological Dictionary of Basque, the word borondate caught my eye.  Basque borondate is from the Latin voluntatum, the genitive plural case of voluntas.  Borondate means “will, desire,” and one can see the influence of voluntas in today’s English word “volunteer.” The nominative plural of voluntas, however, is voluntates, which I thought had enough phonological components that looked similar to BORODATES to pursue as a potential lead.

Working from the phonological discussions in the beginning of R.L. Trask’s Etymological Dictionary of Basque we can consider the following:

  • Voluntates to boluntates: Latin labial borrowing, where the Latin /v/ becomes Basque /b/.
  • Boluntates to boruntates: Liquid /l/ becomes /r/ in early Basque borrowings from Latin.
  • Boruntates to borontates: The Zuberoan Basque dialect, which is the eastern-most remaining Basque dialect today, raises /o/ to /u/, and eminent Basque linguist Luis Michelena commented that he believes /o/ and /u/ confusion in an ancient feature of the language.
  • Attested old Zuberoan form of borondate: takes the /t/ to /d/.
  • Finally, while perhaps not applicable as written in this instance of word formation, Basque drops the /n/ before a consonant on the first element in word formation.

To the last point, if borondate has morphed from the Latin voluntates, we don’t seem to have two separate elements coming together here. However with a lack of standardization of spelling in ancient times and this rule existing at all, I would say it is at least not impossible to consider the /n/ can drop from borondate without being particularly missed.

While I’m certainly not a linguist, if I’ve interpreted the above phonology accurately, I’d propose BORODATES as cognate to voluntates, and to mean something to the affect of “the willing, the desirous, the volunteers.”

All together now: a reconstruction of CONSACRAN BORODATES

Having looked at the above context, where does this leave us for interpretation of, and insight into the people who left a votive altar to Erditse in Toulouse, almost 2000 years ago? Can we pull any meaning from this interpretation into our praxis today?

For the Ockham’s razor inscription interpretation that reads CONSACRAN as the present participle describing BORODATES, we would get a reading to the effect of “the dedicating willing” or “the consecrating volunteers.” Coming to something or someone of one’s own free will is an empowering and powerful choice. Volunteering is usually not a task undertaken lightly by its participants because of this choice, and while we can’t know what the activity was that these volunteers prayed to Erditze for, her intercession or the success of the activity afterwards led these people to uphold their end of the votum, and consecrate this altar to her.

We could carry this forward into modern praxis by examining volunteerism in service to Erditze. With her previously reconstructed association with protection of children, this could be volunteerism done with or for the benefit of children today. Reading with kids at a local library for a literacy program or a story time session, getting involved in your child’s classroom as a parent volunteer, taking part in a local outdoor program or volunteerism club with your children are all just examples of ways to give back to children and to Erditze in the spirit of these peoples who left us evidence of her from almost 2000 years ago.

While CONSACRANI is used in other places in the Roman Empire to describe peoples in a cultic association, as equivalent to the Greek symmistai, or within a hierarchy of devotees to Magna Mater, these instances predominantly lie east of our inscription, over closer to those Metroac cults in Phrygia. While lack of evidence does not always point to lack of implementation, as some areas are poorly explored archaeologically and records may not have survived of other similar instances in and around Toulouse and the Pyrenees, the context available to us today makes this reading seem the less likely of the two, although I do not doubt Toulouse as a cultural center was cosmopolitan enough to see the beliefs of the Metroac cult drift westward to influence this inscription and other such works lost to us now. This reading would be a much rougher fit language-wise as well. The VSLM part of the inscription already indicates “has willingly and dutifully fulfilled their vow.” Using BORODATES to indicate the will of the CONSACRANI has been carried out is a doubling-down grammatically on the usage of will in this inscription.

However, this examination need not be in vain either. Words have power, and that the CONSACRANI were a group of some sort of religious peoples, while enigmatic in its details, is a fact and a consideration. Barring a time machine, they cannot necessarily be ruled out definitively from this inscription. The people who left her inscription behind are also referred to as “consecrated peoples,” so we know they’ve been considered as some sort of religious association or group, at least in passing. How can they also be carried on then, all of the above considered, in modern praxis?

A few general points can be discerned: CONSACRANI seem to have been people dedicated in a capacity to their chosen deity. With the terms used of religious group, initiates into a mystery cult (from the Greek symmistai comparison), and the comparative placement in the Metroac worshipper hierarchy between more casual association to a deity and solely devoted to a deity, we can see both dedication to a deity, and this dedication as a shared experience with others.

For today’s praxis, this shared experience doesn’t necessarily need to be associated through initiation into a mystery cult. Devotees within a community, working together to discover, discern, and disseminate information about Erditze would certainly be a fine goal to work towards to honor this religious association. Devoting is an individualistic act in my personal experience, but with Erditze, it has been a rewarding and fulfilling relationship, for myself and from the discernment I’ve taken, for her as well. Let this be a call to explore and dive deeper into badger holes with your modern praxis. Learning and researching is its own kind of dedication, not just to Erditze, but to any Deuos you’re interested in.

Post Script: Cybele, Magna Mater, Erditze?

I do not consider myself well-versed enough in the study of Phrygia’s mother goddess Cybele and her subsequent Roman transformation into Magna Mater to determine if Erditze’s role as Deuos could be informed by virtue of the relation of terminology between the CONSACRANI with the hierarchy of the Metroac cult, and the use of CONSACRAN on Erditze’s inscription. In terms of exploration, if I feel called to write of it, that is a badger hole for another time.

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