Different Names For Gods:
merely linguistic differences?
Many, if not all of us, are at least somewhat familiar with the many deities worshipped around
the globe these days. The three largest western religions these days are based on the worship
of a single god, although their names may vary. However, these differences go back further than
simple translations. There is a misconception that the Islamic God Allah is the same as the Christian
God, when in fact, this is not true. Allah, when translated literally, means “the god.” According to
Daniel Janosik from Colombia University, centuries before Islam came into existence, Allah was
supposedly the head deity of several polytheistic religions in Arabia, consisting of around 360
different deities. The Christian God and the Islamic Allah also clash on the topic of children.
Whereas Christians believe Jesus was the son of god, Muslims believe Allah did not in fact have
any children. Such differences could be attributed to the fact that these are different religions, but
they also serve to illustrate the point that the differences in naming are not merely linguistic.
These differences extend further, to a religion much older than God and Allah; Yahweh, whose origins can be traced back all the way to the bronze age in 1200 BCE. Yahweh was even referred to in ancient Egyptian inscriptions. With such massive age gaps between these gods, it stands to reason that one might think that the passage of time and the formation of new countries and languages were responsible for the variation in the names of these gods, though we might refute this statement by observing religions with less of an age gap, and less monotheistic: so-called Pagan religions.
The word Paganism originated from the Christian community in the late antiquity (the time between the 2nd and 8th century) to refer to religions that were different from theirs. These included, but were not limited to Greek Mythology, Roman Mythology and Judaism. For now, we will be looking at Germanic and Norse paganism.
Due to the rise in superhero craze these past few years, many have at least heard of the Norse god Thor, his brother Loki and his father Odion. However, long before comic books were even a thing, these figures enjoyed an entirely different level of fame among the inhabitants of ancient Scandinavia. Thor is the Norse god of strength, healing and fertility. However, in Old German, he was known as Donar. The difference between the names of these gods, however, is not the same as the differences between Allah, God and Yahweh, as the name Thor is simply the transgression of Old Germanic Paganism to Norse Paganism, which came later. Thor inherited Donar’s powers of thunder and lightning. Such changes were widespread. One of the oldest gods of the ancient Germanic pantheon was known as Tyr, later known as Tiwaz, eventually became known as Wodan, who in turn became known as Odin to the Norse. This naming change is up for debate, as Tyr was later credited as being the son of Odin. Understandably, this may be confusing, and it gets much worse.
One explanation for these differences in naming alone among the ancient Dutch, Norse, Gothic and many others, is that all these languages shared a common ancestor; Proto-Germanic, which was characterized by a number of unique linguistic features. One only has to look at a map of Magna Germania to see how large this area actually was, and come to an understanding of why these changes happened.
In the end, there is one deduction one can make from this flood of information I have just set loose upon you, dear reader, and that is that changes such as these are nigh inevitable, and one can never be sure how we will refer to our modern-day gods across religions worldwide in the future.
by Daan Koopen