Monday, March 31, 2008

Opportunity Knocks

Latin mythology/theology gets a bit fuzzy at times, especially when separate gods or goddesses have overlapping duties. Take Portunus, for example. He started out as the god of keys and doors, and later of granaries. It all came about because porta meant gate or door.

A similar Latin word, portus, meant a harbor or shelter. That was originally the domain of another god, Palaemon, but over time he merged in the common mind with Portunus, no doubt because of the similarity of the two words. So Portunus evolved into the god of harbors.

This explains the origin of words such as opportune, inopportune, importune, and opportunity. Opportune, for instance, comes from the prefix ob-, toward, and Portunus, god of the harbor. A boat coming close to a harbor was about to fall under the favor of the harbor-god. Or, to go back to the root portus, it was moving toward the harbor, a good opportunity to embrace shelter.

A Christian apologist named Arnobius [284-305] made waves against the idea that pagan gods were the source of safety and protection. Here’s part of what he had to say in his Seven Books against the Heathen, III.23:

“But you will, perhaps, say that the gods are not artificers, but that they preside over these arts, and have their oversight; nay, that under their care all things have been placed, which we manage and conduct, and that their providence sees to the happy and fortunate issue of these. Now this would certainly appear to be said justly, and with some probability, if all we engage in, all we do, or all we attempt in human affairs, sped as we wished and purposed. But since every day the reverse is the case, and the results of actions do not correspond to the purpose of the will, it is trifling to say that we have, set as guardians over as, gods invented by our superstitious fancy, not grasped with assured certainty. Portunus gives to the sailor perfect safety in traversing the seas; but why has the raging sea cast up so many cruelly-shattered wrecks?”

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