Friday, 14 August 2015

Pagan Swear Words, Expletives and Exclamations

The TV series Spartacus is full of inventive expletives
When I experience momentary frustration or surprise I tend to outburst variously with “Jesus Christ!”, “Christ almighty!”, “crikey Moses!, “oh my God!” and other biblical profanities.* These words flow out of my mouth impulsively, and in a sense they are just meaningless words, and yet sometimes after I unthinkingly exclaim them they bring home to me just how close Christian thinking still is. Should I then switch my expletives to a Pagan mode? On television and online I have come across the following alternatives:
  • Gods be good!
  • Juno’s c-nt!
  • Juno’s peacock!
  • Jupiter’s cock!
  • Jupiter’s eyebrows!
  • Neptune’s beard!
  • Odin’s Raven!
  • Pluto’s thorny cock!

I can imagine that “Jupiter’s cock” could, something like making the sign of the mano fico, be uttered to counter something that seems inauspicious, but I’m not sure that some of the other terms are particularly respectful. For example, to say “Gods be good” suggests a lack of faith in their benevolence, “c—t” is far too harsh a word to freely utter (around children, colleagues and so on) and has derogatory associations, and the reference to “Pluto’s thorny cock” seems to trivialise and perhaps slander the God.

Authentic ancient Roman expletives
I hesitate to turn to Latin for inspiration (swearing in Latin would risk making me look like a pretentious wanker in the eyes of my fellow Australians**) but it is definitely worth looking at how it was done in ancient Rome:
“the Romans swore chiefly by their Gods – and swore rather plentifully too. The form of the oath was often determined by the sex of the person using it … Castor and Pollux … were the Gods by which the Romans most frequently swore. While women, as a rule, avoided swearing by Pollux and swore instead by Castor, men generally omitted swearing by Castor and swore by Pollux. The feminine oath was Mecastor! or Ecaster! – the affixes me and e being supplied to adapt the name to the purposes of swearing. The oath By Pollux! was sworn in the corrupted forms Pol! And Edepol! While women occasionally swore by Pollux, they left the masculine oath By Hercules! (Mehercule!) entirely to the men and scrupulously avoided its use. The oath By Hercules! was a very popular one … 
By Hercules! was such a favourite oath with the Romans that even the children were permitted to swear by it. However, Hercules himself, it was said, had only sworn on a single occasion … the Romans, in recognition of such a singular example of forbearance, enjoined their children never to make light use of his sacred name. In the house one could swear Di Boni! [good Gods!] or Per dios immortals! [by the immortal Gods!] but never by Hercules. The prohibition, however, extended only to the four walls of the house … 
It is probable that the Romans may claim the original authorship of an oath that has spread throughout the Western world … This is their damnosa canicula [ruinous dog], which in … England [became] … damned, or cursed dog. 
The origin of the malediction damnosa canicula has been traced back to the Roman game of dice … [the] worst of all possible throws was … the canicula or canis It may well be imagined how some of our old Roman gamesters felt when after a particularly hopeful throw the four pieces [of dice] turned up a canicula: Damnosa canicula! … 
Sporting men swore by Hippona, the Goddess and patroness of grooms, jockeys, and horses … [which suggests that swearing by one’s patron God was perhaps a normal practice in ancient Rome]. 
Swearing by one’s own, or at another’s, eyes was apparently a common Roman oath … [Montagu, The Anatomy of Swearing].“
Other popular Roman age exclamations include:
  • Medius Fidius! (so help me Jupiter!)
  • Per Deum!  (By the Gods!)
  • Per Jovem! (By Jupiter!)
  • Pro Deum Fidem! (By the trustworthy Gods!)

Curses and insults are in another category and their inherently malicious nature does not appeal to me, though, as we are on the topic, we may note that, typically, inferring that a man was passive or receptive in sex was a popular way to insult him in ancient Rome. On the other hand:
“The worst insult you could throw at a Roman was that he practiced cunnum lingere … Following close upon it on the list of things virtuous Romans didn’t do was fellatio, and to be called a fellator was almost as bad as to be accused of cunnilingus [Mohr, Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing].”
The point was that a self-respecting Roman man did not (at least in theory) service another during sex, rather, he dominated his sexual partners, with whom he was expected to take the active role, regardless of their gender. Inferring that one could subdue, or had subdued, a man (or his relatives) into sexual submission was another angle of this kind of insult, as was inferring that a man was unable to attain erection and achieve coitus. Clearly, virility in all its guises was highly valued by ancient Roman men.

Other popular insults were more in line with what we would expect in our own times, and focused on belittling another’s intelligence, honesty, willingness to work, state of cleanliness or compared the target with something that was considered either demeaning or unpleasant, perhaps the most interesting of these terms is vappa (sour wine = good for nothing). Note that the contemporary English snob's insult of pleb (from the Latin word for ordinary, non-patrician people) was not, strictly speaking, an insult in ancient Rome. See this link and this link for more on Roman insults.

In our own times the old Germanic word nithing has been revived as a particularly harsh insult – it is a highly derogatory term for a man who lacks honour and is cowardly and so unworthy to even be considered a man, at least this is how I understand the term based on its contextual use, and this is more or less what it originally meant. Other old Germanic / Norse insults were roughly in line with the kinds of insults described above, although with some uniquely colourful variations, such as elfhusfifl (a simpleton who sits by the fire all day, a good for nothing) and tadskegglingar (dung-beardling). See this link for more on Viking age insults.

What of blasphemy then? Blasphemy is “irreverence toward a deity or deities” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). It can be argued that one of the tragedies of our age is that there is so much irreverence for the sacred, and sometimes it feels like there is little left in contemporary society that we will not mock, belittle or trivialise. It could be said that contemporary (wo)man “has increasingly divorced himself from his former identity as homo religiosus and has embraced instead a philosophy of the non-transcendent” (Palmer). On the other hand, it is well known that certain religious groups take blasphemy far too seriously – so let us not become intolerant fanatics. In favour of a lighter approach to this issue, it would seem that ancient Romans were not necessarily overly precious regarding the Gods. Countless ancient mosaics have been found which depict the Gods and their mythological associates, and one assumes that in at least some instances people walked on these floors – which is to say they may have literally walked on images of the divine. The Romans also wrote about the Gods in many different ways, and sometimes their stories depicted the Gods in an unflattering manner, or mocked their worshippers, or just referred to them in a very familiar way. Some Romans even dressed up as the Gods, either for theatre or at a party. It seems to me that ancient Romans had an intimacy with the Gods which is lacking in our own age, and this intimacy oftentimes included humour and familiarity. Still, all that said, without being dour I would rather avoid words which disrespect the Gods – though what is considered disrespectful will vary from person to person.

Finding the right expletives
So I wish to purge my biblical expletives, replace them with something that will be readily understood by others, are appropriate for everyday use and have a Pagan flavour, but do not disrespect the Gods. I think Greco-Roman mythology may be a good starting point. Most people have at least some familiarity with the more well known myths, so if these are referenced they will be readily understood by others. The following are starting suggestions:
  • Cyclops’ eye!
  • Fenrir's fangs!
  • Furies’ revenge!
  • Harpies’ breath!
  • Hydra’s cocks!
  • Jason’s fleece!
  • Jove’s thunder!
  • Juno’s vengeance!
  • Medusa’s head!
  • Siren’s song!
  • Hecate's dogs!
To counter something inauspicious with lucky words, or to invoke the protection of the divine, then perhaps:
  • Apollo’s healing light!
  • By Jove / Jupiter / Castor / Pollux / Hercules / etc!
  • Freya’s embrace!
  • Freyr's cock!
  • Grapes of Bacchus!
  • Mercury’s cock!*** 
  • Odin's spear!
  • Sweet liberty!
  • Sweet mead! 
And as an alternative to the phrase God damn [insert noun]!:
  • Accursed  …!
  • Cursed …!
  • Blasted ...!
  • Ruinous …!
I’d rather avoid the actual term damn for in English this is a word that is firmly associated with the Christian tenet of damnation (ie, eternal punishment in the fires of hell with no hope of redemption) which I regard as a thoroughly vile and false concept.

It is said to be the case that uttering the right expletives can help us to endure pain a little better, and can even induce subtle changes in one’s blood pressure and heart rate. I have spoken to a number of multi-lingual people recently and, based on these conversations, it seems that most expletives tend to have one of three features, they are either vulgarly offensive (sh-t! f-ck! etc) or they invoke the protection of the divine in some way (eg, Malay Allah’s will! and Chinese Heavens above!) or they invoke a curse of some kind (God damn it! and so on). Either way the words must have a degree of force. I’m not sure if any of the Paganesque suggestions above will work, for biblical exclamations are so deeply engrained, but I will certainly be giving it a try.


* On the other hand there are a number of non biblical expletives I can and do use (sh-t, f-ck, f-cking hell, and so on – note that the English word hell is actually Heathen in origin, it originally referred both to the place and the Germanic Goddess of the underworld, though these days it feels rather Christian) but they are slightly too harsh for everyday use.

** This is not to say I think using Latin in ordinary language is a bad thing, but in the society in which I live it essentially amounts to a faux pas – in egalitarian Australia speaking Latin ordinarily denotes that you went to an elite private school  only the other week I was mocked for using inter alia in everyday speech.

*** Because the cockerel is associated with Mercury – the double entendre adds texture and humour to the phrase, which may be pleasing to the God of language and trickery.

  • Beard, A Don's Life: Who were the Roman plebs? The Times Literary Supplement 
  • Eyler, Disability in the Middle Ages: Reconsiderations and Reverberations, Ashgate Publishing
  • Ludi Latini
  • Mohr, Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, Oxford University Press
  • Montagu, The Anatomy of Swearing, University of Pennsylvania Press
  • Palmer, introduction to Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult, Indiana University Press 
  • Zumpt, A Grammar of the Latin Language, Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans
  • A Study Group in the Old Norse Language (Yahoo Groups)
Postscript: after writing this post someone on social media suggested that I was overly concerned with "political correctness" in the writing of it. On rereading it I can understand why this impression may have been formed but this was not the intent at all. The caution I speak of is simply about respect and good manners  both before the Gods and before people. There are layers of appropriate language; this post concerns itself with the words that can be used in front of anyone, including children.

Written by M. Sentia Figula.


  1. Probably because I've been rewatching Rome too much, I've been uttering "Bona Dea" when I'm frustrated.

    1. I like it! It rolls off the tongue well:)

  2. Hello, I am a new reader of your blog. Recently I created a small shrine of Venus becaue my love life's a mess and mainly because I felt like praying to her. Initially it went fine but then during a prayer I promised to offer her a few things which I eventually found difficult to find. I read she's not a patient Goddess and any promise to her, if broken would be disastrous. I feel I have been suffering from bad luck after that. Is fulfilment of promise an absolute thing? Can't I offer her something else in its' place? A little help?

    1. Hello there☺ Generally the way of ritual in the Roman tradition is that one does well to plan rituals, even perhaps to write down what one will say, and to really think about what you will do, when, in what order, with what offerings, to which Gods, and so on – this includes being sure that you can offer what you promise.

      I suggest that if it is at all possible you should offer what you have promised, but if that truly is not possible then maybe make a well planned ritual offering that which can stand in the place of the original promised offerings, perhaps because the proxy offerings are even better than what was originally promised. Roses and wine are good offerings to Venus.

      I have never heard that Venus is not patient and that breaking a promise to her would be disastrous – I think this is a fearful way to look at Venus. How can we love, respect and honour Venus if we fear her? I have to admit though that what you describe is not too different from what I too have experienced at times (regarding other Gods as well). For me, it seemed as though personal emotions and fears were driving these feelings more than anything else. In order to help me deal them I researched and wrote a post on this blog called “Superstition” (May 2015) – this may be of interest. Note also my post “Prayer to Venus” (March 2015), “In Praise of Venus” (October 2014) and “Venus, Goddess of Life and Love” (January 2013).

      Hope this helps and good luck!

      Pax et Fortuna

    2. Thanks a lot! To be precise I prayed to her as both Venus and Aphrodite, since I read that they are the Roman and Greek counterpart of the same Goddess. The ritual I found in a website read that I had to offer her roses and candles, repent for anything which had been inadvertently done by me which has hurt others and offer her something so that she ends my misfortune in love. There it was written that if I break any promise I would not like it and there was no incantation for it. In my excitement I didn't think about my limitations regarding what to offer. I got very scared after that.

    3. No worries and good luck!

      I tend to think that the Gods control their own will and determine who they favour - regardless of whether or not we perform religious rites appropriately. Of course it is better to perform rites correctly, but the Roman way is simply to start again if the ritual goes bad. When animal sacrifices were made in ancient times and showed signs of ill omen generally Romans did not despair, they just forked out the extra cash to offer another animal sacrifice. In any case, it is up to Venus, not an incantation, whether or not she looks kindly on individuals. And, of course, the Gods help those who help themselves (carpe diem!).