Indo-European Language and Society

Chapter 5. Fas


The existence of two derivatives in *-to-, Lat. fastus and festus, of diametrically opposite meaning, is sufficient to demolish the connection often proposed between fas and the group of fanum, feriae.
It is perfectly evident that fas must be brought into connection with the Lat. fari (Gr. phēmi, IE *bhā-). Irreproachable from a formal point of view, this etymology requires semantic justification: how can a connection be established between “to speak” (*bhā-) and “divine law” (fas)? It is shown that in fact the root *bhā– designates speech as something independent of the person uttering it, not in virtue of what it means but in virtue of its very existence. Thus what has been said, Lat. fatum, or what is being said, fama, Gr. phḗmē, Hom. dē̂mou phē̂mis, ‘vox populi’, is charged, as impersonal speech, with a positive religious value: phḗmē is itself a god (theós … tis) (Hesiod, Works 764).
In Latin the conditions in which fas is used—fas est + infinitive ‘the fas exists that …’—explain why (divine) speech provided the expression for (divine) law.
In the pair Gr. thésphatos: athésphatos ‘limited (by destiny)’ : ‘not limited’ the verbal adjective of phēmi, –phatos clearly reflects the specific value which has been recognized in the root *bhā-.


The legal expressions considered up till now are all related to human law, which regulates social relations in general and applies between definite groups either within the family or between families.
But there is, in at least one Indo-European language, a specific term which designates divine law: this is fas, which is distinct from ius. The relation of these two terms raises a problem which is in the first place a problem of sense. It does not look as though this opposition ius: fas can be projected into the Indo-European common period. It is however worthwhile seeing whether it was really a Latin creation.
It cannot be asserted that this opposition did not exist at least in common Italic. We still know so little about the Italic dialects that no argument could be drawn from their silence: only Umbrian is attested in a continuous text of any length. But this ritual couched in a formulaic style is far from providing us with the whole vocabulary. There are certainly important notions for which the Umbrian expression escapes us.
Thus in Latin, since we must confine ourselves to this language, we have ius: fas, and this opposition is reflected in their derivatives iustus: fastus as well as the parallel expressions ius est: fas est ‘it is permitted by human law, divine law’ respectively. From a morphological point of view, fas is an indeclinable neuter noun; it is a stem in –s, of the same formation as ius. But to go beyond this we must enquire into the etymology. Some scholars have proposed to connect fas with a group of words represented by the word fanum ‘temple’ because of the religious value which would be confirmed for fas by this connection.
This interpretation must certainly be rejected for a number of formal reasons: fānum comes from an original *fasnom with a short a; the lengthening, which is a secondary development, is normal when the group –asn– is reduced to –ān-. *Fasnom in its turn goes back to *dhǝsnom which is connected, with a different vocalic grade, with the name of the temple known from Oscan and Umbrian: Osc. fíísna, Umbrian fesna. We thus have the alternation *fēsna (Oscan and Umbrian)/*fasnom (with reduced vocalic grade in Latin). This contrast, carried back a stage further, would appear as *dhēsna/ *dhəsnom. Besides we have other words which belong to the same group: e.g. the Latin fesiae (feriae) ‘festivals’ and the adjective festus ‘festive, solemn’. It is probable that the stem *dhǝs-/dhēs– designated some religious object or rite, the precise nature of which we can no longer determine. In any case it certainly belonged to the religious sphere.
This stem *dhēs– recurs elsewhere: in the Armenian plural dikc ‘the gods’, which goes back to *dhēses (the –kc being the mark of the plural) and in the ancient Greek compounds thésphatos, thespésios, théskelos, where thes– corresponds to the *dhēs– of dikc. The sense of thes– attaches these poetic adjectives to the notion of the divine: thésphatos ‘fixed by divine decree’; thespésios ‘marvelous’, applied to the song of the Sirens, an expression of divine origin, théskelos of less clear formation, “prodigious,” perhaps “divine.”
Finally, it is quite possible—this is a hypothesis advanced long since—that we must also include here theós ‘god’, the original form of which was probably *thesós. The existence of the Armenian dikc ‘gods’ would then enable us to set up a Greco-Armenian lexical pair.
Are we justified in bringing fas into connection with this word family? If we consider the sense of feriae, the most marked representative of this group in Latin, we shall see the difference. Feriae are “the festivals, holidays”; festus means “appointed as a holiday.” How could fastus be cited here? It would be difficult to understand, if they had a common origin, how two distinct adjectives in –to– could be made from the same root. Moreover, what is the meaning of fastus? Dies fastus is the name given to the day on which the law courts could be in session, when the praetor had the right to pronounce the words which sum up his functions: do, dico, addico. This is what Macrobius writes: Fasti (dies) sunt quibus licet fari praetori tria verba solemnia: do, dico, addico. His contrarii nefasti. The fasti are “working” days, on which magistrates and citizens can go about their business. It is because of this that fasti dies was able to take on the sense of “calendar.” Thus fastus ‘working day’ is the exact opposite of festus ‘day appointed for a holiday’. This would suffice to demolish the connection proposed between fas and feriae, which, it may be said, has not won general approval.
We must therefore reject this explanation and look for a different origin for fas. The explanation which seems most plausible has already been proposed. It has in its favor, though this is not always a guarantee of correctness, the Sprachgefühl of the ancients who never separated fas from fari, *for ‘to speak’.
This is far from being a self-evident explanation which it would be sufficient merely to quote. In fact no immediate connection is apparent between the notion of “to speak” and that of “specifically divine law,” as these words are defined in the dictionaries. Scholars who reproduce this etymology, which is certainly correct, do not attempt to demonstrate it. The sole means of justifying it would be to study more closely the proper sense of fari.
Along with fas we must include also its contrary nefas ‘a sin against religion’, which exhibits the negation ne-, which is older than non. For nefas in fact has emerged from the expression nefas est, where ne must be regarded as a sentence negation and not as a prefix; the negative prefix is not usually ne– but in-. A similar syntactic turn of phrase also gave rise to the word negotium which has been extracted from the expression nec otium est (cf. Book One, Chapter Eleven).
The formation of fas is like that of ancient indeclinable neuter nouns: ius, mos, the latter having at a later linguistic stage been provided with a declension.
The connection of fas with *for, fari, fatus sum is in any case suggested by a form of this verb which deserves emphasis because of its religious value. This is the participle of *for, the neuter fatum ‘destiny’, often “evil destiny” (cf. fatalis ‘fatal’), which appears as an independent substantive from the earliest texts.
The verb *for itself was obsolete from the beginning of the historical period; it is used only in poetry in the sense “to speak.” But it produced a number of old derivatives: facundus ‘eloquent, glib’, fabula ‘conversation, piece of dialogue, fable, legend’; and finally, fama ‘fame’, especially in a good sense, whence famosus ‘of good repute’ and its counterpart infamis ‘who does not enjoy good repute, of ill fame’. Behind each of these there is a long series of derivatives (e.g. from fabula: fabulari, fabulatio, etc.). This Latin verb corresponds to Gk. phēmi, pháto, the conjugation of which is partly active and partly middle; then phḗmē ‘fame’; phē̂mis, which has virtually the same sense “rumor, conversation, gossip,” and also phátis. This root is completely absent from Indo-Iranian. It is restricted to the central part of Indo-European; in addition to Latin and Greek it is also attested for Armenian in the word bay ‘speech’ which goes back to *bati– and so corresponds exactly to Greek phátis, ban ‘word, rumor, report’ and in the interpolated verbal form bay ‘says he’. It is also represented in some Germanic forms, e.g. OE bōian ‘boast’, and finally also in Slavic baju, bajati ‘narrate, pronounce charms’, and, with a more complex suffixation, baliji ‘doctor, sorcerer’.
The initial sense is given in the etymological dictionaries as “to speak,” with a number of specializations, as for instance in Old Slavic. But they give no indication which would explain how the general meaning “to speak” came to be specialized in the sense “divine law.”
What is the precise sense of “to speak” with this verb? What particular features distinguish it from all the other expressions relating to speech? There is a Latin form which is important in this connection: this is the present participle infans ‘the child of tender years, which does not speak’. Varro, to explain the connection with fatur, tells us (L. L. VI, 52): “Fatur is qui primum homo significabilem ore mittit vocem. Ab eo ante quam id faciant, pueri dicuntur infantes, cum id faciant, iam fari …” ‘A man speaks (fatur) who for the first time utters a sound endowed with sense. This is why children are called “infants” until they can do this; but when they do it we say that they now speak (iam fari)’.
We also say that a child “can speak” or “cannot speak.” By this we mean articulated speech, the act of speech as a manifestation of language, as an emanation of the human personality. In much the same way, underlying the different senses of “conversation,” “stage play,” etc. of fabula we can see its meaning as “putting into words,” much as we say “to set to music.” The term fabula is applied to a legend, an action, or anything which is put into words. Whether it is a narrative, a fable, or a play, the only relevant aspect is this transposition into words. This explains why fabula denotes what is nothing but words, what has no basis in reality. This is the way in which we must understand the other derivatives of the root: facundus ‘who is talented in speaking’, a verbal manifestation considered independently of its content; not one who is eloquent, but one who has a great abundance of words at his disposal. In fama ‘reputation, rumor’ we observe a new feature: the act of speech which is impersonal and not individualized. Even when a child “speaks,” iam fatur, the point of the remark is not what it says but that it manifests an impersonal faculty, common to all human beings, the fact that they are capable of speech. Similarly fama is speech as a human phenomenon, impersonal, collective, rumor, renown: in the French expression le bruit court que ‘a rumor is current’, bruit ‘noise’ is a vocal phenomenon, speech considered purely in its acoustic aspect, because it is depersonalized. This is also the meaning of the Greek phátis ‘fame, rumor’, not connected speech or discourse.
The same sense emerges also from phē̂mis. In the Iliad (10, 207), a character goes among the Trojans to see if he can learn any phē̂mis. What is meant here is things which “are said” impersonally, not remarks made by this person or that. In the Odyssey there is frequent mention of the dḗmou phē̂mis ‘the rumor of the people, the voice of the people’. Some person or other does not dare to act in a certain way because of the dḗmou phē̂mis, because of what people may say (6, 273-274). The word does not denote individual speech.
We now turn to phḗmē. First a particularly significant example. Odysseus asks Zeus to confirm that it is his will to bring him safely back to his home after having made him suffer so much. “Let one of those awake in the house utter a phḗmē and from outside may another sign from Zeus appear” (Od. 20, 100). Odysseus expects the phḗmē as an utterance of divine character, as a manifestation of the will of Zeus, equivalent to a sign; and in fact, a woman is the first, while a thunder clap is heard, to utter a phḗmē and this phḗmē is a sē̂ma, a portent for Odysseus (11, 100 and 111). In Herodotus, too, we find (III, 153) phḗmē accompanying téras ‘portent’. Sophocles (Oed. Rex 86ff.) offers phḗmē theṓnphḗmē of the gods’, referring to an “oracle.”
All this hangs together: phḗmē is an emanation of words, whether it refers to rumor, reputation, fame, or an oracle. We now see why the root of phḗmē and of Latin *for came to indicate the manifestation of a divine saying: this is because it is always impersonal, because there is always something confused about it, always something mysterious, just as the first beginnings of speech on the lips of a child are mysterious.
This sense of phḗmē is especially highlighted in a passage from Hesiod (Works 763-764): “phḗmē cannot perish completely when many people repeat it; for it is in some way divine.” This is why the dḗmou phē̂mis is so important and can make a man hesitate at a moment of action: it is a divine warning. Vox populi, vox dei ‘the voice of the people is the voice of god’. This is also why fatum is an enunciation which has no personal source, which is not connected with a man, which derives from this supra-human origin its mysterious, fatal, and decisive character.
Finally, the verb phásthai, which is so common, conveys more than it seems. We do not take sufficient note of the strong sense of phasi ‘it is said, rumor will have it’; pháto is to be taken literally not simply as “he said” but “this utterance emanated from him.”
This power of speech, cut off from its human source, and often of divine origin, can easily become a magic power. This is why in Slavic baliji denotes the man, whether doctor or sorcerer, who has at his disposition this inspired power of speech, of incantation, and who understands how to use it and direct it.
We can now return to fas. We now see how the notion is steeped in the general meaning of “the spoken word,” and now fas derives from this its religious sense. But we still do not see why fas should be applied particularly to “law.” This sense may have developed from the phrase in which fas is actually used at an early date: fas est, with an infinitive proposition, literally “there is fas, the fas exists that…” By this was understood the enunciation in divine and imperative words. By means of this impersonal speech the will of the gods is made manifest, the gods say what it is permissible to do. It is via this expression fas est ‘what is willed by the gods’ that we arrive at the idea of divine law.
In fas there is nothing which indicates the real nature of this law, but because of its origin the word has this value of a solemn enunciation, of a positive prescription: fas or nefas. It is one of the functions of the priest to know and to codify divine enunciations which lay down what may be done and what is prohibited.
It is for the same reason, although in a different sphere, that Gr. phēmi has the sense “say yes, affirm, give an affirmative reply,” oú phēmi that of “say no, refuse,” primarily in reference to oracles or collective bodies.
Although it is not particularly connected with fatum, fas belongs to the same general signification, which did not arise in Latin itself. It was already present in the whole family of forms clustering round this root *bhā-, which in the vocabulary of Indo-European expressed this strange, extra-human power of the word, from its first awakening in the human infant to its collective manifestations, which were non-human in virtue of their being depersonalized and were regarded as the expression of a divine voice.
We must now examine a very important Greek derivative, the sense of which is extremely difficult: the verbal adjective –phatos from phēmi. It enters into compounds: palaíphatos ‘what has been said long ago’; thésphatos, an adjective used in the old poetical language along with its counterpart athésphatos. Thésphatos is interpreted as “uttered by a god” (thes– being the root which may underlie the word for “god,” theós), and hence “marvelous, prodigious,” as an epithet describing certain phenomena. But in that case what would be the meaning of athésphatos? Practically the same sense is given to it: “prodigious, marvelous,” literally “what not even a god could express.” This reduction of both the positive and the negative adjective to the same sense has been used, or allowed, in order to explain certain uses which look as though they were equivalent. But their interpretation poses for the linguist a strange problem: how can an adjective have the same sense both in its positive and its negative forms? Certainly, thésphatos is used of unheard of, divine, and oracular things. It refers to destiny (this is the predominating use): tà thésphata denotes divine decrees or ordinances. But the expression thésphatón estí (moi, soi, etc.) has a special sense: it is applied to an event which is fated, not simply an event which will come about, which is prepared or foreseen by the gods, but the foreseeing of a fate that is marked out by the gods. We have an example in Iliad 5, 64: oú ti theō̂n ek thésphata ḗidē (οὔ τι θεῶν ἐκ θέσφατα ἤιδη) ‘he did not know that the gods had set a limit to his life (that he was advancing to his death)’.
In Sappho and Pindar thésphatos is used of what is going to destroy something and not of every divine prediction. We shall, therefore, give to thésphatos the sense “that to which a limit has been set by divine pronouncement.”
In expressions such as thésphatos, palaíphatos, the divine character is expressed by the verbal adjective. But the first term is not to be understood as “god” but as “limit.”
We now consider athésphatos. We can infer from its negative form that the sense ought to be “that to which no limit has been set.” This is the literal sense suggested by the formal analysis. We now examine the examples. We have athésphatos ómbros (Il. 3, 4): is this marvelous, divine, prodigious rain? Not at all; it is rather “unlimited, infinite rain, rain to which no limit has been set.” Take athésphatos thálassa (Od. 7, 273): the idea is the same, “boundless sea” with a poetical exaggeration; or again athésphatoi bóes (Od. 20, 211), not marvelous oxen but of unlimited number; the same is true of the use with sîtos (Od. 13, 244), which denotes an unlimited amount of corn.
In the Odyssey Alcinous invites his guest (who is Odysseus) to speak and tell of his adventures: he should take advantage of the night: “We have the whole night before us, without limit (athésphatos)” (Od. 11, 373). The same sense can be found in the Theogony of Hesiod (830), in an interesting usage which has not been well understood. This is the passage referring to Typhoeus, son of the Earth, a monster from whose shoulders grow a hundred serpents’ heads, from which terrible heads voices are heard uttering speech of every kind (pantoíēn), athésphaton. Sometimes the utterance was a sound which only the gods can understand, sometimes it was the voice of a bull, at other times the voice of a lion, at others cries like those of young dogs, at still others a hissing noise. In this passage pantoíēn is combined with athésphaton. By this we must understand “of every kind and in unlimited number.”
We have a second example in Hesiod (Works 662) in which the poet says of himself: “The Muses have taught me to sing this athésphaton song.” The context helps us here: “I shall sing of the sea, of ships, of navigation, the laws of the sea, although I understand nothing either of ships or navigation. Never have I embarked on the vast sea.” It needed great daring on the part of the poet to give advice on things of which he had no experience. “But all the same I shall tell of the purpose of Zeus, for the Muses have taught me to sing a song which has no limits,” that is in practice any kind of song; cf. pantoíēn. This is why, knowing nothing of the sea, I venture to sing even of navigation. This is the interpretation which the analysis of the term itself suggests: “without fixed limits” for athésphatos, “with fixed limits” for thésphatos.
In conclusion we may say that in the compounds in –phatos there appears the idea of an enunciation which is divine both in its character and its authority. We could hardly wish for a better proof of the true and profound sense of the verb phēmi, and it is all the more necessary to stress this because phēmi is in widespread use in ordinary conversation and reduced to being used of any human utterance whatsoever. We must get behind this ordinary everyday use and work back to the original sense which is better preserved in the verbal adjective and in the terms like phḗmē, phē̂mis, phátis.