Something I love about the Indo-European etymology – is that manner in which the roots of terms resonate with their descendants. And, in so doing, significantly broaden our understanding of just what they actually are – how we are to relate to them.
A good example of this is the Ancient Greek ναός – ‘Naos’ – meaning a Temple.
Now, upon the surface, this is quite a straightforward thing. It would mean ‘Dwelling’, ‘House’, ‘Home’. And that is apt enough for the place where, after all, a God is said to live. That is Who is Housed there; or, given the etymology of ‘Theos’ – Who is ‘Placed’ there [‘Theos’ descends from a PIE term meaning, effectively that – it is a bit of an outlier from the more usual ‘Shining One’ (Deva, Deus, Tyr) Indo-European typology and pertains to a functional relationship in ritualine and community use]
Except when we trace ‘Naos’ back further to its archaic Proto-Indo-European underpinning … something interesting happens.
The ultimate root of ‘Naos’ is PIE ‘Nes’ – a most intriguing term with what at first appears to be a quite a diverse and manifold field of meaning: ‘to return (home)’, ‘to heal’, ‘to rescue’, ‘to join/come together’, ‘to become concealed’.
And yet it does not take more than a moment’s cognizance to divine the shared underlying sense to all of these definitions and their subsequent derivations in the latter Indo-European languages of yore (‘Nasatya’ – as in the Asvins, the Helping, Healing, Heroic Horse-Twins is a great example we have written previously upon; ‘Nostos’ is probably more familiar to a Western audience from the Homeric epics).
The sense being communicated via ‘Nes’ is of a place of refuge – a place of restoration, and the journeying or retrieval to go back thereto (hence, the reinvigoration and renewal of health from injury or impairment); a place or a state where one can be at ease, and quite literally it would seem, ‘at home’.
And a ‘home’ that is made so via people ‘coming together’ : the place, in fact, where people – your people , family , community – are to be found back together as one.
So – how does this help us to understand the meaning for ‘Naos’ as Temple?
Well, isn’t it obvious?
In the Ancient World – and even today in some spiritually healthy places and societies – a place of worship is at the heart of the community; whether geographically/physically or mentally/psychologically/metaphysically.
It is in no small part why, ‘pon microcosm, we see Hestia as the Goddess of the Hearth-Fire of the Home – and thence, upon somewhat larger scale (for example as Vesta) as the Hearth-That-Is-Heart-Of-Flame for the polis, the community, the nation at large.
The Greek Temple, therefore, may indeed be understood upon the surface as being the dwelling, the house. Yet in addition to it being the Gods’ House – it is also the Community’s House. Where the Community, in its metaphysical sense, has its terrestrial abode; its values, its heritage, and the reinvigoration via congregation thereto.
Not for nothing did Macaulay in his celebrated Lays of Rome make such a point of stressing –
“And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods,”
Which, while it did not come to pass in that particular case (as Horatius the One-Eyed successfully defended the bridge against the Etruscan assault on Rome), is also an example of the ‘Nes’ concept going the other way – that is to say, of acting to defend and therefore rescue, or restore to state of safety a temple.
“Dharmo Rakshati Rakshitaha”, we might say in Sanskrit – Dharma Protected, Protects.
But to return more directly to the Naos and the Nes – the notion being so eloquently, intricately, implicitly communicated via this blessed terminology is that the place of congregation , the central site of the religious sphere both for and in the community : is the place of Restoration. It is the place where we are among our people. It is the place of reinvigoration, of Help (whether from our fellow dwellers, or from the Divine On High or Below), and of Healing – likely in multiple senses of that term.
Schopenhauer once wrote that “Every parting gives a foretaste of death ; every coming together again a foretaste of the resurrection”
He meant, of course, ‘resurrection’ in a sense that is more immediately relevant for the modern and rather different religion prevalent in Europe and elsewhere today. Yet given the role of the Nasatya Asvins and others (including Castor and Pollux acting out Their role as the Indo-European Horse Twins in a certain restoration of life via the Divine Aid and intercession) , there is most certainly still a conceptual resonancy to be had there.
One which becomes even more powerful in light of the underlying sense of ‘resurrection’ as just such a reinvigoration of vitality, a rescuing from literally deathly circumstances – a restoration, in short, to the healthy and ideal condition of ‘home’.
So, just as Hannah Arendt once observed that it should prove most difficult for a man to truly be a man , a human , outside of a community and a public sphere (a condition which she strongly based upon the Classical Greek conceptions of citizenship and personhood – and for which she was occasionally accused of having “Polis Envy”) … so too do we see that the progressing wave of ‘dehumanization’ of the modern age has been tangibly accompanied by if not outright enabled through the relegation of men to the condition of isolated, atomized individuals.
A series of acts advanced through economic circumstances and choices, of course – but anchored also in the disparagement-into-disuse of those opportunities, those occasions, those sites and sacred, sacral spaces and spheres, where previously people had ‘come together’ [PIE ‘Nes’ again] to be and to make a ‘home’, a community, a culture, a family, a future, again.
PIE ‘Nes’ is a fascinating root term – and I think many would argue that the Greek temples which bear the nomenclature derived therefrom are often amongst some of the finest examples of architecture anywhere in the world, even today some thousands of years of ruin on.
They still stand (both physically, and in our hearts and minds) – because they have something to Stand For.
With this broader Indo-European mytholinguistically ‘resonant’ sense to ‘Naos’ foremost in mind – evidently it is something which ought inform our own ethos today.
A restoration of the Heart and Hearth and therefore the Health of our community through the emphatic resurrection of the com-munus (‘with/together’ – ‘function/performance/duty’).
‘Nostos’, you might say – Returning Home !