This is the first in an occasional series of posts on unusual Latin words.

Like most cultures, the ancient Romans had a number of words which were used exclusively or primarily in a religious context. One of these is the verb “averrunco, averruncare”, which means “to avert” or “to remove.” This may sound like it derives from “ā-vertere – to turn away, to avert”, but the double R indicates rather that it derives from “ā-verrere – to sweep away.” The invocation “di averruncent! – may the gods avert this!” would therefore literally mean “May the gods sweep this away!”

“O rem difficilem planeque perditam! … Non esse me una cum Pompeio gaudes, ac proponis, quam sit turpe me adesse, cum quid de illo detrahatur; nefas esse approbare. Certe; contra igitur? ‘Di,’ inquis, ‘averruncent!’

What a difficult and completely ruinous business! … You are glad that I am not with Pompey, and yet you point out how shameful it would be for me to be present when anything is said against him. It would be horrible to approve his conduct, you say. I agree; should I therefore speak out against him? ‘Heaven forbid!’, you say.” (Cicero, Letters to Atticus 9.2)

The writer Aulus Gellius (125-180 AD ca.) mentions a god called “Averruncus” or “Auruncus”, whose name is evidently connected to this verb, and says of him:

“In istis autem diis, quos placari oportet, uti mala a nobis vel a frugibus natis amoliantur, Auruncus quoque habetur. – Among these gods who must be appeased, so that they may remove evil from us and from new crops, there is also Auruncus.” (Attic Nights, 5.12.14)

Averruncus would therefore most likely be one of the gods listed in the “indigitamenta” (a word which occurs only in the plural), collections of the names of the many gods to be invoked in public acts of propitiation. Like many aspects of Roman religion, these collections were traditionally attributed to Romulus’ successor as king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, the first “pontifex maximus – chief priest.” None of them survive, but references to them and to the gods they enumerated, amounting to well over 100 names, have been collected by modern scholars. (See Robert Turcan’s “The Gods of Ancient Rome: Religion in Everyday Life from Archaic to Imperial Times”, p. 41; English ed. Rutledge, 2001)

Pictured below: King Numa, 1828, by the French painter Merry-Joseph Blondel (1781-1853), now in the Musée d’art et d’histoire de Saint-Brieuc (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)