Not long ago, Platosparks and I spoke of ἄτη and its meaning in Greek culture, here. It is quite the interesting word, and I cannot ignore the fact that it may mean something far more than our usual understanding of it. The word is an A. Greek 1st Declension Feminine Noun. What that means is that its declension is thus:
Singulars on the left, plurals on the right. The order from top to bottom is Nominative (subject in a sentence), Genitive (Possession and origin), Dative (everything else in a sentence, but identified as the Indirect Object), Accusative (Direct Object), and Vocative (my favorite, when one summons or calls a thing or person). Notice the genitive plural is ἀτῶν, literally meaning ‘of blindness.’ At the time I first read about this, my defense for a cognate run thus.
“I was thinking of the transliteration from the A. Greek to the English; from ἀτον to aton-e. The English Etymology Dictionary (EED) had no insight on the possible connection, stating that it was a simple contraction from ‘at one’ to ‘atone’ in order to denote an event that was meant to be done only at one time. The example of Jesus Christ’s ‘atonement,’ according to the EED, ‘meant to be done only once,’ is the best exemplar I could find for the use of the word.
However, we must consider the validity of the transliteration and its similarities, especially since there are mythological cognates as well, especially between the story of Jesus and such others as Oedipus and Hercules; that is, if atonement is, as you state, payment/punishment for a deed (the Liddell & Scott confirms this with early uses such as the one seen in the Iliad at 6.356) then how is Jesus’ atonement not a punishment for trying to bring balance to the world? That last question is a bit convoluted, I know; although, consider this; I had a friend of mine, major in Religious Studies, who once explained the existence of nemesis in comics thus:
If the hero is demonstrating his hubris by attempting to balance nature and bring peace to a particular city, then nemesis, the rise of the villain, is the response of the righteous anger of the gods.
In that sense, the hero must ἄτη for his hubris by suffering loneliness, the death of those close to him, the suffering of his friends. Hercules and Theseus, especially, are remembered for destroying the enemies of Athens and bringing balance to the world. As such, they both suffered great loss in their lives, and had to be purified for it. This idea really gives meaning to the phrase ‘no good deed goes unpunished.’ Nature is what it is, and it is what it is because of the gods. To upset nature is to upset the gods, even when the hero does it to save humanity – Prometheus comes to mind here.”
In order to really bring the meaning of atone to the fore. I thought it had to have a Latin connection. Often, the Latin will borrow a nominative, accusative, or genitive from the Greek and use it as a nominative (with its own declension – I know, crazy) in the Latin. I found four words that could fit the profile.
Ater – (Adj) Deadly, terrible
Ater – (Adj) Black, dark
Ategro – (Verb) to pour out wine in sacrifices
Atechnos – (Adj) unskilled
Atechnos is actually a cognate of ἀτεχνη, literally meaning ‘unskilled.’ This suspect has an alibi, and must be eliminated from the list of possibilities. Ater, as to both meanings, is very interesting as well. Here’s the reason:
καί τέ με νεικείεσκον: ἐγὼ δ᾽ οὐκ αἴτιός εἰμι, ἀλλὰ Ζεὺς καὶ Μοῖρα καὶ ἠεροφοῖτις Ἐρινύς, οἵ τέ μοι εἰν ἀγορῇ φρεσὶν ἔμβαλον ἄγριον ἄτην, ἤματι τῷ ὅτ᾽ Ἀχιλλῆος γέρας αὐτὸς ἀπηύρων.
Even these words they used to speak to me in chiding; although I myself am not to blame, but Zeus and Fate and Erinys, that walk in darkness, seeing that in the midst of the market-place they threw within my soul a bitter blindness on that day, when of mine own arrogance I took from Achilles his prize.
The adjective for dark used by Homer is ἠεροφοῖτις (ēerophoītēs), and refers to Zeus, the Fates, and the Erinys. Who are the Erinys? Goddesses of revenge. When someone commits a wrong, the Erinys will haunt them until they atone for the wrong they have committed. It is this atonement or, as the Liddell and Scott states, temporary blindness, that they Erinys cause.
ἄτη, ἡ, Dor. ἄτα, Aeol. αὐάτα ( ἀϝ-), v. infr.:— A bewilderment, infatuation, caused by blindness or delusion sent by the gods, mostly as the punishment of guilty rashness, τὸν δ’ ἄτη φρένας εἷλε Il.16.805; Ζεῦ πάτερ, ἦ ῥά τιν’ ἤδη . . βασιλήων τῇδ’ ἄτῃ ἄασας 8.237; Ζεὺς καὶ Μοῖρα καὶ . . Ἐρινὺς . . φρεσὶν ἔμβαλον ἄγριον ἄτην 19.88 (so ἀλλ’ ἐπεὶ ἀασάμην καί μευ φρένας ἐξέλετο Ζεύς ib.137); ἄτην δὲ μετέστενον ἣν Ἀφροδίτη δῶχ’ ὅτε μ’ ἤγαγε κεῖσε, says Helen, Od.4.261.
Here is where the cognate takes place. Latin does not like ‘e’ sounds by themselves at the end of words. It is the same with Greeks and ‘i’ sounds. The Greeks will add ‘n,’ the Romans may add ‘r’ or ‘m’ to make things sound better for them. Thus, ‘ater’ is a direct cognate with ‘atē.’ What is also interesting, is that atē has become an adjective in Latin. A state of being, in effect. The Greek uses ἔμβαλον to show ‘threw within,’ meaning the blindness or, atonement, is a internal one, a quality, not a physical mark. That this payment to be made for a wrong is bitter (ἄγριον) also indicates its metaphysical qualities. The darkness or blindness spoken of in the Greek and translated to the Latin is therefore not physical, but spiritual. It is the temporary blinding of the soul to its own salvation, to the freedom it enjoys, to the pleasures of life. Guilt, in effect. This guilt, this blindness to the good, is the atonement one must pay for the redemption of the impurity gained by the wrong deed. The enforcers of the punishment are goddesses who dwell in darkness, who know all about it, the Erinys; Zeus is the law-giver that created the punishment, and Fate what drives it. It is a fascinating concept.
Thus, hubris brings about nemesis, and nemesis restores balance by producing, in the impure, atonement. There are two ways to cleanse oneself from this pollution, catharsis (literally ‘a down-pour’ – a sort of baptism) and purification (from πυρη – fire). Both cases are seen in Mythology. Catharsis is the form of cleansing carried out on Hercules, Theseus, and many others. Purification, as far as I know, was only carried out on Hercules, and it meant his ascension into Olympus for all time. Of course, one could say that burning on a pyre (literally a purification through πυρη) is the same thing so, in reality, are pyres simply a final purification rite to ensure the soul ascends? Probably not, since Olympus was reserved only for the gods; yet again, if a Demi-god like Achilles burned, wouldn’t he, in essence, ascend to the High-Vaulted Halls of Zeus?