To Mefitis, Maras Stallies, for grace given
Oscan inscription in the Greek alphabet. Rossano di Vaglio, 325-275 BC. Imagines Italicae: Potentia 13; Sabellische Texte Lu 16.
This is an inscription on stone, found at the sanctuary site of Rossano di Vaglio (pictured below) in central Lucania, modern day Basilicata. The text is a dedication to the goddess Mefitis, dedicated in around the fourth or third century BC by a man called Maras Stallies. The dedication might have been the stone itself or perhaps a nearby statue or building.
The goddess Mefitis may not sound very familiar, even if you are pretty knowledgeable about the Greco-Roman gods. She appears in a couple of Roman sources, usually spelled Mephitis, but mainly as an Italian goddess associated with noxious malarial gasses from the underworld – or a goddess who averts the effects of those gasses. This is a fairly specialised purpose, then, and one which makes sense given the widespread malaria problem in Southern Italy in ancient times (and indeed in relatively recent times too). In the minds of the Romans, Mefitis was also associated with sulphuric volcanic craters. It’s from this Roman meaning that we get the fairly rare English word mephitic.
At Rossano and the other Oscan-speaking sites, there’s no hint of this kind of specialisation. Instead Mefitis is a major goddess, with dozens of dedications to her name over hundreds of years, from both private individuals and community officials. A number of times she is associated with the Roman goddess Venus, though it’s not clear whether these were considered to be two closely related goddesses or two names for the same goddess. The stone dedications inscribed with Oscan texts are only a small number of the dedications made at Rossano – people also dedicated thousands of smaller objects, including hundreds of terracotta statues. We don’t know who dedicated all these objects, but there is a good chance that many of them were dedicated by women, who didn’t leave their names for us to find.
The second part of the inscription has the formula brateis datas, “for a grace given”. This formula is very interesting on a number of levels, and quite a few people have written about it. It turns up eleven times in Oscan texts, and it probably the closest thing we have to a shared religious formula across all of Oscan-speaking Italy. The word brateis comes from the same root as Latin gratia (*gwrH2-t-), and both mean something like “grace, favour, mark of esteem”, as well as retaining an earlier meaning of “thanks”, which is common in Latin and attested in the Tabula Bantina for Oscan.
The brateis datas formula may have spread from the south to the north Italy, as far as we can tell from our sparse attestations (this was first suggested by Paolo Poccetti). As a result, it becomes very tempting to see the origins of this formula in the Greek use of variations of kháris dídōmi “I give a favour”. But there’s no particular Greek phrase that has been copied here, just the general idea of gifts to gods in return for a favour – which could easily occur in two societies separately.
There is another hint of a Greek link, though it comes from an unexpected source. In Gaulish, the dedicatory formula dede bratou dekanten “gave as a tithe (in return for) grace” comes up a dozen times or so, showing a very similar word for both “give” and “grace” being used in a fixed phrase. And, as in Oscan, we know that there is Gaulish-Greek contact, because Gaulish was written in the Greek alphabet. We can’t know exactly what led to this similarity, but it’s possible that in both Oscan and Gaulish a variation on this phrase was somehow inspired by Greek, but that the formulae reached their slightly different fixed forms in the two languages at a later date. Or, we could even say that the Oscan formula influenced the Gaulish one, with Greek traders acting as a vector. For more on this, take a look at Alex Mullen’s book on Southern Gaul (p189-215).
I wonder, though, if brateis datas and its sister formulae carry on influencing people even now. The formula always reminds me of the formula “Per Grazia Ricevuta” (for grace received) which you see on walls of votive plaques in Italy. The image below shows the wall at Largo Preneste, where people who feel they have been blessed by the Virgin Mary leave a plaque to give thanks for what they have been given, just as Maras Stellies left a piece of stone for Mefitis 2300 years ago.