In 2007 I came across an article that claimed that the English word church was derived from the name of Circe, a sorceress-goddess from Greek mythology. That simply is not so. When I went on the internet, I found many articles making the same claim. A lot of them are worded the same way, and many of the web sites have similar themes, so I suspect that they all got their information from the same source.
The oldest source I could find was from 1898, and this was a dictionary of fable by E. Cobham Brewer (see http://www.bartleby.com/81/ ). Since most dictionaries are compilations, I am sure that Mr. Brewer was not the first person to make this connection. However, it was during this time period that scholars often made large leaps of logic based on spurious etymology. I recall once reading a old paper from the early twentieth century that said that the name Odysseus (or Ulysses) was related to the Greek word for bear (arkios, source of the English word arctic—because the two northern constellations were named for bears). I thought that was a cool idea because I liked the story of Odysseus and my last name means “bear.” Maybe I was related to Odysseus! Both relations are bogus…in case you could not guess. Those Greek words are not similar at all.
I first read about this supposed connection in an article entitled “Church of the Mind” by Bill Cassada (formerly posted at http://www.thelionsheart.org/ ). The article points out that the famous witch-goddess from Homer’s Odyssey who turned Odysseus’ men into pigs was Circe, or Kirke in Greek. The article then notes that in Old English the word church was spelled circe or cyrice, and in other Northern European languages was spelled kirke, like the Greek mythological figure. The article then goes on to say that the word church was derived from a Greek cognate that relates to witchcraft.
Other articles I read note that some of the early English translators like Wycliffe and Tyndale often translated the Greek word ekklesia (the word church in most translations) as “congregation,” “assembly,” or another word different form church. Actually, Mr. Cassada’s article is really a very thoughtful article about what the Bible says the church is supposed to be. Mr. Cassada tries to make a distinction between “the church” and “the ekklesia.” I understand the point, but the linguistics is bogus.
Anyway, I have taught language and language history for a number of years. I studied some linguistics in graduate school, and I have read and taught Homer more times than I care to recall. I also studied Old English under some of the most highly esteemed Medievalists in the world. I might not be a professional linguist, but I am no tyro. I want to examine the claims of Cassada, Brewer, and others who make a linguistic connection between mythical Greek witches and the European word for church.
The Word Kyriakos in Bible Greek
The Greek word kyriakos is indeed where the English word church comes from. However, the article’s analysis of the word kyriakos is incorrect.
The Greek word kyrie means “Lord.” It is used hundreds of times in the New Testament. Some churches recite or sing the “Kyrie Eleison,” which means “Lord, have mercy.”
The word kyriakos is simply the genitive or possessive form the word kyrie. It means “the Lord’s” or “belonging to the Lord.” It is used twice in the New Testament (I Corinthians 11:20 and Revelation 1:10). It is, I admit, not quite the same as “the called out ones,” but the meaning is not that different. After all, the people who are called out or chosen by the Lord belong to Him!
Brewer in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable thought it significant that words that derived from kyriakos appear in other northern European languages before they appear in English. He mentions Celtic languages, but the Celts in Britain were evangelized long before the English. The Britons were first evangelized in the second century, possibly earlier. The mother of the Emperor Constantine was a Christian Briton who lived in the third century. St. Patick worked in the fourth. The first Christian mission to the English did not begin until A. D. 597. Brewer’s example of French is cirque, which means “circus” (e.g., Cirque du Soleil), not church. The French word for church is église which comes from the other Greek word for church, ekklesia. He notes the “Scotch” for church is kirk, but that is not Gaelic or Celtic, that is Scots English, and is a mere regional variation of pronunciation that is the same as the English word church itself. Brown is at best curious, but really mistaken here. His explanation confirms the above observation about spurious etymology.
What Works in Greek is Different in Other Languages
Also, in Greek the y letter or upsilon (υ) is not interchangeable with the i letter, iota (ι), as it is in many of the Western European languages. The upsilon is pronounced like the French u or the German or Mandarin ü; in other words, it is just about unpronounceable to native English speakers! It is very different from either iota or the letter i. In Greek, Kyr would never become Kir, or vice versa. Yes, the English or Latin name for the witch in The Odyssey is Circe. In the Homeric Greek, her name is Kirkê. While that is similar to some Northern and Western European words for church, there is no relationship in the Greek. Circe or Kirkê is simply a woman’s name and probably means “bird,” maybe “hawk.” It is onomatopoetic, like the Hebrew name Zipporah (Moses’s wife, whose name means “sparrow”). If Circe has any similarity to any English word, that word would be caw or chirp, not church. In other words, the word church literally means “belonging to the Lord,” and its roots have nothing to do with witchcraft or the witch of the Odyssey.
I should note here also that, for similar reasons, the name Circe does not have a direct relationship to the Latin word circus, which means “circle” or “ring” and where we get the English words circle, circulate, circus, and so on. I mention that for those who see another connection with the name of the character in the Odyssey that again has nothing to do with church.
For what it is worth, the Old English spelling of church followed the Medieval Latin spelling and pronunciation system. A c followed by an e or i is pronounced like Modern English ch. For example, child in Old English is pronounced the same as our modern word but it was spelled cild. So cyrice or circe in Old English is pronounced the same way we pronounce church today, possibly with an extra syllable after the r. In Scotland and parts of Northern England, because of the Danish influence, the c was pronounced like a k, which is the way the word is still pronounced in Scotland—kirk. It is the same word, just pronounced a bit differently. It is like noting that Rick and Rich are both nicknames for Richard. You say tomato, I say tomahto.
This Does Not Discredit the Whole Article at All
Having said all that, I do agree with Bill Cassada’s message, his exhortation. The church often has become an institution that requires the accomplishment of certain works to prove worthiness or ability in the way that the occult does. Calvinists used to call this priestcraft. For example, when Robinson Crusoe asks Friday about the religion of his people, Friday tells him that only the wise old men of the tribe can speak to their gods. Crusoe, the archetypal Calvinist of English literature, notes the following:
By this I observed that there is priestcraft even amongst the most blinded, ignorant pagans in the world, and the policy of making a secret religion in order to preserve the veneration of the people to the clergy is not only to be found in the Roman but perhaps among all religions in the world…(See http://wyeth.artpassions.net/crusoe23-24.html )
The reason that some of the early English Bible translations used words other than church to translate ekklesia had to do with the institution of the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Churches at the time. Those translators believed that if they wrote “church,” the average reader would think of the hierarchical institution centered at Rome or Constantinople, rather than a group of believers in Christ.
According to Romans 12, God has created us with different inherent giftings. These are motivational by nature. They are not occasional gifts as I Corinthians 12 from the Holy Spirit. They are not ministry gifts as Ephesians 4 from Christ. They are part of our created makeup “that God hath dealt to every man” (Romans 12:3 KJV). The teacher is not motivated by the same things that motivate the exhorter or encourager.
Cassada’s message is excellent. I am sure that some of the other articles that speak of a Circe-Church connection still have some good exhortation on the role of the church. But the teacher in me also has to note that the story of word origins is inaccurate. To use the language of Romans 12, Mr. Cassada is an exhorter, and I think his message is valid even if some of the technicalities are not.
Oh, and don’t believe everything you read on the Internet…
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