More on MUSTHRION's mysterious background

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Fri Sep 25 1998 - 09:09:09 EDT

<x-flowed>This is, of course, the sort of inquiry that one pursues for its own sake
rather than with any expectation that what one learns will turn out to be
at all useful knowledge. What I have gained from it personally, beyond what
I've found out, is (1) a bit more openness to alternative suggestions, and
(2) a bit more skepticism about the likelihood of plumbing the abyss of
etymological meanings.

Here's what I've found out:

(1) MUW (with short U) really IS a verb meaning "shut the eyes." Our
"myopia" comes from the noun MUWY, which means "blinking," then
"short-sighted." However, there's no clear indication that this verb, even
though its root is MU with short U, bears any relationship to MUSTHS and
MUSTHRION. That doesn't mean at all that's impossible, but that it probably
can't be proven and is therefore useless for helping us understand anything
about the origin of the root involved ultimately in MUSTHRION.

(2) An altogether different verb, MUEW (with short U) with a variant form
MUW means regularly in the active "initiate," or "indoctrinate" (evidently
from the sense of "instruct in sacred lore" carrying over into the notion
of teaching more generally in a secular sense); still more frequent is the
middle or passive that is seen frequently in the aorist or perfect and
having the sense "undergo initiation." The Mycenaean text cited yesterday
by Mary Pendergrast from the current dean of scholars in Greek religion,
Walter Burkert, does in fact, appear to show the verb MUW being used in the
sense of "to initiate." (Incidentally, I was gratified to see that the new
appendix by Glare to the latest edition of LSJ does refer to this Mycenaean
text). Regular usage quite clearly establishes the link between the nouns
MUSTHS, "initiand," and MUSTHRION, "rite of initiation" and the verb

(3) Two other candidates that were mentioned yesterday as being somehow
related to MUSTHRION are MUS, "mouse" and MUQOS, "story", "tale." The fact
that the U is long in both MUS and MUQOS is makes it dubious that either
word is related to MUSTHRION, MUSTHS, and MUEW/MUW with their short U's. I
would like to know more about the association suggested for MUS, "mouse,"
but I have to be skeptical about it. Superficially, if it weren't for the
long U in MUQOS, this might be a more likely cognate, if only MUQOS in
ancient Greek usage had the associations with religion that the modern word
"myth" has come to have, but in earliest usage MUQOS is pretty much a
synonym of LOGOS, and only gradually seems to develop that distinct sense
of "story from a nameless source" as opposed to LOGOS as a "story/account
with an authoritative basis." It is worth noting that comparative linguists
insist on the importance of long and short vowels in the identification of

That will have to do for now. Apparently the oldest sense of the root MU-
is associated with the process of religious initiation and indoctrination
of an initiate. We are free to imagine a relationship between religious
initiation and the closing of the eyes, but that's purely hypothetical, a
"stab in the dark."

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649 OR

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