Testation, Testicles and Ritual Practice

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Today in Wills, Trusts & Estates class, we discussed the difference between dying testate (with a will) and intestate (without one).  We talked about the origins of the word testation, which the OED gives as “from  test{amac}r{imac}to witness, make a will.”  

Linguistics scholarship doesn’t usually cross over into T&E, but the work of my fabulous and brilliant friend  Joshua T. Katz,  Professor of Classics and Director of the Program in Linguistics at Princeton University,  certainly bears on today’s subject matter.  I quote from Katz’s 1998 article, Testimonia Ritus Italici: Male Genetalia, Solemn Declarations, and a New Latin Sound Law  (it’s a long quote, but worth it):

Latin presents a striking example of polysemy in the word testis, which, as is well-known, means both ‘witness’ and ‘testicle.’ No one has ever seriously doubted that the divergence in sense arises from semantic split rather than phonological merger, but the nature of this interesting clash has received little attention in the scholarly literature. That there is virtually no discussion of how to account for it is all the more surprising in view of the interest many Classicists show in sexual themes (as well, of course, as in law) and the status of testis in its primary meaning, ‘witness,’ as a Paradebeispiel of cultural significance in Indo-European etymological studies.  Evidence for a general societal nexus of oaths and testicles can be adduced from Greece and the Ancient Near East; the immediate key, however, is to be found on Italian soil, but in Umbrian rather than Roman ritual practice. In this context I shall put forth a new Italic sound law that provides an etymology for both the crucial Umbrian hapax urfetaand four Latin words of hitherto obscure origin. * * *  

The derivation of testis ‘witness’ from something like *terstis and ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European compound meaning ‘standing as third’ (cf. tres, tri-/ter- and stare) is famous and needs no lengthy defense here. * * * As for the semantic development, the Romans themselves are usually said to have understood how to connect the number three with the passive role of an onlooker (and, often, his subsequent status as witness in a court of law): as support for the original meaning of testis as ‘qui se tient en tiers.’    * * *

[Katz then quotes an excerpt from the 3rd Century Iguvine Tablets.] The Umbrian noun urfeta  [in the quoted context] must mean ‘testicles.’ Regardless of the word’s etymology, to which I shall return, this is the only translation that makes sense.  When as part of an archaic ritual an officiant must go through so careful a procedure – holding something in his hand while intoning three times a solemn utterance, a specific formulation, at the sacrifice of a bull-calf to Jupiter – it is reasonable to imagine that the manipulated object shows up in other and similar archaic ceremonies elsewhere. The only candidate is the male genitalia; we can be quite certain that it is not a cake!  Just as the “detail singulier” of Greek homicide trials is the testicular oath, so is “[o]ne noteworthy feature of the present ritual … the disk or wheel (urfeta) which the priest holds in his hand when he dedicates the victim.” Given the lack of any overt specification of whose urfeta are being held, it is possible that they are “yours,” that is, those of the Umbrian officiant or suppliant. This would make the dedication very much like the Biblical and rather less like the Athenian oath. Since, however, the man refers to the sacrificial animal with a deictic pronoun (estu vitlu ‘hunc/istum uitulum; this calf’), it is likely that he is actually holding the calf’s testicles. Whatever the case may be, two differences between the Umbrian ritual and the Athenian oath-sacrifice are that in Italy the animal is still alive (and even intact) and that here – again as in the Biblical Near East – the urfeta are in hand, not underfoot. Nevertheless, it is clear that the essential meaning of such acts is always the same: a ceremony that mandates contact with the male organs of procreation is a “religious” experience, that is, a matter of life and death.

The Latin form testis is only a word; it is not a fine description of the kind we see in Athens or Gubbio. It cannot tell us what exactly the pre- or early Romans did with testicles on solemn occasions. But I  hope to have demonstrated that the semantic development of testis from ‘witness’ to ‘testicle’ is not so much a slangy personification as a consequence of ritual practice.  

As I explained this to my students, several students misheard my explanation of ancient oath-taking while “gripping” the testicles as “ripping” testicles.  Luckily a confident student asked for a clarification.    

-Bridget Crawford

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