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1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

Alma mater

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Among the many phrases, sentences, Latin maxims that survive in the cultural wealth of the West there are some that have been particularly fortunate. One of them is definitely "alma mater".

"Alma" is the feminine form of the adjective "Almus,-a,-um", derived from the same root as the verb "alo";  it means feed, sustain, take care, so that "alma" means nurturing, life-giving, fertile, and other nuances associated with the word it qualifies, as a favourable, propitious,  encourages, benefactress.

From the same root is logically "alimentum", food, and also "alumnus", fed, bred and therefore child who grows, and if he raises or  is educated  intellectually, he will be disciple.

In ancient Rome this adjective was attached to the title of some goddesses as Mother Cybele or  Ceres or Venus.

So Virgil, in the beginning of his great poem dedicated to life in the countryside, Georgicae, just started with the reference to his patron Maecenas, starting from verse 5 goes to the stars and the gods, including Ceres, the goddess of agriculture (think of the name to refer to cereal grains like wheat and other guaranteed by the favor of the goddess):

... O universal lights
Most glorious! ye that lead the gliding year
Along the sky, Liber and Ceres mild,
If by your bounty holpen earth once changed
Chaonian acorn for the plump wheat-ear,

…      (J. B. Greenough, Ed.)

….. Vos , o clarissima mundi
Lumna, labentem caelo quae ducitis annum,
Liber et alma Ceres, vestro si numine tellus
Chaoniam pingui glandem mutavit arista,

And so Ovid begins his IV book  of Fasti  referring to Venus as nurturing with the verses:

Kindly mother of the twin Cupids, favour me!’ I said.
She glanced back towards her poet: ‘Why do you
Need me?’ she said. ‘Surely, you sing greater themes.
Have you some old wound lingering in your heart?’
‘Goddess, ‘ I replied, ‘you know my wound.’ She laughed,
And the sky immediately cleared in her direction.

(Translated by A. S. Kline)

'Alma, fave', dixi 'geminorum mater Amorum';
     ad vatem voltus rettulit illa suos;
'quid tibi' ait 'mecum? certe maiora canebas.
     num vetus in molli pectore volnus habes?'
'scis, dea', respondi 'de volnere.' risit, et aether               5
     protinus ex illa parte serenus erat.

And  another time Ovid in Book XV, 843 ff. of his Metamorphoses also refers to Venus as nutrient in the passage in which the goddess collects in the Senate the soul of killed Caesar and rises to the heavens:

He scarcely ended had theis woordes, but Venus out of hand
Amid the Senate house of Rome invisible did stand,
And from her Caesars bodye tooke his new expulsed spryght
The which shee not permitting to resolve to ayer quyght,
Did place it in the skye among the starres that glister bryght

(Arthur Golding, Ed.)

Vix ea fatus erat, medi cum sede senatus
constitit alma Venus nulli cernenda suique
Caesaris eripuit membris nec in aera solvi              
passa recentem animam caelestibus intulit astris

And also the same Ovid in the same  Book IV of  the above quoted Fasti verses,  now Fasti IV, 317 ff., describing the arrival of the Mother Goddess Cybele to the port of Ostia, near Rome, in the year 204 BC also calls her  "alma":

And, with loosened hair, uttered these words:
“ Kind and fruitful Mother of the Gods, accept
A suppliant’s prayers, on this one condition:
They deny I’m chaste: let me be guilty if you condemn me:
Convicted by a goddess I’ll pay for it with my life.

(Translated by A. S. Kline)

summissoque genu voltus in imagine divae
figit, et hos edit crine iacente sonos:
"supplicis, alma, tuae, genetrix fecunda deorum,
accipe sub certa condicione preces.
casta negor: si tu damnas, meruisse fatebor;
morte luam poenas iudice victa dea;

Horace applies it to the Muses, the Camenae: Almae Musae (feeder and-promoting the arts and sciences) in Book III, Ode IV for example, v. 42

You, beneficent deities,  give the sweet consolation
and ye rejoice for giving it

vos lene consilium et datis et dato
gaudetis, almae. …

Then Christians claimed it logically to the Virgin Mary. A peculiar thing I will say that in 2009 the Vatican itself has released a CD entitled "Alma Mater", dedicated to the Virgin Mary religious songs of Pope Benedict XVI.

But since the Middle Ages the term "alma mater" is applied especially to the University, Universitas Studiorum, real mother nurturing the minds and spirits of students moving through Europe: Bologna (founded already in 1088 ), Paris, Salamanca, Coimbra, Oxford ...

"Universitas, University" means community, corporation, joint group, college.

Universitas magistrorum et scholarium is thus the community of teachers and students or as they say in The Seven-Part Code  (The Siete Partidas ), or Book of Laws published in the reign of Alfonso X the Wise (1252-1284):  Ayuntamiento de maestros et de escolares que es fecho en algún logar con voluntat et con entendimiento de aprender los saberes” "City of teachers and students made somewhere with  willing et understanding to learn the knowledge" (Partid. II, Title XXXI, Law 1)

It is logical, therefore, to appear, even in the last stanza of the famous university hymn, widespread throughout the world, Gaudeamus igitur, whose letter is perhaps from the thirteenth century:

May our Alma Mater thrive,
A font of education;
Friends and colleagues, where'er they are,
Whether near or from afar,
Heed her invitation.

                      (Trans.  by J. Mark Sugars, 1997

Alma Mater floreat
quae nos educavit,
caros et conmilitones
dissitas in regiones
sparsos congregavit.

If the university is "alma mater", it is logical to call “alumni”, students young or not so young who  nourish the know. Above is explained the meaning of "alumnus".

Note also that there is the term "alma parens ". For example, it is  used by Virgil in Book II, v. 588 of the Aeneid, referring to Venus.

So I raved,
and to such frenzied purpose gave my soul.
Then with clear vision (never had I seen
her presence so unclouded) I beheld,
in golden beams that pierced the midnight gloom,
my gracious mother, visibly divine,
and with that mien of majesty she wears
when seen in heaven;

(Theodore C. Williams, Ed.)

Talia iactabam, et furiata mente ferebar:
cum mihi se, non ante oculis tam clara, videndam
obtulit et pura per noctem in luce refulsit
alma parens, confessa deam, qualisque videri
caelicolis et quanta solet,

And later in Book X, v. 215, now referring to Cibeles:

Day now had left the sky. The moon benign
had driven her night-wandering chariot
to the mid-arch of heaven. Aeneas sate,
for thought and care allowed him no repose,
holding the helm and tending his own sails.
but, as he sped, behold, the beauteous train,
lately his own, of nymphs, anon transformed
by kind Cybebe to sea-ruling powers.
In even ranks they swam the cloven wave,—
nymphs now, but once as brazen galleys moored
along the sandy shore.

Iamque dies caelo concesserat almaque curru
noctivago Phoebe medium pulsabat Olympum:
Aeneas (neque enim membris dat cura quietem)
ipse sedens clavumque regit velisque ministrat.
Atque illi medio in spatio chorus ecce suarum
occurrit comitum: nymphae, quas alma Cybebe
numen habere maris nymphasque e navibus esse
iusserat, innabant pariter fluctusque secabant,
quot prius aeratae steterant ad litora prorae.

And in the same Book X, v. 251 ff.

Then in few words
with eyes upturned to heaven he made his prayer:
“Mother of gods, O Ida's Queen benign,
who Iovest Dindymus and towns with towers,
and lion-yokes obedient to thy rein,
be thou my guide in battle, and fulfil
thine augury divine. In Phrygia's cause
be present evermore with favoring power!”
He spoke no more.

Tum breviter super adspectans convexa precatur:
“Alma parens Idaea deum, cui Dindyma cordi
turrigeraeque urbis biiugique ad frena leones,
tu mihi nunc pugnae príncipes, tu rite propinques
augurium Phrygibusque adsis pede, diva, secundo.
Tantum effatus.

And in Book XI, v.557 ff.

Latona's daughter, whose benignant grace
protects this grove, behold, her father now
gives thee this babe for handmaid!
Lo, thy spear
her infant fingers hold, as from her foes
she flies a suppliant to thee! Receive,
O goddess, I implore, what now I cast
upon the perilous air.

“Alma, tibi hanc, nemorum cultrix, Latonia virgo,
ipse pater famulam voveo; tua prima per auras
tela tenens supplex hostem fugit.

It should be known that the Latin word "parens" (related to "pario", give birth, produce, raise) designates both father and mother. What is an unacceptable error, indicating considerable ignorance, is to build the phrase "alma pater" because "pater" only refers to "father", masculine, and "alma" is a feminine form, nurturing.

Naturally, it is also a remarkable mistake to confuse  Latin adjective "alma", nurturing, with the Spanish noun "alma", spirit, term derived from "anima". By the way, all the "animals", as the name suggests, have  "anima" or spirit.


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