Today I taught Virgil, Aeneid 12 — the final book of the epic. Mostly I lectured about
the death of Turnus. When Aeneas kills him, he says (Frederick Ahl’s translation):
Pallas gives you this death-stroke, yes Pallas / Makes you the sacrifice, spills your criminal blood in atonement!
In Latin this is:
Pallas te hoc uulnere, Pallas / immolat et poenam scelerato ex sanguine sumit.
I hadn’t checked the Latin before class, but as I read Aeneas’ declaration out to my students, I said to them that I did not like this use of atonement. In the context, Aeneas is essentially killing out of revenge, possibly seeking propitiation for Turnus’ killing of Pallas. Now, atonement is often used in contemporary English in the place of propitiation, but its wider use implies something bigger and potentially very different.
Without looking at the Latin, we decided on retribution — propitiation usually involves the gods, after all.
Ahl has a difficult task throughout his translation, because he is trying to translate verse into verse across different languages. But at least he is not trying to match the same number of English iambic pentameters to ancient dactylic hexameters like Emily Wilson does in her Odyssey, since that is essentially impossible without more cutting than usual.
Anyway, ‘spills … in atonement’ renders the Latin ‘poenam … sumit’, which I would take to be ‘exact/inflict the penalty/punishment’.
This is retribution, not atonement.
How are we to differentiate?
Well, maybe this is just the philologist in me, but the English word atonement, while it often comes out meaning ‘retribution’ in contemporary English, does not always mean that today, nor has it historically. Moreover, it is more often used in terms of ‘reparation’ today — that is, one ‘atones for’ one’s crimes.
Atonement, as you likely know, is about the only word in the English theological vocabulary descended from neither Latin nor Greek. It looks like its original meaning — ‘making at one’ or even, dare we try?, ‘one-ing’ or ‘onement’. It comes to take on ideas from propitiation, retribution, reparation, because of its use to refer to how Jesus oned humans and God by taking on human sin, guilt, punishment, etc., and dying.
But because of its use in Christian theology, it strikes me that we should be careful how we use the word atonement, regardless of popular uses. Does Turnus atone for his sin with his death, or does Pallas simply take retribution from Turnus’ blood?