Passwords to Paradise: How Languages Have Reinvented World Religions

Written by Nicholas Ostler
Review by Barry Webb

In Ostler’s book, he attempts to show whether and/or how a religion changes when its message is translated from its original language to the language of its prospective new recruits. While the main focus is on Christianity, he also spends a couple of chapters on Buddhism and its translation into other Asian languages. As each new language barrier was crossed, the faith had to change – if only subtly – to accommodate the alien peoples being asked to convert. For example, he says that when the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe was recognized as a patron saint of Mexico, the Virgin gained new attributes. The name Guadalupe (originally an Arabic name of a valley in Spain) was converted to the Nahuatl serpent crusher. In Ireland, Mary (who had been named “God-bearer” by the Greeks as was Isis before her) was attended at birth by the Irish goddess-come-saint Brigid because of her skill with domestic animals who were present in the stable. This book is an interesting source for history buffs, though the author does tend to wander sometimes without nailing down his point.