Thursday, February 15, 2007

Semitic snake spells pop up in Pyramids

Prof. Richard Steiner claims to have deciphered a previously incomprehensible section of an ancient Egyptian inscription as a spell against snakes written in a Semitic language. Dating from 2400 BC, this spell, engraved on the pyramid of King Unas, would be the oldest attested West Semitic inscriptions (apparently in the dialect of Byblos), and nearly as old as the oldest Akkadian inscriptions. The idea of Semitic speakers being seen in ancient Egypt as specialists in snake magic is strangely reminiscent of the story of Moses.

Unfortunately, the talk in which he announced this is only available in Hebrew ("Proto-Semitic Spells in the Pyramid Texts") - he is apparently writing up a publishable work on the subject in English - but the link contains the texts themselves (p. 7) and their transcriptions (pp. 3-4) - the bold bits are those claimed to be Semitic, while the rest is regular Egyptian. He also has up a response in English to criticisms of his claim, which apparently were not long in coming. My Hebrew is not nearly good enough to understand most of the translations he gives, but here's a couple of bits I think I got:

236: ''kbbh iti itii bitii'' = Chant: Come, come, to my house!
281: ''mmin inw 333 twb ś if w-inw hnw'' = Who am I? Rir-Rir - sweet of smell in my nose - I am they. (there just has to be a translation error in this one - probably made by me)

From these, you can see a number of recognisable Semitic words - ''iti'' for "come" (Arabic أتى 'atā, Syriac 'atā), ''bit'' for "house" (Arabic بيت bayt, Hebrew bayit, Syriac bayt-ā), ''mmin'' for "who?" (Arabic من man, Hebrew mîn, Syriac man), ''twb'' for "good" (Arabic طيب ṭayyib, Hebrew ṭôb, Syriac ṭāb)... Specifically Canaanite features, if any, are less conspicuous; the assimilation of Proto-Semitic ''n'' to a following consonant presumably found in ''if'' "nose" (Arabic أنف 'anf, Hebrew 'āp) is found in Canaanite, but also in Akkadian.

8 comments:

Nouri said...

Interesting...are there any implications of this for historical study? The NG article notes that it appears to be an anscestor of Phoenician and Hebrew, but does it have the affect of tellings us something more broadly about Egypt?

Have you taken Syriac, Lameen? I took it last year for the heck of it.

David Kaufman said...

Interesting! Makes me wonder, as with the Maya and Olmec, how much more is left to be told by these ancient scribes on stone.

Lameen Souag said...

Makes me wonder what parallel cases might emerge... Maya transcriptions of Nahuatl, perhaps?

As far as I know, it doesn't tell us much new about Egypt per se... just that they had high regard for the skills of Lebanese magicians as far as snakes were concerned, and had access to them from a rather early period. It may be more interesting if you view it as filling a gap in the development of the alphabet, insofar as it provides an example of using hieroglyphics themselves, rather than hieroglyphics-inspired letters, for a Semitic language.

Etienne said...

Speaking of parallels, I distinctly remember reading a scholar's proposed interpretation of another Egyptian magical spell (a healing spell, I think) as being written in a Semitic language. Comparing the two proposals could be interesting: I'll see if I can track down the reference (I'm hoping some other reader of yours has it): I am pretty sure it was written in French and was in a book edited by (inter alia?) Marcel Cohen...

It seems to me such evidence for contact between Egyptian and early Semitic means comparative linguists should take extra care in comparing Semitic and Egyptian: apparent cognates might well in fact be loans...

MMcM said...

Searching in JSTOR, there are a half dozen or so JNES papers by Prof. Steiner working out Semitic magic spells from hieratic texts and pushing the date further and further back for the earliest Semitic text written in an Egyptian script. By his own account, he seems to be one of very few doing this. Of course, there are footnotes and all in these. Maybe Yeshiva Univ. got a new PR agent this time around, so this one is all over the MSM.

I only know a little about all this, but isn't the general tendency to reassess Semitic correspondences as loanwords rather than cognates as more details of other Afro-Asiatic relationships are worked out? Like Takács' new dictionary?

briconcella said...

I don't know the scientific value of all this, but it makes you dream. Could you give a rough translation of this spell in today common english or french? I'll test it at the Jardin des Plantes snakes section in France. Who knows?....:)

Lameen Souag said...

Well, the cool thing about this one is how absurdly early it is - older than all but the very earliest Akkadian texts, even. That justifies a certain amount of media hype, I think, although it's clearly not the first time something like this has been done.

Certainly ancient Egyptian has a lot of Semitic loanwords, in addition to the true cognates. I can't say I've been following Takacs's work much, though... It helps when you find cognates in other branches of Afroasiatic.

briconcella: glad you like it, but I don't think my Hebrew is up to translating his translation of the whole spell. You may have to wait until he publishes in English :)

Mi said...

hi, that was amazing of ur search, can i have the original spell, please.. i meant the entire symbolic snake spell, i wanna give a try somehow even that im a beginner >.> my e mail is mi.nj88@yahoo.com.
it would be a favor if you can pass me the symbolic texte :) i hope it doesnt bother you much, thanks