The doings of American philologasters are, in truth, a curious study.

Airships and Volapük

The final decade of the 19th century was marked by a rash of airship stories, similar in some respects to more recent tales of flying saucers and other UFOs. One distinctive motif separating those earlier tales from the contemporary ones is the frequent reference to Volapük, the constructed international auxiliary language, in connection with these airships.

The first such incident, an obvious hoax, allegedly occurred near Lanark, Illinois on April 9, 1897. According to the Freeport Daily Democrat, a local farmer, Johann Fliegeltoub reported that an airship spun out of control during a blizzard and crashed on his farm. Two of the occupants were killed, but Fliegeltoub pulled one injured pilot, dressed like the early Greeks, from the wreckage. A General F.A. Kerr, who was fluent in Volapük, reportedly conversed with the creature in that idiom, and thereby divined that he was from Mars. When his strength returned, he repaired his ship and left.

A scant few days later, on April 15, 1897, the Jefferson Bee similarly reported that an airship had crashed near Jefferson, Iowa on 10 April. A terrible sound was heard and the next day a craft was found. Armed with (of all things) a Volapük dictionary, the intrepid reporter entered the airship, which was discovered to contain four bodies mashed to a pulp. Despite this, it was ascertained that they had two faces, and two sets of arms and legs, and they were taller than Earth people. This too was subsequently acknowledged to be a hoax by the newspaper staff.

In the following year, the science journalist Garrett Putnam Serviss published his first pioneering effort in science fiction as a serial in the Boston Globe. This serial, an early space opera entitled Edison’s Conquest of Mars, includes some speculation on the Martian tongue:

It seemed a fair assumption that the language of the Martians would be scientific in its structure. We had so much evidence of the practical bent of their minds, and of the immense progress which they had made in the direction of the scientific conquest of nature, that it was not to be supposed their medium of communication with one another would be lacking in clearness, or would possess any of the puzzling and unnecessary ambiguities that characterized the languages spoken on the earth.

“We shall not find them making he’s and she’s of stones, sticks and other inanimate objects,” said one of the American linguists. “They must certainly have gotten rid of all that nonsense long ago.” […]

“I think,” said a German enthusiast, “that it will be a universal language, the Volapuk of Mars, spoken by all the inhabitants of that planet.”

Serviss’ words reflect a certain fin de siècle attitude towards natural languages and nature more broadly, namely that its ultimate fate was to be subjugated and tamed by man. Peculiarly, all of these endorsements of Volapük (if indeed they can be considered as such) were made well into the twilight of the language movement. The last Volapük congress was in 1889, the Kadem Volapüka that had been founded to promulgate the language had completely sidelined its creator Martin Schleyer in favor of developing a new competitor subsequently known as Idiom Neutral, and Volapükists were defecting by the thousands every year to the banner of the verda stelo. These were not the most auspicious of circumstances for the language. It would not be long before Charles Sprague, the foremost American Volapükist (and, incidentally, grandfather of the author L. Sprague de Camp), would declare Volapük to be a failure.

It is possible that news of the decline in Volapük’s fortunes had not yet penetrated Lanark, Illinois and Jefferson, Iowa, but I find it difficult to believe that Serviss, who was based in New York, was ignorant of these developments.

Printing at the Dawn of Writing

The Age’s Andi Horvath has written an article on a new text allegedly from the Indus Valley:

Dr Rick Willis acquired and studied a set of small copper printing plates from the Indus valley, in modern day Pakistan. Using his scientific research capabilities he studied these plates and investigated archeological evidence related to this region and era.

His conclusion is that these Indus valley copper printing plates are circa 2300 BCE which means they predate what is commonly thought of as the advent of printing using Chinese woodblocks developed around 600 to 700 BCE.

I’m skeptical, for several reasons. The article adumbrates the problems with drawing conclusions from unprovenienced artifacts, which these most definitely are, even if the source claims that they have an Indus Valley provenance. Effectively, the “chain of custody” is broken when you deal with artifacts from the antiquities market. This evidence wouldn’t be admissible in a court of law, so why should scholars hold it to any different standard?

That brings me to the next concern: these artifacts are, by the Dr. Willis’ own admission, undatable because they were modified to make them more saleable  (through immersion in an acid bath). Who knows how else they were modified? The Indian antiquities market is flooded with texts on copper plates from later periods, but a plate with an inscription in the Indus Valley script would be unique and therefore uniquely valuable. There is absolutely no way to know when the writing was added. It could have been added last Tuesday.

Finally, the evidence that these copper plates were used for printing (as opposed to simply being documents in themselves like the copper plates from later periods) is thin indeed. The article claims that the writing is “reversed,” but with a lack of extended texts in  Indus Valley script or any way to interpret what the text actually says, how can one tell what the directionality of the script was? Ancient scripts, and particularly those at the dawn of writing, were notoriously noncommittal when it comes to direction. They went left to right, right to left, top to bottom, bottom to top, and even boustrophedon (as the ox plows). Any argument that depends on the directionality of a text that may not even be an original part of the artifact  is baseless conjecture, and extraordinary arguments such as this one require extraordinary evidence.

The Peacock’s Lament

The Mandaeans and the Yezidis, two  groups that fascinated Stefana Drower and continue to fascinate the generations of scholars who have followed her, have recently made the news, but unfortunately not in a good way. Coincidentally, I’ve been working on Prayer 75 of the Doctrine of John, in which Ṭausa, the Peacock, laments how far he has fallen in the world. At first he is bitter and resentful for having been humbled and forced to guard the kimṣa, a somewhat contested term that is likely related to the Aramaic and Hebrew root קמץ, and evidently refers to a place.

Drower, Macuch, and Rudolph identify this term with the Gnostic πλήρωμα pléroma, the totality of the spiritual universe, as opposed to the material world, which is known as the tibil in Mandaic, and with which it contrasts in this text (šauiun naṭar kimṣa / alma ḏtibil baṭla, lit. “[The Great Life] made me guardian of the Kimṣa/until the Tibil perishes”). If this is accurate, then the Peacock stands not within the pléroma but rather on “our side” of the boundary, which is to say that he has been separated from the Godhead and exiled from the world of light.

Eventually, he acknowledges his own faults (chief among them his pride) for having brought him so low, at which point his father, the Great Life, sends him a “letter of truth” (engirta ḏkušṭa), which Sundberg identifies as a letter containing within it Gnostic truths, in his monograph on the word kušṭa. In it, the Peacock earns that his father is extending him the ritual handshake (also known as kušṭa), which is a sign of reconciliation. Relieved by this news, he praises his father wholeheartedly.

Although short, this is one of a very few passages to which scholars such as Drower point when discussing the shared traditions of the Mandaeans and the Yezidis, the two groups with which I began this entry. Our Peacock is identified by the Mandaeans with the lightworld being Yushamin who, just like the Peacock Angel of the Yezidis, is an emanation of the Godhead who defies Him out of pride and is exiled, but eventually becomes reconciled with Him and is redeemed. 

The Peacock Angel of the Yezidis is most frequently compared with the figure of Iblis in the Qur’an (7:11–13), but the obvious parallels between the Mandaic Ṭausa and the Yezidi Tawûsê Melek cannot be discounted. As all of the written traditions surrounding the Yezidis and Tawûsê Melek are comparatively late, this account (in the Doctrine of John) may well be considered the earliest surviving tradition about this enigmatic figure.

The translation follows.

Read more…

What’s in a Name?

Translation is fraught with many problems, of which the transcription of names is possibly the least. Even so, it is by no means trivial, but rather part and parcel of the larger issues that translators face, including:

  1. Function: What is the purpose of this translation? Should we privilege the source language or the target language? Can we strike a successful compromise between the two?
  2. Audience: Is this intended for a scholarly audience or a broader public? If a religious text, is it intended for the use of the religious community that composed and preserved it? Can a translation serve more than one public effectively?

Clearly, these two issues are related, and the decisions that arise from addressing them should govern the translation from the very start, in every respect, including the transcription of names. There are, of course, any number of ways to transcribe names:

  1. Direct Transfer: This privileges the source language by using a phonemic transliteration system to render the names exactly as they appear in the source language, with each phoneme mapped onto the corresponding phoneme in the script of the target language. Thus, Mandaic ࡌࡉࡓࡉࡀࡉ becomes miriai. This is the method privileged by scholarly publications not intended for consumption by the general public or any other stakeholders such as religious communities, as scholarly transliterations can be jarring when encountered in context, particularly when the translation is otherwise fluid in the target language. Furthermore, these transliterations give no indication of how the name is pronounced phonetically. For example, one could possibly intuit that miriai is pronounced something like /mi:rijɛɪ/, but never that hibil is pronounced /hi:u̯ɛl/ or /hi:vɪl/.
  2. Substitution: This method privileges the target language, “naturalizing” the name by substituting the closest equivalent, often on an etymological basis. Thus Mandaic ࡌࡉࡓࡉࡀࡉ becomes Mary, Miriam, or Maryam. In the case of religious texts, this raises issues of equivalence; is the Mandaean ࡌࡉࡓࡉࡀࡉ indeed the same figure as the biblical Mary or Miriam, or the Koranic Maryam, and do we wish to imply this to our readers? Additionally, as in the case of ࡌࡉࡓࡉࡀࡉ, there may be more than one equivalent, or in the case of other figures, no equivalent whatsoever. What principles should govern our selection from a variety of potential candidates, and what criteria should we use when confronted with a name that has no equivalent?
  3. Adaptation: This method privileges the source language, but meets the target language halfway by employing the spelling and pronunciation rules of the target language. Although a compromise of sorts, this is the method favored by religious communities, who generally preserve the original form of the name for their own purposes even when language shift has occurred, and often do not identify them with their equivalents in other languages and faith traditions.

I feel that using the third strategy offers translations the potential to provide maximum utility to the largest possible audience of readers. It is not without its own obstacles, however; can English, for example, be said to have a uniform standard for spelling and pronunciation rules? Certainly not, especially with regard to loanwords, which have entered the language at different stages of time, and whose transcription reflects their antiquity. Furthermore, as the examples of transliteration given in direct transfer indicate, each transliteration is a compromise. If it is fully phonemic, or etymological, it can obscure the pronunciation; if it is fully phonetic, on the other hand, it runs the risk of being incomprehensible to the lay reader. A compromise transcription system, such as those used in dictionaries or for the rendering of pidgins and creole languages, is a possibility, but such systems are often marked as low in prestige, which will undoubtedly affect the reception of the translation. For example, Miriyey and Heewel may be easy to pronounce, but they are jarring as names.

For my purposes, in translating the Doctrine of John, I need to employ a system that satisfies the following conditions:

  • one that is already in wide use for rendering foreign, and particularly Semitic, names in English;
  • one that enjoys relatively high prestige, relative to other transcription systems;
  • ideally, one that is associated with the formal orthography of religious texts.

In this regard, the obvious candidate is an adapted form of the system used to transliterate names from the Bible, originally employed by the translators of the Authorized Version (KJV) and preserved in most subsequent translations by dint of tradition. For example, the preceding names would be rendered something like Miriaï and Hiuel.

There are obvious disadvantages and advantages to this system. Let’s start with the obvious disadvantages.


  • the system was devised to reflect Hebrew and Aramaic, not Mandaic;
  • the system is pre-phonemic and reflects an outdated (early 17th c.) understanding of their phonologies;
  • the orthography and phonology of Early Modern English differ from those of contemporary English.

The last point may require further explanation. In Early Modern English, letters such as i/j and u/v reflect the same phonemes, and their distribution reflects orthographic considerations rather than phonetic ones (the second member of each pair is generally reserved for word-initial position). The letters y and w were not used to represent glides, as in contemporary English. Also, the orthography does not reflect the Great Vowel Shift, which means that some readers may be tempted to pronounce Hiuel as  /haɪu̯ɛl/.

That being said, this system is not without its advantages. By preserving the aesthetics of English orthography and not violating any obvious constraints, and hearkening back to the orthography of the Authorized Version, this system introduces foreign names to an Anglophone audience as if they were already familiar to the reader. Additionally, readers will immediately recognize the names as belonging to some foreign, possibly biblical language, which immediately imbues them with a higher level of prestige than those written in an ad hoc transcription system, such as that used for pidgins and creoles. Thus the names are simultaneously familiar and exotic.

In a subsequent post, I’d like to tackle this transcription system, mapping the Authorized orthography for Hebrew and Aramaic onto the sounds of Mandaic.

The Retreating Whisperer

The Hebrew word nāḥāš “serpent” appears to come from a common Semitic root *n/l-ḥ-š (compare Aramaic lḥaš and Geez laḥasa) meaning “to hiss” and “to whisper,” and by extension “to intone in whispers = cast a magic spell.” BDB suggest that the root is of onomatopoeic origin. The related languages have l in the place of n  for the most part; the root n- “to whisper; mutter” is indeed found in Aramaic, but most frequently appears in the D-stem and the reflexive of the same. It is therefore likely back-formed from one of the various nouns from this root relating to magic and more specifically divination (e.g. mnaḥḥǝšā or mnaḥḥǝšānā, “diviner;” nuḥḥāšā “divination;”  nāḥšā “prophet;” naḥḥāšā “soothsayer”). 

Whenever I consider this root, and the semantic extension from “whispering” or “hissing” to “soothsaying” and “incantations,” I am invariably reminded of Sūrat Al-Nās (114), since it not only talks about a “whisperer” but also does so with a hissing sibilance, as you can hear for yourself here. Al-Nās is one of the shortest suwar in the whole Qur’an, and frequently used as an incantation to ward off evil, either recited or written on amulets. In this surah, the worshiper seeks refuge from “the evil of the retreating whisperer (al-waswās al-khannās).” The term “whisperer” (al-waswās) is of transparent origin, but the origin of the following term is less evident. It is not a typical adjective at all, but rather a noun in the faʕʕāl pattern, which is generally reserved for occupations and professions, among other activities in which one might characteristically or habitually engage.

Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon derives this word from the base form khanasa, which he defines in his customary prolix fashion as “He went, or drew, back or backwards; receded; retreated; retired; or retrograded; or he remained behind; held back; hung back; or lagged behind.” Consequently al-khannās (in the faʕʕāl pattern) would be the one who habitually or professionally hangs back, and this is said to be an epithet for the Devil, as he allegedly shrinks, or retires, or hides himself. This word is identified as an epithet for the Devil precisely because it so appears in al-Nās; in fact, it it apparently has no other referent in the entirety of Arabic literature, and so we are left to consider whether this is not a common noun that came to be applied as an epithet, but rather the convenient etymologizing of a proper noun that is otherwise lacking in a clear or convincing etymology.

Now that I think about it, I wonder whether khannās might not be related to the same root as Heb. nāḥāš, making it a synonym of waswās, with the metathesis of the first two radicals, which is not at all uncommon in the Semitic languages, particularly when dealing with liquids and nasals. At first glance, it does not appear terribly likely, as the equivalent root would have to be laḥasa / naḥasa, with a pharyngeal fricative (ħ) rather than an uvular one (x).  Both exist; the former means “he licked (something)” and the latter means “he is unlucky” (and is indeed suggested by BDB as a potential cognate for the Hebrew root), but neither make much sense in this context. On the other hand, if it entered Arabic from, say, Syriac, in which the reflexes of Proto-Semitic *ħ and *x have merged, that might explain the use of the uvular fricative, as this is the usual articulation of this sound among the East Syrians, and indeed we do have a potential candidate: Syriac naḥḥāš(ā), whose stock in trade is whispering, after all. It makes sense, on some level, that an Arabic epithet for the Devil would relate to the Hebrew word for “serpent,” especially given the associations of both words with whispering.

Ultimately, however, this hypothesis risks drifting into Luxenbergian waters, due to the two unconditioned sound changes that it requires. The first is the metathesis of the first two radicals (naḥḥāš > khannāš), and the second is the articulation of the sibilant, which we would expect to be postalveolar (ʃ) rather than alveolar (s). Neither on its own would be particularly fatal, but combined they require too much special pleading to be plausible.

Update: As Nizar Habash points out, though, one of the words for snakes and other such varmints in Arabic is infuriatingly similar: حنش ḥanaš-.

Legends and Lore in the Great Revelation, Cont.

The aforementioned chronology in the Scroll of the Great Revelation might be easily dismissed, if it were not so congruent with much of what we understand about history. A closer reading of the text reveals an internal consistency that cannot easily be dismissed. With regard to the life and times of John the Baptist,

Forty-two years (he dwelt) therein, and then his Transplanter looked upon him and he arose with his Transplanter, praised be his name! […] and a time arrived, sixty years after Yahia-Yuhana had departed the body […] the Jews, just as their former strength (returned?) to Ruha and Adonai, who became arrogant […] Hence, after sixty years, Ruha and Adonai planned to erect […] the fallen House (Temple) and spoke to Moses the prophet and the children of Israel who had built the House (Temple).

Drower interprets the phrase baita napla “The Fallen House” as the Temple, but the text is by no means clear on this point. “The Fallen House” is a metaphor for the material world, not the Temple, and the verb ethašabat el misqẖ, here translated as “planned to erect,” means no such thing, but rather something like “plotted to rise […] up to the Fallen House, i.e. the material world” The G-stem infinitive misaq is not transitive, in any case.

Although the text is fragmentary, the narrative seemingly flashes back in time; anachronistically, the “tribes of Anuš-’Uthra” are destroyed and every last Naṣorean is slaughtered; Ruha and Adunai scatter the Jews and deliver them across the Reed Sea/River, and then surround Jerusalem with walls. It is at this point that Anuš-’Uthra and Hibil Ziwa act to destroy Jerusalem and utterly defeat the Jews until the end of time.

This event is conventionally identified with the Great Revolt of 66–73 CE and the destruction of the Temple, but if we add the tallies of years given in the text together (42 years + 60 years + 60 years), we come to the beginning of the 2nd century, or around the time of the Third Jewish Revolt in 132–135 CE, which was indeed about six decades after the Great Revolt. Could this be the intended reference? In the text, the Jews are routed and scattered, and Jerusalem is destroyed, but there is no mention of the destruction of Temple, even if Drower and others have attempted to read its destruction into the account.

Following the routing of the Jews, Anuš-’Uthra establishes the seven guards at the “seven corners of the House,” in order to “crush the power of Darkness and to establish the Call of the Life and to make void the rebellious outcry.” The names of these guards and their assigned domains are as follows:

  • Zazai bar Hibil Eutra, in Baghdad
  • Papa bar Guda, on the Tigris and at the mouth of the Karun
  • Anuš bar Naṭar, on the Karun
  • Anuš Saiar bar Nṣab, on the Euphrates
  • Brik Iauar, at Pumbeditha
  • Nṣab bar Bihram, at the mountains of Glazlak
  • Ska Manda, at the tail end of the Parwan range

Buckley has identified the names of some of these figures with Mandaean riš amia or “ethnarchs” from the 3rd century, who appear both in the Abahatan prayer in the CP and in the chains of copyists. While the identities of the last two locations are still very much under debate, the text identifies these figures as being situated at the “seven corners of the House,” suggesting that these seven points represented the limits of the Mandaean world. The first ascended to his fathers, presumably without offspring, while the following six sent their descendants into the world.

The text then tells us that 280 years have passed since some of these “sons of the disciples of John” go forth, and the evil spirit Ruha perverts their teachings. If we continue with the same chronology, this would place us in the 5th century. Indeed, we then read that specifically 86 years before the arrival of the “Son of Slaughter, the Arab,” and therefore sometime in the 6th century, there was a major schism within the Mandaean community, the schism of Qiqil. Dirk Kruisheer, in his important article on Theodore bar Konai’s important account of the Mandaeans, relates these to the three specific and related groups mentioned by him. That still leaves a gap of roughly a century, presumably between the Third Jewish Revolt of 132–135 CE and the ethnarchs identified by Buckley, who flourished at the tail end of the Arsacid period and the beginning of Sasanid rule in 224 CE.

Perhaps coincidentally, the narrative backs up a bit once more and returns to this very period, chronicling the downfall of the Arsacid dynasty, the rise of the Sasanids (hardbaiia) and their reign (which according to it lasts “360 years,” a nice round number even if the reality is closer to 427 years), concluding with the arrival of the “Son of Slaughter.” According to this account, a figure named Anuš bar Danqa approaches “Muhammad son of ‘Abdallah, Son of Slaughter, the Arab,” in Baghdad. This event and the figure at the center of it can be dated through Ramuia son of Eqaimat’s colophon to the first portion of the Canonical Prayerbook of the Mandaeans, which assigns to it the year 638 CE (another anachronism, as Muhammad had died six years earlier). If the schism of Qiqil occurred 86 years earlier, then it must have happened around 552 CE. The colophon also mentions that Zazai ḏ-Gawazta, whom Buckley identifies with Zazai bar Hibil Eutra, had copied this same manuscript 368 years earlier, or ca. 270 CE, which is almost exactly 280 years before the schism of Qiqil. With the exception of the century-long gap between the Third Jewish Revolt and the rise of the Sasanians, which might very well lie in one of the numerous lacunae that riddle this text, the chronology is internally consistent.

In closing, I’d like to suggest a possible chronology for the legendary events mentioned in the Great Revelation, along with some of the historical events to which the text alludes:

  1. Beginning of Babylonian Captivity (597 BCE)
  2. John the Baptist “arose with his Transplanter” (ca. 41/42 CE)
  3. The Great Revolt (66–73 CE)
  4. Massacre of the Naṣoreans
  5. Third Jewish Revolt (132–135 CE)
  6. Anuš-’Uthra destroys Jerusalem
  7. Zazai bar Hibil-Eutra and six other guards appointed to various posts
  8. Fall of Arsacids; Rise of the Sasanids (224 CE)
  9. Zazai of Gawazta copies the Canonical Prayerbook (ca. 270 CE)
  10. Schism of Qiqil (ca. 552 CE)
  11. Capture of Ctesiphon (637 CE)
  12. Anuš bar Danqa and the Ethnarchs provide a copy of the book to the Arabs (638 CE)

Legends and Lore in the Great Revelation

The “Scroll of the Great Revelation” (diuan ḏ-galalta rba), also called “Inner Harran” (haran gauaita) on the basis of the words with which all surviving copies of the text begin, is a work of Mandaean legend that addresses the birth, infancy, and career of John the Baptist (iahia iuhana), the destruction of the Temple, the rise of the Sasanians (hardbaiia), and the rise of Islam, among other historical events. Rudolf Macuch famously declared that the text must be taken seriously, even if only five percent of it were historically valid, but it is not immediately apparent from the text what might be considered history, and what might be considered legend.

The text is chiefly known from Stefana Drower’s translation, based upon the eighth portion of a diwan of the 1012 Questions, represented by Drower Collection (DC) MS 36 in the Bodleian; her only other manuscript, DC 9, appears to have been detached from another such scroll. The former was copied in 1088 AH (1699/1700), and all other copies consulted by Drower trace back to this same manuscript, the colophon of which mentions that it was copied from only one exemplar. On these grounds, she concludes that by 1700 “only one imperfect and ancient copy” remained. That text was apparently very fragmentary, as indicated by the numerous lacunae, particularly at the beginning of the text, which were indicated by small circles in the copies that she consulted. It is for this reason that the text begins, in medias res, “and Inner Harran received him and that city in which there were Naṣoraeans, because there was no road for the Jewish rulers.”

As Jorunn Buckley notes in her Great Stem of Souls (2010, 305), the portion concerned with the birth and infancy of John seems to share certain elements with the Protevangelium of James (which has been dated to the mid-2nd century), specifically the motif of John the Baptist being born, carried into the safety of the hill-country, and watched over by heavenly beings.

Then […] when the boy was born Anuš-‘Uthra came by command of the great Father of Glory and they came before Hibil-Ziwa by command of the great Father of Glory and travelled over deserts towards Mount Sinai and proceeded […] towards a community called Ruha’s that is situated near the place where the Ark was built […] and she will be a deliverer (midwife?) to the child […] into Parwan, the white mountain, an earthly place. And (in?) that place the fruit and sky are large. There […] (groweth?) the Tree which nourisheth infants. And they took back Ṣufnai the lilith to a place so that when they should perform a living baptism to purify the child, the apostle of Kušṭa, Yahia-Yuhana […]

The text here mentions Mount Parwan, which Drower identifies with Kuh-e Parou near the city of Tafresh in Markazi provice, Iran, more or less due east of Hamadan and southwest of Tehran. Intriguingly, the infant John appears to be guarded by a lilith in the Mandaean account (an intriguing inversion of the lilith’s usual role), whereas in the Protevangelium of James, the guardian is merely an unnamed “angel of the Lord”:

But Elizabeth when she heard that they sought for John, took him and went up into the hill-country and looked about her where she should hide him: and there was no hiding-place. And Elizabeth groaned and said with a loud voice: O mountain of God, receive thou a mother with a child. For Elizabeth was not able to go up. And immediately the mountain clave asunder and took her in. And there was a light shining always for them: for an angel of the Lord was with them, keeping watch over them.

The following section contains numerous references to the “Fallen House.” Drower took this phrase to mean the Temple of Solomon, but elsewhere it is generally a metaphor for the material world. There is confusion over which is intended here, and the ambiguity may be the result of word-play. At the very beginning, we read that the Jews attacked the “tribes of Anuš-’Uthra, the Head of the Age,” and massacred all the Naṣoraeans. Incidentally, while the word Naṣoraeans (naṣoraiia) traditionally refers to the initiated members of the Mandaean community, with the term “Mandaeans” (mandaiia) reserved for the laity, the term here appears to apply to the community as a whole, just as it does in the account of Theodore bar Konai, “Mandaeans” appearing nowhere within.

Immediately afterwards, we find Jews on the run from something, taking flight across the Suf Zaba (that is, “reed of river” or “end of river” which is traditionally identified with the Shatt el-Arab but here probably refers to the Yam Suph of the Exodus account) and then a detailed account of the building of Jerusalem. I am not at all convinced that this is sequential. It seems to me that this account of the flight of the Jews and the building of Jerusalem (which Drower takes to have been the “new Jerusalem”) is actually copied from one or more fragments that have fallen out of place, or that the copyist has attempted to harmonize fragments from several manuscripts and failed to do so.

After Jerusalem is built, Hibil Ziua approaches Anuš-’Uthra and tells him to bring seven guardians from Mount Parwan. These guardians are armed with seven magic bows that shoot flaming arrows, and chartered to destroy the Temple and scatter the Jews. It is not Anuš-’Uthra or his seven guardians who are credited with accomplishing this, but rather Hibil Ziua, who destroys Jerusalem and brings an end to 800 years of Jewish rule in “Baghdad,” by which the text likely intends Babylon (Baghdad is an obvious anachronism, as the present city was not founded until the 8th century). The section concludes,

Thereupon Anuš-’Uthra, changed nothing of that which they commanded him (to do), and Hibil-Ziwa came and burnt and destroyed Jerusalem and made it like heaps of ruins. And he went to Baghdad and killed (there) all the cohens and took away government from them and pounded (to) dust every city in which there were Jews. Moreover for the eight hundred years that their government [malkutun] was in Baghdad they exercised an autonomy amongst themselves [dabarbun malkuta] – four hundred rulers [malkia] – (for) the duration of a Jewish autonomy [malkutun] in Baghdad was eight hundred years; four hundred rulers [malkia] from the Jews (Jewish community) wielded kingly office.

Thus the House of the Jews came to naught and met its end, and the Host of darkness became powerless.

It would seem that this would be the most appropriate place for our narrative to fade to black and roll the credits. The language is more characteristic of an eschatological context, rather than a historical one, for at none of the times in which this text is set or in which it could have been composed could any of these things be said to be true, although they do have the appearance of an end-times prediction. Furthermore, if we take this chronology at face value, starting from the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity, we find ourselves at the end of the turn of the third century, which precisely the time that the first references to the Exilarchate or Reš Galuta first appear. The tradition that the Exilarch had been reigning continuously in Babylon from the time of the captivity of Jehoiachin is a specifically Jewish tradition, appearing in the 9th century Seder Olam Zuṭa and nowhere else, at least not to my knowledge.

If the Mandaeans were in contact with the Jews, as they undeniably were, and familiar with their traditions, as this text seems to suggest, why would they write that the Exilarchate was destroyed at precisely the time that it is first appearing in the historical record and being institutionalized by the Sasanids? They could not have been unaware of the continued existence of the Exilarchate, but perhaps they had reasons to consider it illegitimate. Regardless of the historical value of the tradition, its appearance here alone raises other issues.

The Blessed Saint Pazuzu, Protector of the Newborn

I’ve taken a brief break from the Mandaean Book of John to do some work on some other projects, including presenting on my research at the 41st annual meeting of the North American Conference on Afroasiatic Linguistics in New Haven and the 223rd meeting of the American Oriental Society in Portland.

Chief among these other projects is my contribution to a new textbook on epigraphy, which consists of a chapter on the problematic Arslan Taş amulet. This amulet, which was first published by Robert du Mesnil du Buisson in 1939, is made out of limestone (or possibly gypsum), shaped like a tablet, and perforated at the top, perhaps so that it could be hung on a doorpost. There are three figures carved upon it: a) a striding warrior wielding a double-headed ax, b) a winged sphinx, and c) a dog-like creature with what appears to be the tail of a scorpion, in the process of swallowing a human figure. The incantation inscribed upon the amulet calls upon one or more supernatural beings to protect the client from two or more maleficent beings. Presumably, these are the figures depicted on the amulet, but this is by no means certain.

The Amulet from Arslan Taş

The first being whose support is sought is identified as Ssm, son of Pdr. Both ssm and pdr are divine names known from other texts. Coincidentally, this same proper name (or at least its Aramaic form, ssm br pdr) also appears upon an inscription engraved upon the side of a bronze statue of Pazuzu at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, allegedly from the site of San el-Hagar (ancient Tanis) in the Nile river delta (you may remember Tanis from the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark).

If you think I'm bad, watch out for my wife...

Pazuzu is, of course, an Assyrian demon that represents “a ferocious wind that brings destruction to cultivated land, cattle, and humans.” Most people will be familiar with him from the 1971 William Peter Blatty novel The Exorcist and the 1973 horror film that was adapted from it. Representations of Pazuzu (in the form of amulets and figurines such as the one discovered at Tanis) were popular during the 7th and 6th c. B.C.E., because his image was used to ward off other demons, particularly the infanticidal female demon Lamaštu. Lamaštu is usually depicted as a dog-like figure, not unlike one of the two figures on the front of the Arslan Taş amulet.

Given that Pazuzu amulets and figurines generally include Pazuzu’s name, and the Ashmolean statue invokes the same figure as the Arslan Taş amulet for protection against a Lamaštu-like figure, F.A.M. Wiggermann identifies the Pazuzu with Ssm. Now here’s where things get a little bizarre.

The names “Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof” (סנוי סנסנוי וסמנגלוף) were traditionally carved upon cradles, bedposts, and amulets to protect newborn children from the infanticidal female demon Lilith. This is apparently a very ancient custom; forms of these same names appear in the Babylonian incantation bowls from Late Antiquity and even seal amulets from Parthian times. A medieval text, the Alphabet of Sirach, explains how these three angels became the protectors of newborn children (the story bears being reproduced in its entirety):

While God created Adam, who was alone, He said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone’ [Genesis 2:18]. He also created a woman, from the earth, as He had created Adam himself, and called her Lilith. Adam and Lilith immediately began to fight. She said, ‘I will not lie below,’ and he said, ‘I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while I am to be the superior one.’ Lilith responded, ‘We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.’ But they would not listen to one another. When Lilith saw this, she pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air. Adam stood in prayer before his Creator: ‘Sovereign of the universe!’ he said, ‘the woman you gave me has run away.’ At once, the Holy One, blessed be He, sent these three angels [Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof] to bring her back.

“Said the Holy One to Adam, ‘If she agrees to come back, what is made is good. If not, she must permit one hundred of her children to die every day.’ The angels left God and pursued Lilith, whom they overtook in the midst of the sea, in the mighty waters wherein the Egyptians were destined to drown. They told her God’s word, but she did not wish to return. The angels said, ‘We shall drown you in the sea.’

“‘Leave me!’ she said. ‘I was created only to cause sickness to infants. If the infant is male, I have dominion over him for eight days after his birth, and if female, for twenty days.’

“When the angels heard Lilith’s words, they insisted she go back. But she swore to them by the name of the living and eternal God: ‘Whenever I see you or your names or your forms in an amulet, I will have no power over that infant.’ She also agreed to have one hundred of her children die every day. Accordingly, every day one hundred demons perish, and for the same reason, we write the angels names on the amulets of young children. When Lilith sees their names, she remembers her oath, and the child recovers.

In the article I linked above, Martin Schwartz identifies ssm with a common Semitic word for “fruited branch of a date palm,” and suggests that this word also lies behind the names of the angelic triad. Furthermore, he sees this same word as the etymon of Sisinnios or Sisinius, the name of a celebrated warrior saint whose feast is celebrated either on the 23rd of November, or on the 29th of November together with St. Saturninus.


According to tradition, St. Sisinnios was born in Antioch and was martyred by the Roman emperor Maximian. The principal source for his life is another medieval legend, in which St. Sisinnios and his two brothers, Sinès and Sinodore, pursue an infanticidal female demon, and extract a promise from her not to approach any home on which their names and all of her secret names are written. For this reason, his legend was especially widespread throughout the eastern Mediterranean and as far south as Ethiopia, and he is frequently depicted as a “Holy Rider,” mounted on horseback, wielding a weapon and poised to strike a demoness, who is trampled beneath the front hooves of his mount. Beyond what is written in the legend of St. Sisinnios, nothing else is known about his life.

The legend of Sisinnios, Sinès, and Sinodore is rather obviously related to that of Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof in the Alphabet of Sirach. Less certain is Schwartz’s identification of this same figure with the Ssm of the Arslan Taş amulet, or Wiggerman’s identification of Ssm with Pazuzu, but the fact that all four (the saint, the angel, the god, and the demon) are depicted upon amulets explicitly to protect homes from infanticidal female demons should give us sufficient cause to consider the identification.

If the identification is justified, Pazuzu would not be the only unlikely figure from another religious tradition to be canonized as a saint, but certainly one of the strangest, comparable to the strange career of the Buddha, who was famously canonized as St. Josaphat.

Some Preliminary Data

As the 18th chapter of the Doctrine of John is the only one thus far that contains a clear terminus post quem (that being 691 CE, the date of the completion of the Dome of the Rock), I thought that it might make for a useful “anchor” for my relative chronology. The first step was to collect data about the language of the text; the chart below illustrates this data, and an explanation of the data follows.

1) gṭal 145 0.52 0.91
2) gṭil l- 14 0.05 0.09
3) nigṭul 13 0.05 0.12
ḏ-nimar 11 0.04 0.85
ḏ-nimar 2 0.01 0.15 0.02
4) gṭul 7 0.03
5) migṭal 5 0.02
6) (qa)gaṭil 95 0.34 0.88 0.98
Total 279 1

The rows represent different verbal stems, starting with 1) the  inherited perfect (“suffix conjugation”), 2) the innovated periphrastic perfect, 3) the inherited imperfect (“prefix conjugation”), 4) the imperative, 5) the infinitive, and 6) the innovated participial present-future tense. As I previously mentioned, 2) and 6) came to replace 1) and 3), respectively, in most Neo-Aramaic dialects; my purpose in collecting this data is to determine how far along this process Classical Mandaic was at the time that this chapter was composed.

I immediately ran into some serious problems.  For starters, although the inherited imperfect (3) appears 13 times in the text, almost all of the examples are from a formula used to introduce direct speech (ḏ-nimarlun). Formulae of this sort are much more likely to retain archaic grammatical constructions than spontaneous speech, so I felt that the data had to reflect this in some way.

Column A reports the distribution of the 279 verbal forms that appear in the text.  As you can see, the preponderant majority were the inherited perfect and the innovated participial present-future tense, suggesting a relative proximity to the contemporary reflex of Mandaic. Column B contains a breakdown of the 13 instances of the imperfect, divided between formulae and all other forms.

Column C reports the relative proportion of these verbal forms. Column D reports a breakdown of the proportion of instances of the imperfect, divided between formulae and all other forms.

Column E reflects the proportion of inherited perfects to the innovated periphrastic perfect in the text.  The overwhelming majority (91%) of examples are of the inherited perfect.

Column F reflects the proportion of formulaic instances of the inherited imperfect to non-formulaic instances.  85% of the examples were formulaic.

Column G reflects the proportion of inherited imperfects to the innovated participial present-future tense in the text. Only 12% of the examples reflected the inherited imperfect, a number which decreases even further when you remove the formulae from the proportion (Column H); then the proportion becomes 98% to 2%, a situation very much like that found in Neo-Mandaic, in which the only vestiges of the inherited imperfect are found in formulae.

It will be interesting to compare the breakdown of the data in Chapter 18 to that of the other chapters that have been parsed.

How Can You Date a Text?

The question I keep asking myself as I read selections from the Doctrine of John is how these texts relate to one another and to the rest of the Mandaic corpus. I’d like to be able to express these relationships quantitatively, but for the time being I must stick to the qualitative differences that have been identified by previous researchers. These include:

  1. References to Islam or historical events that followed its advent;
  2. Orthographic conventions, such as historical or phonetic spellings;
  3. The presence of Arabic words, either in the form of loan words or names; and finally,
  4. “Modern” (Neo-)Mandaic forms such as the indicative particle qa- or the 3rd pl. personal morpheme -iun on the perfective;

All of these are found to some degree or another in Chapter 18 of the Doctrine of John.  The problem with 1) is that it is subjective and open to interpretation, as I have hopefully demonstrated elsewhere.  In the context of Chapter 18, there is a reference to a “Dome of the Priests,” qumba ḏ-kahnia, which appears to be a synonym for the Temple, but this would place the text (or at least this version of it) squarely in the Umayyad period, as the Second Temple was most certainly not domed, and was destroyed in 70 CE in any case; no dome would appear until 691 CE, when the Dome of the Rock was completed. This confusion between the Temple of Solomon and the present occupant of its former site is by no means restricted to the Mandaeans; at times, Muslims, Christians, and even Jews have confused the two. The incipit to the Gospel of Luke in the Harley Golden Gospels, which was composed sometime during the first quarter of the 9th century, features an illustration of the Annunciation to Zechariah (the very subject of Chapter 18) against the backdrop of the Dome of the Rock:

Incipit to Luke

2) is a slightly better indicator of the antiquity of a text, but still problematic, as these texts were copied and recopied constantly throughout the centuries, and with each copy came new opportunities to revise the spelling of each word (potentially to “modernize” or even “archaicize” it).  It is for this reason that the preponderant majority of the variants between the existing texts of the Doctrine of John are spelling variants.

With 3) we find ourselves on slightly better ground, but its utility as a metric for dating texts is still quite limited.  For starters, Arabic and Mandaic belong to the same Central branch of West Semitic, and share a common inherited vocabulary. Words inherited by both languages will be distinguished by their phonology; while Arabic retains the distinction between most Proto-Semitic phonemes, in Mandaic many of these same phonemes have been merged together.  Unfortunately, the Mandaic script reflects its phonology, with the result that Arabic phonemes not found in Mandaic are lumped together with their closest Mandaic equivalents, which are not infrequently reflexes of the same ancestral phonemes. Thus distinctions between Arabic and Mandaic words are occasionally invisibilized by the script. Furthermore, Arabic words are rare in this text, and the pedigree of a given word is not always unimpeachable.

4) is perhaps the best indicator of the relative antiquity of a text.  The presence of Neo-Mandaic forms, when they are absent from other classical texts, indicate that the text in question was composed more recently, relative to those texts.

To these diagnostics, I’d add another qualitative difference, and perhaps even a quantitative one:

  1. The presence of the periphrastic gṭil l- perfect conjugation, which is neither Classical nor, strictly speaking, Neo-Mandaic;
  2. The gradual replacement of the old Semitic imperfect or “prefix conjugation” by a participial present-future tense.

The latter requires some explanation. Between the period of Late Antiquity and the present day, the Eastern Aramaic dialects underwent a major restructuring of their verbal system. As a result of this restructuring, the ancestors of most surviving Aramaic dialects lost their inherited perfect and imperfect conjugations, which were replaced by periphrastic conjugations based upon the participles. These participial constructions were already present in earlier Aramaic dialects, in which they were used to supplement the inherited tenses. Construction 1), mentioned above, eventually came to replace the West Semitic perfect or “suffix conjugation” in most surviving dialects. It is conspicuously absent from Neo-Mandaic, but appears occasionally in the Doctrine of John.

The process by which these conjugations were replaced was gradual, and Classical Mandaic, especially insofar as it is represented by the language of the Doctrine of John, is a virtual “snapshot” of this process at work. Thus it is possible that this process could be used as a metric for a relative chronology of the texts; if the proportion of the innovated forms to the inherited forms can be observed within the corpus of texts to grow over time, then the relative age of individual texts could be potentially be gauged.

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