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

Whistle While You Work

Among its other mysteries, the “Good Shepherd” contains some vocabulary already familiar from the “Soulfisher,” including the enigmatic zakaita (p. 43, ln. 4):

šariqnin bmašruqtai
habiṭna bzakaitai lmia

I call them with my mašruqta,
I beat the waters with my zakaita.

mašruqta is clearly related to the preceding verb √š-r-q, “to whistle” (or “to utter shrill or disconnected sounds, grunt, squeal, whistle, pipe” according to Drower and Macuch, who frequently offer numerous synonyms, seldom employed in the examples, as cover for a lack of precision). The context certainly suggests some kind of musical instrument, and clay whistles are abundantly attested in the core Mandaean territories from time immemorial, according to Ochsenschlager.

As far as zakaita, Lidzbarski’s verdict (p. 48, fn. 4) is that it is also some kind of musical instrument, perhaps a drum, and notes that it also appears on p. 161, ln. 13:

zakaita dilak ṣaida
ḏhazilẖ nunia umitrahqia

Deine zak(k)aitā, Fischer, ist derart,
daß, wenn die Fische sie sehen sie sich entfernen.

Thus far, we know the following things about this item:

  1. It is homonymous with zakaita “pure (f.)” or “conquering (f.)”;
  2. It parallels mašruqta, which is likely a musical instrument;
  3. It is associated with shepherds and fishers;
  4. It is employed by beating it against something;
  5. In one instance, it is used to beat water.

This last item moved Lidzbarski to conclude that it was not a bell, as the verb √h-b-ṭ is not typically used for bells. While it does seem to provoke movement in both passages (warning the sheep to come in, for the first, and warning the fish to run away, for the second), it does so by sound in the first passage and by sight in the second. The ensemble of all these features suggests to me that it isn’t a musical instrument at all.

Drower and Macuch suggest that it might be some kind of stick (such as that which fishers use to drive fish into a net when net fishing), which seems logical enough. If the stick were sufficiently large enough, it might explain why it was known as “the conquering one,” if indeed that is the etymology of the name, just as certain American firearms came to be known under nicknames such as “Peacemaker” or “Widow Maker” in the Old West. Why, though, is it feminine?  As far as I know, all of the Mandaic words for rods, sticks, and staves (such as gauaza, huṭra, and margna) are masculine, as are all the words for percussion instruments (such as darbukia and ṭibla). Perhaps the best solution would be simply to translate it “Victoria.”


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  1. Pingback: Sailing and Animal Husbandry « Philologastry

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