Philologastry

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

Sailing and Animal Husbandry

One of the chief impediments to understanding the language of the Doctrine of John is not its grammar (which is, in any case, rather simple) but rather the frequent use of jargon from various fields. One would expect an extending allegory involving a shepherd and his flock to contain some jargon from the field of animal husbandry, but the sudden appearance of nautical terminology (such as the aforementioned zakaita) can be jarring at times. A stray verse near the beginning of p. 44 (lns. 2-3) reads,

qamit el ramta ḏarba
mhara qaiim alihdia kudka

I rose to the highest point of the vessel,
the mhara, standing near the kudka.

The word arba is perhaps the most common word for “boat” in the text, alongside a bewildering array of synonyms (makuta “raft,” mabarta “ferry,” markabta “vehicle,” šabaita “reed boat (?),” sahrana “crescent skiff (?),” and so forth). As the word is homonymous with a type of mixing bowl, it seems likely that the type of boat designated by the term arba is something like the modern Iraqi قفة guffa, which is indeed the most common form of boat in the marshes of southern Mesopotamia and well-attested in Assyrian reliefs. Another, less likely possibility is that the term comes from the Akkadian erbâ/arbâ “a 40 gur boat.” To reflect the homonymy between arba “bowl” and arba “boat,” I usually translate the latter as “vessel.”

The word mhara, on the other hand, gives pause. It always refers to some part of the boat in the Doctrine of John and seems to be related to the Akkadian maḫru(m) “front,” hence “prow.” The major obstacle to this interpretation, as Lidzbarski (pp. 48-49, fn. 8) notes, is that nowhere in Akkadian literature is the prow of any boat thus designated, but who knows what kind of semantic shifts might have occurred as the word was borrowed? As a latter-day parallel, Germans refer to the mobile phone as das Handy, which is a transparent English loan word, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an English speaker who uses the term “Handy” to describe his cell phone.

Lidzbarski notes that the usual word for prow in Akkadian is pān elippi, and suggests that the context requires the mhara not to be identified with the prow but rather to be “standing upright either on or inside” the boat. Citing the phrase maḫrāt elippi, which Delitzsch (1896, p. 403) defines as “forward spars,” and which apparently stand behind the sikkat elippi “spars,” he concludes that spars would best fit the context, but that mhara is used elsewhere in the context of watering and may actually refer to some kind of a sluice. In any case, I’m skeptical; spars are not necessary (and indeed not found) on most of the crafts of the marshes of southern Iraq, even if the lightworld vessels are typically depicted in Mandaean manuscripts as fully rigged. CDA complicates matters further: contra Zimmern and Delitzsch, it defines maḫrātu(m) as the entire bow of a boat, not as its prow or forward spar.

The last word in the verse presents the most problems. The term kudka is not uncommon in Mandaic literature, and where it appears it generally refers to a boundary stone, corresponding in function and possibly form to the Akkadian kudurru, but what’s one doing in the bow of a boat? Lidzbarski observes, “Here, too, the kudka will be a pole, but more information is not apparent from the context.” The passages which refer to nautical themes are among the most cryptic in the manuscript. I am in the process of collecting technical terms in the text and obviously need to track down an authority on Akkadian nautical terminology, if indeed that is what we are dealing with here.

The terms relating to the different types of sheep are only slightly less complicated. Alongside embra, aqna and the related form ana (which occasionally becomes aina “eye”), all of which mean “sheep,” the pair para and parta (“ram lamb” and “ewe lamb,” respectively) appears, as does embrusa (a diminutive form of embra, perhaps “little lamb”). Somehow I feel as if I’m only scratching the surface of a vast sheep-related vocabulary. But what’s this?

kma karialia el gablia ešnia
ḏaqamra ḏganbaihun ṭabatinun

How greatly am I distressed by the rams (?),
the wool of whose sides it [the whirlpool] has submerged.

ešnia is undoubtedly just a variant form of eušnia “males,” cognate with Syriac ܐܘܫܢܐ ˀōšnā “stallion,” allegedly an Iranian loan word related to Pahlavi gušn “male,” and ultimately from Avestan waršni- “male (animal).” But what are gablia? Lidzbarski found this word here and in one other work (British Library OR. 6592, which he calls “der Londoner Rolle A”), and with the only information at hand (given the context, it must be some kind of sheep, and it must be male) deemed it a ram. I can do no better.

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