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

On the Trail of the Elusive Esqubra

Chapter 36 of the Mandaic Book of John, the first of the infamous Soulfisher chapters, reads (p. 146 ln. 9 to 147 ln. 2):

“Come, bring me an esqubra, / so I can make a sound in the marsh

to wake up the fish of the deep, / and set to flight the crafty bird

that is a torment to my fish! […]


The esqubra is durable, /  because water does not mix with pitch.”

The transcriptions are from Sheikh Negm’s unpublished recitation of the chapter, which Stefana Drower transcribed in the 30s. No other indication of the esqubra‘s nature is given, save for the fact that it is an instrument that creates some kind of sound. Lidzbarski believes that it is a wind-instrument, on the grounds that the Soulfisher apparently blows within it (enpabẖ bgauẖ, according to his edition).

The only other place within Mandaic literature where this word appears is in the 1012 Questions, in which it is used as a synonym for “the House” (and therefore the material world): Book I, Part II, no. 264: usqubra ṭmira hua alma d-baba litlẖ “and the squbra became buried, until it had no entrance.” It evidently refers here to some kind of container.

Neither Lidzbarski nor Drower and Macuch care to advance an etymology. The four root letters (s-q-b-r) make a foreign origin probable but not assured. I could find no similar Akkadian or Iranian word that might refer to a musical instrument or a container, but the Greek word σκυφάριον skufarion (literally “little skyphos,” a type of drinking vessel) has a similar form and is glossed as a small box (“τό τάλαρος, κιβώτιον, μικρά κίστη, πινακίδιον, cistella” according to this reference). While not a precise fit (on account of the φ where a β might be expected), it does match the pattern of words such as σχολάριος (Syriac skolrā).

santur_babylon2If this is indeed the etymon, then the instrument in question would be boxed shape (like a dulcimer or the Iraqi sanṭūr or sanṭīr, itself possibly derived from the Greek psaltḗrion) or have a sound box (like those famous Mesopotamian lyres that Sir Leonard Woolley discovered at Ur). The Latin word cistella referenced above, for example, can mean both a “little chest” as well as a sort of dulcimer contained within such a chest.




This, of course, is not at all compatible with Lidzbarski’s interpretation which rests on p. 147, ln. 1. For that matter, it must be admitted that Lidzbarski’s interpretation is not compatible with the following line, either (“The esqubra is durable, /  because water does not mix with pitch”) if only because the wind instruments employed in that region are not generally manufactured with pitch; the most common wind instrument used by the fishers of the marshes of southern Iraq, according to Ochsenschlager, is made entirely out of clay. The same is not true for string instruments with boxes, for which pitch serves as the glue to hold them together. But what of blowing inside it? This line, and the one preceding it, both omitted from the selection above, suggests another interpretation:

I shall grab the great sirma,  / and break off his wing on the spot!

I will take it from him,  / and I will blow (enpabẖ) inside my esqubra!

It is not immediately clear, from this passage, how breaking the wing of the great sirma relates to blowing inside the esqubra.  Could enpabẖ have another meaning? Perhaps it is preferable to derive npā-bi from the root √n-p-ʿ, a by-form of √n-p-ṣ “to shake off loose material from something,” with the sirma’s wing used instrumentally, as a kind of feather duster. Further support for this is given by the version collected by Drower, in which Sh. Negm supplies the variant w-enfaṣ-bi rather than the npā-bi of Lidzbarski’s edition. On these grounds, I would rather translate this line as “I will dust inside my lyre.”

4ec082bf98a96e28015a2faaa8cc3a13As an aside, the sirma rabba whose wing is broken to dust the esqubra appears to be snub-nosed (cf. Syriac srāmā), and its description as a predator inhabiting the marshes matches that of the terrifying, prehistoric-looking shoebill (Balaeniceps rex), which routinely reaches nearly five feet in height, and whose wings can stretch to more than seven feet in width. While the closest specimens of the shoebill are today found in the marshes of Sudan and Uganda, it can be presumed that its distribution was somewhat wider in antiquity.

To recap:

  • σκυφάριον is a plausible etymon for esqubra in both senses of the word;
  • The text describes esqubra as a kind of instrument sealed or held together with pitch;
  • The etymon suggests something that is either box-shaped or possessing a sound-box;
  • Nothing in the text convincingly portrays it as a wind instrument.

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