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

Archive for the category “Epigraphy”

Famine, Plagues, and Anti-Christs, II

A colleague writes to object strenuously that it would have been anachronistic to refer to the Lakhmids as malkia arbaiia “Kings of the Arabs” during the Sasanid era, as the Syriac term ܥܪ̈ܒܝܐ ˁarbāye is never applied to Arabs, the terms ܛܝ̈ܝܐ ṭayyāye and ܣܪ̈ܩܝܐ sarqāye being employed in its place. Therefore, the text can only date from a much later period, in which it became common to refer to the Arabs as ˁarbāye in Syriac.

Leaving aside the obvious objection that Mandaic is not Syriac, if we really want to know how the Lakhmids styled themselves, we need look no further than the 4th century funerary inscription of the Lakhmid king Imru’ al-Qays (r. 295-328) from al-Namāra:


Our inscription famously begins تي (هذه) نَفسُ (شاهدة قبر) امرؤ القيس بن عَمرو مَلِكُ العرب, “this is the funerary inscription of Imru’ al-Qays, son of Amr, King of the Arabs.” It provides us with a direct witness to the fact that the Lakhmids styled themselves the “Kings of the Arabs,” of which the Mandaic phrase malkia arbaiia is an obvious calque.

Why were the Lakhmids ˁarbāye and not ṭayyāye? They formerly inhabited the region known as Arbāyistān/Bet ˁArbāye in northern Mesopotamia (stretching from Nusaybin to the Tigris, from Cizre in the north to Jabal Shinjar in the south), until they were dislodged by the Sasanids and migrated south to the area in which they encountered the Mandaeans. It was there they founded al-Hira, and from there they ruled until they were briefly expelled by the Mazdakite al-Harith al-Kindi, only to return and reign for an additional 71 years—exactly according to the chronicle in the Great Treasure.

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 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.

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