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Archive for the category “Folklore”

Thēsauròs Zōēs | Life’s Treasure

The proper name simat hiia is conventionally translated as “Treasure of Life,” the word simta being compared fruitfully with the word symh “treasure” in other Aramaic languages, and the whole phrase being compared with the Manichaean thēsauròs zōēs, which means much the same thing in Greek. Both the Aramaic words are conventionally derived from the root s-w-m, one of the more common roots meaning to put” or place.”

In the Book of John (chapter 58), she appears with her male counterpart, sam hiia.

A treasure am I—Life’s Treasure (simat hiia)! / Life’s Treasure (sam hiia), in [Life’s] radiant tartour, / sent me to the adamantine worlds.

The male member of the pair boasts a tartour (Mandaic ṭarṭabuna, Arabic طرطور, allegedly from Latin turritus “turreted, tower-like”). In the medieval Levant, these caps were worn primarily by married noblewomen, a fashion that apparently reached Europe via the Crusaders (where the tartour became the model for the stereotypical conical “princess’s cap”), but elsewhere in the Middle East they served as unisex headgear (and are still worn today by dervishes of certain orders). Both sam and simat are popular Mandaean names, even to this day. It would appear that sam is merely another word from the same root, although Drower and Macuch translate it as “He-Placed.” The semantic progression from “placed” to “treasure” is not clear. Could there be another explanation for this word?

Five months ago, I drafted an article on Greek loanwords in Mandaic and offered it as a session on One of the observations I made was that Greek η ē regularly corresponds not to the expected high vowel aksa (i) in Mandaic, but rather the letter halqa (a):

šaraia ‘silk,’ Gk. sērikós

sasa ‘moth,’ Gk. sēs

kaluza ‘voice,’ Gk. kēruks

To add to this list of mysteries is the Greek word kibōtós ‘coffin,’ which appears in this same text as qabut. An obvious cognate is Syriac qēʾḇūṯā. In fact, there is a consistent pattern of Mandaic halqa corresponding to the sequence e(ʾ) in Syriac:

haria ‘nobles,’ cf. Syr heʾre
kauila ‘ark,’ cf. Syr keʾwelā
makulta ‘food,’ cf. Syr meʾḵolṯā
qaba ‘muzzle,’ cf. Syr qeʾmā
šaraia ‘silk,’ cf. Syr šeʾrāyā
zaba ‘wolf,’ cf. Syr diʾḇā

The last word is also regularly spelled diba in Mandaic, reflecting an intriguing feature of the so-called “classical” orthography: by-forms in which a historicizing (or pseudo-historical) spelling like zaba *ðiʾb- coëxists with a phonemic one like diba, which reflects both the merger of PS *ð and *d, and the loss of the word-internal glottal stop.

At one point, I was a bit of a purist when it came to halqa; I insisted then that it always consistently represented a vowel, and never a glottal stop, but in light of this evidence I am forced to modify my position. There are obvious cases, such as the words above, in which halqa represents not a vowel but rather a glottal stop. To distinguish these words from those written according to a phonemic orthography, I am writing them in small caps in my forthcoming grammar, adopting a convention used for other languages of the region. Nearly all of these words appear at some point or another in the Book of John.

Is there, then, a Syriac cognate to sam, along the lines of sīmṯā? As it happens, yes, we are in luck. The Syriac word seʾmā “silver,” a loanword from Greek ἄσημον ásēmon,  is used to distinguish the metal, “silver,” from the old Semitic word kaspā, which is metaphorically extended to mean “money” in most cases. Thus Syriac seʾm and sīmṯā correspond quite nicely to Mandaic sama and simta, and would represent yet another potential Greek loan to add to the list of words that I have compiled.

A Note on Mšunia Kušṭa

The phrase Mšunia Kušṭa Məšonni Košṭa has occasioned the spillage of considerable ink, at least relative to the degree to which that commodity has been spilled in the service of Mandaic Philology. Although it appears for the first time outside of the Mandaean scriptures in Petermann’s collection of Mandaic folktales as meschunne kuschta, a Mandaean paradise, it should not surprise us that the first word on the origins of this phrase come from Noldeke, who considers it a vestigial Hebrew-style D-stem passive (or pual) participle:

Vielleicht giebt es daneben noch Reste von Passiv-Participien nach hebr. Art (wie מְפֻעֵּל). So liesse sich wenigstens zur Noth fassen מוליא “Hochland” I, 282, 25 = מְעֻלְּיָא und der Name des mand. Paradieses משוניא כושטא „das Entrückte der Gerechtigkeit“ (מְשֻׁנֶּה) I, 302, 18 (meschunne kuschta nach PETERMANN); damit hängt aber am Ende משאוניאת עשאתא etwa „wunderbares Wesen des Feuers“ I, 87, 9; 295, 13 zusammen, dessen Form ganz unklar (p. 132).

Lidzbarski (1915, xviii), even went so far as to declare this putative Hebrew pual form as evidence for Palestinian substratal influence from  upon Mandaic. On this basis, both men parse it as an otherwise unattested passive participle, “transferred, removed (=sublimated).” Is this accurate, and need we look so far to find its origins and meaning? Is it at all possible that it might derive from a more proximate source, and mean something completely different?

A Hebrew-style pual participle of the root š-n-y “to be different” is not attested anywhere else in Aramaic, Western or otherwise, but Kaufmann (Akkadian Influences upon Aramaic, 73) connects this form to a JBA lexeme məšonnitā, found in the Bavli, Tract. Ta‘anith 23a(46): איהדרא ליה משוניתא ואיכסי מיע<י>נא ‏ “a məšonnitā encircled him, and he was hidden from sight.” This word apparently derives from a D-stem participle, albeit an Akkadian one rather than a Hebrew one, namely mušannītu “diverting,” from Akkadian reflex of the same root (šanû). The participle refers explicitly to the sort of earthworks that divert water into channels, a common and useful feature of the Mesopotamian landscape. Unsurprisingly, a similar form of what appears to be the same root also appears in Arabic, musannātun (pl. musannayātun) “dam,” even though this root is no longer productive in Arabic.

Lane derives from a separate root, *s-n-y meaning “to water.” No such root is attested in the related languages, but *s-n-y “to be different” is indeed reconstructable to Proto-Semitic, and has left other lexical traces in Arabic itself. Logically, it makes more sense for the Arabs to have borrowed technical terminology relating to waterworks from the inhabitants of Mesopotamia, rather than the reverse. Unfortunately, not all three of these terms can be reconstructed to a single proto-form, giving us the by-forms *musanniyat– in Akkadian and Aramaic, and *musannayat– in Arabic, with the triphthong *iya collapsing to ī in Akkadian and Aramaic, as it is wont to do, and *aya collapsing to ā in Arabic, as it is likewise wont to do. Even so, the etymology seems sound.

This would make Məšonni Košṭa “Truth’s Barrier,” which is certainly consonant with the constellation of Mandaic metaphors drawn directly from life in the marshes of southern Iraq. It is also in keeping with the Mandaic literature, and particularly that about the destruction of Jerusalem (e.g. GR 1.202, p. 29:18), in which this location can be accessed directly from this world, rather than being part of the geography of the world of light.

A parallel to the Mandaean tradition about the earthly paradise of Məšonni Košṭa is supplied by the Babylonian Talmud (Tract. Sanhedrin 97a), in the story of the death of Rabbi Tabuth’s two sons (I am indebted to Reuven Kiperwasser, who drew my attention to this parallel in a personal communication on 3/23/2014). According to this legend, R. Tabuth (or perhaps Tabyomi) lived in a “place called Truth (qušṭā),” in which no one ever tells lies (wə-lā məšanne bə-dibbūreho, literally “it did not change (məšanne) in its words”), and no man dies before his time. There, he married a woman, and she bore him two sons. One day, while his wife was bathing, a neighbor came looking for her, and out of his concern for etiquette R. Tabuth told the neighbor that she was not there. As a consequence, his two sons died, and the inhabitants of Truth drove him out of town for inciting Death against them. As a consequence, R. Tabyomi (or perhaps Tabuth) henceforth refused to say a lie, “even if he were given all the empty spaces of the world.”

Another possible connection to the Mandaeans lies in the nature of the people who lived in Truth. These people famously would not change their words. A similar claim regarding the Nazoraeans is frequently added to the colophons with which Mandaean copyists conclude their scriptures:

uzakia ama ḏnaṣuraiia ḏlašanun mindam ḏhiia paqid

May the people of the Nazraeans, who did not change (šanun) anything that Life has commanded, win.

Otherwise, the expression məšanne bə-dibbūreho “change in its words” or perhaps “distort its words” to mean “lie” is unusual—in fact, near as I can tell, it is restricted to this passage. As Kiperwasser has suggested (2014, 272), the fantastic setting of this story may reflect an Iranian motif, the fortress Kangdiz, in which the deathless hero Pešyōtan, son of Wištasp, waits with his hundred and fifty righteous men, until he may emerge and restore the religion of Ohrmazd, much like the 360 Nazoraeans who escape to Məšonni Košṭa in the Great Treasure. Kiperwasser likewise suggests that Məšonni Košṭa might be derived from the rabbinic tale of Truth, the town that does not change in its words, but if Kaufmann is correct and məšonni refers instead to some kind of barrier or obstruction, then perhaps məšanne bə-dibbūreho instead reflects a folk etymology for the name Məšonni Košṭa, the abode of the Nazoraeans, “who do not change anything that Life has commanded.”

This would make the Zoroastrian Kangdiz and the Mandaean Məšonni Košṭa close parallels, both in etymological terms as well as folkloristic ones. The name Kangdiz is a compound: Pahl. diz, which means fortress and is ultimately derived from the PIE root *dheigh– “to make, form (in this case, a wall),” also found in the Avestan word pairidaeza “enclosed garden,” the source of our word paradise, and the name Kang or Hang, from Avestan Hankana, an underground fortress built by Fraŋrasyan (Afrāsiāb), the name of which is ultimately derived from the root kandan “to dig.” Thus, both names refer to paradisaical locales protected by earthworks, to which an army of righteous men have retreated to await the millennium.

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.

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