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

Archive for the category “Lexicon”

Columbusing Classical Mandaic

Those of us engaged in producing knowledge about the phenomenon of language are invariably forced to come to terms with the quality of the prose we write, as much as we are forced to consider our own subjectivity. With regard to both of these things, there are no legitimate reasons that what we write should not be subject to the same standards as that of others, particularly when we are deliberately attempting to contribute to and influence scholarly discourse. We are social beings, every bit as much as our subjects, our colleagues, and the general reading public—which is to say that we operate as social beings when trying to influence these audiences. Grammars and dictionaries, on the other hand, provide us with one of the precious few remaining opportunities to assume what Stephan Palmié calls “the terrible fiction of a voice from nowhere” and not worry too much about the quality of our own prose or, for that matter, our own subjectivity. Perhaps this is why some philologists naturally gravitate to writing dictionaries and grammars.

And then you have Rudolf Macuch. The 20th century Slovak philologist was not only painfully aware of his own position with respect to his subject, but he also never lets us forget it. His Handbook of Classical and Modern Mandaic is a landmark of 20th century scholarship, if only because it is sui generis among grammars. Its first 25 pages establish it as a very personal account of a language, situating him within his own scholarly context through a painstakingly detailed critique of the work of his predecessors and contemporaries. At no point does Macuch ever adopt the terrible fiction of a voice from nowhere; instead, he makes certain that his voice is heard on each and every page.

Philologists are basically people who do things with words, and the primary thing that Macuch attempts to do with his Handbook is to document his personal discovery of both Classical and Modern Mandaic. In a very real sense, neither existed prior to 1965 (please bear with me on this) and he wants us to know that he was present at their making. In fact, he outlines the case that he has played a pivotal role in this making.

On p. XLVI, he informs us that “The existence of a vernacular dialect spoken by Mandaean laymen in Khuzistan, which as a living language deserves, at least, as much attention as the traditional pronunciation of the literary tongue, remained completely unknown until my personal discovery at the occasion of my visit to the Mandaean community of Ahwaz in 1953.” Unknown to whom? Obviously, by “completely unknown,” he does not mean that it was unknown to the native speakers he met, or to the thousands of their coreligionists in both Iraq and Iran, who have always been painfully aware of the ongoing shift from Mandaic to Arabic. Nor can he mean that it was unknown to his more recent scholarly predecessors, such as Jean Jacques de Morgan, who traveled to Iran and collected some texts in this language, or Samuel Marinus Zwemer, who lived in Basra around the turn of the century and published some samples of vernacular Mandaic in his Arabia: The Cradle of Islam, or Stefana Drower, who occasionally references the ratna in her publications, visited Khorramshahr and Ahwaz, and conversed fluently in Mandaic with the Mandaeans she met there, including a young Nasser Sobbi.

What Macuch can only intend by this sentence is that he has made a discovery, along the lines of Columbus’ discovery of the New World, while these previous encounters were what we might call finds. From his perspective, neither his Mandaean informants nor his scholarly colleagues were truly aware of the significance of this language, until Macuch arrived in Ahvaz to begin the laborious process of construing a discovery from these scattered finds, and thereby bring its significance to the attention of humanity (or at least that portion of humanity that reads Mandaic grammars). In order to do so, he assumes an authoritative position, that of the ultimate arbiter of linguistic norms, which requires him to subvert the authority of his informants repeatedly throughout the pages of his grammar:

  • p. 3: “It would be an error to oppose oneself to the scholarly conception of Mandaic phonetics merely on the basis of the pronunciation given by Mandaean priests and literates.”
  • p. 61: “I can quote, at least, one sure instance of how these homonyms lead the Mandaean priests to confusions […] From fear of offending the Sheikh and esp. of obtaining other impossible translations and explanations I did not try him with other obvious proofs of his error.”
  • p. 92: “The consistent avoiding of the shewa mobile with the help of the prosthetic vowel in traditional pronunciation is in great measure artificial and hardly completely original.”
  • p. 104: “There is, however, more than one good reason to doubt its correctness. Nevertheless, I quote it as an excellent proof that the ‘abagadical’ pronunciations of the priests would be a very poor guide to a correct pronunciation of Mandaic.”

and so forth. The attentive reader may well ask, what is the “correct” pronunciation of Mandaic, if not that which is used by the people who actually speak it? If I, as an American, do not employ the Queen’s English, is my language incorrect or does it actually reflect some important aspect of my own identity and its history? Obviously the latter, but equally Macuch is not incorrect, either. What he means, clearly, is that the priests are not pronouncing Mandaic correctly according to the scholarly representations of Mandaic that emerged with Nöldeke’s 1875 grammar. This representation is an entirely new scholarly enterprise, separate from but to some extent informed by Mandaic as it is understood and employed by the community, and (increasingly, as we shall see) informing this other Mandaic as well.

I do not intend to claim that Mandaeans have had absolutely no agency in constructing Mandaic as it is currently constituted. Obviously, Macuch’s Handbook of Classical and Modern Mandaic would not exist without Macuch’s Mandaean informants. In discussing his own fieldwork, Palmié might just as easily have been speaking for Macuch when he wrote, “Might not even those instances of reported speech reflect responses to questions or other dialogic cues that I provided at the time I recorded them? Conversely, might it not be that my informants steered our conversation toward a point they wanted to make―and wanted me to write up?” Every once and a while, the individual voices of Macuch’s informants pop up in his scholarship, and he faithfully records the points they wanted to make. I merely mean to suggest that what we call “Classical Mandaic” is a product of this collaboration, in much the same way that the work of creating and defining “America” began with Columbus’ discovery in 1492 and continues unabated to the present date.

The words “Classical Mandaic” and “Modern Mandaic” (or for that matter “Neo-Mandaic”) do not appear in  Nöldeke’s grammar. Near as I can tell, they make their first appearance in the literature with Macuch, who is in a very real sense their creator. For Nöldeke, Mandaic is the language of a large corpus of texts, written at different times and different places, which he attempts to divide into “younger” and “older” phases primarily on the basis of foreign influences in their vocabulary and grammar. There are, of course, the classical texts, those considered canonical scripture by the community, but these too are the products of different times and places, and likewise reflect their long histories of transmission and usage.

Classical languages, as opposed to texts, are those that have been elaborated by scholars over the course of generations, and standardized through the production of dictionaries and grammars, so that they can eventually be learned and employed by non-native speakers, even after they are no longer natively spoken. This is, for example, the case for classical languages like Classical Greek, Classical Latin, and Classical Hebrew, but there is no evidence that this process of elaboration had ever occurred in Mandaic, at least not before 1875. Instead, as Nöldeke notes in his grammar, at all times and in all places, native speakers of Mandaic wrote their language exactly as they spoke it (resulting in the wide spectrum of linguistic variation he noticed). It was not until the missionaries arrived that any non-native speaker attempted to learn Mandaic, let alone write it according to any such standard. The first surviving attempt, the Leiden Glossarium, faithfully reflects the language as it was spoken at the time, rather than a self-conscious literary standard, very likely because such a thing simply did not exist at the time. Thus, in a very real sense, the history of “Classical Mandaic” begins in 1875, even if it had to wait another 90 years for scholars to come up with a name for it. This explains Macuch’s repeated insistence that the ultimate authority over “Classical Mandaic” resides among western scholars such as himself, and not among the Mandaeans, whom he relegates largely to a passive role in its construction. Classical Mandaic, as it is currently constituted, is an entirely novel enterprise, and Mandaeans who contrast their own spoken language and their own understanding of their own texts against this enterprise should do so only with their eyes wide open.

The process of constituting Classical Mandaic, and its equally factitious sisters, Neo-Mandaic (which is Mandaic as she is currently spoken) and Post-Classical Mandaic (which comprises everything else that was left on the cutting floor), continues apace, and I have made my own small contributions to this process. Demonstrating the same post-modern sensibilities as his mentor, the German philologist Rainer Voigt challenged me in his review of my grammar to consider my own subjectivity as a native-speaker of English and as the product of American scholarship in construing my own version of Neo-Mandaic, which differs from that created by Macuch in some important respects. For example, I employ a normalized phonemic transcription system, where Macuch did not attempt to isolate the phonemes of Neo-Mandaic and merely represented the phonetics of the language as he perceived them. I can only plead guilty as charged, although I do not believe that Macuch’s representation of Neo-Mandaic is any more or less accurate than my own; we are both willfully engaged in the production of something new, and our contributions to the discourse will obviously depend on how successful we are as social actors. Regrettably, I have a distinct advantage over Macuch in that he is no longer able to defend his representations of Mandaic, but he obviously still has his defenders.

Similarly, my colleagues have argued that “the pronominal system found in [Neo-Mandaic] is not in all cases the direct descendent of [Classical Mandaic],” distancing the former from the latter because it does not reflect features that we have attributed to it, e.g. the personal pronouns anat and anatun, which are unique among attested Aramaic dialects, including the contemporary language, in which we find āt and atton. In his original representation of “Classical Mandaic” avant la lettre, Nöldeke suggests that these anomalous forms of the second person singular and plural pronouns were restructured on the analogy of the first person singular pronoun. This is the representation that my colleagues currently endorse.

I can think of no four-part proportional analogy to illustrate this development (of the sort A : B :: C : D, where D is anat and anatun) internally, or any cross-linguistic data to illustrate it from other languages, so I have to be highly skeptical of this representation. I would argue that, instead, what we call “Classical Mandaic” personal pronouns are actually pseudo-historical spellings, in which segments thought lost through sound change are orthographically restored. Examples of this abound throughout the lexicon; we have aqna *ānā  ‘lamb’ and aqamra *amrā ‘wool,’ as well as the anomalous form aqapra afrā ‘dust,’ in which the aq might potentially be justified on the basis of analogy, but certainly not etymology. Was the aq in these words or the an in anat and anatun pronounced at this time? Perhaps, perhaps not. They might very well have originally been purely orthographic devices (something like spelling the old shop as ye olde shoppe in a pseudo-historical English), only retrospectively recognized as linguistic reality—for which a legitimate case can be made to restore their “classical” pronunciation on the basis of the vernacular āt and atton. Such examples illustrate the degree to which our Classical Mandaic is still very much a work-in-progress. They also suggest that the retrospective nature of this work may already have been present when the texts were first composed.

Unexpected Hebrew Words in Mandaic

There are a few Hebraisms in Mandaic that are surprisingly not shared with other Eastern Aramaic dialects, including the Jewish Babylonian ones. In Chapter 33 of the Book of John, for example, there is a passage dealing with the fate of the soul when Sauriel comes to collect it, describing its progression up the body, slipping from the feet to the knees, from the knees to the hip, and

haizak bhadia napla / kabša ulmarẖ mitgamla (read: lmadẖ mitgimla)

Then, she drops to the breasts / and she presses….

The soul apparently exits the body from the breasts, because the next two lines graphically describe what happens to the corpse after the soul is removed from it (spoiler alert: it’s not pretty). The last two words of this line, which presumably describe the extraction of the soul from the body, perplexed Lidzbarski, who left them untranslated and remarked in the footnotes that they are probably corrupt. I’d like to suggest that lmar- stands for the graphically similar (but regrettably unattested) form *lmad- “until she” (in place of the expected alma ḏ-he) and mitgamla for mitgimla “she is weaned,” this being the most obvious way to remove something from a breast, especially something that is unwilling to leave it, as the soul is often described in the Mandaean tradition. The Hebrew root g-m-l “to wean” doesn’t appear anywhere else in Eastern Aramaic, but it is attested in the Gt stem in Western Aramaic.

Another apparent Hebraism is found in Chapter 66 of the same text:

klilai qarnia ḏ-ziua / man brišai nitriṣlia

My wreath of splendid beams— who will set it upon my head?

The klila is the myrtle wreath worn primarily by priests on their heads, as they execute most of their functions. This particular wreath is a “wreath of qarnia of splendor” or “radiance.” Lidzbarski translates it as “Krone, die Stirnlocken des Glanzes,” and Drower and Macuch render the word qarna as “horn” or “angle,” but neither of these are appropriate in this context (Jerome’s similar mistranslation of this exact word in Exod. 34:29 is responsible for the belief, formerly widespread in Europe, that Jews have horns, as famously reflected by Michelangelo’s statue of Moses).

The word qarna ḏ-ziua can only mean beams of light here, precisely as in Hebrew, but apparently not in any other Aramaic language. In the targumim to the passages in which this Hebrew word appears, as well as in the Peshitta (e.g. Hab. 3:4), the Hebrew word קָרַן qāran or קַרְנַיִם qarnayim is either ignored (e.g. Exod. 34:29 ʾəray səḡi ziw yəqārā d-appohiezdahar meškā d-appaw, etc.) or rendered with a different word (Hab. 3:4 wa-hwā bə-qārīṯā d-iḏaw). Only the Samaritan for Exod. 34:29 preserves קָרַן. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Mandaic uniquely preserves the word in this meaning, at least within Eastern Aramaic.

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.

Fallujah, under the Seal of Solomon

Tractate 20 of the Book of John, about John’s conversation with the Sun, is one of the shortest compositions in the entire text, but what it lacks in length, it makes up in the richness of its detail concerning the lives of ancient Mandaeans.

Since much of this text concerns the Sun, the reader is confronted immediately with references to the Mesopotamian cosmology:

Šamiš etib bṣurta /  usira etib btalia

arba ziqia ḏbaita / lagṭia ganpaihun / ahdadia ulanašmia

The sun sat in seclusion / and the moon sat in an eclipse.

The four winds of the House / grasped their wings / one to another and breathed not.

The word I have translated here, ṣurta, literally means a drawing, but in Mandaic it has come to mean the ritual barrier that is created to separate the pure from the impure, and by extension those who are enclosed within it (such as menstruating women) and the period during which they are so isolated. All three are known as a sorthe even today.

Similarly, the word I translate here as “eclipse,” is actually a proper noun, ˀāṯallyā, which derives from Akkadian attalû, the dragon that swallows the sun and the moon to create an eclipse. Thus, the very first line is extremely rich in metaphors to which my English translation does no justice.

The description of the Four Winds grasping their wings one to another brings to mind Pazuzu, lord of the Four Winds, whom the ancient Mesopotamians depicted as a winged demon (as you can see in the image in that blog post). It’s probably not unreasonable to suggest that the passage hearkens back to these depictions. Then the sun speaks directly to John in Jerusalem:

etlak atlata tikia / taga ḏšauilẖ lkulẖ alma

etlak mn mašklil / spinta ḏradia haka biardna

etlak plugta rabtia / ḏhaka radia binia mia lmia

kḏ tizal lbit rbia / qudam rbia adkar elan.

You have three halos, / a crown worth the whole world.
You have from mašklil / a boat that travels here in the Jordan.
You have a great canal / that goes here from water to water.
When you go to the House of the Great / remember us before the Great.

The word mašklil is a hapax legomenon; could be related to Syriac mǝšaḵlal “perfect,”or perhaps it is related to meškā “skin.” Lidzbarski suggests some kind of wood. For my money, though, this is not the biggest mystery in these lines. What is this great canal (or division) that runs from water to water? It is called plugta in Mandaic, which just happens to be the etymon of the present name for Pumbeditha, namely Fallujah, so-called because of its strategic location at the nexus of the canal network. That is to say, Pumbeditha was informally known as plugta, “the canal,” and that is the name that stuck.

For most of the first millennium, Pumbeditha was one of the most important centers of Jewish learning in the world. This may be significant, because Mandaeans identify the Jewish god, Adonai, with the sun—particularly in the texts about John, of which this is one. Thus a reference to a major center of Jewish learning in a text that is ostensibly about the sun would not necessarily be unexpected. Is there any other evidence of Jewish themes in this text?

John attributes his three wonders to Life, like a good Mandaean. When he gets to the third, plugta, the text takes a turn for the strange:

hatma ḏmalka matna elẖ / ḏgaira bšumak / uazla lbit qiqlia

qarba mn zaua ḏnapšẖ / baiia bnia lamaška

kḏ šalmu nidrẖ unapqa / lašiha lbit hiia / ulamqaima ldaura taqna

The king’s seal was placed upon her / so that she cavorts in your name / and goes to the house of dunghills.
She fights with her own spouse / she seeks her sons but does not find them,
When her vows were completed and she left / she was not worthy of Life’s House / and was not raised to the everlasting abode.

Apparently John has anthropomorphized the plugta, which is feminine in Aramaic, and likens it to a wife who has strayed from her family. The symbol of this transformation is the hatma ḏmalka, “the king’s seal,” which is almost certainly a reference to the famous ring of Solomon, described in the Bavli (Tractate Gittin 68a) and in both Aramaic and Mandaic incantation bowl texts as proof against demons. In the latter, it is explicitly described as a seal, using this word. In later centuries, perhaps as late as Islamic times, this term became associated with the Magen David, as a symbol of Judaism. Scholem (1949, p. 246) suggests that its identification with the seal of Solomon first arose in medieval times, but its potential appearance in the incantation bowls and now here, within a Jewish context in the Book of John, suggests that it may be much earlier—potentially even pre-Islamic.

The language of this line differs greatly from the others. The participle gaira could potentially come from two roots: g-w-r, which means “to commit adultery, and g-y-r, a denominative root from the Hebrew word giyur, “conversion (to Judaism).” It is entirely possible that both meanings were intended, in precisely the sort of double entendre for which Mandaean texts are famous (I’ve tried to capture some of this double entendre in my translation). As for the “house of dunghills,” bit qiqlia, while this at first sight appears to refer to some region, and Lidzbarski interprets it to be a bordello, this word can also mean ruins, and indeed one the Jewish temple is explicitly identified as a קיקלתא in one of the Jewish Palestinian piyyutim published by Sokoloff and Yahalom (1999, 21:12). The Temple looms large in this portion of the text, where it is elsewhere described as baita nsisa “the disturbed house.”

To recap, the debate between John and the sun in Jerusalem immediately puts us into a Jewish context. The reference to “the King’s Seal” only confirms this impression, and encourage us to read further meaning into what appears, at first glance, to be a nonsensical text about a canal cheating on her husband. What emerges is a thinly veiled polemic against Pumbeditha (or, to use its modern name, Fallujah) as a major center of Jewish learning.

Reading Paul out of the Book of John

A few years back (December of 2011), James McGrath asked me whether the phrase mšiha paulis, which Lidzbarski renders “Christus-Paulis,” might have anything to do with the Persian word bolūs meaning a “deceiver” or “flatterer.” At the time, I could find little to support this interpretation, and much against it. The whole passage reads, according to Lidzbarski,

Den Jordan, in dem Christus-Paulis getauft wurde, habe ich zur Traufe gemacht. Das Pihtfi, das Christus-Paulis nimmt, habe ich zum „Sakrament” gemacht. Das Mambuha, das Christus -Paulis nimmt, habe ich zum „Abendmahl” gemacht. Die Kopfbinde, die Christus-Paulis nimmt, habe ich zum „Pfaffentum” G gemacht. Den Stab, den Christus-Paulis nimmt, habe ich zum Dreck  gemacht.

Christus-Paulis! How could these foolish people make such a mistake? Clearly they must be completely ignorant of the Christian faith (said the New Testament scholars, and particularly those who sought to deny any relevance or antiquity to the Mandaean texts). This is certainly the tone adopted by Lietzmann (p. 601), who concludes, “in several passages here, we find word of Christ-Paulis, where the name of the Apostle Paul is thrown together with Christ. This is characteristic of the twisted creativity of these people. This whole piece stems from the Arab period.”

Now that I have dedicated some time to reconstructing the meter of the text, I can say it should read something like this:

iardna ḏeṣṭbabẖ mšiha / paulis kuhrana šauitẖ

pihta ḏnasib mšiha / paulis qudša šauitẖ

mambuha ḏnasib mšiha  / paulis qurbana šauitẖ

burzinqa ḏnasib mšiha / paulis kahnuta šauitẖ

margna ḏnasib mšiha / paulis mahrunita šauitẖ

That is to say, mšiha “the Christ” and paulis (var. palus, pulis) don’t even belong to the same hemistich. Instead, each line parallels the symbols of the Mandaean religion with those of the Christian religion, with a surprising degree of familiarity of these institutions, stating quite clearly that the the former were the basis for the latter.

The Jordan in which the Christ is baptised / I have made a paulis of the font (Syr. gūrnā)

The morsel (pihta) that the Christ takes / I have made a paulis of the Eucharist (Syr. quddāšā)

The spring-water (mambuha) that the Christ takes / I have made a paulis of the Eucharist (Syr. qurbānā)

The turban (burzinqa) that the Christ takes / I have made a paulis of the priesthood (Syr. kāhnūṯā)

The staff (margna) that the Christ takes / I have made a paulis of the crozier (Syr. mōrānīṯā)

Now, before we condemn the Mandaeans for their ignorance of Christianity, we have to explain their surprising familiarity with technical terms like “font,” “Eucharist,” and “crozier.” What is the possibility that someone sophisticated enough to draw a connection between the Mandaean margna and the Christian crozier, would not know the difference between Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul? I think we can safely rule this interpretation out, and with it, the basis for Lietzmann’s verdict that the Mandaeans only knew Christianity via the intermediary of Islam.

That leaves us with a problem: how to explain paulis? Lidzbarski suspected that it was of foreign origin, possibly Iranian, but the ending –is suggests either Latin or Greek to me. Are there any Latin or Greek loanwords in Eastern Aramaic that fit the bill? There is the JBA pūlsā, which ultimately derives from the Latin follis, a large bronze coin (and the ultimate origin of the Arabic word fulūs, which means money). It doesn’t necessarily always mean money in JBA, however; in the Bavli (Tractate Šabbat 65a(32)), it refers once to an unstruck blank, the unmarked basis on which new coinage is stamped.

If we translate paulis as “blank,” then the passage suddenly becomes clear. The Jordan is the basis of the gūrnā (which, according to Lietzmann, some adherents of the Church of the East do indeed call the Jordan). The pihta is the basis of the quddāšā. The mambuha is the basis of the qurbānā. The burzinqa is the basis of the kāhnūṯā. The margna is the basis of the mōrānīṯā. Ruha has taken all of these Mandaean symbols, and overstamped them with a Christian meaning, just as a blank is stamped with the die to become a coin. Lidzbarski and Lietzmann may have concluded that the Mandaeans were confused between Christ and Paul, but it appears that the confusion was entirely in their own minds. This is characteristic of the twisted creativity of early 20th century scholarship on the Mandaeans.

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.

Famines, Plagues, and Anti-Christs, III

When evaluating chronicles such as Chapter 18 of the Great Treasure, nothing could provide better corroboration than an eclipse. We are thus fortunate that our text mentions just such an event:

ubiahria šabaṭ daula ḏ-mišanuiia barba habšaba zipa lšamiš nigaidẖ mhauai elẖ ḏ-malka ḏ-babil lbabil nitia uqiniana ḏ-babil lbabil nitia ubṭur anašia lagaiia lpadakšar nimṭun

And in the month of Shabāṭ (Aquarius), [Qam] Dawla [according to the style] of the Meseneans, on Wednesday, the overtakes the Sun. It is indicated that the King of Babylon comes to Babylon, and the possessions of Babylon come to Babylon, and the lagaiia overcome the Padishah (Phl. Padixšā) in the “Mountain of the People” (Phl. Turānšahr).

Here it is worth mentioning a few words about the Mandaean calendar. This entry comes immediately after the entry for Year 795 of Pisces, which is equivalent to 474 in the Gregorian calendar. According to Drower, the month of Shabāṭ is also known as Qam Dawla (hence the expression daula ḏ-mišanuiia), and colloquially known as Awwal Shetwa. It is the first month of the year, corresponding to the Pahlavi Frawardīn, so we have already moved into 796/475. Arba Habšaba simply means Wednesday. On this day, the Lie reaches the Sun, according to our text.

In his 1938 article on “An Ancient Persian Practice Preserved by a Non-Iranian People,” S.H. Taqizadeh (615) identifies this event as an eclipse, and notes that there was an eclipse on Wednesday, July 14, 622 (the 26th of Frawardīn). This is true, but it was only visible from Antarctica. Two years later, another eclipse occurred on a Thursday, June 21, 624 (the 4th of Frawardīn), but it was visible in southern Iraq only as a partial eclipse, starting just 23 minutes before sunset, and did not reach maximum eclipse until half an hour after sunset AST. Clearly neither of these are appropriate candidates to reflect the world’s falsehood overtaking the Sun.

On the other hand, if we look for an eclipse that took place on a Wednesday in the month of Frawardīn in 475, we conveniently find an annular eclipse on Wednesday, June 19, 475, which would have been visible throughout Iraq, dramatically reaching maximum eclipse at 12:12pm AST. Even more amazingly, if my calculations are correct, this would have occurred on or around the 1st of Qam Dawla/Frawardīn, which is Dehwa Rabba, the Mandaean New Year. An eclipse at noon on New Year’s Day! Clearly, this is the best candidate for the phenomenon described in the text.

What else happens in this year? There is a reference to ṭur anašia, literally “the Mountain of the People,” which I take to be an folk etymology of the Pahlavi Turānšahr, “empire of Turan.” A group of people described as the lagaiia overtake padakšar, which Lidzbarski derives from padixšāh “Padishah.” Instead of reading this passage literally, however, he translates Padishah metaphorically as Herrschaft “lordship,” and interprets it to mean that the lagaiia came into power, a concept that is elsewhere regularly rendered with the phrase qam bmalkuta.

Who are the lagaiia? Nöldeke (1875, 141, n.5) derives this hapax from a verbal root l-g-y, an otherwise unattested variant of  l-g-l-g, “to stammer,” making lagaiia the “stammerers” or speakers of an unintelligible language. Lidzbarski and all who follow him gloss this term as barbarians. In my opinion, these are none other than the Hephthalites or White Huns, who reappear in the account for 800/479, and who would eventually kill the Sasanid king Peroz I in 484 (AP 805). It was sometime around this very time (the mid-470s) that he led another campaign against them and was ignominiously captured by them, or quite literally “they overtook/attacked the Padixšāh in Turān.” Consequently, the Sasanids were forced to ransom the future Kavadh I, who was born in 794/473, giving us a terminus post quem for this incident. 475, the year of the eclipse, fits perfectly with this narrative.

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.

The Retreating Whisperer

The Hebrew word nāḥāš “serpent” appears to come from a common Semitic root *n/l-ḥ-š (compare Aramaic lḥaš and Geez laḥasa) meaning “to hiss” and “to whisper,” and by extension “to intone in whispers = cast a magic spell.” BDB suggest that the root is of onomatopoeic origin. The related languages have l in the place of n  for the most part; the root n- “to whisper; mutter” is indeed found in Aramaic, but most frequently appears in the D-stem and the reflexive of the same. It is therefore likely back-formed from one of the various nouns from this root relating to magic and more specifically divination (e.g. mnaḥḥǝšā or mnaḥḥǝšānā, “diviner;” nuḥḥāšā “divination;”  nāḥšā “prophet;” naḥḥāšā “soothsayer”). 

Whenever I consider this root, and the semantic extension from “whispering” or “hissing” to “soothsaying” and “incantations,” I am invariably reminded of Sūrat Al-Nās (114), since it not only talks about a “whisperer” but also does so with a hissing sibilance, as you can hear for yourself here. Al-Nās is one of the shortest suwar in the whole Qur’an, and frequently used as an incantation to ward off evil, either recited or written on amulets. In this surah, the worshiper seeks refuge from “the evil of the retreating whisperer (al-waswās al-khannās).” The term “whisperer” (al-waswās) is of transparent origin, but the origin of the following term is less evident. It is not a typical adjective at all, but rather a noun in the faʕʕāl pattern, which is generally reserved for occupations and professions, among other activities in which one might characteristically or habitually engage.

Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon derives this word from the base form khanasa, which he defines in his customary prolix fashion as “He went, or drew, back or backwards; receded; retreated; retired; or retrograded; or he remained behind; held back; hung back; or lagged behind.” Consequently al-khannās (in the faʕʕāl pattern) would be the one who habitually or professionally hangs back, and this is said to be an epithet for the Devil, as he allegedly shrinks, or retires, or hides himself. This word is identified as an epithet for the Devil precisely because it so appears in al-Nās; in fact, it it apparently has no other referent in the entirety of Arabic literature, and so we are left to consider whether this is not a common noun that came to be applied as an epithet, but rather the convenient etymologizing of a proper noun that is otherwise lacking in a clear or convincing etymology.

Now that I think about it, I wonder whether khannās might not be related to the same root as Heb. nāḥāš, making it a synonym of waswās, with the metathesis of the first two radicals, which is not at all uncommon in the Semitic languages, particularly when dealing with liquids and nasals. At first glance, it does not appear terribly likely, as the equivalent root would have to be laḥasa / naḥasa, with a pharyngeal fricative (ħ) rather than an uvular one (x).  Both exist; the former means “he licked (something)” and the latter means “he is unlucky” (and is indeed suggested by BDB as a potential cognate for the Hebrew root), but neither make much sense in this context. On the other hand, if it entered Arabic from, say, Syriac, in which the reflexes of Proto-Semitic *ħ and *x have merged, that might explain the use of the uvular fricative, as this is the usual articulation of this sound among the East Syrians, and indeed we do have a potential candidate: Syriac naḥḥāš(ā), whose stock in trade is whispering, after all. It makes sense, on some level, that an Arabic epithet for the Devil would relate to the Hebrew word for “serpent,” especially given the associations of both words with whispering.

Ultimately, however, this hypothesis risks drifting into Luxenbergian waters, due to the two unconditioned sound changes that it requires. The first is the metathesis of the first two radicals (naḥḥāš > khannāš), and the second is the articulation of the sibilant, which we would expect to be postalveolar (ʃ) rather than alveolar (s). Neither on its own would be particularly fatal, but combined they require too much special pleading to be plausible.

Update: As Nizar Habash points out, though, one of the words for snakes and other such varmints in Arabic is infuriatingly similar: حنش ḥanaš-.

Arabic Loanword

I’ve encountered what could very well be the first genuine Arabic loanword I’ve yet seen in the text of the Doctrine of John. The word is hus, which appears at least twice, first on p. 4, ln. 15, and again on p. 76, ln. 14. Both contexts require something meaning the “source” of the Jordan, and have been translated by Lidzbarski as “reservoir.”

According to Nöldeke (Mandäische Grammatik, p. XXXIII, ln. 17), the word appears three times in the Doctrine of John, and comes from the Arabic حوض ḥawḍ- “basin, cistern.” On p. 670 of Book 1 of his Arabic-English Lexicon (London: Willams & Norgate, 1863), Lane identifies it with the root √ḥ-w-ḍ “to collect (water)” inter alia, which would seem to indicate that it is indeed a good Arabic root, and not potentially a loanword into Arabic from some other language. What is it related to?

Assuming no ad hoc sound changes, the PS root could only be *ħ-w-ɬʼ. This would give us Aramaic √ḥ-w-ʕ (or √ḤWQ), Hebrew √ḥ-w-ṣ, Akkadian √ʔ-w-ṣ, and so forth. The root √ḥ-w-ʕ is unattested in Aramaic; I likewise found nothing in Akkadian that would indicate the existence of this root (the expected G infinitive êṣum “to be(come) too little, small,” is actually derived through regular sound changes from Old Babylonian wiāṣum, according to the CDA, and the expected cognate to Arabic ḥawḍ-, ūṣum, only appears with the meaning “arrowhead,” which clearly comes from the unrelated PS root *ħ-ϑʼ-w).

Hebrew, on the other hand, has two roots that are potential candidates, חוץ I and II, the first of which is represented by the word חוץ ḥuṣ “outside” and the second by the word חיץ ḥáyiṣ “barrier, partition.” BDB relates the latter to Arabic root حوص √ḥ-w-ṣ, meaning “to sew” or “to contract,” but it seems to me that both could be related to the Akkadian root √ḫ-ṣ-ṣ (e.g. ḫaṣāṣum “I to snap off; II to erect (a reed hut)”), which would make them completely unrelated to PS *ħ-w-ɬʼ.

Quite apart from the question of the origin of the Arabic term is the question of how it came to be adopted into Mandaic.

  • Why would the Mandaeans, who live in a water-rich environment and have a correspondingly rich vocabulary for water features, need to borrow such a term from Arabic, which is not generally known for its aquatic vocabulary? It would represent a total inversion of the established principles by which borrowing operates, as if the Inuit were to borrow the English word for “snow,” or if New Jerseyans were to borrow the Inuit word for “hairspray.”
  • Why then, for that matter, would this stray Arabic word appear, isolated, in a text that is otherwise almost completely bare of other loans?
  • Why employ a borrowed word that means “basin,” i.e. a place where water is collected, in a context that clearly requires something like “source”? They’re not the same thing, and neither Nöldeke nor any of his followers have attempted to explain the semantic shift.
  • Finally, how can we explain the anomalous use of s to represent Arabic ض? Here is a spare list of words containing the same phoneme, borrowed into Mandaic:
Arabic Transliteration Mandaic Gloss
أرض ʔarḍ- arda earth
بياض bayāḍ- baiad whiteness
ضعيف ḍaʕīf- daeip weak
حوض ḥawḍ- hus basin

I could find no other words in Drower and Macuch, and at least one of these is dubious in the extreme, but the pattern is clear: the Arabic phoneme ḍ-, when borrowed into Mandaic, is represented by d, except for this one word.

Granted, one could easily counter that we’re not dealing with a lot of data here, and that the word hus, if it was indeed borrowed, may have been borrowed from Arabic when the articulation of ḍ- was quite different from what it was at a later date. Even so, there’s not much evidence that this was borrowed from Arabic, despite the superficial similarity between the two words, and as Mark Rosenfelder reminds us, chance resemblances between words in two unrelated languages are not at all uncommon. In the final analysis, it’s just not a good candidate for an Arabic loan word.

So, what does it mean, and where does it come from? I can’t find any good Middle Persian candidates, unless we assume it’s somehow related to xwaš “pleasant, sweet, nice,” which somehow entered nearly all the languages of Iraq, Semitic and non-Semitic, as xōš “good” and which precedes the noun it modifies in each of these. Unfortunately, this interpretation founders upon the same issue, that of the final sibilant, which is just not a match.

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