Philologastry

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

Archive for the category “Metacommentary”

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.

Mandaeans and Tajiks

Lately, I’ve been engaging the centuries of scholarship (both Muslim and non-Muslim)  that defines Mandaeans as Sabians, and both as Chaldaeans. I’m fairly certain that the Mandaeans are a real people, practicing a real religion, at least as far as I am able to discern with my own eyes and ears; scholars who don’t work directly with the Mandaeans or read Mandaean texts aren’t so certain about them, at least not in the ways that really matter to them, and have spent the better part of the last 13 centuries measuring them against these other categories, and finding them lacking.

The question of the Sabians, and particularly how they relate to the Sabians of the Qur’an, is especially fraught. Suffice it to say that we have one extant group that identifies as “Sabians,” who are in turn acknowledged as “Sabians” by their neighbors, and by those scholars who have the privilege to work directly with them and have mastered their language so that they can read their texts, in order to learn more about the various ways in which they have identified themselves throughout recorded history, but there is a small group of revisionist scholars who are not so certain of the authenticity of Mandaean claims, and never miss an opportunity to remind the rest of us. For these scholars, the term “Sabian” has a kind of occult meaning, one that is not obvious to the uninitiated, but which can be discerned through careful analysis (of course, not of the texts of the Mandaeans themselves, who can safely be disregarded as self-interested, but rather of the famously disinterested accounts of Islamic and Christian theologians).

I find it instructive to compare both to the term “Chaldaean,” which has meant different things to different people at different times, but eventually acquired a kind of romantic significance in European scholarship, referring to a discrete nation (the “Chaldaeans”), living in a discrete territory (“Chaldaea”) who practiced a discrete religion (“Chaldaism”) and who spoke a discrete language (“Chaldaic”) before it was eventually retired in the first half of the 20th. This is, for example, the sense in which Adolf von Harnack uses the term.  The valence of this term is not quite so compact outside of European scholarship. “Chaldaea” is to some extent coterminous with Mesopotamia, which appears in the Chinese sources as 条支 Tiáo zhī, a land to the West of Persia either reached overland via the Silk Road or overseas via the Gulf. This term Tiáo zhī is apparently derived from the Middle Persian term Tāzīg, “Arab,” which today bewilderingly survives as the demonym of the inhabitants of the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, at least the ones who aren’t Uzbeks and Turkmen and members of other national groups that emerged as a consequence of Soviet policy and the scholarship that informed it. In the geographic region in which scholars have situated this term, it today means “fresh,” an attribute of fruits and vegetables rather than people.

When Arabic and Syriac sources discuss “Chaldaeans,” on the other hand, they exclusively intend either the famous star-worshipping astrologers of yore, or those Christians who follow the East Syrian Rite, two groups that are apparently connected only by the different languages they speak, or in the case of the latter, in which their liturgy is preserved. For obvious reasons,  the inheritors of this scholarship tend to regard “Chaldaea” and the “Chaldaeans,” at least in the romantic national sense to which their intellectual forefathers referred, and painstakingly elaborated over course of several the centuries, to be as much of a fiction as “Narnia” and the “Narnians.” This is not unexpected, considering that socially constructed categories such as “Chaldaeans” and “Sabians” can be surprisingly evanescent, and require constant attention on the part of their communities to maintain. In the absence of this effort, the impressive edifice of scholarship on Chaldaism has completely collapsed, and ownership of the term “Chaldaean” has reverted to the one community still engaged in maintaining its identity, the Chaldean Catholic Church, descendants of those aforementioned Chaldaeans who follow the East Syrian Rite. The continued relevance of “Sabians” as a subject of discourse is ensured by their appearance in the sacred literature of Islam, and by the living example of the Mandaeans, even though the scholarly debate over their meaning in the former has brought the continued existence of the latter into question in a very real way.

Holy Untranslatable Texts

For questions of interpretation, scriptures stand in a category of their own, separate from modern and post-modern literature, for which even the most traditional readers admit the potential for a multiplicity of readings, and epigraphic texts, which had long ceased to be curated by any community before they were rediscovered. While nothing prevents you or me from reading any of these works as we please, and reading our own meanings into them, scholars and people of faith alike find themselves confronted with a (somewhat self-imposed) constraint: how to read the “correct” meaning into it? We do not permit ourselves to read any old meaning into scriptures or ancient texts, and with good reason.

The distinctive feature of scriptures is that they are actively and presently curated by a religious community. The potential reasons for this are multiple; this community may consider them to be

  • divinely authored or inspired; that is to say, whether they are attributed to an author or not, they are ultimately of supernatural origin;
  • in James Kugel’s terms, “omnisignificant,” that is, meaningful in each and every detail, and with a meaning that is eternally and directly relevant to each and every reader;
  • ultimately admitting only of a single “correct” meaning, which can be discovered only through careful analysis, rather than a fluid multiplicity of meanings.

These three attributes of scriptures, at least as they are understood among those traditions conventionally described as “Abrahamic,” naturally exist in a certain tension with one another. If every last detail is existentially relevant but admits of only one possible divinely-ordained reading, then it behooves the scholars of that community to struggle continuously to elaborate this reading, and then guard it zealously for the benefit of future generations, which extends to subsequent re-workings of scripture into different languages. Thus “context rather than content makes the holy untranslatable,” in the words of Christopher Shackle (2005, 20).

In the case of ancient texts, these painstakingly developed schools of interpretation, laboriously constructed over the centuries, have largely disappeared with the community that constructed them, and in their absence, other scholars have appointed themselves their custodians, and perpetuate the interpretive work of that vanished community, with one exception―to my knowledge, no latter-day scholar of the Babylonian creation myth, the Enûma Eliš, maintains that it is divinely inspired. While secular scholars differ from religious scholars in this respect, much of their approach to the text remains the same. They both maintain that the text admits of only one correct meaning, both at the time in which it was authored and subsequently for all time, and that this meaning reveals itself only through careful analysis. These texts then share much with scripture, save that they are no longer curated by communities that consider them divinely inspired or divinely authored, and therefore we might deem them “post-scriptures.”

An obvious tension emerges, then, when secular scholars apply this same approach to scriptures that are still being actively curated by a religious community, with their own painstakingly developed schools of interpretation. While Christoph Luxenberg, to give one example, may disagree with Ismail ibn Kathir on the divine authorship of the Qur’an, both Luxenburg and ibn Kathir have competing claims to uncovering the one exclusive meaning of that text. Neither consider themselves to be engaged in the business of “knowledge production,” but rather the business of “knowledge recovery,” one that does not easily allow for competition.

Since neither secular nor religious scholars admit of a fluid multiplicity of meanings, each community establishes its own conventions for producing readings, and its own criteria for assessing their merits. The conventions for secular scholars are much the same as those for religious ones. The ultimate basis for both is direct observation, either from internal factors such as the ways in which the scriptures describe the world around them, which can presumably be connected to that world in ways that might be meaningful, or from external factors, such as the age of the physical manuscripts, and what its copyists and past interpreters have to say about it. From these observations, new questions inevitably emerge, and scholars develop new readings to answer them, and hopefully test these readings in order to expand, alter, reject, or refine them.

Among communities of secular scholars, the merits of the readings so developed are assessed through the process of peer review. Ultimately, a reading’s success will depend not only upon its ability to answer the questions that emerge from observation, but also upon other forms of merit, such as its originality, or the qualifications of its reader. The former is critical, to ensure that the reader has not simply replicated past scholarship, or even presented it as an original contribution. The latter is equally critical to the reading’s success, but some communities employ double blind peer review, in an attempt to reduce the impact of psychological and socio-economic factors on its initial reception. In such instances, the identities of both the reader and the reviewers are obscured, until the other merits of the reading have been assessed.

In this model of scholarship, there is, was, and always will be a tension between the ways in which a reading‘s merits are assessed, and the ways in which they determine its ultimate impact. Some readings are accepted primarily on the strength of their reader‘s qualifications, and the level of prestige and support they enjoy from the scholarly establishment, as is generally the case with religious scholars. Others are valued for the degree to which they affirm a scholarly or religious dogma. In such instances, originality is deprecated in favor of orthodoxy. If we reject these influences as pernicious, then we must naturally conclude that the ultimate merit of a reading is whether it answers the questions that emerge from observation, and whether another reader, equipped with these same observations and furnished with these same questions, could arrive at the same reading. This, then, is the rubric against which I shall evaluate secular readings of Mandaean texts, including my own.

Progress Report 6

The eleventh chapter of the Doctrine of John, which is the first of two sections that Lidzbarski termed “The Good Shepherd,” is now up at the project website. This consists of the better part of six manuscript pages, from p. 40, ln. 6 to p. 45, ln. 10 in the 1915 edition.

I’ve been documenting my progress thus far with this chapter, so it really needs no introduction at this point. Nevertheless, it may be helpful to outline the passage briefly. “The Good Shepherd” is an extended allegory involving several elements:

  • a shepherd figure (who likely represents Hibil Ziua or Manda ḏ-Hiia);
  • his flock (which likely represents the Mandaeans);
  • various threats such as wolves and thieves (these are explicitly identified with the seven planets and the twelve signs of the Zodiac);
  • a storm of some sort (which some scholars have identified with Islam).

I dealt with the question of whether this passage addresses the Islamic conquest in an earlier post. Suffice it to say that I am not convinced. The passage usually adduced as an oblique reference to Islam (p. 45, lns. 1-2) doesn’t withstand the light of critical scrutiny. Subsequently, the passage does mention “those living at the tail end of the Age of Mars (nirig),” which might be such a reference. Mars is sometimes identified with “Abdallah the Arab,” the name by which the Prophet Muhammad is known to the Mandaeans, or as having descended alongside Muhammad, as in the Scroll of Inner Harran. Then again, Nirig is, of course, the Mandaean form of the name of Nergal (compare the Arabic name for Mars, مريخ marīḫ), the chief deity of Kutha, who was at times also associated with war, disease, and the underworld, any of which could naturally fit this reference. While this could therefore be an extremely oblique reference to Muhammad, the fact that Nirig/Nergal predates Muhammad by a considerable period of time (several thousands of years) requires us to be somewhat cautious about drawing such a conclusion.

The fact that the “Good Shepherd” makes reference to the “tail end” of this period should also give us pause; assuming that this passage was indeed composed in the early Islamic period, what would make the Mandaeans of the time think that they were living in the end of that era? The right half of the Great Treasure contains a similar claim in Book 18, suggesting that these two works might be coetaneous, if indeed the “Age of Mars” can be identified with the Islamic period. I have my doubts. The Great Treasure, for example, never employs this term, but it does appear in Code Sabéen 16, which is a manuscript of the Thousand and Twelve Questions (the so-called Pariser Diwan): hṣilnin bdinba ḏ-dara ḏ-nirig “we reached the end of the Age of Mars.” It would be interesting to investigate what this reference meant to this copyist of the Thousand and Twelve Questions. I’m not sure I want to try contacting the Bibliothèque nationale de France again for a copy, as their bureaucracy could really give Rutgers a run for its money.

The question of the presence or absence of any reference to Islam is not the only contentious aspect of this chapter; immediately preceding the reference to the Age of Mars is a reference to what appears to be female priests:

ṭubaihun el tarmidiata
ḏmn qlalia ḏruha mitparqan
mitparqan mn ṭanputa
uqlala ušišilta ḏlašalma

Happy are the tarmidiata,
who are free from the snares of Ruha,
free ‎‎from the pollution, the snare,
and the never-ending chain.

At first glance, tarmidiata appears to be the plural of tarmidita, the feminine form of tarmida, which is the first grade of the Mandaean priesthood as well as a general term for priest. As the cognates in related languages attest, it originally meant a kind of student or disciple, but in Mandaean texts it consistently refers to priests. In his translation of the Doctrine of John, Lidzbarski is silent about the identity of the tarmidiata, which he translates as Jüngerinnen (female disciples), but in his translation of the Great Treasure he argues that as female priests do not (currently) exist among the Mandaeans, this term cannot refer to female priests. Q.E.D. Drower, deferring to Lidzbarski, bent over backwards to translate this term as “women of priestly family” or “caste,” even though there is no logical basis for this interpolation. While it is certainly true that there are no female priests today, Jorunn Buckley has amassed a considerable amount of textual evidence for the existence of female priests at some point in the distant past of the faith. Obviously this question is not going away any time soon.

Things I’ve Learned Today…

Rutgers has no central repository for employee data.  All of this information is kept on Rolodex at each individual unit. Thus, a research or teaching assistant who is hired in one unit must be rehired (and must resubmit all personal information, including name, address, taxpayer ID, date of birth, and so forth) each time s/he moves to another unit (this happens more often than you might think; Steve Caruso, for example, has already served Rutgers at SCI, CMES, and AMESALL, and has had to be rehired and laboriously reëntered into the system each time).

Rutgers has apparently never conducted any business with the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF). I discovered this when Rutgers requested that the BnF apply for approval as a “new supplier” before Rutgers would pay for some digital reproductions of manuscripts in their collections.  This is another laborious process that involves filling internal forms, applying for an American taxpayer ID (through the IRS) as well as completing a W9 form, and waiting copious amounts of time.  The thought of the national library of France applying for an American taxpayer ID, let alone applying for the privilege of becoming Rutgers’ newest “supplier” alongside such giants of industry as the people who make all of the Rutgers-themed paraphernalia, boggles the mind.

Rutgers has a world-class French Department, and one would have thought that someone, at some point, would have had some business to conduct with the BnF. Apparently not, although I suspect that someone must have and that they’re probably still waiting on the response.  While it might be fun to watch two sclerotic government bureaucracies “race” to fulfill a request (forget “The Tortoise and the Hare” … think “The Tortoise and the Snail” or perhaps “Molasses in January versus A Week in Jail”), I think I’ll probably just shell the money for the reproductions out of my own pocket and take the hit.

Aeon vs. Avatar

Thus far, I’ve been translating the Mandaic word eutra (usually rendered by Drower as uthra, and pronounced something like /ɛθræ/ or /ʌθrɔ/ by Iraqi and Iranian Mandaeans, respectively) using the word aeon, reflecting the reflexes of these distinctive beings in other Gnostic traditions. I’m somewhat uncomfortable with this translation because the word aeon is not any more recognizable to most readers than the native Mandaean term, and the use of the Greek term may appear to privilege the Greek sources and the traditions reflected within them over the Mandaean sources. Wherever I cast about for a more recognizable term, however, I find dead ends, as the concept itself is rather esoteric.

Drower and Macuch note that Noldeke identified the word with Syriac and BTA ʿuṯrā  “wealth,” which unfortunately does not help us any. W.B. Henning once compared the Aramaic ʿuṯrā with the Iranian bāgā, which may likewise be derived from a root meaning “riches” on the basis of a possible cognate in Sanskrit. This etymological speculation is intriguing, but gets us no closer to understanding how the Mandaeans understood these beings, much less to how we might classify them in English using comprehensible language. Ultimately Drower and Macuch leave the word untranslated in most contexts, and define it simply as “heavenly spirits; generic name given to spirits of life.”

In Book 15 of the right-hand volume of the Great Treasure, the Great Life is shown in the light world, where it produces water (mia); then, from water, radiance (ziua), then, from radiance, light (nhura); and finally from light, the eutria, whom Drower identifies in this particular context as “the spirits whose function it is to govern natural phenomena.” In the folktales that she collected from the Mandaeans, the eutria are “good spirits” that “dwell in the sun” and bring “growth, color, and scent” from the light world to plants, among other functions. Additionally, the word eutra is often used as an epithet for the final two of the four emanations of the Great Life, Abatur Eutra  and Ptaheil Eutra, as well as numerous heavenly beings that intercede in the lives of mortals, such as Anuš Eutra.

In essence, then,

  • The term eutra corresponds to emanations or manifestations of the Supreme Being (much like the aeons), as well as created beings that govern natural phenomena (unlike the Gnostic aeons).
  • The eutria all appear to shuttle between the light world and the material world at will, connecting the two (unlike the aeons, which are purely immaterial and dwell exclusively in the Pleroma).
  • Furthermore, few are named, and Great Treasure identifies them as countless in number, whereas the aeons are all named and only a limited number of them exist within any given Gnostic belief system (although the authorities disagree upon the exact number of aeons).

Clearly, the application of the term aeon to the eutria is slightly misleading.

There is, however, a term in relatively common usage among English speakers that corresponds to the Mandaic eutra, even more closely than the term aeon: the word avatar, which is Sanskrit in origin. Google Dictionary defines the word avatar thus:

av·a·tar /ˈavəˌtär/ Noun

  1. A manifestation of a deity in bodily form on earth.
  2. An incarnation, embodiment, or manifestation of a person or idea: “he set himself up as a new avatar of Arab radicalism”.

In Sanksrit, the term avatar corresponds even more neatly, as it does not necessarily convey the same qualities of corporeality as the English loan word, and the beings belonging to this category are innumerable, according to the Bhagavata Purana.

Any debate over the ability of speakers of English to recognize the word avatar was likely ended by James Cameron’s 2009 film of the same name, which remains the highest-grossing film of all time to date. The chief deficiency of the word, as I see it, is paradoxically one of its most attractive qualities: it slightly resembles the Mandaic word, especially in the (unattested) absolute state *eutar, which will undoubtedly lead some of my philological colleagues to believe that I making an etymological argument connecting the two words, for which there is absolutely no proof, and pillory me accordingly, given the well-documented aversion that some philologians have toward interpreting one another’s arguments charitably…

Mendeley Desktop

Over the course of the past weekend, I’ve been moving my collection of PDFs and ebooks over to a new desktop computer, and updating my Mendeley archive to accommodate the move. Unfortunately, I don’t have a paid account, so when I migrated the files from one computer to the next (via Dropbox), the actual digital files were no longer associated with their entries in Mendeley.

This is a serious problem when you have over 1000 entries. As of yesterday, I had managed to associate most of the files with the 1004 existing entries, with another 220 to be added.

The majority of these files are journal articles that I xeroxed as a grad student, and which I have been gradually digitizing and OCRing over the past two or three years. There are also a number of PDFs that I have downloaded from Google Books (for works that are in the public domain) or JSTOR (for works that are not). Most of the references that I use are not available through either; these include manuscripts (obviously), monographs from expensive presses, and articles from obscure journals that never made the leap to digital or perished before this became a possibility. Consequently, I’ve needed to feed the better part of an entire filing cabinet full of moldy (and unfortunately neglected) xeroxes into an automatic document feeder, bulk-scan them to PDF, and run Adobe Acrobat’s ClearScan OCR on the scanned files.

Obviously, this is a laborious, time-intensive, and painstaking process, replete with paper jams and other scanning complications, but the result is well-worth it.

Having entered all of these files into Mendeley and updated their publication information, I can quickly search my archive (including the contents of every file that has been successfully OCRed) for information about a research topic and generating a pretty comprehensive bibliography of works. On top of this, Mendeley will provide complete citations for any of the entries I use, according to all of the most common formats (Chicago, MLA, etc.). There is also a social aspect to Mendeley, allowing you to “friend” other researchers and search other archives, but I haven’t made much use of this aspect.

I do not think I exaggerate when I say that Mendeley has been a “game-changer” for my research. It has taken two of the most tedious aspects of publication (reviewing the literature, especially my own files, and formatting citations), and automated them.  When I am writing an article or when a colleague asks me a question over email, I no longer have to wonder whether I have anything on the topic filed somewhere in the cabinet in my office in New Brunswick, NJ; I can merely run a quick search on my own files and produce a PDF.

Suitable Means of Verification

To paraphrase Prince Feisal in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, “young men start blogs, and the virtues of new blogs  are the virtues of young men: courage and hope for the future. Then they become bloggers, and the vices of blogging are the vices of old men: mistrust and caution. It must be so.” In his The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain makes the following observation about journals, which could just as easily be applied to blogs:

Alas! that journals so voluminously begun should come to so lame and impotent a conclusion as most of them did!

Why must it be so? Obviously, to keep a journal or a blog, one must possess not only observations to make, but also the discipline to keep making these observations on a regular basis. In all honesty, I’ve never had either in abundance, which makes for a major challenge.  Twain continues,

If you wish to inflict a heartless and malignant punishment upon a young person, pledge him to keep a journal a year.

Over the past decade, I’ve tried my hand at blogging several times.  It never took. I always felt frustrated at my failure to populate my blogs with posts, and resented the challenge that they implicitly represented to my discipline.  Why try again, considering what a pain it is?  I’ve never really had the motive or the impetus to keep a blog, as I’ve always felt that what I say in print spoke sufficiently for me.

That all changed with the award of a National Endowment for the Humanities Scholarly Editions and Translations grant in 2010, which was recently renewed for 2012-14.  In the process of putting the 2010-12 grant to bed, I found myself confronting a seemingly intractable problem: how do I document my effort?  Both the federal government and my employer require me to report and certify the effort that I’ve expended on my grant. Were I paid by the hour, and employed weekdays from 9am-5pm, with a 40 hour work week, this would be a fairly simple problem to solve, but I am not, and the number of hours that I put into my work, including the research sponsored by the grant, vary from week to week. As far as my employer and the government are concerned, this is my problem to solve, not theirs.

Both my employer and the federal government require that I produce “suitable means of verification” for the effort that I’ve reported, in the event that an audit (either internal or external) occurs. In addition to the traditional time sheets, suitable means of verification can include calendars, memos, emails, travel reports, presentations, as well as meeting agenda, notes, and minutes, so long as the means are written.  It occurred to me that a blog detailing the work that I had expended would not only protect me in the event of an audit, but also give me a way to gauge my efforts for my own purposes.  Thus I have a very real (legal and financial) impetus, motivated by mistrust and caution, the vices of suitably old philologasters such as myself, to maintain this blog.

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