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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.

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