Archive for the ‘dead languages’ Category

I was going to sleep, but I’m still all smug about having written 25 pages today. 25 pages, guys(1).

Anyway, somewhere between page 16 and page 16 1/2 I took a break and read “Itineraries and travellers in the Middle Assyrian Period” by Betina Faist, from SAAB XV/2006, where I found the following edifying(2) quotes.

1) Having summed up various peculiarities of travel during the MA (Middle Assyrian) period, BF states:

“Finally, a brief mention is owed to aspects unattested so far. In the religious realm, we do not have any indications referring to pilgrimages to the important shrines.”

Tsk, tsk, Betina. Something obvious and self-evident in your culture doesn’t have to be obvious, self-evident, expected or even present at all in others. Take Introduction to Anthropology or something, plz.

2) Trying to tie-up things cutely — something I’m absolutely in favour of — Betina(3) quotes a 1755 letter of a Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, to his sister, Wilhelmine, who was very enthusiastic about her journey to Italy:

“…I have a very high regard of the beauty of Italy, her wonderful climate, her monuments, her past greatness as well as her modern buildings. …But I also believe the Italians to be great braggarts; they exaggerate the beauty and the value of their paintings, their statues, and a thousand things more. Everything is uno spavento, una maraviglia; big words that do not stir my ear more than would the noise of a turnspit [a kind of dog -Sendai]. …I believe if I saw Italy I should not always agree with the ciceroni, which would console me for my fatherland’s barrenness; otherwise, the comparison would be too humiliating for poor Germany…”

Aww, poor Germany.

(Done commiserating yet? Hurr hurr)

Anyway, what we have here is a typically occidental assumption that people actually mean what they say. The assumption is naturally based on the firm yet quaint conviction that people always do what they should do.

(Incidentally, this conviction also allows us to date the letter as having been written sometime before the French Revolution derp)

Anyway, it is perhaps useful to suggest to puzzled Frederick a better approach to understanding the confusingly enthusiastic Italian guides. Or, even, two approaches:

A) The guides are lying. They don’t in fact think that the Italian landscape is anything like anything they imagine a wonder to be; but they have to sell it somehow, hence the unscrupulous use of more florid turn of phrase. They do not in fact intend to communicate their honest opinion about anything at all, but rather say what they think a customer might want to hear.

B) From a pragmatic standpoint, calling something “a wonder” might mean much less to a native speaker of Italian than it would mean to a native speaker of German.

Both approaches would need testing, of  course.

This is all nerd jokes and useless pedantry, as  Frederick the Great’s couldn’t have possibly known anything about the 20th century developments in linguistics.

Betina, however, could have. Alas, directly following the Frederick the Great quote:

“Sources of that nature, relevant to the cultural aspect of travel, are completely absent from our material. Nevertheless, I can imagine Tukulti-Ninurta I reclined (sic) on his throne and musing in a similar way after having received the Egyptian delegation.”

Tsk, tsk, Betina. I recommend taking Introduction to Modern Linguistics.

Also: ah, the subtle difference between absolutism and enlightened absolutism hurr hurr de hurr(5).

Nonetheless, it was a very interesting read, not only because I immediately visualised Tukulti-Ninurta musing about his Vaterland.

Aw, it’s 3 am already, I can sleep n_n

(1) There are no words in any language I know for how smug I am. The smugness; it fills my entire room, oozes through windows, and gently slinks down onto the street; then rushes to left – towards the cathedral – or right – towards the Rhine, but then it gets worse still, but I can’t see anything, once it disappears behind the corner.

No words, srsly.

(2) I feel more edified than the cathedral today.

And the big one in Mainz, too.

(3) I’m terribly sorry (not), but the name “Betina” makes my wretched black little heart warm and gives me fuzzy feelings of malicious glee. I can’t not use the name. It is imperative that I use the name.

Betina, Betina, Betina~~~~~~~

I will not be stopped.

(5) For those of you who might be confused, a journey:

– in enlightened absolutism means going abroad and making a couple of sketches, preferably of ruins,

– in Tukulti-Ninurta’s “absolutism” would mean going abroad with an army and making a couple of conquests, preferably leaving behind only ruins.

Nice things, as I said, which means,  I lazily use other person’s explanation instead of doing it myself ^^J


And now, transliteration + translation:

It’s a very easy text, though!

(ed. Daniels, Bright, The World’s Writing Systems)

Soooo, I go offline to write up some stuff, and I have so much stuff to write at the moment that the only thing that prevents me from having a complete nervous breakdown is the sense of duty (DUTYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY);

anyway I go offline, and the next thing I see when I stumble vaguely downwards in the general direction of the  back-to-the-internets and ah-fundies-hell

(or, rather, am summoned back from the seventh circle of hell – the circle reserved for people who have to write things, so that they can concentrate when the sweet, screeching sound of wailing of Xian sinners fills their dark bitter hearts with much needed warmth& warm fuzzy feelings of glee, schadenfreude and GLEE – by e-mails and messages asking me DID U SEE THAT DID U?????)

well, what’s the next thing?


Bible Possibly Written Centuries Earlier, Text Suggests

asdfasdfasdfghasdfghasdfghasdfghasdfghadfghasdfghasdfghasdfgh NOOOOOOOOOOO!

Well. Let’s start from the beginning

(and also make the necessary disclaimer that I can’t really say anything until I see the article in a proper scientific journal, because, LOL, this is how it works)

(unless you’re a fuckwit who believes Albright& Thiele  – as a typical person who deals with ANE, my first reaction was “WTF is Thiele?”, my second reaction was to google, my third was “Ah, USian fundies, OKAAAAY!”, my fourth to e-mail a Prof who is an actual Semitist just to make sure. The Prof’s first reaction was “LOL THIELE”, her second “LOL FUNDIES” so there – that Albright&Thiele are scholars whose research should be still taken seriously in the year 2010. For one, it’s terribly outdated, second, their methodology was, frankly, appallingly unscientific, third, they were both archaeologists, and as such, not really trained to interpret texts properly. The Wiki editors, though, seem to be strangely enamoured of them. It probably has something to do with noxious fumes and  sulfurous vapours from the influence of  Conservapaedia  >.>)


what Galil Gershom seems to claim is:

1. The inscription from from Khirbet Qeiyafa is written in Hebrew.

2. It can be dated to X century BCE.

3. The presence of writing in Israel at such an early period could prove that the Bible was written much earlier than heretofore assumed.

Ad 1> His interpretation seems to hinge on the presence of two verbs which, as he himself admits, do occur in other Canaanite languages, albeit with lesser frequency.

It has to be noted that the text itself is very fragmentary and heavily damaged.

Also, I’d like to remind everybody about the blunders that are in fact sometimes made when it comes to interpreting ancient texts, such as these, where a private letter was suggested to be a part of an epic poem.

However, even if Gershom’s interpretation is correct, it means very little for the chronology of the redaction of the  Bible.

Ad 2> I’d have to take a look at whatever was published about the excavations. If anything has been published at all.

It might not have been, yet.

Ad 3> Here, we come to the crux of the argument, and where it’s time to call bullshit.

Because, the lack of Hebrew writing system is NOT the ultimate proof for the late redaction of the Bible. There are multiple other arguments, and trying to turn the scientific consensus (VI century BCE and later redaction) into another false controversy replete with straw men and non-sequiturs is a complete, utter and total failure on the part of whoever did it, be it Gershom himself or the maverick journalist who wrote the press release(1).

There are multiple other factors that have to be taken into account when dating ancient texts, such as, for instance, the cultural background. Sometimes older words for garments, vessels, and the like, have to be explained by added glosses, because they are no longer comprehensible to later readers. There is  ample evidence for such “gloss-like” passages in the Bible. There is also plenty of other indirect evidence for the “traditional” chronology being, basically, drivel and complete bullshit, intended to alleviate crazy biblical literalists’ existential Angst about their favourite book(2) not being true.

Also, even if the Hebrew writing was a later invention, it doesn’t mean that writing was unknown in Syria and Palestine. There is evidence that the Egyptian hieroglyphics had been known since at least early III millenium BCE in Arad and Southern Canaan, where they were sometimes used as decorative motives, which might suggest the local population couldn’t read them yet. In the XIV century BCE Amarna several hundred letters to and from Syro-Palestinian kings were excavated, all of them written on cuneiform tablets in Akkadian. Also, this:

The breakthrough could mean that portions of the Bible were written centuries earlier than previously thought. (The Bible’s Old Testament is thought to have been first written down in an ancient form of Hebrew.)

Yeah. The Earth was thought to be first created flat, too.

(It most likely was indeed written in a Hebrew alphabet, but arguments like that? Oh, FFS)

Right. I’ll just go and do some work now.

(1) As usual and for anec-datal reasons, I’m a strict adherent of the “always blame the science journalist” theory.

(2) It never ceases to be amusing how some many people claim their favourite book is one they never read.

Hurr hurr hurr!

A guy from my Akkadian seminar translated “furious storms” as “furious mothers”, hurr hurr de hurr.

It’s true that Akkadian words for “mother” (ummu) and “storm, day” (ūmu) are quite similar, but then:

1. The word ūmu was written with a logogram that means ūmu(1).

2. Both words are sort of, I don’t know, basic.

3. The context was the list of terrifying demons and monsters that Tiamat created in order to defeat Marduk in Enūma eliš (don’t read the Wiki article. It’s as inaccurate and obsolete as it gets. Also, the Biblical account of creation is not based directly on Ee, FFS). So, in the end, it looked sort of like that:

The terrifying Scorpion-Man, the Bison-Man, the furious mothers

It was a v. gleeful moment.

(1) It’s a bit more complicated than that, because the character U4 + MU can be read as a) logogram U4 = ūmu + phonetic complement “mu” or b) syllabogram “u4”  + syllabogram “mu”, but still.

From Postgate’s review of Brigitte Menzel’s book about Assyrian temples(1):

“A study of the temples of Assyria is, like most things Neo-Assyriam, long overdue, and we are fortunate that Dr Menzel has undertaken this with the painstaking philological standards that we have come to expect of the Heidelberg students.”

Heh. Can you smell it? It’s the 19th century!

Also, from the article about “Assyrian Porsche”:

“Chikako Watanabe pointed out to me that the passage assigned under citation I to Tiglath-pileser is in fact from Assur-bel-kala’s Broken Obelisk (AKA 139:10), an error resulting from a homoioteleuton on my part.”

Aw. I can’t decide whether it’s more adorable or passive-aggressive(2).

Postgate, he’s such a dork! <3<3<3



(2) Homoioteleuton.

Which is all very well, since it would indubitably be Vogon-awful.


In the process of researching silly memes for my meme-post, which I will post tomorrow(1), I came across this gem:

“The two-horned mitre, which the Pope wears, when he sits on the high altar at Rome and receives the adoration of the Cardinals, is the very mitre worn by the priests of Dagon, the fish-god of the Philistines and Babylonians.”


Do I have to list things that are wrong with this one very short sentence? Yes, I have:

1. It’s not two-horned. Don’t even try to suggest that it’s anything like the Mesopotamian Hörnerkrone, because you will be wrong, and I will tell you why you are wrong, where you are just wrong, and where you are wronger than wrong, and then proceed to verbally abuse you just because I can.

2. The pope, as far as I can tell, rarely sits on an altar.

3. Especially not when the cardinals are present, I should think.

4. No one has any bloody idea as to what the priests of Dagon actually wore.

5. And it was most likely different in different places and periods, and, you know. Dagan was a god with more or less 2000 years of well attested worship history from Middle Euphrates area to the Levantine coast. Does anybody(2) really expect there would be a standardised priestly uniform in that entire area during the 2000 year period? No, I didn’t think so.

6. Dagan was not a fish-god. This is in fact an old meme, made up by St Jerome and other early Christian theologians.

7. The Levantine coast was full of people, and, le gasp, not all of them were Philistines.

8. Babylonians weren’t really so hot about Dagan. He was primarily a Syrian deity.

This is how many things are wrong with just one sentence. Shall we even proceed? Yes, we shall, because I’m a nasty person and will not hesitate to kick a defeated meme, even after it already died and, went stiff, decomposed, and even stopped smelling funny ages ago.

The Mystery religion of ancient Babylon / Assyria, was noted for the priestly class of “Dagon” in much the same way that the “Mystery” religion of Rome has copied it.


1. While Dagan was indeed also worshipped in Assyria and Babylonia, he was primary a Syrian deity. Please note also that in the cuneiform his name was spelled “Dagan”, because cuneiform has no sign for “o”.

2. This is also a good moment to mention that while the imagination of modern day ignoramuses would suggest that there were only two different groups in the Ancient Near East, namely a) the Jewish people, b) the pagan people, this is a very inaccurate impression. There were marked differences between the inhabitants of southern and northern Mesopotamia, Elam (parts of modern Iran), various regions of Syria (the contrast that is easiest to see is inland Syria – coastal Syria), the Levantine coast, etc. The contrast between the Jewish people and the neighbouring pagan people, on the other hand, wasn’t as great as it’s usually made out to be in monotheistic memes.

3. There was very little “Mystery” in the ANE religions, I’m afraid(3).

4. Even less mystery in the Catholic Church(3).

5. It’s easier to parse cultural exchange when you think that religious concepts were copied by C&P sort of a deal between various religionists, but the thing is, this is absolutely incorrect. It would be more accurate to say that from a large pool of shared ideas, the most attractive were chosen and improved upon (there are gods in my city; they are stronger than the gods of our neighbours –> there is god in my city; he is stronger than the gods of our neighbours, because they don’t exist, etc).

There’s nothing in the Bible that indicates that Jesus wore such a hat.

Or a watch. Or boots. Or a dozen of other things, and yet. What sort of an argument is that?

Also, I don’t think there’s a tendency in most world’s religions to clothe the class of religious specialists in what their god used to wear.

Incidentally, even with my tenuous grasp of Catholic theology I  understand perfectly well that it’s not Jesus but St Peter whom the pope is supposed to represent, anyway.

But there’s moar!

“…there are strong evidences that Dagon was Nimrod…. All scholars agree that the name and worship of Dagon were imported from Babylonia. ”
– The Two Babylons, Hislop, p. 215

Absolutely not. All scholars agree that the name and worship of Dagan were exported to Babylonia.

“In their veneration and worship of Dagon, the high priest of paganism would actually put on a garment that had been created from a huge fish! The head of the fish formed a mitre above that of the old man, while its scaly, fan-like tail fell as a cloak behind, leaving the human limbs and feet exposed.”
– Babylon and Nineveh, Austen Henry Layard, p. 343

And here we get to the crux of crankery! Because A.H. Layard, one of the fathers of assyriology, was born in 1817, and died in 1894. This means that when he was excavating Nimrud – or, as the ancients called it, Kalhu – in the late 1840, he knew virtually nothing about the history and cultures of the Ancient Near East apart from what the Bible told him. Cuneiform – the writing system that was used by many civilisations in the ANE, was being deciphered at the time. Not only were there not nearly enough tablets recovered from ancient sites for the scholars to have any sensible idea of what the civilisations of ANE looked like, but the cuneiform tablets that were recovered? Well, bummer, but people couldn’t really read them yet. By 1851 Rawlinson and Hicks could read about 200 signs, and while it is enough to read most texts that are concerned with daily life, it is not enough to read religious texts at all. Which you would have to find and identify as religious texts first, anyway.

What we have is: an awe-struck Victorian scholar, uncovering for the first time in thousands of years monumental buildings and sculptures(4) that depicted stuff that must have been so absolutely incomprehensible to him as to be almost alien. He had no primary sources to help him interpret what he saw, apart from the Bible, and the works of early Christians and Roman literati. The Roman (and Greek) literati would have been awestruck, too, only none of them really saw what Layard did, because most Babylonian and Assyrian cities had long been destroyed by the time they were active (or, their Assyrian or Babylonian architecture, and do bear in mind that in a war, palaces and temples are the first to be plundered).

Therefore, when Layard saw men in fish costumes what could he possibly do but make up exciting stuff about wicked oriental pagan cults?

fish genius from Kalhu, has nothing to do with Dagan at all

There you go; a brief googling provided us with a photo of the nice fish guy from Kalhu. Nowadays we know that he was no priest, but a so-called genius, who was supposed to protect the king (whose palace was located in Kalhu) from evil.

(Incidentally, there was no temple of Dagan in Kalhu at all, which is to be expected in an Assyrian city)

“The most prominent form of worship in Babylon was dedicated to Dagon, later known as Ichthys, or the fish. In Chaldean times, the head of the church was the representative of Dagon, he was considered to be infallible, and was addressed as ‘Your Holiness’. Nations subdued by Babylon had to kiss the ring and slipper of the Babylonian god-king. The same powers and the same titles are claimed to this day by the Dalai Lama of Buddhism, and the Pope. Moreover, the vestments of paganism, the fish mitre and robes of the priests of Dagon are worn by the Catholic bishops, cardinals and popes.
-The Wine of Babylon; Pg 9

No, the most prominent form of worship in Babylon was of course dedicated to Marduk, the patron-deity of Babylon *eyeroll*. There was no such thing as “head of church” in the Ancient Near East at all. There were various temples with their own hierarchy of priests, and the importance of various temples was largely dependant on the current religio-political situation. To make is as simple as possible, in the third millenium BCE the most important temples that got most sacrifices and donations were the temples of Anum, who, it was thought,  awarded kingship to the kings. The situation changed in the second millenium BCE, when Enlil got more important than Anum(5).

The excavations done of ancient Nineveh and Babylon have shed light on the shocking connection between Dagon the fish-god and the Pope’s Mitre (hat).


Also, no Niniveh in Niniveh, really, which is something I probably should have said from the start. This only shows how really very little the first assyriologists knew about the stuff they were studying: Layard thought that Kalhu (which we discussed above, and which was the city he discovered) was the biblical city of Niniveh. The book he wrote about Niniveh is actually about Kalhu. The title of the modern editions of Layard’s book is usually left unchanged, but, for Ashshur’s sake, this stuff is on Wiki.

But I guess that if you’re a dimwitted incompetent crank you just wouldn’t bother to research that, would you?

Research, pah. It must be for Catholics or something *eyeroll*.

(1) OTOH: we (La Housemate, La Kidlet, and me) were making stuff from Salzteig, which is like home-made Play-Doh. I bravely produced: demented pig (one), demented cat (one), Dalek army (two Daleks) and the Great Cthulhu. Therefore, I might want to spend tomorrow painting it all  pink and sprinkling my Dalek army with pink glitter instead of blogging.  I am actually seriously considering my options at the moment.

(2) Anybody sane, that is.

(3) In fact, the only mystery I can think of is “so, why did they believe all that bullshit again?”

(4)Yup, some of what he found is in British Museum. It’s HUGE.

(5) This is of course a gross oversimplification. But if you’re a non-specialist you’re probably not interested in the exact chronology of which god was most important where and why.

You know you’re a terrible terrible geek, when you’re laughing hysterically at something, and then immediately realise none of your friends would laugh hysterically with you. They would, maybe, snort contemptuously, shrug, and have one moar coffee to cleanse the dead language aftertaste from the delicate palate.


It is a law of humanities that every philologist ever  will at some point in their career have a terrible  moment of epic fail. This usually starts even before grad school, when you get a classical Japanese poem, which you then proceed to translate thus:

The lost ark of madness

Underwater emu murmurs


The languages especially susceptible to that sort of fail unfair treatment are those in which you don’t have spaces between words in the original notation, because then you have to know where which word ends, and sometimes, you just won’t know.

Until it’s too late!

Another type of  languages in which critical translation failures are likely to occur are the most ancient ones, where you sometimes seriously just won’t know period, or the text is partially damaged, so you’re left to make stuff up as you go theorize make educated guesses about what could fill in the lacunae.


In one corner, we have a Russian team of philologists, I. Diakonoff and N.B. Jankowska(2). In the other, the three cuneiform tablets that they analysed. The tablets were found during a campaign at an Armenian site that is called Argishtihenele. What was found at Argishtihenele apart from the three tablets was the remains of an Urartean fortress, but this is not very relevant to the topic at hand(3).

Now, the three tablets that were found in Argishtihenele were written in Elamite, a language that had been used in Iran a very long time ago(4). This made them terribly remarkable, because it might have actually been the first time tablets in  were found so far up north.

Anyway, D(iakonoff)& J(ankowska) were totally excited and high on coffee and cuneiform(5), and this is most likely the reason why they identified the tablets as little pieces of the Gilgamesh  epos in Elamite(6).

Granted, the tablets were sort of hard to read. As in, partially destroyed, and the cuneiform signs weren’t too easy on the eyes, either. And, to be frank, it may very well be that every philologist ever wants to find a fragment of the Gilgamesh epos in the language they study. Alas! D&J were caught red-handed in their momentaneous incompetence by Heidemarie Koch in the same journal (ZA = Zetschrift für Assyriologie) three years later:

In ZA 80 (1990) haben I.M. Diakonoff und N.B. Jankowska Fragmente dreier elamitischer Tontäfelchen publiziert, die bei Grabungen in der urartäischen Festung Argištihenele gefunden worden sind. Sie deuteten diese als elamische Variante des Gilgameš-Epos aus 8.-7. Jh. vor Chr. Eine genaue Untersuchung der Texte kann indessen zeigen, dass es sich um achämenidische Verwaltungstäfelchen handelt, die von Steuerabgaben und Korndeponierungen sprechen.

(In ZA 80 (1990) I.M. Diakonoff and N.B. Jankowska published fragments of three Elamite clay tablets that were found during the excavations in the Urartean fortress Argishtihenele. They interpreted the tablets as belonging to an Elamite version of the Gilgamesh epos from 8-7 century BCE. However, a careful study of the texts shows that they are in fact  administrative tablets about grain storage and taxes from the Achaemenid period.)

(Mah translation, all mistakes are belong to me. Emphasis also are belong to me)

(Of course, Skitt’s law sometimes also works IRL too, and H. Koch was later corrected by F. Vallat in NABU 1995/46, as duly noted by George in his awesome treatment/translation of the Gilgamesh epic(s))

So, are you laughing yet?

I thought not :(

(1)I made it up. But it’s pretty close to what some of us would sometimes get as the final result of their arduous toils.

(2)They’re actually good philologists, especially Diakonoff whose articles about something I distinctly remember reading. *Cough*. I forget about what, though.

(3) But nonetheless very interesting.

(4) I could tell you when in excruciating detail, but you probably wouldn’t be interested. Meh.

(5) I have to rationalize it away, somehow.

(6) This, I didn’t make up.