Saturday, January 16, 2010

More on the libation formula - the statuette of Poros Herakliou

I believe it is time to continue our discussion on the Minoan libation formula. This time I will attempt to analyse a rare specimen of this famous formula: the one inscribed on the statuette fragment of Poros Herakleiou.

The homapage of John Younger gives the following reading for the text:

Later, we shall see, that we may also read the text in the following way:

U-QE-TI A-SA-SA-RA-ME

Which is way more sensible, since the ending -ME is always following (J)A-SA-SA-RA- in any other examples encountered. Also, the word U-QE-TI is already known from the silver pin of Platanos (containing the text:...U-QE-TI • JA-SA-SA-RA-ME...).

Let us now take a glance at the statuette-fragment itself!

What we can see at first sight that the script is hard to read, the characters being very "artistic" in their design. Nevertheless, the RA sign and the TI sign are readily recognizable, and the rest of the characters in-between bear undeniable resemblance to the ordinary SA and A signs of the Linear A script. Some further examination yields the value QE for the rounded sign (the only sign with a perfectly round shape, KA is written in a very different way). So it is ?-QE-TI-A-SA-SA-RA-? beyond doubt (the text is written right to left - this is the only way of reading that is sensible given the similarity of the word(s) to (J)A-SA-SA-RA-ME - and do not forget that the (asymmetric) RA sign is also mirrored)

The remaining two characters to the left and the right (see the lower row on the picture) are much harder to crack. The one to the right could basically stand for two characters of the Linear A syllabary: it is either U or RI. The latter reading looks more probable at first sight given the shape of the text. The RI sign typically contains an S-like shape on most documents - yet one should not forget the fact that the artist added the same curves to the base of A and SA signs as well, that normally never have a curved trunk like this. So we cannot exclude the reading 'U' as well. If we observe the sign more closely, we can see a tiny dot after the sign in question. This is highly unlikely to be a word-divider since a much larger dot on the other side would make this sign stand-alone, something quite unusual in libation formulae. So I propose it is actually a part of the sign we are examining. Indeed, it could stand for the small 'cross' belonging to the U-signs. So after a second thought, the reading 'U' is the one that fits the better.

Now, if we go to the right end of the script, we may examine the last (and most hard-to-read) sign. At first glance, it is unlike any other. The only (faintly) similar sign is the (very rare) Linear A sign *325, whose value is unknown (it only occurs in U-*325-ZA and A-*325-ZA). Finding such a rare sign in a position where we normally encounter 'ME' in all other cases is certainly surprising. But again, I will show that this first-sight interpretation is more than likely a misreading, and the sign is indeed 'ME'. First, sign *325 is normally symmetric with a vertical axis, which is not the case here. But the most intriguing thing is the single big dot put immediately after the sign. Why would one put a word-divider dot here, if he already missed the one between U-QE-TI and the rest? We are left to ponder if this dot actually belongs to the mysterious sign, like the dot of 'U'. In fact, if we suppose it is used in the same way as in 'U' (namely, an artistic substitute for a vertical and a horizontal line crossing in the middle), we now have a vastly different sign-form. This one now closely resembling the shape of 'ME' (that contains either two loops or one cross and one loop). And would not it be neat if this was indeed the old and familiar 'ME' sign instead of some unidentified hapax? It really boggles the mind.

Comparison of this new reading with other examples of the libation formula yields further confirmation. The text on the silver pin of Platanos carries almost exactly the same two words: U-QE-TI • JA-SA-SA-RA-ME. This cannot be mere coincidence!

Our check of this specimen yields immediate important implications on the word (J)A-SA-SA-RA-ME. Many earlier interpretations suggested that this was a compound word, and that -ME was a declensional ending or an attached particle. But we now see that such interpretations cannot be fully correct, since the word never looses its final -ME part. Thus a separation of the word like ASA - SAR(A)ME is possible (and maybe probable), but on the other hand ASA - SARA - ME is unlikely.

Furthermore, there is another implication: This rare find gives an example where the word (J)A-SA-SA-RA-ME is found outside of its usual context (namely, the libation vessels). That fact might make the statuette a vital clue to decipher its meaning : words like "olive-oil", "olives" or "wine" or any other noun related to the (libation) offerings do not seem to be appropriate, given that this is a statue and not a jar. On the other hand, it is the deep analysis of the libation formula that makes its translation as a theonym (i.e. "Mother Goddess") unlikely. What it truely means, no one can tell at the moment: We do not even have a good guess at it.

For the word U-QE-TI, we face similar problems. It occurs only twice in the Minoan corpus, in both case on dedicatory/religious texts. This alone gives no useful hint at its meaning, but another observation might help: Words beginning with U- are relatively rare in Linear A texts, and such words sometimes occur in longer texts as explanation (i.e. U-MI-NA-SI) - this suggest that they might be verbs. Similar to the word-pairs PUIA (etruscan-tyrrhenian for "wife") and OPUEIN (Ancient Greek gloss "to marry"), the 'U'-prosthetics might have been verbal formatives in the Minoan language. Despite all of the uncertainties in the sketched theory, an interpretation of this text as a (declined) verb and a futher word that somehow connects to religious devotion, is an attractive one.