Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The word I-PI-NA-MA: Blood or Honey?

I think this occasion is appropriate to give a bit of supplementation to one of our earlier topics. It is the 'Libation Formula' I am talking of. On these flat stone tables, we can encounter the word I-PI-NA-MA. As we seen before, a thorough analysis of the Formula suggests that this is a word specifying the offering made with the help of the vessel. It is very tempting to see it as a term referring to the fluid given as offering. But what was this fluid exactly? Was it oil? Or honey? Or rather the blood of sacrificed animals?

First of all, we must analyse the word to get closer to its meaning. The first part of I-PI-NA-MA is suspiciously similar to the particle '*iphi-' found in a number of Greek words, most importantly personal names. Apart from Iphigeneia (the famous mythological figure), we may find Iphianassa (an archaic name with wanassa = 'queen') and Iphimedeia (a goddess in Mycenean-era Pylos). We can also compare them to the name of Iphis (a heroine of Ovidius), Iphicles (a half-brother to Heracles), or the ancient Greek adjective iphios = 'strong'. The latter word has no truly convincing Indo-European etymology, so it is possible that it is an adjectival form of a borrowed Aegean word, *iph(i).

But what on earth could this *iphi word mean? Just by the high number of names derived from it, its meaning must have been something suitable for honorary titles and theonyms. On the other hand, the common Greek word ιφιος gives us a chance to check our theories in practice ('of *iphi' should give a meaning 'strong'). I have formed two theories about its meaning. In the current post, I will give sketches of both, leaving to the reader to find out which is better at his/her own discretion.

The first of these theories stems from the observation that *iphi was used to form theonyms. Iphigeneia was perhaps also a minor goddess, not just a simple personal name. So this term was associated with goddesses, and also with a type of libation (I-PI-NA-MA). Perhaps I was reading too much of the Hittite mythology, but I immediately thought about the story of goddess Hannahanna and the bees. Like in Asia Minor, there was a strong connection between certain gods and bees on the Bronze-Age Aegean isles. The symbol of bees is frequently used in Minoan art, and even a Linear A sign (*39 = PI) derives from the shape of a (sitting) bee. Honey was a sacred food offered to gods (see the Pylos tablets) likely in the form of libation. We might also take the Latin word apis = 'bee' into the equation, since the latter has no clear etymology among Indo-European stems, and is certainly similar to *iphi. So, according to this theory, the word *iphi should originally mean 'bee', and I-PI-NA-MA (*iphinama) can be interpreted as an elaborate word for 'bees' honey'. While - according to this theory - it is not the easiest to explain the source of word ιφιος (like a bee?), it gives a convenient explanation where the word for 'bee' disappeared in the classic period. In that era, the Greeks termed bees as μέλισσα = 'of honey' (this is the same as the modern Greek word for 'bee' as well as the popular female name Melissa). It is very probable that bees were regarded as sacred animals, and some taboos surrounding the uttering of sacred names can conveniently explain the disappearence of words. For example, the 'bear' is called Arctos in Greek and Ursus in Latin - preserving the ancient IE name, while substituted by terms like 'brown' (Bear in English) or 'honey-eater' (*Medw- in slavonic languages) where it was worshipped as a totemic animal.

My second - and more recent - theory uses the parallels between Etruscan and Minoan stems. In Etruscan, we find the stem *ep as a word denoting 'blood'. There is even a derivation: epana = 'offering of blood', similar to the base of I-PI-NA-MA (thanks to the online Etruscan dictionary of Glen Gordon). If so, equating *ep with *iph(i) gives a convenient way to explain the meaning of ιφιος ('blooded' -> 'strong'). While this causes a problem with interpretation of the personal names (we must assume they came from ιφιος and are not direct derivation from *iph(i)), the offering given on the tablets seem to be the blood of slaughtered animals rather than honey.

How could we decide this question once and for all? Unfortunately, I am not in that position, yet it is possible to predict the kind of fluid contained by the libation tables. Despite the unimaginably long 3500 years that has passed since they last seen use, it would still be possible to apply chemical trace-analysis methods to the tables to determine with high probability what kind of fluid did they hold. There is a well-known case of Mayan vessels, when the combined chemical analysis and linguistic methods helped to identify the Mayan word for 'Chocolate', also inscribed onto the vessels that contained it.


  1. I like the idea that i-pi-na-ma could have a relationship with Etruscan epana "offering of blood".
    Cf. Hurrian ub- "to slaughter"
    Maybe i-pi-na-ma is ipi-nna-ma
    ipi- "slaughter, bloodshed"
    -nna- "those of [the bloodshed]"
    -ma "and" conjunction

  2. Hello!
    Relating ipinama with the Gr. word iphios was a good idea. Note thought that you have also the word nama which in Greek means liquid. Not very far from blood and honey innit?

  3. I'd like to warn that the translation I offer is tentative and I don't have the proof behind it that would make me feel secure about this value.

    Colonna treated epana as a village name. De Simone suggested translating tuθina epana as 'bronze figure'. I don't even see it listed in the Bonfantes' short glossary in the back of their book, The Etruscan language. So it's an open mystery.

    I appreciate the potential of comparing Etruscan epana to Minoan ipinama. You may be on to something.

  4. I would like to thank you all for all your valuable notes. It made me think a little bit further on the possible derivation of I-PI-NA-MA from *ip - blood?
    We can get *ip-na (bloody?) quite simply using Aegean grammar, but the final 'm'-part is hard to explain. Any interpretation of it as an enclitic conjunction (no matter how tempting) is very unlikely. Since it gets further derived in the case of I-PI-NA-MI-NA (*ipnam-ina?), the 'm' must be part of the stem (conjunctions would never be swallowed up into the word). With some diligence, we can find a handful of similarly strange "m-stem" words, like JA-SA-SA-RA-ME (obl: JA-SA-SA-RA-MA-NA) or I-DA-MA-TE (or: I-DA-MI). As for the moment, I do not have a good explanation for them (especially if the 'm'-part in the stem is indeed a formative element).

  5. I had to add some follow-up, since I realized that I completely forgot to mention the Hittite ippiya-tree. To make it short, there existed a term in the Hittite language, ippiyas marhas, which is most commonly translated as 'vine-made dish'. If so, this myterious ippiya could have been a climbing plant, even grapevine. I am hesitant of connecting this word to the *iph(i) phase seen in Linear A, but... Who knows?