Sunday, February 21, 2010

Minoan incantations on Egyptian papyri

This time we shall discuss an interesting topic. We all know that the Minoan world did not grow up in a cultural vacuum. It had direct connections to the highly developed urban civilizations of the Middle East, especially Egypt. In fact, it was the Egyptian influence that had a decisive impact upon the course of the Cretan culture. The Minoan 'palatial' (temple) architecture and the development of an advanced writing system are just few elements of culture the Minoans imported from Egypt. Egyptian sources also prove the presence of Minoan traders and craftsmen (and even physicians) in ancient Egypt. Though some scholars still express doubts, it is fairly generally accepted that the "Land of Keftiu" is the term Egyptians used for Crete. There, the Minoans have left their traces, and even traces of their language: for there are papyri (for example the London Medical Papyrus or the Harris 501 papyrus) that record phrases, expressions and names in the language of Keftiu.

The medical adeptnesss of the Minoans is revealed by these Egyptian documents: there was even a special plant ("Keftian bean") imported from Crete as remedy for certain illnesses. But the most important part of the cited papyri are the magic incantations that were used to 'cure' certain diseases by the physicians (or should I say shamans?) of old. In the current post, I will write about only two of these magical phrases - these are the one of the best known examples of Keftian incantations. One of them is the incantation to treat the 'Asiatic' disease on the Hearst Medical Papyrus; the second one is the spell from the London Medical Papyrus to treat the Samuna-illness.

The first incantation reads as follows (as on the papyrus):

Spell for the Asiatic disease in Keftiu language:
This utterance is said with...

Unfortunately, there are no word-dividers, nor determinatives, so it is hard to analyse this sentence. Just to break this monster into separate words is a hard task by itself. Perhaps (and I cannot stress enough: very tentatively) the phrase can be reconstructed as follows:

santi kapawa piyawaya iya mantil kakail

Almost everything in this phase is just pure theory, but a few things seem more-or-less certain: The i-r parts seem to be endings (moreover, similar endings), so I made them terminal. The phrase also features the sequence k3-pw, which looks similar to the KA-PA and KU-PA phrases found on the Linear A tablets. The i-j- part seems to start a word, so I reconstructed them as *iya (that is also found in Linear A in the form of I-JA). It can either be separate or form the beginning of the next word (*iya mantil, *iyamantil or *i yamantil). Since this is a sentence, it must contain at least one verb. This could be either iya or any of the phrases preceding it (e.g. santi or piyawaya). Remember, we expect some sort of 'optative' mood, so the supposed Linear A verbal endings -TI and -SI do not help.

Fortunately, the second incantation is much better. Since it contains determinatives, one can not only properly separate the words, but also directly understand something of their meanings. This incantation reads the following:

Incantation of the Samuna-illness:
w-b-q-i (det: ILLNESS) s3-t-t (det: ?)

s3-b-w-j-7-3-jj-d3-3 (det: TO GO)

hw-m-c-k3-3-t-w (det: MAN)

r-t3-jj The Great God and 'a-m-c-j3, God!
This sentence is to be said four times!

This phrase could be a real treasure trove of Minoan words, if properly reconstructured, analysed and understood. A possible transliteration of the sentence is presented below:

wappakwi sat(et) sappawaya-iyattsaa hawamekaatu Ratsiya (GREAT GOD) Ameya (GOD)

I used double consonants to indicate the places where the Egyptian scribe used a voiced consonant (something which is not indicated on Linear A documents, since it is probable that there was inherently no distinction between voiced and voiceless stops). I intentionally entered a dash within the verb (you will see soon why). The presence of determinatives is a great help to understand at least the approximate meaning of the words.

Let us start with the first word: wappa-kwi - if we take off the last few sounds that are likely a suffix, it is very similar to the Hittite word-stem *huwapp- meaning 'wicked', 'bad', 'evil', etc. Though this is often thought of as a Proto-Indo-European word, a good alternative could be that this very stem is of Aegean origin. As we see, its meaning is perfectly fit with the determinative: the meaning of wappakwi seems to be the term 'disease' in general.

The second word: s3-t-t is a fairly obscure one. In his original publication, Haider interpreted this word as s3-t + det:BREAD. But it does not fit the context, unless this is indeed a 'bread-illness' (i.e. resulting from alimentary reasons). However, this is unlikely, and we are left to wonder if this word is an Egyptian phrase inserted into the text (similar to Netcher = 'god'), but without a determinative. Unfortunately, it is hard to find a fitting word in Egyptian language, and translation attempts like 'daughter of the father' (s3-t-jt ?= s3-t-t) were so far unable to give a truely fitting translation. The only thing we can say is that this term likely gives some detail of the disease.

The third word is very interesting due to two reasons. First, it is undoubtedly a verb, as the Egyptian determinative denote intransitive verbs related to movement. Yet it seems to terminate with an ending quite different from those obberved in Linear A. This strange ending can likely be explained by the optative or commanding sense of the phrase ('let [it] lift off', 'may [it] chase away' or similar). The other really interesting feature is the considerable length of this word. Since simple words in Minoan Linear A tend to be at most 2-3 syllable long, this phrase is likely a compound word. The first half of the term: sappawaya- is heavily reminiscent of the phrase SU-PU2-*188 (perhaps *supphuwe) common on Linear A tablets. Apart from tablets recording goods 'brought in' or 'carried away' (i.e. HT 8), the term can also be found as a name of a name for a vessel-type on HT 31 in the form SU-PU. Very recently, I had a truely perverted idea on the meaning of this name. We know all too well, that the Greek vessels bore names according to their composition or function: so there were Tripods (τριπους = 'three legs'), Kraters (κρατήρ= 'holder') or Amphores (αμφορεύς= Gr *amphi-phoreus ='carry-around' or 'twin carrier'). If so, then the (relatively amphore-like) vessel SU-PU might have been the Minoan equivalent of Greek amphores, with its name being a translation of the Greek word 'carrier'. This would fit well with the interpretation of the (related) SU-PU-*188 as a transaction term, and the meaning of sappawaya-ijattsaa as a verb expressing some sort of movement. The only problem of this interpretation lies in the fact, that sappawaya-ijatsaa actually appears to be intransitive, thus cannot mean 'carry off'. Otherwise the scribe would have used the determinant 'to carry' and not the one 'to go'.

The fourth word, hawamekaatu (also transliterated as humekatu) is some sort of a mystery. According to its determinative, its meaning should be something fairly general, like '[off this] man'. Otherwise the scribe would have used a determinative for a specific type of men or that of some body part. It is almost certainly a declined case expressing some sort of directionatlity (for example, an ablative, locative or alike) However, the Cretan scripts offer no parallel at this time. The only faintly similar word is KU-MI-NA(-QE) in Linear A and Komn in Eteocretan (from the Drerian inscriptions). Yet the former (and likely the latter as well) seem to denote a type of goat, thus having nothing to do with hawamekaatu.

As for the last two words, they stand with an explanatory Egyptian text, instead of determinatives. This makes their meaning crystal-clear: there are two gods mentioned, one by the name Ameya (supposedly a divinity specifically responsible for healing), and another one, Ratsiya, who appears to be an important 'chief divinity'. At this point, the classic Greek religion offers direct identification of these theonyms with Maia and Rhea. The former one was a figure of little importance in the classical era, yet Maia was noted for being the mother of Hermes (the god of craftsmanship), and occasionally even worshipped as a goddess of mountain-peaks. On the other hand, Rhea was renown for being mother to many of the Olympic Gods, including Zeus. Temples of Rhea stood at the centre of Knossos and Phaistos, exacly at the site of the former palaces, during the classical era. Since the Egyptian scribe has noted these theonyms with a male pronoun, we must theorise that this was an error on his side, being foreign to the Minoan religion (in Egypt, both the head of the pantheon and some gods associated with healing were males).

Read together, we may tentatively translate the second incantation as follows:

"Let God[dess] Ameya and Great God[dess] Ratsiya lift the [?] illness off this man.

These texts are not the only records of the 'Keftian' (Cretan) language in Egyptian texts, though undoubtedly the most complete ones. There is also a writing-board (used by scribes to practice) that records "how to make names of Keftiu", with a few names following it in a row - however, the afffinity of the latter names are disputed. I will show the entire list on the picture below, for those interested at deciphering the structure of these personal names.

Some of them appear outight semitic, especially the one starting with b-n- ('son [of]'). Other ones appear to be genuinely Egyptian (e.g. s-n-n-f-r). Only few of the names appear to be originating from outside the Middle East: mainly the ones that begin with iw-. Yet even those fit poorly with any name found on the Linear A tablets, and even the comparison with archaic Greek names staring with eu- ('good') appears to be more acceptable than the Minoan affinity of any of these words. So this table is indeed what it was meant to be by its author: a list of randomly gathered names just for practicing their shapes.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The 'I'-particle of Minoan language

Although it was not my intention to start discussion on the Phaistos Disc or anything related so early on; but since you asked for it, I will start discussing a topic that goes well beyond the Linear A inscriptions. Our search for the mysterious initial 'I'-particle of the Minoan language shall lead us through all the writing systems of ancient Crete.

As we saw in a previous post on the Libation Formula, the initial J- does seem to carry meaning in the Minoan language. In that post, I mentioned without proof that this J- is the same as the I- part seen on some other words on the tablets. Now we shall look at some of these examples, one-by-one:

Word with I- Related word Notes on meaning

(TL Za 1)

(PR Za 1)
A word related to religious devotion

(AR Zf1)

(KY Za 2)
Not 'ida-mater', but rather a place-name


(KH 10)
Also occurs in the form of QA-*118-RA-RE (*qazir-ale?)

(HT 96)

(HT 35)
A suffix *-i was also added (locative?)

(PK Za 15)

(PK Za 11)
Likely a compound word (*adikthethe duphre)

(AP Za 1)

(IO Za 2)
Sign -U- stands for *wu (a substitute for WA)

(SY Za5)

(KN Zf 31)
This identitification is dubious

(KH 10)

(HT 93)
This identitification is dubious

(PH 6)
n/a NA-WA probably means 'temple' (Greek Naos, archaic Nawos)

As we see above, there are quite a few examples that demonstrate the use of this mysterious I-/J- particle. Most scholars up to date interpreted these particles as prefixes. Nevertheless, we know that the Greek pronouns like 'τον' were typically written together with the word they referred to in Linear B. If Greek were extinct, we might very well think it was a prefixing language by looking at the tablets!

Having dismissed the prefix theory, only one possible conclusion remains: the I-particle is a genuine pronoun or article. From its occurrances, a use like a definite article appears quite probable. For example if *nawa meant temple, then I-NA-WA (*i nawa) could have meant "the temple" (or even *i nawath = "at the temple"). Fully conforming this theory, the I-particle is most common on the first word of table headers. Even in the Libation formula, the I-particle can only be found if the sentence is long, thus necessitating repetition of the initial phrases.

Why have I talked about the Phaistos Disc so mysteriously in the introduction? Because the very disc is the greatest vault of I-particles ever found. Almost every second word begins with such a particle!

Looking at the disc, one thing immediately becomes clear: the heavy repetition of stems, words, and even complete sequences. Perhaps the most repetitive feature of the disc are the 'plumed-head' - 'cake' sign pairs, that precede roughly every second word. We know that this is just an attached particle because of two things: First, there are many words that occur both with and without this sequence. Second, there is an example of scribal error on side B, where these two particles were seemingly inserted after the following word had already been stamped into the surface.

How does this sequence (*02 - *12) read? First, we know that sign Pha *02 occurs in other words as well, but always as an initial. It is not a logogram that many have claimed before, for we see the same head on the Arkalochori axe as well - again, as initials. To find its Linear A counterpart, we have to look at carefully the signs of the Libation Formula, where the scribes had the time to fully work out the shape of the signs, unlike the clay tablets. Once we examined the Linear A signs, our eye will unfailingly tell that Linear A sign *28 (that is, the 'I' sign) is the plumed head! The only peculiarity of this sign is, that the 'hairy head' does not face the start of writing. But it is undoubtedly a head. The prominent hair is - again - not a mere fashion of that age. Since we also have a "bald but bearded" head on the Disc, it is clear that sign Lin A *28 and Pha *02 stood for 'hair'. (perhaps the word for 'hair' began with i- in the Minoan language)

For those still doubting in the identification of signs, that are mirrored in Linear A with respect to that of the Phaistos disc, one has to keep in mind that the very script (Linear A and B) did not fix the direction of animal and human heads toward the start point. This often resulted in figures pointing away from the start point with their head, towards the right side - directly to the opposite of what we would expect in a (classic) hieroglyphic script, like the Egyptian or Luwian Hieroglyphs, or even the Phaistos disc itself (where the figures were aligned just to give a better look). To provide examples, I will show a few Phaistos Disc signs and their Linear A counterparts. (Just watch the rotations and reflections!)

So we now see that sign Pha *02 is 'I'. This fits well with the notion that pure vowel signs should occur frequently as word-initials. As for the following 'cake' sign (Pha *12), the only Linear A candidates are KA (Lin AB *77) and QE (Lin AB *78). Based on shapes, the latter is much more likely. This line of thoughts gives the reading I-QE.

Now, what on earth could this particle mean? The initial 'I' was possibly used in Phaistos Disc words B3, B11 and B17 in a way identical to that of Linear A. But I-QE is not identical to the initial 'I', yet closely related, based on its usage. It looks like some sort of copula or conjunction between different phrases or sentences. Searching for parallels in languages like Etruscan, a word struck my eyes: it is the adjective meaning 'thus', 'then' or 'so' (e.g. check the Cippus Perusinus to see its use). Could this be a reflection of an earlier *iχe or *iχwe form?

Given the very repetitive structure of the Disc, it would not be surprising at all to see a word like 'thus' being repeated after each and every phrase. The inscription being in the form of two snakes (remember the Snake Goddess), together with its structure suggest ritualistic use of the language, probably a prayer. In such contexts, conjunctions like 'thus' are not only usual, but outright expected.

Searching for similar I- particles in the Hieroglyhic script was however disappointing. The 'head' sign is rare, and words beginning with it are even less frequent. This can partly be explained by the shortness of the texts (bare names and titles, no sentences). Also, there are problems with the correspondence between signs. Since going into this matter would go beyond the scope of the current post, I decided to break this post off here, and continue the discussion some time later.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

How to read the Minoan Hieroglyphics ?

Having discussed many things about the fairly-well readable Linear A inscriptions, I now feel confident enough to continue our dig into the past. And that means it is time to start discussing a script even more ancient than Linear A. It is time for some Minoan Hieroglyphics.

To anyone not comfortable enough with this topic, one glance at the famous Phaistos disc is enough to be convinced that writing systems other than Linear A did exist on Crete during the Minoan era. But it this point it gets interesting: according to a thorough archaelogical analysis, Minoan Hieroglyphs were not only used before the arise of the more simple Linear A script. They were also used more-or-less contemporaneously.

This fact points to a functional segregation between the two scripts: While the more figurative (and thus aesthetically more pleasing) Hieroglyhic script was heavily used on sigils and at other 'representative' occasions, the more simplistic Linear A script was used primarily for account-keeping. Despite the fact that it is much simpler to write with the Linear system, so high was the charm of Hieroglyphics, that craftsmen and artists continued to use them for a long period. And they even invented novel versions of the old theme. That is how the signs of the famous Phaistos Disc were born. These are not the same as the ancient Hieroglyphics, but nevertheless appear to be genuinely Minoan: It is not beyond reason that these signs represent a "secondary" Hieroglyphic system (that is, re-interpretation of the already simplified Linear A signs as figurative elements, to create a highly decorative "festive" script).

Looking at a Hieroglyphic script, the first thing that comes to one's mind (apart from admiration of the craftsman's work): How can we read it ? Where does the script start? The problem is, the scripts go from right to left, from left to right, from up to down and even around in circles. There was no fixed direction of writing. This is no good news at all.

While some documents indeed offer no clue, there are many more that contain dedicated elements to help the reader. There are at least three different signs to help to guess the direction of reading. The most salient feature of these scripts is the small X most texts contain on at least one end. This is actually the "start" sign - it has no phonetic value, other than indicating the start of a word. The "start" sign can even be encountered on some Linear A documents (such as table HT123-124) - this is proof enough that the two systems were used beside each other, by the same people.

An other frequently encountered feature is a Z-like (lightening or wave-like) sign. If one more thoroughly analyses the scripts, it turns out that this sign (Hie *61) always stand on the end opposing that of X. This observation and the fact that Hie *61 is unlike any meaningful Linear A sign (except Lin AB *76 = RA2, but that does not fit well into the context) implies that this sign is another marker. John Younger interpreted Hie *61 as the "termination sign", but I believe an interpretation like "abbrevietion sign" might equally be correct: it sometimes stands where only a single sign follows the start sign (i.e. on KN He HM 1279 and 1281). The usage of this sign is by far not that common compared to the almost-universal X ("start") sign: for example, it occurs regularly in accounting texts (where abbreviations are common in Linear A as well), but only rarely on seals.

And if these two signs were not enough, some documents (especially seals) feature a further mark to aid the readers: these are the tiny dots that follow each single sign on many seals and other inscriptions. One simple look is enough to see that they always stand behind the signs, not before them. So - with their help - a careful eye can follow the flow of characters even when they go around in circles.

Now to end the hollow theorising, let us make some reading excercises, with the help of the Hieroglyphic Seals Database (thanks to the University of Florence). Our first piece to practice on shall be the nice round seal CHIC #126. You can see its impression below:

As we are already trained in reading such scripts, we should immediately realize the presence of the small X in the lower left corner. So the reading should be started there. Theoretically, we should have two different directions to start, but if we take a more careful look at the small dots, it is apparent that the script can only go clockwise (as the 'gate' sign is in the middle of the text). So we read X-*62-*56. But there the line takes an abrupt break. The vertical line before the glove-like sign *09 is actually a word-divider (Hiero style), and thus the reading should be continued from there: *09-*36-*47. This is exactly what the direction of the little dots suggest (the dot of *36 was displaced to the right probably because it did not fit into the remaining surface). The only possible alternative order, *47-*36-*09 is less likely.

Okey, now we have our order. But what about the phonetic value of the signs? Since it is pretty much likely that Hieroglyphics are ancestral to the Linear A script, we expect this script to be a syllabary as well. This is further confirmed by the number of signs: there are less than a hundred of them (even less than the Linear A signs). So, by careful examination of the shape of signs, we may have the luck to find the phonetic value of some, and even read some complete words!

On the above specimens, we can identify four characters - most of whom bear at least some resemblance to the Linear A signs. Though we see no 'start' sign except on the third seal, we can infer that the text is to be read from left to right on the upper seals (right to left on the lower ones) and counterclockwise. This will be further confirmed by the reading (see below).

In the left side of the first seal, we see a 'sistrum' sign that has to be read as KI. Though the musical instrument it depicts has a different orientation of chords from that of the classic harp, it is interesting to speculate that it stands for the word Kithara. The next sign we see is a double-backed object (possibly breasts or hills), that undoubtedly reads as TA. The third sign is the hardest to decipher, but after some search one can find that the only fitting value is NA. (This latter identification is non-trivial and this is something I would love to make a post of some time later). So the reading is KI-TA-NA-?. The text ends here on the second and third seals. The last additional sign of the first and fourth seals is probably the same, but not easy to assign: possible values include SE or TE (both would fit to the above word well).

How can we check if our decipherment was correct? On the KH 30 and PE Zb 3 tablets we can enconter a very closely related sequence: KI-TA-NA-SI-JA-SE. This cannot be a mere coincidence!

The only thing that remains unknown is its meaning. Theoretically, the words written on sigils can be either names or titles. Since we can find at least four different examples of seals with the sequence above, this is unlikely to be a personal name. It is much more likely that this was some (unknown) title. Similar repetitive words dominate most seals, often leaving no more than only one facet to be unique, thus representing a proper personal name.

For the last part, just for some teasing, I show an impression of a (multi-faceted) seal. Though some sides contain 'start' signs, some do not. Where do we know how to read them, then? The answer is simple for those who have read too much ancient texts: the direction of reading is a boustrophedon ! One has to read in the order up-down-up-down-up-down. The direction only changes where we see a 'start' sign, and these are the only facets where a start sign was featured. Otherwise just follow the turns!