Saturday, May 24, 2008

On the Decipherment of Ugaritic

Above is the sign list for the Ugaritic language. (Scanned from: Craigie, Peter C. Ugarit and the Old Testament. (Mich., Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company): 1983, pg. 47) How did scholars manage to decipher this unknown language?

The first person to make an attempt was Virolleaud, a French linguist who was given the tablets dug up at Ras Shamra. His method was as follows. He first noted that words were divided by a small vertical wedge (not on the sign list). This enabled him to recognize that the words were short; most were only three or four letters long. Thus, the language was unlike Greek. He then compared the inscription on an axe head and on a tablet, and found that they started with the same sign. Virolleaud deduced this must be a preposition, probably "to". The preposition "to" in Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic is a single letter "l". Thus, he ascribed the letter "l" to the sign above.

He then began to look for the word "king"; it was known at the time that Ugarit had a monarchy. The word in almost all of the Semitic languages is spelled "mlk". So, Virolleaud looked for a word with "l" in the middle and two signs on either side. He successfully found a series of signs that fit the bill, and thus identified two other Ugaritic signs. He also found a word with a sign that was the same as the "m" at the beginning (mlkm). The suffix -m in some Semitic languages indicates the plural, just like adding -s in English does.

Virolleaud also identified the name "Baal", one of the gods in Ugarit. Another scholar, Hans Bauer, made great strides in the decipherment. His method was primarily statistical; he knew the common prefixes in the Semitic languages and, after compiling the prefixes in Ugaritic, made probable guesses as to which ones were which.

The question of vowels arises. Ugaritic only designates three vowels; the rest are left unexpressed. This would provide no problem for a native speaker of the language. Take this famous English sentence, sans vowels:

n smll stp fr mn n gnt lp fr mnknd

If you read Neal Armstrong's famous words, you were right. We can get around vowels due to our being a native speaker; we can make judgements regarding the probable vowels because we know the words already. The same held true for native speakers of Ugaritic, and other ancient Near Eastern languages. Hebrew is probably the best example of this; vowels weren't designated at all in writing for quite a long time. In the case of Ugaritic we can only make tentative guesses on the basis of comparative work with other Semitic languages. Scholars will look at cognate words in which the vowels are known and then reconstruct them in Ugaritic from there. Obviously there is room for debate here; ultimately we will never really know.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Status of Herodotus as a Historian

The mainstream opinion regarding Herodotus is that he is the "father of historical writing", or something to that general effect. I should like to examine this claim and see whether or not he should be lumped in with "modern" historians, or whether he is in another realm of historiography.

What does it mean to engage in historical writing? Most would argue that it entails looking at, and critically examining past events. This is what modern historians do; they research, then analyze the facts they have gathered and then proceed to record them. The sources they use to gather facts are usually primary one's; they are "nearer to the events". Does Herodotus fit this characterization? To some extent, yes. He certainly does think critically about some of the information he gathers as well as critiquing the prevailing views on the basis of information that he finds. "The Greek account of Heracles' birth", for example, "is far from being the only thoughtless thing they say". On some level, Herodotus is on par with the critical aspect of modern historiography; he seems to analyze the different accounts he comes across and then selects the one he feels he has the most evidence behind it. Moreover, he begins his history with a mythical starting point: the abduction of a woman by some Eastern traders. Herodotus then rejects this mythical starting point and proceeds to examine the "historical" ground for the tensions between Greeks and barbarians. This being said, he differs in other respects from modern historians. First of all, his sources for the history of the Persian War were probably second, third, or even fourth hand accounts; he was writing more than 50 years after the battles took place. "Facts" can easily be embellished or shift through time; the accounts he received were most likely oral, not written. One can perhaps imagine a Nestor-like veteran from the Persian Wars reminiscing and not quite telling things as they are. Also, even though he rejects the "mythical" starting point, he still includes many folk elements in his Histories. Herodotus loves a good story. Third, his history is not a straight narrative; the entirety of Book 2 is a massive digression concerning Egypt. Later in the Histories he has sections on the Scythians, as well as other peoples that don't directly connect with the narrative of the Persian Wars.

My point is that, though Herodotus may have been the father of modern historiography, this does not entail that he wrote a "modern history". There is a tension between his critical faculty and his factual sources/folk narrative elements. Herodotus is somewhere in between the mythic historian and the modern historian; he is on the cusp between what we call modern historiography and mere "story". Herodotus is certainly a historian, but he's not a modern one. Perhaps this will be evident from the sense of the Greek word for history: historia. The word doesn't have the sense of our modern word "history"; it literally means "inquiry". Herodotus is merely inquiring; one gets the sense he was quite curious about the world around him, regardless of whether the discussions fit into his history of the conflict between Greeks and barbarians. Thus, even the way Herodotus presumably understood "a history" differs slightly from ours; the boundaries and expectations of historiography differed from our modern conception of it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Translation of an Ugaritic Letter

Here's my translation of an Ugaritic letter. I first provide the Ugaritic in transliteration and then give the translation.


As you can see, Ugaritic does not designate vowels, with the exception of 'a, 'i, and 'u. On the basis of a comparison with other Near Eastern languages, as well as looking at loan-words, etc, scholars have managed to come up with a tentative reconstruction of the vowels.

Translation [I have added punctuation]:

(1)Message of 'Iwridarri
(2)to Pilsiya
(4)May [things] be well to you.
(5)From Targadassi
(6)and from Kalbiya
(7)I hear of the defeats
(8)[by which] they were defeated. Now
(9)if there is not [anything]
(10)we will be defeated so send
(11)to me. The hand
(12)of the gods [is] here [lit. of Death] like death
(13)[which is] very fierce.
(14)Since we await
(15)your reply,
(17)the word which you hear
(18)there, put it
(19)in a letter to me!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Rilke and T.S. Eliot

Whenever I read Rilke's first Elegy, I can't help but be reminded of T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland; some of the sentiments are the same. Both poets are concerned with the condition of modernity, though Rilke is more focused on the spiritual dimension (or lack thereof). Take these lines from Rilke:

It's said that the angels are often unconscious
of whether they're moving among the living
or the dead. (Tr. Graham Good)

What Rilke means by angels is NOT the Christian notion; they are more like impersonal spiritual entities who roam the universe. The angels don't know whether they move among the living or the dead: that is, there is no real difference between the living and the dead. The living are, in a way, dead. Rilke, I believe, would say spiritually dead; we've become spectators to the world and hide from authentic emotion and experience. Thus we are, in a way, "outside" of the world. This is evident from some lines in both the First and Second Elegies:

Angels are terrifying...


All we have left [in our interpreted world] is perhaps a certain tree on a slope
to look at day after day; or yesterday's streets,
or a steadfastly loyal old habit...

From the Second Elegy:

The days of Tobias are over...


But now, if the dreaded archangel took one step
in our direction from behind the stars,
our pounding hearts would kill us. (All tr. Graham Good)

Rilke seems to think we have lost touch with the spiritual world; spirits are terrifying and the days of the archangel Tobias are over. The fact that Tobias' days are over could be seen as a metaphor for spirituality generally; we would die if spirituality came too close (i.e. we can't handle it anymore). Moreover, all we have are old habits and routines; there is nothing new at all, only the same old drill day in and day out. One could argue there is something "inauthentic" about this; we don't seek anything new but remain stuck in our old habits.

Also, in connection with the inauthenticity theme, we have a habit of fleeing from "our Fate"; we do this through Love:

But they [lovers] only use each other to hide from their Fate.

Our fate is "the Night" which is made reference to a few lines before. The night is, death, solitude, etc; anything that individualizes us. Even the dead, for a time, need us and our comfort; Rilke tells us to be attentive to those who passed on early and who now live in a "strange world"; they want us to "correct the injustice that hinders their movement" (paraphrase).

Compare these lines of Rilke with some from The Wasteland:

He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying


A crowd flowed over London Bridge; so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

Eliot seems to be trying to collapse the distinction between the living and the dead; this is perhaps most apparent in the second quote. The living are somehow not really alive; they are dead to the world in some way, which seems to be a condition of modernity. Eliot is constantly making references to a world without water; water is needed for life and renewal and thus a lack thereof would mean one cannot be 'renewed' or even fully alive.

The general sentiment of Rilke and Eliot seems to be the same; both would say that the people of modernity are not quite alive, not living authentically. Rilke's criticism seems to be more focused; he is concerned with the lack of spirituality in modernity, while Eliot seems to paint with broad strokes and never really focuses on the root of the problem he addresses in the Wasteland. They both attempt a diagnosis of the modern world and both come up with a rather negative one. One last note on Rilke: if you're familiar with Heidegger, you can perhaps see why he would like him. One condition of modernity, according to Rilke, is that we flee from authentic emotion and experience: death included.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Personal Names in Homer

Personal names in Homer are particularly interesting; etymologically they are quite close to the character of the figure they are ascribed to. Often names in Greek have both a short and a long form: Ekhlos and Ekhelawos, for example. The short form either has the suffix -os or -eus. On the basis of this observation, let us take a quick glance at some figures from the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Meneleus: This is obviously the short form of the name. The long form would thus be Menelawos. If we seperate these into their constituent parts Mene-lawos, two Pre-Greek words emerge. 'Mene' has the sense of 'standing fast' or 'abiding' and 'lawos' means 'the people. So, Meneleus is 'he who makes the people stand fast'.

Atreus: The 'a' at the beginning of the name is an alpha privative, which denotes negation. The root 'tres-' means 'panic striken flight'; in Sparta the word 'tresas' was a term for a deserter. Thus Atreus means, 'he who doesn't flee.'

Achilles (Gr. Akhileus): Same principle here; long form is Akhi-lawos. The word 'akhos' means 'pain', and 'lawos', people. Achilles is 'he who causes pain to the people'.

Odysseus: This one is a bit trickier. There is evidence for a Pre-Greek prefix 'o-' meaning 'on, onto, into'. Also, there is evidence for an ancient stem 'dukj-', meaning 'lead'. The original short form could be constructed as *odukjeus. In Linear B, the cluster 'kj' would be written as a 'z' series, thsu producing *oduzeu. The move into Attic/Ionic could be accounted for as follows: kj>ts>ss. (re. my post below where I discuss this shift.). Odysseus is 'he who leads (to home)'

For a more through discussion of this see Palmer's The Greek Language.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Some Thoughts on Cowper's Homer

Cowper's translation of the Iliad is certainly poetic. But it's not Homer. He attempts to render Homer's dactylic hexameters in Miltonian blank verse, which, I think, is a verse form completely unsuited to Homer. Above all, Homer is direct and simple in his diction; he straightforwardly flows from one idea to the next. Milton's verse is exactly the opposite. Let's take the opening lines of the Iliad and the opening lines of Paradise Lost as a comparison:

"Sing, goddess of the ruinous wrath of Achilles"
This is the first line of the Iliad. Already we know what the poem, generally, is going to be about. In Greek it is even more direct; the first words are "menin aieda, thea" which literally is "of wrath sing, goddess". Thus the first three words actually introduce the subject of the Iliad. This is what I mean when I talk about Homer's directness and simplicity in diction.

"Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing heavenly muse"
Compared to Homer, Milton is rather wordy; he tries to cram as much as he can into a line and, consequently, his verse moves rather slowly. Miltonian blank verse doesn't have the quickness or the directness of Homer's original Greek and thus fails to capture an essential element of Homer's poems. Cowper, in attempting to render the Iliad in Milton's blank verse, falls into this problem; it seems sluggish at times and, while it is very poetic, doesn't capture the spirit of the original. Take, for example, these lines where the horse of Achilles answers his reproaches for leaving Patroclus in battle. Cowper translates them thus:

"For not through sloth or tardiness on us
Aught chargeable, have Ilium's sons thine arms
Stript from Patroclus' shoulders; but a God
Matchless in battle, offspring of bright-haired
Latona, him contending in the van
Slew, for the glory of the chief of Troy"

The movement of the verse is entirely un-Homeric; it is too finely wrought and detailed to be Homer. The task of the translator, I believe, is to capture the spirit of the original: in this case, simplicity and directness. Cowper fails at this and, while it is a good translation, is not a great one.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Marlowe and the Persians

Marlowe is a fantastic writer but he apparently knows next to nothing about the Persian empire and Persians in general. In his play Tamburlaine, he has the Persians constantly invoke Jove, "And Jove may never let me longer live..." (Act 1 Scene 1). In one part he has the Persian Cosroe invoke both Jupiter and a Christian concept of Hell

"What means this devilish shepherd to aspire
With such a giantly presumption
To cast up hills against the face of Heaven,
And dare the force of angry Jupiter?...
So will I send this monstrous slave to hell
Where flames shall ever feed upon his soul." (Act 1 Scene 6)

The Persians of this time would certainly not invoke Jove, nor would they have any concept of a soul burning in Hell. This jab against Marlowe, to be sure, does nothing to detract from the literary merit of his work; I'm merely pointing out slight historical inconsistencies.

Notes on the First Canto of the Inferno

The first Canto of Dante's Inferno is essential for an understanding not only of the Inferno itself, but also of the whole trilogy of the Comedia. I shall try to outline some relavent points.
All English translations are by Laurence Binyon (the BEST translation of the Commedia) I skip some stanzas in my analysis.

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
che la diritta via era smarrita

(Midway the journey of life I was 'ware
That I had strayed into a dark forest
And the right path appeared not anywhere)

I believe the first stanza can be interpreted in light of Plato's Cave allegory. One needs light in order to be guided correctly intellectually; those who have not escaped from the cave and have not seen the brilliance of the Sun cannot claim to have true knowledge (and thus be correctly guided). Thus, since Dante is in a dark forest the right path neccesarily cannot appear; there is no light to guide him. Now, Dante is also invoking Christian imagery (the Light as the light of God/the Word, etc). Given the blatent Platonic allusions, one could argue that the moral is a function of the intellectual. That is, one needs the intellectual vision provided by the light in order to be correctly morally guided.

Tied in with this is the Platonic (and Greek in general) concept of truth. Truth, I believe, meant something very different for the Greeks than it does for us. The Greek word is aletheia. This can be deconstructed eymologically as follows: lethe is literally translated as concealment, and the 'a' is the alpha-privative signifying negation (like the English un-). Thus, the word we usually translate as truth literally means unconcealment. The way must be true (that is unconcealed) for Dante given he is in a dark forest; this is only possible with light.

Io non so ben ridir com' io v'entrai
tant' era pieno di sonno a quel punto
che la verace vai abbandonai

(I cannot well remember in my mind
How I came thither, so was I immersed
In sleep, when the true way I left behind)

Dante states he was "in sleep". That is, he was in darkness; the true way was not revealed to him. The true way he left behind is, of course, the way to God/salvation. He has thus embarked on the path of error; the path that does not lead to God.

Ma poi ch' i' fue al pie d' un colle guinto,
la dove terminava quella valle
che m' avea di paura il cor compunto,
guardai in alto, e vidi le sue spalle
vestite gia de' raggi del pianeta
che mema dritto altrui per ogni calle.

(But when my footsteps had attained the first
Slope of a hill, at the end of that drear vale
Which with such terror had my spirit pierced,
I looked up, and beheld its shoulders pale
Already in clothing of that planet's light
Which guideth men on all roads without fail.)

Dante now arrives at the foot of a hill that is bathed in light. The imagery here should be obvious; the hill is the hill of Wisdom/Truth. In terms of Christian symbolism, it is the Hill of God which one must ascend in order to gain salvation. The Platonic interpretation sheds some light on this as well. The hill has been "unconcealed"; it shines forth from the dark forest that Dante has been plodding through.

Ed ecco, quasi al cominciar dell' erta
una lonza leggiera e presta molto,
che di pel maculato era coverta;
e non mi si partia d' innanzi al volto.
anzi impediva tanto il mio cammino,
ch' i' fui per ritornar piu volte volto.

(And at the ascent, as 't were on the first stair
Behold! A Loepard light and swift of limb
And covered with a hide of spotted hair.
And he would not depart, but still would trim
His pace in front of me, so that many a time
I turned me to go back, because of him)

The poet now makes an attempt at climbing up the hill, but encounters a leopard which impedes his way. However,

mosse di prima quelle cose belle;
si ch' a bene sperar m' era cagione
di quella fera alla geatta pelle

(When divine Love first motioned and enskied
Those beauteous things; so that a hope I caught
To evade that creature with the freckled hide)

Dante is able to evade the leopard; the "sun mounted up" and allowed him to do this. Once again, the Platonic/Christian imagery applies here.

l'ora del tempo e la dolce stagione;
ma non si che paura non mi desse
la vista che m' apparve d' un leone.

(The hour of time and the sweet season wrought
Thus on me; yet not so much, but when appeared
A Lion, terror to my heart he brought)

He now encounters a lion; I shall work out the imagery in due course.

Ed una lupa, che di tutte brame
sembiava carca nella sua margrezza,
e molte genti fe gia viver grame,

(And a she-Wolf, that in her famished fell
Looked all infuriate craving; she hath meant
To many ere now that they in misery dwell)

Along with the lion Dante comes upon a she-Wolf. What do these three animals (the Leopard, the Lion and the she-Wolf) all symbolize? The answer, I believe, can be found in the 1st Epistle of St. John. He states that the three things that impede one's way to beatitude are temptations of the flesh, pride in position of power, and cupiditas (ie. lust for more). The Leopard, being a beautiful, swift creature, symbolizes material pleasure, the Lion is pride in position of power, and the she-Wolf cupiditas. The she-Wolf imagery is the most striking; she has a "famished fell" and looks "all infuiate craving". This also plays into the imagery of sin "hollowing one out"; the she-Wolf is so famished that there is almost nothing left of her.

tal mi fece la bestia sanza pace,
che, venondomi incontro, a poco a poco
mi ripignova la dove 'l sol tace

(To such state brought me, in dread of his attack,
That restless beast, who by degress perforce
To where the Sun is silent drove me back)
[Binyon mistranslates "his" in the first line; it is la bestia and thus is feminine]

The she-Wolf (cupiditas) overpowers Dante and he is driven back to the dark forest of error. That is, Dante loses his way again on account of falling into the trap of "lust for more"; he can no longer reach the hill of Wisdom/Truth, having encountered cupiditas.

Dante, having attempted to ascend the hill on his own finds he cannot; he keeps encountering sin and is thus driven back into the wrong path. He needs help: Virgil's help. I will perhaps write another post on the encounter with Virgil.

In terms of the structure of the Comedia as a whole, the first Canto introduces the main theme: moving toward the "correct path". Dante cannot do this on his own; he must first take a journey. First, he travels through Hell. This is in order to develop a revulsion to sin. At the beginning of his journey, Dante feels great pity for those in Hell, but by the end he realizes that those in Hell should be in Hell and feels no more pity for them. After coming to this realization he travels through Purgatory which "cleanses" Dante (cf. the Fountain episode). Finally, after becoming cleansed and having no pity for sinners, Dante can begin his journey "up the hill" to salvation and the beautitude of God.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Phoenician Origin of the Word "Patasso"

Gerald Leonard-Cohen, in an article published in the Journal of Indo European Studies (1979) examines the origin of the Greek word "patasso" (to strike; hit) and the Greek words derived from it (patagos, patageo, pataks). He hypothesizes that the word derives from the Phoenician word "patish", which is the word for a forgehammer. He reconstructs a verb based upon this noun, which comes out as *patash. Through a slight shift in meaning, the word came to mean strike or hit generally, without the specific connotations of metalsmithing.

The argument he presents to account for the differences in verbal forms, though, seems to me rather weak. He argues, from analogy, that the form "epataksa" (1st p. aorist) functions the same as the verb "arasso", whose aorist form is "eraksa". However, he fails to account for the shift from the -ss- to the -k-. I believe it can be accounted for as follows:

On the basis of the -ss- in the stem, I would reconstruct the proto-Greek stem of the verb as *patakjo. We shall see why in a moment. The phoneme structure -kj- was rather unstable; consequently it moved to -ts-, thus producing *patatso. From here, it is an easy move to either the Attic "patatto" or the Ionic "patasso". Thus, the form with the -k- in the stem is in fact the original one and is retained in the aorist forms. A similar shift can be seen in the word "phulatto" (to guard); *phulakjo>*phulatso>phulatto/phulasso.

Kumarbi Epic and Hesiod's Theogony

One of the most obvious parallels between a Near Eastern and a Greek mythological story is between the Kumarbi Epic and Hesiod's Theogony. The Epic was recovered from the royal library of the Hittite emperors at Hattasus. It is written in Hittite, but interestingly the names of the divinites are mostly Hurrian, with some Babylonian. Thus, it is probably a translation of a Hurrian saga. First of all, they both have a succession story. In the Kumarbi, there were three generations of gods: The first was Alalu, who, after 9 years of rule, was driven out by Anu. Anu suffers the same fate; he is driven out by Kumarbi. This has a parallel in the Theogony; Zeus overthrows Kronos, who overthrew Ouranos, and becomes king of the gods and men.

However, the parallels run deeper. After Anu is deposed he escapes into the sky, with Kumarbi in hot pursuit. Kumarbi catches him and bites him with the intention of castrating him; he then spits out the seed which, in turn, impregnates the Earth. The children, he orders, should be brought to him when they are born so that he may eat them. They start to do this, but is apparently given a stone instead of the Storm-god to eat; the Storm-god is then safely born. The fragmentary epic then continues on another tablet. The Storm-god is fighting Luma, who is being depsed for apparent misrule. He is vanquished an the Storm-god rules for a time. This story is almost an exact copy of the story of Zeus' birth. Ouranos is castrated by his son Kronos, who in turn spits out the seed and impregnates the Earth; she gives birth to the Erinyes, the Giants and the Melian Nymphs. The legend of Zeus' birth runs as follows: Kronos orders that all his children be brought to him so he can eat them. He does this, but is given a stone instead of Zeus (the Storm-god) to eat. Zeus is then born safely and proceeds to depose Kronos.

There are obvious parallels here, however they are not exactly one to one. Mythology is a shifty business; as I've said in an earlier post, one can only really point out parallels and then work to establish influence. The exact reason for shifts in the stories are often obscure.