Monday, March 28, 2011

Drought, Death and the Sun

And, for those who might find it interesting, an English summary of my PhD project, which I did at Lund University and published locally in 2012 - a revised, "international" version will be published in early 2014:

I study how drought is used as a symbol of death in the Old Testament and how these images relate to similar conceptions in the Canaanite texts from Ugarit (c. 14th century BC). I examine how the burning sun (represented in the form of the Ugaritic sun goddess Shapshu - also known as Shapsh or Shapash) is presented as the cause of drought and as a tool of the god of death, and I look at how these literary and linguistic expressions are inherited from a common North West Semitic background.

The thesis deals with the relationship between the Israelite religious texts we know as the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible and the closely related, but older cuneiform texts from Ugarit in modern Syria, texts that amongst other things describe how the god Baal fight his enemies Yamm ("Sea") and Mot ("Death"). The dominion of the god of death is often described in terms of the burning drought that prevents fertility. I begin with a detailed philological analysis of how this drought and its effect on the sun (Shapshu) is presented in the Ugaritic material, and then I examine how this death/drought-motif recurs in many places in the Old Testament, such as the story of Elijah on Carmel (1 Kgs 17-18), at the end of the book of Malachi, in the books of Hosea and Joel and in other places. The concept of drought as a reflection of the power of death is transformed as Israelite monotheism emerges, and I study how this initially hostile power step by step becomes a part of Yahweh's own retinue.

The basic questions are:

1) How do the concepts of drought, death and the sun relate to each other in the Ugaritic religious literature; how are these concepts used as metaphors to express basic tenets of Ugaritic myth and theology?

2) How are these concepts and their uses reflected in the literature and religion of Ancient Israel? How can the identification of these ancient reminiscences of a shared North West Semitic religious background help shed light on the interpretation of various passages in the Biblical text and on the relationship between the Old Testament and that of the surrounding North West Semitic culture?

Saturday, August 7, 2010


I really like the Egyptian royal name sḥtp-jb-rʿ (today often read as "Sehetepibre", although it was hardly pronounced that way in antiquity). The name belonged to the royal titulary of King Amenemhat I. The first word (sḥtp) is a causative formation rom the verbal root ḥtp(as in all those names ending in "hotep"), meaning "to be satisfied, be happy", which leads to the conclusion that that the causative sḥtp means "to make happy" or "the one who makes satisfied" . Ancient Egyptian shares the causative prefix s with a number of the Semitic languages (of which it is a distant relation), such as Ugaritic and Akkadian, which both have š-. This is an example of the common Afro-Asiatic background of Egyptian and the Semitic languages.

The word jb (which probably was pronounced jib) means "heart", and is thought to be related to Hebrew and Akkadian libbu /lev (which both mean "heart").

Finally, we have the word rʿw or rʿ, ie. "Sun" or "the sun god Re". In the older stages of Egyptian the words were probably pronounced riʿuw or similar, and later reʿa, reʿə or riʿə, and finally in Coptic as , the pronunciation of the word we often use colloquially today when speaking of the Egyptian god of the sun. A reconstruction of the proto-Egyptian pronunciation of the word was proposed by F. Kamerzell 1991: *Lidaw (l being an older pronunciation of the Egyptian r - and it is known today that the Egyptian ʿAyin-sound often has its eymological backgound in a *d). In an article from 1997, Thomas Schneider proposed that the word may etymologically be related to the Arabic verb ladhaʿa ("to burn").

Summed up, the name means "He who makes the heart of Re satisfied". Rather poetic, don't you think?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


This is probably the best book title I have ever heard - and no, this is not made up, the book in question really does exist. Really:

Facilography, or, A system of easy, expeditious writing : entirely new, applicable to all languages, ancient and modern, in characters completely adapted to conciseness and currency in combination, expressing every word without the omission of a single letter, in half the space and in one third the time required for common running hand, comprised and rendered attainable in six lessons, calculated to facilitate the accounts, correspondence and memorandums of the merchant and man of business, where both accuracy and dispatch are indispensibly requisite, and to expedite the preparations in manuscript, and other exertions of the man of letters. : To which is added, an appendix, shewing by an easy and comprehensive method, how the same is applicable as a universal system of stenography, fully demonstrating the most superior elegance, lineality, legibility, and dispatch, in rules peculiarly and admirably suited, to free from every ambiguity this important science, to professional gentlemen, students at law, divinity, &c. to reporters and every person in the habit of making notes for memorandums or business, this stenography will be found highly deserving of preference for its complete adaptation to follow the most rapid speaker. The whole treatise as a system of expeditious and short writing, combining information not to be found in any other work now extant. Illustrated by numerous examples, on nine elegantly engraved copperplates. Dedicated to the Honourable Sir William Garrow, His Majesty's Attorney General
/ by Thomas Oxley, author of several fugitive pieces, essays, &c. moral and philosophical; and Master of a mathematical and commercial academy. 1816.

You just have to love it, don't you?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

In press

For those interested in my earlier posts on the Hebrew consecutive forms, I would just like to mention that the coming issue of Vetus Testamentum will include an article by yours truly on these very forms, based on a typological comparison with the Indo-European augment. I am also currently finishing the editing of a short note accepted for publication in ZAW on Job 3:8 and those funny Leviathanic sorcerers. The road goes ever on ...

Sunday, September 20, 2009

I, the Elamite!

Elamite, the mother tongue of Elam (in modern Iran) was a language that really did its own thing. It was not related to the Indo-European or Afro-Asiatic language families, or even to Sumerian - the only somewhat plausible suggestion is to connect it with the Dravidian languages of India (such as Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, etc.), but even that possibility is highly uncertain - a bit dubious even.

One of the things making Elamite such an odd language is the fact that its nouns were inflected according to grammatical person, so that you get special forms for "I, the King," "you, the king" or "he, the king ". This is not a case of possessive suffixes but of endings showing the identity of the word itself. The Elamite word for "king" was sunki, but when the king was speaking of himself it was inflected sunkik (something like "the king, i.e. me"). The "second person" of "king" was sunkit and the third was sunkir.

The terms most often used to describe these strange forms are locutive, allocutive and delocutive. The suffix -me may be used to create abstract nouns: sunkime is thus "kingdom".

This tendency to inflect nouns according to person is extremely rare. A similar system is supposed to exist in the Khoisan language Nama, but apart from that I think it is rather unique ...

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Let's let's!

One of the best manga names I have ever heard is Let's Bible, yet another example of the common "engrish" tendency to put "let's" in front of everything. The fact that the comic is about an angel and a fisherman in Croatia (whose greatest interests are fashion and sex) just makes it even better!

Sunday, April 19, 2009


Asato mâ sad gamaya
Tamaso mâ jyotir gamaya
Mrtyor mâmrtam gamaya

"Lead me from the false to the true!
Lead me from darkness to light!
Lead me from death to the immortal!"

The words are from the Brhadaranyaka-upanishad (perhaps about 800 BC), and describe the salvific experience of immortality in the most vivid terms. Note the old Indo-Euroepan words sat, "true", originally a participle of the same root that gives English "is", the root mr-, which we find in Latin mors (and in the latinate loanword "mortal"). The word gamaya ("lead") is a causative of the same root (*gwem-) that we have have in the word "come", which means that the text literally says "let me come."

And where do we find this text today, apart from the dusty tomes and recitations of philologers and brahmins? In the majestic choral piece called Neodämmerung , which is played in the movie The Matrix Revolutions, when Neo is fighting with the ever-so-cool Agent Smith. The word-stress is not quite right in the movie, however (the chorus puts the emphasis on second syllable in gamaya , which should ideally be short). But it is nonetheless quite fun to find Upanishadic Sanskrit in a big Hollywood movie - who said ancient languages can't help you understand modern life?