Monday, September 21, 2009

Cracking the libation formula - Part I

The so-called "libation formulae" are one of the most famous minoan inscriptions (well, apart from the Phaistos disc). A dozens of very similar texts were encountered on sacred objects (most typically libation-pouring vessels). With their length (at least 6 words = approximately two sentences) they constitute the longest known Linear A inscriptions. Sadly, there are not many of them recovered without illegible or broken off parts. But still, these are of an enormous value to those who try to delve deeper into Minoan grammar and vocabulary.

A sample inscription would look like the following:


(NOTE: in truth, this is a hybrid of PK Za15 and KO Za1 - to show a simplified example)

Unfortunately, the number of straightforwardly identifyable elements is close to nil. Yet, with more cautious examination of variations in formulae and comparison of the text with the vocabularies of other languages (such as Eteocypriot or Etruscan) a number of things can be made clearer.

This time, we shall look at the first word of this mysterious formula. This word usually consists of about 6 syllabary signs - already strikingly long, given that most expressions or names on the Linear A tablets have typically only 2-3 signs. But the structure of this word offers an immediate explanation, if we look at the different variants:

A-TA-I-*301-WA-JA (PK Za12)
A-TA-I-*301-WA-E (PK Za11)

TA-NA-I-*301-U-TI-NU (IO Za6)

Here we can see that the different parts can be exchanged independently. In other terms, this is a compound word.

The first part of the compound seem to be either A-TA or TA-NA. But the separation A-T / TA-N seems equally if not more correct (see the explanation below). Now, the only question remaining: What on earth could this particle mean ?

If we look at the Eteo-Cypriot inscriptions, we might get a good hint for its meaning. It is very common for Eteocypriot inscriptions to contain the particle 'TAN-'. An example: WI-TI-LE RA-NU TA-NU MU-NO-TI A-I-LO. The final 'U' ending of TA-NU seems more of an insertion (to resolve the cluster -NM-), than a truely existing wovel. If we go back to Minoan Linear A, we can find similar examples with the same particle, e.g. : TA-NU-MU-TI (KN Za10).

There are many more-or-less substantiated tranlsations of the Eteo-Cypriot texts. One of the best (in my opinion) is based on the Etruscan-Lemnian vocabulary and grammmatics; this translation has been circulating around the net for quite some time (unfortunately, without the designation of its author). It was this translation attempt, that theoretized the existence of a demonstrative pronoun "TAN" = "This" in the Eteo-Cypriot language. It is a very interesting and suprising turn of events, that this translation almost perfectly fits the Linear A libation formula as well. The assumption that this long sentence began with the word "This..." is more than sensible.

Now we have gotten a suggested reading for TA-N. But what about the A-T particle it alternates with? Is it another related pronoun?
To answer the second question, the Eteocretan inscriptions provide another unexpected hint. These inscriptions recorded a non-greek language spoken in the classical Crete - widely theoretized to be a late descendant of Minoan. One of the Drerian inscriptions has the following reading: ET ISALABRE.....MEN INAI ISALURIA. The text is fortunately bilingual, the greek part speaks of offerings consisting of goat's cheese. In this context, the substitution of "ET" = "The" was already suggested by Van Effenterre et al. But what do we have here? A definite article that likely stemmed from some earlier Minoan word. The particle "AT" = "The" perfectly matches that in the Linear A Libation formula. This also reinfrces our previous theory about the meaning of "TAN". Thus the libation formula likely begins with an (attached) particle 'The....' or 'This....'!

The attachment of pronominal or demonstrative particles to the following word should not be surprising - scribes using the Linear B script did exactly the same with the Greek pronouns, fusing them with the following words, without any word-divider.

But let us go further in analysing this word. The next part in this compound appears to be most commonly I-*301 or rather (see the derivation above) A-I-*301. The major obstacle here is the missing phonetic value for Linear A *301 (the 'slave' or 'acrobat' sign). Since it is not an easy task to find the missing value (more on this in a later post), we have almost no clue of the meaning of this word. Unless we make a bold move and substitute a fitting Etruscan-Lemnian stem here. The best (given the context, and the rare *AI diphtongal cluster) appears to be the etruscan word-stem *AIS = "God, Divinity". If so, the value for *301 needs to be of either the S- or the Z-series (perhaps *ZU). Notwithstanding, the reading for a libation text beginning with 'This/The god...' appears incorrect. Therefore we have to assume that whatever A-I-*301-... meant, was more of a "divine gift" or "divine sacrifice" than being simply 'god' or 'gods'.

As for the last part (endings) of the formula, these were very differently interpeted by the scholars up to date. Some saw it as verbal endings (allowing the reading 'this - divine gift - was given'); another view would be to regard them as nominal(declensional) endings (admitting a reading 'this - divine offering-from/with/at/etc.') One thing is certain: This ending joins with the A-I-*301 particle with either W or U - making it suspicious that the (unknown) *301 sign ends with 'U'. At the same time, this joining suggests that the parts -WA-JA and -U-TI-NU form a true compound word with A-I-*301, and not just a random joining. The alternation of -WA-JA with the -WA-E ending coincides with the removal of the J- prosthesis from JA-SA-SA-RA-ME, and thus likely represents a putative mark of plural (verbal or nominal, but the latter seems more likely). We shall treat this phenomenon later on, once we analysed all the words in the inscription!

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