Monday, July 26, 2010

'Mother' in Minoan? - Aegean words for motherhood and childbirth

My next post will be an illustration of the difficulties one faces when doing an in-depth research of Aegean languages. It also nicely illustrates how revarding it can be if we not only collect the tiny shards diligently, but also try to re-assemble the vase from them (Let us hope hope what I fitted, belongs to the same vase, and not some artificial hybrid abomination, though).

The Lemnos stele is perhaps the most famous Aegean relic ever found: sole testament to a now-extinct language once spoken on the island and beyond. The most striking feature of Lemnian language is its close relation to Etruscan: like some "missing link" in paleontology, this is the ultimate proof of the latter one's origins in the Aegean region. Despite the clear affinity of the overwhelming majority of Lemnian phrases to Etruscan ones, there are quite a few ones on the stele that fiercely resist translation. One of these phrases is the enigmatic 'Zeronaith ewistho'. It is clearly a stand-alone phrase, as it is repated (in different context) on the other side as 'ewistho Zeronaith'. I have capitalized the term 'Zeronaith' because of one simple reason: its *-ith ending would normally indicate a locative case, so Zerona was likely a township or village of some sort. It is also mentioned in the phrase 'wanalasial Zeronai Morinail' - as pertaining to the city of Myrina, capital of Lemnos. The *-o ending (corresponding to Etruscan *-u ) on the other word is clearly a marker of past participle. But what could a phrase "ewisth-ed at Zerona" mean?

I am not the first one to ponder over the meaning of the cited expression. Others have already suggested that it might refer to some honorary title. Though I am heavily doubting that. The stele already features one word suspicious of detailing a title or magistrate of some sort: maraz. It seems to be unrelated to the Etruscan *mur- = 'to die' term. So "maraz maw sialhweiz awiz" does not refer to how long Holaie lived, but rather his rank at his death. The word maw is not a numeral as repeatedly and wrongly assumed, but an unknown adjective to maraz (if related to Hittite muwa = 'powerful', could it have been "grand judge"?). Thus the last sentence on the stele: "Ziwai awiz sialhwiz, marazm awiz aomai" should mean something like: "died sixty years old, became maraz a year before" or something similar (-m is a verbal conjunction, just like in Etruscan). Interestingly enough, in the Lycian language, the word maraza meant 'judge' or 'arbitrator' (thanks to prof Melchert's Lycian dictionary). Looks like a clear borrowing or shared vocabulary there.

This way we clearly diminished the possibility that ewistho Zeronaith refers to a title. Then what could it mean? It was so important that it was repeated twice, just like the age of Holaie. This gives a fairly logical guess at its meaning: "born in Zerona"! That would remain nothing more than an elegant theory if we had gotten no help from other Aegean sources. This is what I attempt to do in the current post: gleaning bits of evidence from other Aegean languages, namely Eteocypriot and Minoan. Unfortunately, no help avails from Etruscan.

In the other corner of the Aegean region (though geographically outside it), similarly mysterious inscriptions have yielded evidence of the Eteocretan language, once spoken in and around the city of Amathous on classical Cyprus. One of the Eteocpriot inscriptions yield an interesting phrase, worth to examine. The gravestone inscription I am speating of, is the following:


This text presents a rich inventory of pronouns and other terms, but it is the word O-I-TE that interests us at this moment. In terms of occurrances, this is the only Eteocretan text that contains this word. Its surprisingly high frequency spurred some scholars to believe that this was a conjunction of some sort. Nevertheless, I tried substituting that meaning into the text and all I got was a fairly meaningless and overstrained structure. A conjunction should divide words and sentences of equal and symmetric structure, not completely different ones. And be featured in a fixed order within a sentence. Therefore I believe O-I-TE is actually a noun or adjective added on (as an explanation) to a number of phrases within the text: e.g. A-LI-RA-NI. In the row before the last, it is added on to a number of words that seem to be either nouns or adjectives (because of the *-na ending, a well-known Aegean formative). The sequence TU-MI-RA   I-MI-KA-NI   PU   E-NE-MI-NA   PA-NA-MO is also featured in a different inscription. [PU seems to be a pronoun, a counterpart to TU, perhaps in a sense that/what or something like that. Interestingly, it was written as an enclitic, fused to the following word.] It seems like, therefore that we have an expanded phrase here, with a high emphasis on the phrase O-I-TE.

What could this have been? It was already suggested by some that - because it is added on to the phrase A-LI-RA-NI that seems to be a name, that it expresses some sort title or familial relationship. It has been proposed that its meaning might have been 'mother', nevertheless, it is a word quite dissimilar to the Etruscan ati. Even if it is unrelated to the Etruscan word for 'mother', it displays a certain degree of similarity to the term ewistho. There are at least three important things to observe with oite:

First, the Cypriot Syllabary system has a separate sign for WI (and used by Eteocretan in word-initial position as well), so O-I- is not an approximation for *wi-. Instead, this unusual diphtong (for an Aegean language) might have evolved from something like *aui-. Second, there is no distinction between 't' and 'th' in the Cypriot script (even if it might have existed in Linear A), so we must assume Eteocyprot has lost the Proto-Aegean aspirated consonants. This way, we can suppose a general development *th -> *t in Eteocypriot, that had already happened in the Bronze age (As far as I can judge, the Cypro-Minoan script had no signs for aspirated consonants at all, those inherited from Linear A were lost quite early, already in the middle of the 2nd millenium BC). Lastly, the Cypriot syllabary differs slightly from Linear A and B in terms of orthography. Not only word-terminal consonants are written out in Cypriot syllabary (with a helper vowel -e), but consonantal clusters with sybillants are also resolved (those with nasals are simplified still). For example, the word άριστος = 'noble' is written as A-RI-TO in Linear B, but A-RI-SI-TO-SE in Cypriot Linear C. This way we can be pretty sure that there was no -s- within the phrase O-I-TE (otherwise it would have been O-I-SE-TE). The cited observations enable us to reconstruct a putative original form of oite as *awithe. As for the explanation for the lack of -s- or an "s mobile", see later.

Some Minoan finds may also reinforce our theory about the meaning of the above-mentioned words. If we look at the Phaistos Disc, our eyes can meet a pretty interesting sign: Pha *06, a sign obviously depicting a woman of some sort. The interesting thing is, that - unlike most depictions of women in Minoan art - this one looks rather stocky. This fact was for long used by those disbelieving the Cretan origins of the disc, as an argument. While I can confirm the fact that the shape of this woman is a bit unusual for the depiction of "ordinary" women in Crete, it is neither of foreign origin, nor accidentally crudely designed. What if it was intentionally drawn this way? Well, pregnant women, they do have an oversized belly. And could we imagine a more elegant way of expressing the term 'mother' in hieroglyphs, than drawing an image of a pregnant woman?

The other interesting thing in the mentioned sign is its phonetic value. Since its shape is pretty special, but the sign is otherwise common on the disc, it very likely corresponds to a well-known Linear A sign. From the very few signs that can plausibely derived from a "woman-shape", only E and WI match reasonanably well. Together with (the much less probable matches) DE and KE, these are about the only signs, that could possibly be derived from such a special shape. Now, the value 'E' can be quickly excluded, based on the junctions with other signs: QE-E or I-E are practically impossible in Linear A (should have been -e- and -i-je-). This leaves us with the value WI as the most probable one. Indeed, it is not impossible to derive the (slightly asymmetric, pyramid-shaped) WI sign of Linear A and B from an image depicting a woman. The sign is otherwise pretty rare in Linear A (practically missing from the Hieroglyphic corpus), but does occur word-initially in some phrases, e.g. WI-TE-RO [HT25], WI-NA-DU [KH5] or WI-TE-JA-MU [PL Zf1].

At this point, we could settle with the fact that the word for woman (or a particular type of women, say 'mother') probably began with wi- in the Minoan language. But the story does not end here. By sheer luck, it seems that we have even more on the Phaistos Disc. It is interesting to observe that the words that begin with Pha *06 also, almost invariably continue with signs certainly (Pha *35 = 'TE') or putatively (Pha *18 [TI? TU?]) belonging to the T-series (th+vowel?) of Minoan syllabaries. Thus it is possible that the entire word WI-T(E) (supposedly 'child-bearer', thus 'mother') is written out on the disc, in various compound phrases. As many scholars suggest that what the disc features is a hymn or prayer, it would make much of a sense when referring to female deities. While there are a gret number of different "wedged" terms on that document, none of them were identified with a theonym so far. But one cannot resist the lure of the thought, that the most common one, *45-*07 stands for the original Minoan name of great goddess Razija (sign *45 undoubtedly corresponds to Lin AB RA2). And indeed - what epithet could fit better for titaness Rhea, who gave birth to almost the entire pantheon of Olympic gods, than 'mother'?

At this point, it is obligatory to look at the inventory of other language families, that might have existed in that region. Interestingly, one of the Proto-Indo-European phrases reconstructed, h1euhdhr (= 'udder') does show a high similarity to ewistho and the rest. An 'h' could have easily evolved to 's' in some languages and disappeared in the rest. Although it invariably refers to privy parts of female animals, and never human ones in IE languages, in a lingustic group only marginally related to Proto-IE, one can easily imagine a shift of meaning. And that could have led straight to the words we see here. It can perhaps be compared to what we see in some modern languages, e.g. in Spanish mamá means mother, formed in an analogue to mama = breast. It is also interesting to see that a semi-related stem of proto-IE: udero-, normally meaning 'belly' or 'gut', evolved to words like ὑστέρα (Greek) and uterus (Latin), specifically meaning 'womb' in languages of the Mediterranean. Although it is hard to track the origins of medical terms (because the ancients were no masters of human anatomy), cross-contamination of word stems seems like an attractive explanation. Since these words do have a similar form to our reconstructed Aegean phrases, relating to motherhood and childbirth, it is tempting to see an Aegean (Minoan and perhaps Etruscan) influence over the meaning of this stem, shifting it from 'intestines' to 'uterus'.

1 comment:

  1. Great blog! I am also writing a geeky Linear A blog, and was delighted to find more out there :)