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Tag: Aelian

Eco: The Egyptian Alphabet, 3


Horapollo (c. 5th century CE), Hori Apollinis selecta hieroglyphica, Romae: sumtibus Iulij Francescschini, ex typographia Aloysij Zanetti, 1599, pp. 128-9. Brooklyn Museum Libraries, Wilbur Library of Egyptology, Special Collections, call number PE40 H78 F84. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

Alciati’s commentary refers to the passage describing the stork in the Hieroglyphica. Yet we have just seen that there is no reference either to the feeding of the young or to the transport of the parents. These features are, however, mentioned in a fourth century AD text, the Hexaemeron of Basil (VIII, 5).

In other words, the information contained in the Hieroglyphica was already at the disposal of European culture. A search for traces of the stork from the Renaissance backwards is filled with pleasant surprises.

In the Cambridge Bestiary (twelfth century CE), we read that storks nourish their young with exemplary affection, and that “they incubate the nests so tirelessly that they lose their own feathers. What is more, when they have moulted in this way, they in turn are looked after by the babies, for a time corresponding in length to the time which they themselves have spent in bringing up and cherishing their offspring.” (The Bestiary, T.H. White, ed., New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1960: pp. 117-8).

The accompanying image shows a stork that carries a frog in its beak, obviously a dainty morsel for its young.

The Cambridge Bestiary has taken this idea from Isidore of Seville, who, in the Etymologiarum (XII, vii), says more or less the same. Who then are Isidore’s sources? St. Basil we have already seen; there was St. Ambrose as well (Hexaemeron, V, 16, 53), and possibly also Celsus (cited in Origen, Contra Celsum, IV, 98) and Porphyry (De abstinentia, III, 23, 1). These, in their turn, used Pliny’s Naturalis historia (X, 32) as their source.

Pliny, of course, could have been drawing on an Egyptian tradition, if Aelian, in the second to third century AD, could claim (though without citing Pliny by name) that “Storks are venerated among the Egyptians because they nourish and honor their parents when they grow old” (De animalium natura, X, 16).

But the idea can be traced back even further. The same notion is to be found in Plutarch (De solertia animalium, 4), Cicero (De finibus bonorum et malorum, II, 110), Aristotle (Historia animalium, IX, 7, 612b, 35), Plato (Alcibiades, 135 E), Aristophanes (The Birds, 1355), and finally in Sophocles (Electra, 1058).

There is nothing to prevent us from imagining that Sophocles himself was drawing on ancient Egyptian tradition; but, even if he were, it is evident that the story of the stork has been part of occidental culture for as long as we care to trace it.

It follows that Horapollo did not reveal anything hot. Moreover, the origin of this symbol seems to have been Semitic, given that, in Hebrew, the word for stork means “the one who has filial piety.”

Read by anyone familiar with medieval and classical culture, Horapollo’s booklet seems to differ very little from the bestiaries current in the preceding centuries. It merely adds some information about specifically Egyptian animals, such as the ibis and the scarab and neglects make certain of the standard moralizing comments or biblical references.

This was clear even to the Renaissance. In his Hieroglyphica sive de sacris Aegyptorum aliarumque gentium literis of 1556, Pierio Valeriano never tired of employing his vast stock of knowledge of classical and Christian sources to note the occasions where the assertions of Horapollo might be confirmed.

Yet instead of reading Horapollo in the light of a previous tradition, he revisits this whole tradition in the light of Horapollo.

With a barrage of citations from Latin and Greek authors, Giulio Cesare Capaccio displayed, in his Delle imprese of 1592, his perfect mastery of older traditions. Yet fashion now demanded that he interpreted this tradition in a Egyptian key.

“Without hieroglyphic observation,” and without having recourse to the Monas hieroglyphicaquel Giovanni Dee da Londino,” it was impossible, he said, to endow these images (coming from centuries of western culture) with their proper recondite meanings.

We are speaking of the “rereading” of a text (or of a network of texts) which had not been changed during the centuries. So what has changed? We are here witnessing a semiotic incident which, as paradoxical as some of its effects may have been, was, in terms of its own dynamic, quite easy to explain.

Horapollo’s text (qua text) differs but little from other similar writings, which were previously known. None the less, the humanists read it as a series of unprecedented statements. The reason is simply that the readers of the fifteenth century saw is as coming from a different author.

The text had not changed, but the “voice” supposed to utter it was endowed with a different charisma. This changed the way in which the text was received and the way in which it was consequently interpreted.

Thus, as old and familiar as these images were, the moment they appeared as transmitted not by the familiar Christian and pagan sources, but by the ancient Egyptian divinities themselves, they took on a fresh, and radically different, meaning.

For the missing scriptural commentaries there were substituted allusions to vague religions mysteries. The success of the book was due to its polysemy. Hieroglyphs were regarded as initiatory symbols.

They were symbols, that is, expressions that referred to an occult, unknown and ambivalent content. In contradistinction to conjecture, in which we take a visible symptom and infer from it its cause, Kircher defined a symbol as:

“a nota significativa of mysteries, that is to say, that it is the nature of a symbol to lead our minds, by means of certain similarities, to the understanding of things vastly different from the things that are offered to our external senses, and whose property it is to appear hidden under the veil of an obscure expression. [ . . . ] Symbols cannot be translated by words, but expressed only by marks, characters, and figures. (Obeliscus Pamphilius, II, 5, 114-20).”

These symbols were initiatory, because the allure of Egyptian culture was given by the promise of a knowledge that was wrapped in an impenetrable and indecipherable enigma so as to protect it from the idle curiosity of the vulgar multitudes.

The hieroglyph, Kircher reminds us, was the symbol of a sacred truth (thus, though all hieroglyphs are symbols, it does not follow that all symbols are hieroglyphs) whose force derived from its impenetrability to the eyes of the profane.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 151-4.

(Editorial Note: I must mention Mr. William Thayer, whose LacusCurtius site at the University of Chicago links to a whopping 51 complete texts by ancient authors and more. I stumbled across Mr. Thayer’s page as I linked to classical writers, and I find it to be both indispensable and a staggering contribution to online scholarship.

Thank you for this work, Mr. Thayer. I am one of the crazy ones out here in internet-land who realizes what you have done. With my best regards.)

The Three Books of the Babyloniaca

“Jewish and Christian users even manipulated Berossos’ account in order to accommodate it to Biblical history.

Josephus claims that a Babylonian mentioned by Berossos could be identified with Abraham (BNJ 680 F 6), which is obviously a Jewish misinterpretation.

Eusebius adduces an alleged synchronism between the Babylonian and Judean kings in the account of Polyhistor in order to settle Old Testament chronology (BNJ 680 F 7c).

It is, however, certain that this synchronism was a later Jewish or Christian creation. The parallel number of ten Babylonian antediluvian kings and Biblical patriarchs is very probably a Jewish or Christian forgery too.

In Mesopotamian tradition there were no more than nine antediluvian kings, as e.g. in the Dynastic Chronicles, which was very likely an important source of Berossos. Moreover, the name of one of the kings is in fact that of a postdiluvian ruler (Ammenon = Enmenunna). This suggests that a later user inserted a tenth name in Berossos’ list in order to create the correspondence with the Old Testament tradition.

Apart from links with Biblical tradition, several fragments contain references to stories in classical literature. Sennacherib’s erection of a monument in Cilicia and the foundation of Tarsus (BNJ 680 F 7c // 685 F 5) recalls the classical story of the epitaph of the Assyrian king Sardanapallos, who boasted to have built Tarsus and Anchiale in one day (Strabo 14.5.9).

The fall of Nineveh and the death by fire of the Assyrian king Sarakos (BNJ 680 F 7d // 685 F 5) parallels the end of Sardanapallos in Ctesianic tradition (BNJ 688 F lb and lq). Berossos also gives a version of the construction of the ‘Hanging Gardens’ in Babylon (BNJ 680 F 8a), in classical tradition one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The close connections to classical tales very probably explain why these stories survived in the fragments.

It must be emphasised, then, that due to the particular interests of our main sources — Josephus and the Christian apologists — we only have a partial and biased view of Berossos’ original composition. A few fragments clearly show that Berossos’ work was broader in scope than may appear at face value.

Athenaeus describes a Saturnalia-like festival celebrat­ed in Babylon (BNJ680 F2), which demonstrates that Berossos also wrote about Babylonian customs. Clement of Alexandria informs us that Artaxerxes II introduced the cult of the Persian goddess Anaitis in Babylon (BNJ 680 F 11).

This shows that Berossos treated the Achaemenid period in some detail and did not confine himself to the brief summary in BNJ 680 F 10. The lexicographer Hesychius notes that Sarachero was the female adorner of the spouse of Bel (BNJ 680 F 13), but we do not know in which context Sarachero had been mentioned.

Antiochus Cylinder BM36277

The Cylinder of Antiochus I Soter from the Ezida Temple in Borsippa (the Antiochus Cylinder) is an historiographical text from ancient Babylonia. It describes how the Seleucid crown prince Antiochus, the son of king Seleucus Nicator, rebuilt the Ezida Temple and prays for divine protection. The cuneiform text itself (BM 36277) is now in the British Museum.
The Antiochus cylinder is the latest such cylinder extant. Another late example is the Cyrus Cylinder, commemorating Cyrus’ capture of Babylon in 539 BCE (Schaudig 2001: 550-6). This cylinder, however, was written in normal Neo-Babylonian script.
The document is a barrel-shaped clay cylinder, which was buried in the foundations of the Ezida temple in Borsippa. This form of foundation document is common since the second millennium. The script of this cylinder is deliberately archaic, using a ceremonial Babylonian cuneiform script that was also used in the Codex of Hammurabi and adopted in a number of royal inscriptions of Neo-Babylonian kings like Nabopolassar, Nebuchadnezzar and Nabonidus (cf. Berger 1973). The script varies from the cuneiform that was used for chronicles, diaries, rituals, scientific and administrative texts.
The Antiochus Cylinder was recovered by Hormuzd Rassam in 1880 in Ezida, the temple of the god Nabu in Borsippa, from its original position “encased in some kiln-burnt bricks covered over with bitumen,” in the “doorway” of Koldewey’s Room A1. Rassam (1897: 270) mistakenly records this as a cylinder of Nebuchadnezzar II (Reade 1986: 109). The cylinder is now in the British Museum in London.

Let us now turn to the Babyloniaca itself. Tatian states that the work consists of three books (BNJ 680 T2). Fragments from each book have been preserved. As far as we can judge, the contents of the books can be outlined as follows:

Book 1 opens with a prologue, in which Berossos presents himself and his sources. In this prologue he probably also explained his dedication to Antiochus I. After the prologue he describes the geography of Babylonia, the country’s fauna and flora and its multiethnic popu­lation.

Berossos then proceeds to primeval history: the ‘fish-man’ Oannes, in Mesopotamian tradition Uan(na), the first antediluvian and most important sage, brings civilisation to hu­mankind in Babylonia in the very first year of kingship. Thereupon, the sage narrates how the universe was created by Belos and how this god formed man (BNJ 680 F la-b and 685 F la-b).

Athenaeus’ testimony that Berossos describes the celebration of a festival in his first book (BNJ 680 F2) is the only indication that this book also dealt with Babylonian customs. Although I concluded that the astronomical / astrological fragments preserved under the name of Berossos are not genuine, this does not exclude the possibility that Berossos wrote in his work on this Babylonian science par excellence.

As a rule, a Greek ethnographical work, the genre Berossos followed, presents the intellectual achievements of the people treated. If Berossos wrote on Babylonian astronomy / astrology, Book 1 — and more specifi­cally in the section of Babylonian customs — was the most likely part of his work to do it.

Book 2 gives an overview of Babylonian rulers, starting with the antediluvian kings (BNJ 680 F 3a-b – F 6 and 685 F 2-3; Aelian records the tale of King Euchoros, or Enmerkar in the cuneiform, whose guards hurled the infant Gilgamesh (Gilgamos) from the height of the citadel in the History of Animals, 12.21).

The book probably ends with the reign of Nabonassar (747-734). For the most part, this section of Berossos’ work was very likely an enumeration of kings, dynasties and year numbers and did not provide elaborate information — at least for the early periods.

This can be deduced from Eusebius’ remark that Berossos gave hardly any information on the kings’ deeds or even omitted them (BNJ 680 F 3a). This very likely reflects the dearth of sources Berossos could rely on: many of the early rulers were no more than names in long king lists. The overview of kings and dynasties is interrupted by the story of the Flood and its aftermath (BNJ 680 F 4a-c and 685 F 3a-b).

Book 3 relates the history of Babylonia from Nabonassar to Alexander the Great (BNJ 680 F7-11 and 685 F5-7). From this book more narrative episodes have been preserved and although Berossos’ treatment of the Achaemenid period is almost completely lost, the notice that Artaxerxes II introduced the cult of Anaitis demonstrates that Berossos elaborated on this period too.”

Geert de Breucker, “Berossos: His Life and Work,” from Johannes Haubold, Giovanni B. Lanfranchi, Robert Rollinger, John Steele (eds.), The World of Berossos, Proceedings of the 4th International Colloquium on the Ancient Near East Between Classical and Ancient Oriental Traditions, Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2013, pp. 22-3.

Otto Rank, Citing Aelian on the Birth of Gilgamesh

“Aelian, who lived about 200 A.D., relates in his Animal Stories the history of a boy who was saved by an eagle:

“Animals have a characteristic fondness for man. An eagle is known to have nourished a child. I shall tell the entire story, in proof of my assertion.

When Senechoros reigned over the Babylonians, the Chaldean fortunetellers foretold that the son of the king’s daughter would take the kingdom from his grandfather; this verdict was a prophecy of the Chaldeans.

The king was afraid of this prophecy, and humorously speaking, he became a second Acrisius for his daughter, over whom he watched with the greatest severity. But his daughter, fate being wiser than the Babylonian, conceived secretly from an inconspicuous man.

For fear of the king, the guardians threw the child down from the acropolis, where the royal daughter was imprisoned. The eagle, with his keen eyes, saw the boy’s fall, and before the child struck the earth, he caught it on his back, bore it into a garden, and set it down with great care.

When the overseer of the place saw the beautiful boy, he was pleased with him and raised him. The boy received the name Gilgamesh, and became the king of Babylonia.

If anyone regards this as a fable, I have nothing to say, although I have investigated the matter to the best of my ability. Also of Achaemenes, the Persian, from whom the nobility of the Persians is derived, I learn that he was the pupil of an eagle.”

Otto Rank, Myth of the Birth of the Hero, 1914, pp. 26-7.

Implications of the Gilgamesh Epic

“Among the traditions concerning his birth is one related by Ælian (Historia Animalium, XII, 21) of Gilgamos (Gilgamesh), the grandson of Sokkaros. Sokkaros, who, according to Berossus, was the first king to reign in Babylonia after the deluge, was warned by means of divination that his daughter should bear a son who would deprive him of his throne.

Thinking to frustrate the designs of fate he shut her up in a tower, where she was closely watched. But in time she bore a son, and her attendants, knowing how wroth the King would be to learn of the event, flung the child from the tower.

But before he reached the ground an eagle seized him up and bore him off to a certain garden, where he was duly found and cared for by a peasant. And when he grew to manhood he became King of the Babylonians, having, presumably, usurped the throne of his grandfather.

Here we have a myth obviously of solar significance, conforming in every particular to a definite type of sun-legend. It cannot have been by chance that it became attached to the person of Gilgamesh.

Everything in the epic, too, is consonant with the belief that Gilgamesh is a sun-god—his connexion with Shamash (who may have been his father in the tradition given by Ælian, as well as the eagle which saved him from death), the fact that no mention is made of his father in the poem, though his mother is brought in more than once, and the assumption throughout the epic that he is more than human.

Given the key to his mythical character it is not hard to perceive in his adventures the daily (or annual) course of the sun, rising to its full strength at noonday (or mid-summer), and sinking at length to the western horizon, to return in due time to the abode of men.

Like all solar deities—like the sun itself—his birth and origin are wrapped in mystery. He is, indeed, one of the ‘fatal children,’ like Sargon, Perseus, or Arthur. When he first appears in the narrative he is already a full-grown hero, the ruler and (it would seem) oppressor of Erech.

His mother, Rimat-belit, is a priestess in the temple of Ishtar, and through her he is descended from Ut-Napishtim, a native of Shurippak, and the hero of the Babylonian flood-legend. Early in the narrative he is brought into contact with the wild man Eabani, originally designed for his destruction by the gods, but with whom he eventually concludes a firm friendship.

The pair proceed to do battle with the monster Khumbaba, whom they overcome, as they do also the sacred bull sent against them by Anu. Up to the end of the Vlth tablet their conquering and triumphant career is without interruption; Gilgamesh increases in strength as does the sun approaching the zenith.

At the Vllth tablet, however, his good fortune begins to wane. Eabani dies, slain doubtless by the wrath of Ishtar, whose love Gilgamesh has rejected with scorn; and the hero, mourning the death of his friend, and smitten with fear that he himself will perish in like manner, decides to go in search of his ancestor, Ut-Napishtim (who, as sole survivor of the deluge, has received from the gods deification and immortality), and learn of him the secret of eternal life.

His further adventures have not the triumphal character of his earlier exploits. Sunwise he journeys to the Mountain of the Sunset, encounters the scorpion-men, and crosses the Waters of Death. Ut-Napishtim teaches him the lesson that all men must die (he himself being an exception in exceptional circumstances), and though he afterwards gives Gilgamesh an opportunity of eating the plant of life, the opportunity is lost.

However, Ut-Napishtim cures Gilgamesh of a disease which he has contracted, apparently while crossing the Waters of Death, and he is finally restored to Erech.

In these happenings we see the gradual sinking of the sun into the underworld by way of the Mountain of the Sunset. It is impossible for the sun to attain immortality, to remain for ever in the land of the living; he must traverse the Waters of Death and sojourn in the underworld.

Yet the return of Gilgamesh to Erech signifies the fresh dawning of the day. It is the eternal struggle of day and night, summer and winter; darkness may conquer light, but light will emerge again victorious. The contest is unending.

Some authorities have seen in the division of the epic into twelve tablets a connexion with the months of the year or the signs of the zodiac. Such a connexion probably exists, but when we consider that the artificial division of the epic into tablets scarcely tallies with the natural divisions of the poem, it seems likely that the astrological significance of the former was given to the epic by the scribes of Nineveh, who were evidently at some pains to compress the matter into twelve tablets.

Of the astro-theological significance of the narrative itself (one of its most important aspects), we shall perhaps be better able to judge when we have considered it in detail.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 156-9.

Chaldean Astronomy and Magic

“For more than two thousand years the records of Babylonian and Assyrian astronomy lay buried and forgotten under the ruins of Assyrian palaces, and all that was known of the subject came from a few passages in the Bible and in the works of Greek and Roman writers.

To the Hebrews the sorceries of Babylon were an accursed thing, and the prophet Isaiah scoffs at them in these words:

“Stand now with thine enchantments, and with the multitude of thy sorceries, wherein thou hast laboured from thy youth; if so be thou shalt be able to profit, if so be thou mayest prevail.

Thou art wearied in the multitude of thy counsels. Let now the astrologers, the stargazers, the monthly prognosticators, stand up, and save thee from these things that shall come upon thee.” (Isaiah 47:12).

Among Greek writers Strabo (died a.d. 24) asserted that the Chaldeans were skilled in astronomy and the casting of horoscopes, and Aelian (3rd century a.d.) mentions the fact that both the Babylonians and Chaldeans enjoyed a reputation for possessing a knowledge of astronomy.

Achilles Tatius  (6th century) reports the existence of a tradition to the effect that the Egyptians mapped the heavens, and that they inscribed their knowledge on their pillars; the same tradition declared that the Chaldeans claimed the glory of this science, the foundation of which they attributed to the god Bel.

For this last belief there seems to be some evidence in a statement of Berosus, to the effect that the god Bel created the stars and sun and moon, and the five planets. Diodorus Siculus, a contemporary of Augustus, tells us that the Babylonian priests observed the position of certain stars in order to cast horoscopes, and that they interpreted dreams and derived omens from the movement of birds and from eclipses and earthquakes.

The general evidence of serious writers leads us to believe that astrology formed part of the religious system of the Babylonians, and it certainly exercised considerable influence over the minds of the dwellers between the Tigris and the Euphrates.

In any case, the reputation of the Chaldeans, i.e., the Babylonians and Assyrians, for possessing magical powers was so widespread, that the very name Chaldean at a comparatively early date became synonymous with magician.”

Reginald Campbell Thompson, The Reports of the Magicians and Astrologers of Nineveh and Babylon, Vol. II, London, 1900. pp. xiii-xiv.

Were the Babylonian Kings … Gods?

“Though there is no proof that ancestor-worship in general prevailed at any time in Babylonia, it would seem that the worship of heroes and prominent men was common, at least in early times.

The tenth chapter of Genesis tells us of the story of Nimrod, who cannot be any other than the Merodach of the Assyro-Babylonian inscriptions; and other examples, occurring in semi-mythological times, are /En-we-dur-an-ki/, the Greek Edoreschos, and /Gilgameš/, the Greek Gilgamos, though Aelian’s story of the latter does not fit in with the account as given by the inscriptions.

In later times, the divine prefix is found before the names of many a Babylonian ruler–Sargon of Agadé,[*] Dungi of Ur (about 2500 B.C.), Rim-Sin or Eri-Aku (Arioch of Ellasar, about 2100 B.C.), and others.

It was doubtless a kind of flattery to deify and pay these rulers divine honours during their lifetime, and on account of this, it is very probable that their godhood was utterly forgotten, in the case of those who were strictly historical, after their death.

The deification of the kings of Babylonia and Assyria is probably due to the fact, that they were regarded as the representatives of God upon earth, and being his chief priests as well as his offspring (the personal names show that it was a common thing to regard children as the gifts of the gods whom their father worshipped), the divine fatherhood thus attributed to them naturally could, in the case of those of royal rank, give them a real claim to divine birth and honours.

An exception is the deification of the Babylonian Noah, Ut-napištim, who, as the legend of the Flood relates, was raised and made one of the gods by Aa or Ea, for his faithfulness after the great catastrophe, when he and his wife were translated to the “remote place at the mouth of the rivers.”

The hero Gilgameš, on the other hand, was half divine by birth, though it is not exactly known through whom his divinity came.”

[*] According to Nabonidus’s date 3800 B.C., though many Assyriologists regard this as being a millennium too early.”

Theophilus G. Pinches, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, London, 1906, pp. 13-4.

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