Publishing the Forbidden. All Rights Reserved. © Samizdat 2014-2022.

Tag: Bitumen

Eco: Before and After Europe, 3


Francisco of Holland, 1543-73, De aetatibus mundi imagines, Creation of Man, Biblioteca Nacional de España. 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.

 “There is one sense in which St. Augustine did have a clear idea of a perfect language, common to all people. But this was not a language of words; it was, rather, a language made out of things themselves.

He viewed the world, as it was later to be put, as a vast book written with God’s own finger. Those who knew how to read the book were able to understand the allegories hidden in the scriptures, where, beneath references to simple earthly things (plants, stones, animals), symbolic meanings lay.

This Language of the World, instituted by its creator, could not be read, however, without a key; it was the need to provide such a key that provoked a rapid outflowing of bestiaries, lapidaries, encyclopedias and imagines mundi throughout the Middle Ages.

This represents a tradition that will resurface in our own story as well: European culture will sometimes seize upon hieroglyphs and other esoteric ideograms, believing that truth can only be expressed in emblems or symbols.

Still, St. Augustine’s symbolic interests were not combined with the longing to recover a lost tongue that someone might, or ought to, speak once again.

For Augustine, as for nearly all the early Fathers, Hebrew certainly was the primordial language. It was the language spoken before Babel. After the confusion, it still remained the tongue of the elected people.

Nevertheless, Augustine gave no sign of wanting to recover its use. He was at home in Latin, by now the language of the church and of theology.

Several centuries later, Isidore of Seville found it easy to assume that, in any case, there were three sacred languages–Hebrew, Greek and Latin–because these were the three languages that appeared written above the cross (Etymologiarum, ix, 1).

With this conclusion, the task of determining the language in which the Lord said “fiat lux” became more arduous.

If anything, the Fathers were concerned about another linguistic puzzle: the Bible clearly states that God brought before Adam all the beasts of the field and all the fowl of the air. What about the fish? Did Adam name the fish? Maybe it seemed inconvenient dragging them all up from the briny deep to parade them in the garden of Eden.

We may think this a slight matter; yet the question, whose last trace is to be found in Massey’s Origins and Progress of Letters published in 1763 (cf. White 1917: II, 196), was never satisfactorily resolved, despite Augustine’s helpful suggestion that the fish were named one at a time, as they were discovered (De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim, XII, 20).

Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages, when Europe had still to emerge, premonitions of its linguistic future lurked unrecorded. New languages came slowly into being. It has been calculated that, towards the end of the fifth century, people no longer spoke Latin, but Gallo-Romanic, Italico-Romanic or Hispano-Romanic.

While intellectuals continued to write in Latin, bastardizing it ever further, they heard around them local dialects in which survivals of languages spoken before Roman civilization crossed with new roots arriving with the barbarian invaders.

It is in the seventh century, before any known document written in Romance or Germanic languages, that the first allusion to our theme appears. it is contained in an attempt, on the part of Irish grammarians, to defend spoken Gaelic over learned Latin.

In a work entitled Auracepit na n-Éces (“the precepts of the poets”), the Irish grammarians refer to the structural material of the tower of Babel as follows:

“Others affirm that in the tower there were only nine materials, and that these were clay and water, wool and blood, wood and lime, pitch, linen, and bitumen. . . . These represent noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, participle, conjunction, preposition, interjection.”

Ignoring the anomaly of the nine parts of the tower and only eight parts of speech, we are meant to understand that the structure of language and the construction of the tower are analogous. This is part of an argument that the Gaelic language constituted the first and only instance of a language that overcame the confusion of tongues.

It was the first, programmed language, constructed after the confusion of tongues, and created by the seventy-two wise men of the school of Fenius. The canonic account in the Precepts

“shows the action of the founding of this language . . . as a “cut and paste” operation on other languages that the 72 disciples undertook after the dispersion. . . . It was then that the rules of this language were constructed. All that was best in each language, all there was that was grand or beautiful, was cut out and retained in Irish. . . . Wherever there was something that had no name in any other language, a name for it was made up in Irish. (Poli 1989: 187-9).”

This first-born and, consequently, supernatural language retained traces of its original isomorphism with the created world. As long as the proper order of its elements was respected, this ensured a sort of iconic bond between grammatical items and referents, or states of things in the real world.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 14-7.

On the Date of The Flood

“I now turn to Berossos’ account of the Flood as the central narrative of book 2. The extant fragments contain the following elements:

  • – Kronos reveals the destruction of mankind in a dream
  • Xisouthros is told he must bury the tablets in Sippar
  • – He must build a boat and embark together with family, friends, and animals
  • – The coming and receding of the deluge (mentioned in only one sentence)
  • – Bird scene
  • – Disembarking
  • – Worship and ritual offering
  • – Disappearance of Xisouthros, who will henceforth live with the gods
  • Xisouthros’ friends and relatives are told (not by Kronos, but a ‘voice’) to go to Sippar and dig up the tablets, and to hand them over to mankind.
  • – Landing place in Armenia, in the Korduaian mountains. The remains of the ark are still there, and people scrape off bitumen for magic purposes.

In Mesopotamian accounts of the deluge the Flood marks a break between a mythic prehis­tory and a history closer to the world as it is today. According to Manfried Dietrich, many mythical texts from Mesopotamia reflect this view of history, whereby an embryonic phase in the development of the world (‘embryonaler Status’) is followed by what he calls the ‘Jetzt-Zeit’, i.e. the present time.

The extant fragments of Berossos follow the same overall scheme. For Berossos too, the time before the Flood is a period of revelation, when the basis for all later knowledge was laid. Writings originating in this period would accordingly have a special authority and ‘the history which follows is the time when this revelation is transmitted and unfolded.’

Berossos was not the first to connect an antediluvian king list with the Flood story: al­ready the Sumerian version of the Flood story mentions five primeval cities known also from copies of the Sumerian King List.

Among all the extant exemplars of the Sumerian King List, the Weld-Blundell prism in the Ashmolean Museum cuneiform collection represents the most extensive version as well as the most complete copy of the King List.  In this depiction, all four sides of the Sumerian King List prism are portrayed.  It lists rulers from the antediluvian dynasties to Suen-magir, the fourteenth ruler of the Isin dynasty (ca. 1763–1753 B.C.).   The prism contains four sides with two columns on each side. Perforated, the prism must originally have a wooden spindle going through its centre so that it might be rotated and read on all four sides.

Among all the extant exemplars of the Sumerian King List, the Weld-Blundell prism in the Ashmolean Museum cuneiform collection represents the most extensive version as well as the most complete copy of the King List.
In this depiction, all four sides of the Sumerian King List prism are portrayed.
It lists rulers from the antediluvian dynasties to Suen-magir, the fourteenth ruler of the Isin dynasty (ca. 1763–1753 B.C.).
The prism contains four sides with two columns on each side. Perforated, the prism must originally have a wooden spindle going through its centre so that it might be rotated and read on all four sides.

Berossos’ own knowledge of primordial kings probably goes back to sources that were available in Hellenistic times. The Sumerian King List itself was still known in the Seleucid era, or rather versions of king lists that echo, structurally and stylistically, their ancient forerunners from the early second millenium.

In matching up the primordial kings with the seven sages, the apkallu, Berossos once again works in the vein of contemporary scholars, who demonstrably constructed lists with kings and apkallu in order to advertise their own importance, and the primordial roots of their knowledge, as Alan Lenzi has recently shown (Editorial note: this link is to Alan Lenzi, “The Uruk List of Kings and Sages and Late Mesopotamian Scholarship,” JANER 8.2, 2008, which will be serialized in its own posts shortly).

Detail, Apkallu head, from a frieze in Nimrud.

Detail, apkallu head, from a frieze in Nimrud.

Yet, Berossos does not merely translate ancient documents, but rather selects and reframes what he finds, thus constructing his own version of the past. For a start, he locates the beginnings of kingship in Babylon and not in Eridu as the first city of Mesopotamian tradition.

Moreover, he reckons the overall duration of pre-flood history at 432,000 years (120 saroi = 120 x 3600 years), a sum that reflects the sexagesimal count­ing system of ancient Mesopotamia but which, as far as we know, is unique in Mesoptamian tradition.

432,000, however, is no arbitrary accumulation of individual reigns, but rather represents an astronomical ‘great year’, or an exact fraction of it. A great year is the period of time it takes for all heavenly bodies to return to their original place in the sky.

Berossos evidently had at least some astronomical knowledge, and moreover was keen to display his knowledge. Indeed, another peculiarity of Babyloniaca 2, beside the exorbitant reigns of the pre-flood kings, is Berossos’ unusual and very specific reference to a date for the Flood:

Kronos stood over him in his sleep and said that on the 15th of the month of Daisios mankind would be destroyed by a flood.

The Armenian version (F4a) supplies some explanatory glosses inserted at a later stage (in italics):

He says that Kronos, whom they call the father of Aramazd and others call Time, revealed to him in his sleep that on the 15th of the month of De(s)ios, which is Mareri, mankind was to be destroyed by the Flood.

There is no mention of a specific date in cuneiform texts about the Flood, yet Berossos puts it on ‘the fifteenth of the month Daisios’. According to the Macedonian calendar introduced by the Seleucids, Daisios is the 8th month of the year, and comes in spring (April/May, Babylonian Ayyaru).

Perhaps Berossos inserted a Macedonian dating in order to make it more relevant to his readers who were familiar with Greek Flood narratives. The choice of date may not be entirely accidental, as the Tigris and the Euphrates burst their banks in spring.

However, extant cuneiform sources link the deluge with rains and a cosmic storm rather than natural inundations, and we may have to look elsewhere for an explanation.”

Martin Lang, “Book Two: Mesopotamian Early History and the Flood Story,” 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. 49-51.

The Rites


“The unguent cometh unto thee to fashion thy members and to gladden thy heart, and thou shalt appear in the form of Râ; it shall make thee to be sound when thou settest in the sky at eventide, and it shall spread abroad the smell of thee in the nomes of Aqert. . . .”

“Thou receivest the oil of the cedar in Amentet, and the cedar which came forth from Osiris cometh unto thee; it delivereth thee from thy enemies, and it protecteth thee in the nomes.”

“Thy soul alighteth upon the venerable sycamores. Thou criest to Isis, and Osiris heareth thy voice, and Anubis cometh unto thee to invoke thee.”

“Thou receivest the oil of the country of Manu which hath come from the East, and Râ riseth upon thee at the gates of the horizon, at the holy doors of Neith.”

“Thou goest therein, thy soul is in the upper heaven, and thy body is in the lower heaven . . . O Osiris, may the Eye of Horus cause that which floweth forth from it to come to thee, and to thy heart for ever!”

These words having been said, the whole ceremony was repeated, and then the internal organs which had been removed from the body were placed in the “liquid of the children of Horus,” so that the liquid of this god might enter into them, and whilst they were being thus treated a chapter was read over them and they were put in the funeral chest.

When this was done the internal organs were placed on the body, and the body having been made to lie straight the backbone was immersed in holy oil, and the face of the deceased was turned towards the sky; the bandage of Sebek and Sedi was then laid upon the backbone.

In a long speech the deceased is addressed and told that the liquid is “secret,” and that it is an emanation of the gods Shu and Seb, and that the resin of Phoenicia and the bitumen of Byblos will make his burial perfect in the underworld, and give him his legs, and facilitate his movements, and sanctify his steps in the Hall of Seb.

Next gold, silver, lapis-lazuli, and turquoise are brought to the deceased, and crystal to lighten his face, and carnelian to strengthen his steps; these form amulets which will secure for him a free passage in the underworld.

Meanwhile the backbone is kept in oil, and the face of the deceased is turned towards the heavens; and next the gilding of the nails of the fingers and toes begins.

When this has been done, and portions of the fingers have been wrapped in linen made at Saïs, the following address is made to the deceased:—

“O Osiris, thou receivest thy nails of gold, thy fingers of gold, and thy thumb of smu (or uasm) metal; the liquid of Râ entereth into thee as well as into the divine members of Osiris, and thou journeyest on thy legs to the immortal abode.”

“Thou hast carried thy hands to the house of eternity, thou art made perfect in gold, thou dost shine brightly in smu metal, and thy fingers shine in the dwelling of Osiris, in the sanctuary of Horus himself.”

“O Osiris, the gold of the mountains cometh to thee; it is a holy talisman of the gods in their abodes, and it lighteneth thy face in the lower heaven.”

“Thou breathest in gold, thou appearest in smu metal, and the dwellers in Re-stau receive thee; those who are in the funeral chest rejoice because thou hast transformed thyself into a hawk of gold by means of thy amulets (or talismans) of the City of Gold,” etc.

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. P. 186-8.

%d bloggers like this: