Sunday, February 21, 2010

Minoan incantations on Egyptian papyri

This time we shall discuss an interesting topic. We all know that the Minoan world did not grow up in a cultural vacuum. It had direct connections to the highly developed urban civilizations of the Middle East, especially Egypt. In fact, it was the Egyptian influence that had a decisive impact upon the course of the Cretan culture. The Minoan 'palatial' (temple) architecture and the development of an advanced writing system are just few elements of culture the Minoans imported from Egypt. Egyptian sources also prove the presence of Minoan traders and craftsmen (and even physicians) in ancient Egypt. Though some scholars still express doubts, it is fairly generally accepted that the "Land of Keftiu" is the term Egyptians used for Crete. There, the Minoans have left their traces, and even traces of their language: for there are papyri (for example the London Medical Papyrus or the Harris 501 papyrus) that record phrases, expressions and names in the language of Keftiu.

The medical adeptnesss of the Minoans is revealed by these Egyptian documents: there was even a special plant ("Keftian bean") imported from Crete as remedy for certain illnesses. But the most important part of the cited papyri are the magic incantations that were used to 'cure' certain diseases by the physicians (or should I say shamans?) of old. In the current post, I will write about only two of these magical phrases - these are the one of the best known examples of Keftian incantations. One of them is the incantation to treat the 'Asiatic' disease on the Hearst Medical Papyrus; the second one is the spell from the London Medical Papyrus to treat the Samuna-illness.

The first incantation reads as follows (as on the papyrus):

Spell for the Asiatic disease in Keftiu language:
This utterance is said with...

Unfortunately, there are no word-dividers, nor determinatives, so it is hard to analyse this sentence. Just to break this monster into separate words is a hard task by itself. Perhaps (and I cannot stress enough: very tentatively) the phrase can be reconstructed as follows:

santi kapawa piyawaya iya mantil kakail

Almost everything in this phase is just pure theory, but a few things seem more-or-less certain: The i-r parts seem to be endings (moreover, similar endings), so I made them terminal. The phrase also features the sequence k3-pw, which looks similar to the KA-PA and KU-PA phrases found on the Linear A tablets. The i-j- part seems to start a word, so I reconstructed them as *iya (that is also found in Linear A in the form of I-JA). It can either be separate or form the beginning of the next word (*iya mantil, *iyamantil or *i yamantil). Since this is a sentence, it must contain at least one verb. This could be either iya or any of the phrases preceding it (e.g. santi or piyawaya). Remember, we expect some sort of 'optative' mood, so the supposed Linear A verbal endings -TI and -SI do not help.

Fortunately, the second incantation is much better. Since it contains determinatives, one can not only properly separate the words, but also directly understand something of their meanings. This incantation reads the following:

Incantation of the Samuna-illness:
w-b-q-i (det: ILLNESS) s3-t-t (det: ?)

s3-b-w-j-7-3-jj-d3-3 (det: TO GO)

hw-m-c-k3-3-t-w (det: MAN)

r-t3-jj The Great God and 'a-m-c-j3, God!
This sentence is to be said four times!

This phrase could be a real treasure trove of Minoan words, if properly reconstructured, analysed and understood. A possible transliteration of the sentence is presented below:

wappakwi sat(et) sappawaya-iyattsaa hawamekaatu Ratsiya (GREAT GOD) Ameya (GOD)

I used double consonants to indicate the places where the Egyptian scribe used a voiced consonant (something which is not indicated on Linear A documents, since it is probable that there was inherently no distinction between voiced and voiceless stops). I intentionally entered a dash within the verb (you will see soon why). The presence of determinatives is a great help to understand at least the approximate meaning of the words.

Let us start with the first word: wappa-kwi - if we take off the last few sounds that are likely a suffix, it is very similar to the Hittite word-stem *huwapp- meaning 'wicked', 'bad', 'evil', etc. Though this is often thought of as a Proto-Indo-European word, a good alternative could be that this very stem is of Aegean origin. As we see, its meaning is perfectly fit with the determinative: the meaning of wappakwi seems to be the term 'disease' in general.

The second word: s3-t-t is a fairly obscure one. In his original publication, Haider interpreted this word as s3-t + det:BREAD. But it does not fit the context, unless this is indeed a 'bread-illness' (i.e. resulting from alimentary reasons). However, this is unlikely, and we are left to wonder if this word is an Egyptian phrase inserted into the text (similar to Netcher = 'god'), but without a determinative. Unfortunately, it is hard to find a fitting word in Egyptian language, and translation attempts like 'daughter of the father' (s3-t-jt ?= s3-t-t) were so far unable to give a truely fitting translation. The only thing we can say is that this term likely gives some detail of the disease.

The third word is very interesting due to two reasons. First, it is undoubtedly a verb, as the Egyptian determinative denote intransitive verbs related to movement. Yet it seems to terminate with an ending quite different from those obberved in Linear A. This strange ending can likely be explained by the optative or commanding sense of the phrase ('let [it] lift off', 'may [it] chase away' or similar). The other really interesting feature is the considerable length of this word. Since simple words in Minoan Linear A tend to be at most 2-3 syllable long, this phrase is likely a compound word. The first half of the term: sappawaya- is heavily reminiscent of the phrase SU-PU2-*188 (perhaps *supphuwe) common on Linear A tablets. Apart from tablets recording goods 'brought in' or 'carried away' (i.e. HT 8), the term can also be found as a name of a name for a vessel-type on HT 31 in the form SU-PU. Very recently, I had a truely perverted idea on the meaning of this name. We know all too well, that the Greek vessels bore names according to their composition or function: so there were Tripods (τριπους = 'three legs'), Kraters (κρατήρ= 'holder') or Amphores (αμφορεύς= Gr *amphi-phoreus ='carry-around' or 'twin carrier'). If so, then the (relatively amphore-like) vessel SU-PU might have been the Minoan equivalent of Greek amphores, with its name being a translation of the Greek word 'carrier'. This would fit well with the interpretation of the (related) SU-PU-*188 as a transaction term, and the meaning of sappawaya-ijattsaa as a verb expressing some sort of movement. The only problem of this interpretation lies in the fact, that sappawaya-ijatsaa actually appears to be intransitive, thus cannot mean 'carry off'. Otherwise the scribe would have used the determinant 'to carry' and not the one 'to go'.

The fourth word, hawamekaatu (also transliterated as humekatu) is some sort of a mystery. According to its determinative, its meaning should be something fairly general, like '[off this] man'. Otherwise the scribe would have used a determinative for a specific type of men or that of some body part. It is almost certainly a declined case expressing some sort of directionatlity (for example, an ablative, locative or alike) However, the Cretan scripts offer no parallel at this time. The only faintly similar word is KU-MI-NA(-QE) in Linear A and Komn in Eteocretan (from the Drerian inscriptions). Yet the former (and likely the latter as well) seem to denote a type of goat, thus having nothing to do with hawamekaatu.

As for the last two words, they stand with an explanatory Egyptian text, instead of determinatives. This makes their meaning crystal-clear: there are two gods mentioned, one by the name Ameya (supposedly a divinity specifically responsible for healing), and another one, Ratsiya, who appears to be an important 'chief divinity'. At this point, the classic Greek religion offers direct identification of these theonyms with Maia and Rhea. The former one was a figure of little importance in the classical era, yet Maia was noted for being the mother of Hermes (the god of craftsmanship), and occasionally even worshipped as a goddess of mountain-peaks. On the other hand, Rhea was renown for being mother to many of the Olympic Gods, including Zeus. Temples of Rhea stood at the centre of Knossos and Phaistos, exacly at the site of the former palaces, during the classical era. Since the Egyptian scribe has noted these theonyms with a male pronoun, we must theorise that this was an error on his side, being foreign to the Minoan religion (in Egypt, both the head of the pantheon and some gods associated with healing were males).

Read together, we may tentatively translate the second incantation as follows:

"Let God[dess] Ameya and Great God[dess] Ratsiya lift the [?] illness off this man.

These texts are not the only records of the 'Keftian' (Cretan) language in Egyptian texts, though undoubtedly the most complete ones. There is also a writing-board (used by scribes to practice) that records "how to make names of Keftiu", with a few names following it in a row - however, the afffinity of the latter names are disputed. I will show the entire list on the picture below, for those interested at deciphering the structure of these personal names.

Some of them appear outight semitic, especially the one starting with b-n- ('son [of]'). Other ones appear to be genuinely Egyptian (e.g. s-n-n-f-r). Only few of the names appear to be originating from outside the Middle East: mainly the ones that begin with iw-. Yet even those fit poorly with any name found on the Linear A tablets, and even the comparison with archaic Greek names staring with eu- ('good') appears to be more acceptable than the Minoan affinity of any of these words. So this table is indeed what it was meant to be by its author: a list of randomly gathered names just for practicing their shapes.


  1. Fascinating! However, I'm slightly surprised there are no D*- syllables in the transliteration. How are you equating the Egyptian values with the Minoan values?

  2. "I used double consonants to indicate the places where the Egyptian scribe used a voiced consonant [...]"

    Ah, but there's the rub. Egyptian 'b', 'd' and 'g' weren't voiced consonants! Browse Loprieno, Ancient Egyptian: A linguistic introduction (1995), p.32.

  3. As regards Egyptian b and g were voiced, afterwards they became spirant w and G.
    d is indeed not voiced but is a glottalized dental: t.

    I must say I do not consider at all Kaftiu to be Crete.
    The sentence you mention is in my opinion Hurrian: It reads
    . This sentence translates into standard Hurrian as ‘All this exists no longer for you, by the incense ten times may (it) be purified’:
    The reading w3 is incorrect. Correct is ?Hr

    The other sentence is not at all Hurrian and is not supposed to be KAftiu in the first place. It belongs to a language I don't know.

    As regards the school exercice, some of the "names" can be read as Hurrian, but they are not all Person names. More sentences.
    The first is ikaS attai The father is saved.
    The second is iSa Haruw "sky and earth"
    the fourth is Na Su?i "everything is obtained"
    etc. not person names.



  4. Actually, I should correct myself slightly: 'b', 'd' and 'g' do not represent a voiced stop series. Afterall, the sound represented as 'b' at least was surely voiced, although potentially a bilabial fricative, some say.

    Back to w-b-q-i, Egyptian scribes used a special 'syllabic notation' when writing foreign words and names. So I read the sentence as '*Upaqi sata sapuya aita humekatu.' although I'm not sure how to interpret it.

  5. I am also leaning towards that Egyptians used a 'more phonetical' writing mood when writing down foreign phrases (such as those from Keftiu). This seems a pretty obvious human tendency: just try writing down some words of a language that does not have a standard English transliteration, into this language. Quite probably, your words will be more regular (phonologically) than those written 'the traditional way' in English, or even in its original language.

    The thing I am uncertain of, is the grade of phonetisation the Egyptian script was capable of. In the traditional transliteration of Egyptian phrases, one has to insert vowels to each and every sign, and then 'recolour' them to get an approximate contemporary pronounciation. But we know too little of how the Egyptian language really looked like. This would necessitate the discovery of a complete Egyptian text written in a 'foreign' way (i.e. in Cuneiform). So far, this reconstruction was not possible, and this still leaves doubts about the nature of the true Egyptian phonology. As for the consonants, it is indeed true, that the only one to be voiced with certainty was 'b'. The rest (e.g. 'd') might have been 'emphatic' consonants (i.e. glottalized, or 'ejective' sounds.)

    The gravest problem, in our reconstruction of the 'Keftian' phrases is the value of the semi-vowel 'w'. Shall we transliterate it as long '-u-'? Or insert vowels before and after, giving '-ewe-' or '-awa-' ? Looking at these two incantations, I am leaning towards the insertion (albeit this is not without problem, in some cases the long '-u-' still fits better). This would allow to read s3-b-w-j as *sappawaya or even *suppuwaya and k3-pw as *kapawa or *kupuwa. On the other hand, I am perfectly aware of the fact, that in the writing of Aegean city names, the scribes used 'w'-signs often as a substitute for '-u-' and not as a true consonant. We even know that Knossos was called differently in Minoan times, likely as *Kunissu (as appearing on the Linear A tablets). - this is well in-line with its reading in Paleoglot.

  6. Ooops, seems like I forgot to reply on the comment regarding the Minoan 'D' signs.

    The 'D'-series of the Linear A syllabary is transliterated as 'D' as a convention. This is similar to the situation regarding the 'R'-series. Since the Linear B documents write both R and L sounds with a single sign, it suggests that the original language the Minoans used had no distinction between the two sounds (looking for parallels, just think of the Japanese language). This single sound was quite probably more 'L'-like, but the convention was already made by Ventris to use the 'R'-notation. So we all continue to use that, despite the obvious truth.

    The 'T' and 'D' series are the best example in Linear A of stops contrasted on some basis. We find similar examples in the case of P (ordinary PA and PU) and P* (PA3, PU2), albeit the latter series is not complete. But the sole fact that the Linear A script (and likely the language too) tended to lack distinction between voiced and voiceless consonants, makes it pretty unlikely that the contrast between 'D' and 'T' was on the basis of voicing. Based on the example of the P and P* series, the distinction was much more likely that of a simple/unaspirated and a strengthened/aspirated sound. In the case of P*-series signs, this is obvious from their later use in Linear B, as a facultative indicator of aspirated PH-sounds. As for the 'D'-signs in Linear A, I would suggest a transliteration of T and a reading of either D or T, based on the context (the language had no distinction between these two sounds). As for the T-series, I find a transliteration TH more appropriate, with a pronounciation of either a stressed T or an aspirated TH. When Linear A was taken up by the Greeks to use it, they simply fitted its rules to their own language. From that point on, the 'D'-series was always used for D and not T, while the 'T' series could be used for both T and TH. And this is how Linear B was born.

  7. About Minoan "D":

    Consider the following facts:

    1. Minoan "D" is reflected as both /d/ and /l/ in Greek. Greek has both laburinthos and da-pu-ri-to (*daburinthos), in which both realizations occur. Beekes, Pre-Greek: The Pre-Greek loans in Greek,, Section 5.7, p. 18 has other examples.

    2. The related Cypriot syllabary, used for both Eteocypriot and Greek and which was probably the descendent of the Cypro-Minoan syllabary, distinguishes R and L but not D and T.

    The simplest explanation is that Minoan (at least in the dialect(s) of the scribes who created Linear B) replaced "L" with a voiced lateral fricative. (Beekes, among others, supports this idea.) The Minoans who heard Greek would then have heard Greek d as sounding closer to "D" and Greek l as sounding closer to "R". The Greeks, in turn, heard Minoan "D" as both d and l, thereby accounting for its alternations.

    The upshot is that Egyptian "D" does not necessarily correspond to Minoan "D". What we do know is that Egyptian "`" (voiced pharygeal fricative) was originally pronounced similarly to "T" and that, in Bohairic Coptic, Egyptian "T" produced an unvoiced aspirated dental stop and "D" produced an unvoiced dental stop (Peust, Egyptian phonology: an introduction to the phonology of a dead language, . Looking at row 2 of the table on that page makes me think that Egyptian "D", "D_" and "G" were unvoiced ejectives, because there is no bilabial member of that series, similar to Proto-Semitic and the glottallic theory of PIE. "Q", based on Steiner's reading of the Proto-Canaanitic Pyramid Texts (Semitic Q <> Egyptian Q) and its placement in the bilabial group, appears to be an unvoiced labialvelar.

  8. The cited theory does sound as very good explanation, there is only one major flaw: the way the Cypriot syllabary evolved from Linear A. Looking at the signs carefully, and even checking the Cypro-Minoan inscriptions, a number of things are clear:

    First, the 'T'-series of the Cypriot script has a mixed ancestry (signs TE, TI and TO descended from the corresponding Lin A signs, while TA and TU are actually from DA and DU), as if the Lin A 'D' and 'T'-series would have collapsed into a single one in Cypriot. Moreover, the Lin A 'R'-series seems to continue as the 'L'-series of the Cypriot script (at least 3 signs: LA, LI and LO are clearly from Lin A RA, RI and RO, the rest is unidentifyable). And finally, the 'R'-series of the Cypriot script cannot be convincingly linked to any Lin A signs (yet I do not exclude the possibility that some surplus 'R'-series Lin A signs (the labialized ones,*ly-?) might have continued as 'R' in Cypriot).

    Taken together, these pieces of evidence do not support the reading of Minoan 'D' as either a voiced lateral fricative or *l (the signs came to represent 'T' in Cypriot). And the evolution pattern found also suggests a reading of Minoan 'R'-series close to that of 'L' (they were used to represent the sound *l in Cypriot).

    The evolution of some (especially the initial) *d sounds into *l can also be explained in a way similar to the derivation of the latin word lacrima (='teardrop') from the PIE *dakruma (compare Greek δακρυ = 'teardrop'). It is possible that the word for 'labyrinth' was still pronounced as *daburinthos during the Mycenean era, and this sporadic, non-regular development (d->l) occurred later, during the Dark Ages.

  9. I can see that Eteocypriot (not the three undeciphered Cypro-Minoan scripts) LO continues RO, but your other claims seem to be your speculations. This does not invalidate my theory because Eteocypriot and Minoan are different, but probably closely related languages. (I'm not the only one to assume this.) The L/R alternation is hardly unknown. If anything, it appears that Minoan is the outlier: Minoan R is often continued (assuming a lot of things) as L or LY in Greek. This could be a result of the spirintization of Minoan L which drove LY and the like to R.

    I do have to admit, however, that Cypriot TA does look exactly like Minoan DA. This still begs the question of what these represent. It is possible that they are based on different words.

    I prefer the parsimony of my arguments. I really only assume the close relationship (but not identity) of Eteocypriot and Minoan and a simple explanation of Minoan D -> Greek D/L and bizarre presence of only one voiced stop in written "Minoan", when its presumed relatives had only unvoiced stops. Adding in disputed glyph-by-glyph comparisons of the writing of two unknown languages is a tremendous complication.

    As for IE D -> L, I have yet to see an explanation outside of irregular development.

  10. We can determine some things about the names.

    Egyptian: j, k, l and probably p (no group writing)

    j = l: "good brother" or "brother of good"
    k: "brother of architect"
    p: phonetic transcription, Egyptian name of foreign origin?, compare: Ppy and Tty, which have no discernible etymologies

    a, b, e: Greek "eu" names. a and e share the same root, differing only in the last syllable as transcribed. Masculine vs. feminine? These appear to lack case endings, which were absent from Egyptian. It's like writing "Archimed" for "Archimedes".

    f: The closest translation I could find in Hebrew is "son of aggregator."

    Transliterations (see notes at end):

    a: eukaSati
    b: eusaHURU
    d: nasUy
    e: eukaSaw
    g: pinarUTtaw
    h: Latin name "Rosa" obviously. ;-) RUSa
    m: sUmrsU (missing vowel?)
    n: rUntI (note the prenasalized stop)
    o: titatamA

    Notes by letter:
    k: velar stop, voiced or unvoiced, aspirated or unaspirated
    S: Could be z, zeta, sy, zy, zeta_y
    H: Unclear why pharyngeal is used here. I don't believe I've seen an example of a Greek name with an intervocalic "H". Is this chi?
    U: O or u.
    I: I or e.
    t: Dental or alveolar stop, voiced or unvoiced, aspirated or unaspirated (that makes 8 possibilities), ts?, tl?
    s: S or z
    R: L or r.
    A: Schwa?

    I've built this analysis around the Late Egyptian-Coptic 7 vowel system, reduced to 5 in English transcription. The actual vowels may have varied considerably. Remember, this is how an Egyptian heard foreign names.

  11. RE: y-i-y

    I have a few reasons for considering "JO" as more likely for AB60's phonetic value than "RA", which one of these days I need to write about coherently O:>

    I definitely see where the "RA" is coming from, but I can equally argue, visually, for "JO" - we just need to reorient Linear B's "JO" to see it and compare with one of the less-"RA" more-"JO" variants, like on TLZa1. JO-JA is not uncommon in Linear B, as Kober & Ventris showed with the endings. Reparsing above, waya iya might be a close personal friend with WA-JA of the Minoan Libation Formula, and yaiya might be findable in Linear A or B as JO-JA. If anyone besides me accepts JO as AB60's value, the ending -JO-JA is also attested in Linear A as in HT85 KI-KI-JO-JA.

    Anyway, if we are so lucky as to find part of this incantation in Linear A, I feel this might be a step in the right direction. The Y-I-Y is a more easily isolated combination to search for than, say, K-K-R, since we have such an overload of K and R values.

    Having just read the DO-NA-PI-PI signet post, I'm also squinting my eyes at KI-KI which recurs in Linear A. How often are P and K interchanged in the evolution of spoken words? I have a huge gap in my education when it comes to matters like this; I'm not even sure what the linguistic word is which describes how things like RO and LO are essentially the same for our purposes... Educate me?

  12. RE: k3-k3-i-r

    QA-QA-RU in Linear A? Hm.

  13. Thank you for your comments, Kim.

    As for the possible origins of Lin B JO sign, we can consider a number of scenarios. This topic is interesting enough to write a separate post on it later. Currently I think the most plausible predecessor of Lin B JO (*36) is Lin A sign *301. Still, it would require at least two geometric transformations: first, a mirroring with a vertical axis (that sometimes does happen in Lin A with *301 as well), then a rotation of 90 degrees. As for Lin A *60 (RA), this sign would require a 180 degrees rotation, and a mirror-reflection as well. Somehow I think this is a bit less probable than the first scenario.

    Now, for the signet rings, I believe the correct reading is PI-PI-DO-NA (traditional transliteration) and reconstructed as *Pipitona, *Pipitúna or *Pipitauna. According to this reading, the D- series was originally *t- and the T-signs *th- or *tt-. It is uncertain what the O signs represent: it could have been the diphtong *au.

    As for the latest notes, I do not think that interchange of P and K stops in a generic position would be that common. On the other hand, IE languages have a lot of examples of the labiovelar kw evolving to p or t. Talking of this series in Linear A and B, please note that Q is not the velar k, but the labiovelar kw. therefore it is unlikely that Egyptians would have rendered it as simple k.