31 October 2007

Zenobia, Martyr Saint of Cilicia and her brother

Today the Orthodox church calendar (give or take a day or two*) commemorates the martyrdom of Zenobia and her brother Zenobius. A Russian Orthodox hymn, a kontakion ( © by Alex Ledkovsky), celebrates the martyred siblings.

Let us honor with inspired hymns the two martyrs for truth:
the preachers of true devotion, Zenóbius and Zenobía;
as brother and sister they lived and suffered together and through martyrdom received their incorruptible crowns.

Everything about Zenobius (naturally, he gets top billing) and Zenobia is obscure. And that is an understatement.

The story, most of which we know from a 10th C Byzantine monk, Symeon Metaphrastes [for good reason, dubbed 'the re-writer'] goes like this -- slightly abbreviated, but I've left in the bits of gore.

The Blessed Martyr Zenobius, Bishop of Aegea, and his sister Zenobia suffered a martyr's death in the year 285 in Cilicia. From childhood they were raised in the holy Christian Faith by their parents, and they led pious and chaste lives. In their mature years, they distributed away their inherited wealth giving it to the poor. For his beneficence and holy life the Lord rewarded Zenobius with the gift of healing various maladies. [He] was able to heal the sick of every sort of infirmity simply by the touch of his hand.

As bishop, Saint Zenobius zealously spread the Christian Faith among the pagans. When the emperor Diocletian (284-305) began a persecution against Christians, Bishop Zenobius was the first one arrested and brought to trial to the governor Licius. "I shall only speak briefly with you," said Licius to the saint, "for I propose to grant you life if you worship our gods, or death, if you do not." The saint answered, "This present life without Christ is death. It is better that I prepare to endure the present torment for my Creator ... then be tormented eternally in Hades." By order of Licius, they nailed him to a cross and began the torture. The bishop's sister, seeing him suffering, wanted to stop it. She bravely confessed her own faith in Christ before the governor, therefore, she also was tortured. By the power of the Lord they remained alive after being placed on a red-hot iron bed, and then in a kettle of boiling pitch. The saints were then beheaded.

That did it. At least they didn't walk about afterwards, with their heads tucked underneath their arms, but were buried in a grave together. This all happened in about 285 AD (or perhaps in 304). Or perhaps not?

In 310 AD, we are told by Bishop Eusebius, writing not long after the events :
that St. Tyrannio, Bishop of Tyre, when, being conducted from Tyre to Antioch, with St. Zenobius, a holy priest and physician of Sidon, after many torments [Tyrannio] was thrown into the sea. Zenobius expired on the rack, whilst his sides and body were furrowed and laid open with iron hooks and nails.
So this Zenobius, too, was a doctor ( "that best of physicians", says Eusebius) as well as a priest. And his martyrdom took place, as Eusebius clearly says, on 29 October, whereas the saint of Cilicia is celebrated by the Orthodox on 30 October. Thus, it seems quite possible that the two Zenobii have been confused -- after all, Aegae (modern Ayash) is but a hop across the Gulf of Alexandretta from Antioch.

If so, what happened to Zenobia?

I just wonder if she is not the saintly lady described (but not named) in Eusebius, "admirable for strength of soul yet in body a woman and famed as well by all that were at Antioch for wealth, birth and sound judgment" -- who, with her two daughters, threw herself into the Orontes River rather than suffer a fate worse than death (the threat of fornication!) having fallen into the hands of soldiers. Her name is given by St John Chrysostom, half a century or so later, as Domnina -- but we already have a martyred Domnina who was said to have suffered death at Aegaea in 285 (or 305) in Lycia. And there is no Aegaea, or Aegae, or even Aegea, in Lycia. So this must refer to Aegae in Cilicia, where (and when) Zenobia met her end. And we're not finished yet. There's yet another Domnina or Domnica waiting in the wings:
The Holy Martyress Domnica suffered for confessing Christianity in the year 286. Domnica lived in the region of Cilicia. By order of the governor Licius they beat her for a long time, and burnt her with fire. All tormented, Saint Domnica was thrown into prison, where she died.
Licius, of course, was the evil "praeses provinciae Lyciae" who tortured Zenobia and Zenobius to death ... in Cilicia.

What are we to make of all this?

Oh, I don't know.

But Zenobia is always worth a hymn or two.

Alex Ledkovsky wrote a Zenobian Troparion as well as the Kontakion reproduced above.

[If readers despair of my ever getting back to the main subject of this blog (the life and times of Queen Zenobia), be of good heart: Sassanian Stuff II is coming up next.]


* a poor excuse for being a day late (31 Oct.) with this post. It was due on the saints' day, 30 Oct.

14 October 2007

How the Tiger and the Tigris Got their Names

I came down with an awful case of tigrology last week.

I was going mad, trying to discover the origin of the words for tiger, the animal, and Tigris, the river.

Believe me, there's nothing worse than an attack of etymological questions: it can turn a sober scholar into a foaming-at-the-mouth lunatic in a trice. My apologies ... but I'd like to take you with me around the bend.

It's all the fault of Isidore of Seville, who wrote a big big book, the Etymologies (in Latin), an encyclopedic account of just about everything known in the western world in the years around 600 AD, when Isidore was alive. After the Bible, Etymologies was perhaps the most influential book in the Latin West for nearly a thousand years. If you wanted to know anything about what the ancients thought about art, music, nature, God or grammar, you'd check with Isidore first thing.

The only problem is, as Emily Wilson tells us (in an enjoyable review in the Times Literary Supplement, 3 Aug. 2007) that Isidore is like a bad search engine, with little or no control over his sources. Not for nothing is Isidore the patron saint of the Internet! Much of the information he provides is blatantly false and most of his supposed etymologies are complete twaddle. They go like this:
"Health (salus) takes its name from salt (sal), for nothing is better for us than salt (sal) and sun (sol)"

"Cats are called cats because they catch mice (catuma captura vocant)

"Days (dies) are so called from 'the gods' (deus, ablative plural diis).
Or, as Isidore himself might have put it -- 'days are called after dayities.' Groan.

So I was surprised when Prof. Wilson seemed to take him seriously on a point of Persian etymology. This is what tripped me up:
Isidore knows that Latin draws on other languages: [he writes] "the tiger (tigris) is so called because of its rapid flight, for this is what the Persians and Medes call an arrow."
And Isidore added helpfully, "The Tigris River is named after the tiger because it is the fastest of all rivers."

This conflation of tiger (the beast) and Tigris (the river) continues to this day and so does their supposed derivation from the Persian for 'arrow' (check your dictionary: most, but not all, still give it; and it's all over the internet as well). The idea first appeared in Greek in Strabo's Geography (early 1st C. AD), when he says of the river Tigris (Gr. Tigris) :
because of its swiftness ... whence the name Tigris, since the Median word for "arrow" is "tigris."
And it is picked up in Latin in Pliny's Natural History (mid-1st C.), who describes the river:
as soon as it begins to flow, though with a slow current, has the name of Diglito. When its course becomes more rapid, it assumes the name of Tigris given to it on account of its swiftness, that word signifying an arrow in the Median language.

But why, I asked myself, should anyone believe that the name of a river which runs back in its history to the Sumerians should have a Persian name, and one so far-fetched as ''arrow''; and why would an Indian animal, albeit one that ranged into Persian territory, share the same etymology of 'arrow'?

I fretted. This way lies madness ... but I had to go on. Here is what I've come up with in my quest.

I don't question, of course, that the Greeks may have actually learnt both words in Persia or that, if they did, in that sense they do come from Persian. But that is all I accept.

Let's start with the river. It's the easier of the two. What we know:

The Sumerian name for the river was Idigna, which seems simply to have meant 'running water' or possibly 'river with high banks'. When the Semitic-speaking Akkadians arrived in the region they borrowed the name, turning it into (I)Diq/gla(t) -- and note how close that is to the word Pliny recorded for the higher stream. The Semitic trail continues via the biblical Hebrew Hiddekel (one of the rivers running through Eden, Genesis 2:14) and the later Aramaic Deglath or Diglat, eventually to become Arabic Diğlä -- which is today pronounced in Iraq, I'm told, as Dijla.

At first sight, the Old Persian Tigrā seems to stick out like a sore thumb, looking completely different. But I'd bet a couple of Sassanian drachmas that Tigrā comes from a form rather like DIG-LA: where D shifts to a T sound and L to R. In short, the Persians, too, seem to have adapted a name going back to Sumerian -- via the intermediary of local Semitic languages.

So the Greeks were wrong to derive the river's name from Persian tigra- "sharp, pointed", Avestan " tigri- "arrow", and to imagine that the river ran at the speed of an arrow. Perhaps this is what they were told once they arrived in Persia, for folk etymology is always beguiling and words of unknown origin inevitably yield to a play of known words.

But what about the animal, the tiger? Could Isidore of Seville have possibly got this part right?

I doubt it. But it is a tough one.

The beast is Babr (or Bebr) in Middle Persian. Surprisingly, this does not descend from any of the early Indian words for tiger (vyAghra, pRdAku, zArdUla). Note that the Sanskrit vyAghra means 'who tears apart', rather a better name for a ferocious animal than an anodyne 'sharp, pointed' or 'arrow' ("How, Daddy, did the tiger get its name?" "It's faster than a speeding arrow, son." Just so.)

So I went back and looked at the Greek history of the tiger. I suspect that we've been looking in slightly the wrong direction: I can see no reason that the Greeks would have first met up with the tiger in Persia.

The animal only enters Greek writings after the Indian campaigns of Alexander the Great (who died in 323 BC). Alexander's general, Nearchus, we are told, saw a tiger skin during the Indian campaign, but no tiger. King Seleucus 'the Victor', first Seleucid ruler of Mesopotamia, sent a live tiger to Athens around 300 BC. This might have been an animal captured during his own Indian wars around 305 BC or, more likely, a royal gift sent to him by an Indian prince some time before his death in 297. Since, even in antiquity, the western range of the tiger seems limited to eastern Turkey, north Iran, and the wild lands between the Caspian and Black Seas, Seleucus' tiger need not have been of Persian origin; so where would Seleucus have learnt what the beast was called?

We have two clues: tiger is vagr in Armenian (Armenia then, remember, was roughly today's Kurdish territory), and vigr in Georgian. Somewhere up that way, perhaps, on the roads to Bactria and Afghanistan, the Greeks first came across live tigers. The all-knowing Pliny assures us that most tigers lived on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea (in Hyrcania) and in India.

But Pliny didn't know much about tigers.* On the contrary, he passed on this tall tale:

The tiger ... can run with terrific speed. To take the tiger's cubs, the hunter prepares a fast horse and steals the tiger's entire litter, and rides away, changing to fresh horses as necessary. The tiger, seeing that her cubs are gone, tracks them by scent and chases the hunter. When the hunter sees the tiger catching up, he drops one cub. The tiger stops to pick up the cub before resuming the chase. The hunter repeats this ruse until he reaches his ship; in this way he escapes with at least one of the cubs, leaving the tiger to rage impotently on the shore.

You will not be surprised to know that Isidore of Seville swallowed this story almost whole ... and then went one better: instead of dropping cub after cub, the hunter throws down a mirror or a glass sphere, whereupon the tiger, seeing its own reflection in the sphere and thinking it is her stolen cub, stops to nurse the supposed cub. This gives the robber time to escape.

Just so. As befits a Christian bishop, the mirror symbolizes the cost of vanity and pride. Beware ladies, the tigress loses her cubs for just such a sin. In any case, this became a favoured medieval theme, especially popular in the 12th-13th C illustrated beastiaries (a few of which are reproduced on this page).

I don't suppose it was for his Etymologies that Isidore was canonized in 1598, and certainly not for his tigrology.

Perhaps it was because, as Archbishop of Seville (600 - 636), he converted the Spanish Visigothic kings from Arianism to Roman Catholicism. Or was it because he presided over the Council of Toledo in 633, when they tried (as Emily Wilson remarks, not for the first and certainly not for the last time) to eradicate Jews and heretics from Spain? Either act was surely worthy of sainthood, even if that prize was put on hold for nearly 1000 years. Perhaps it was more banal, just politics as usual.** But I like to think that what tipped the scale was his enduring description of Britons: "Britannus comes from brutus (dumb brute)."

With one-liners like that, he is the perfect patron saint for the Internet .



* It's only in the time of Augustus at the beginning of our era that the first tigris is seen in Rome, though I haven't been able to find out when the Latin name was borrowed from Greek.

** In 1598, Pope Clement VIII had brought about a peace treaty between Spain and France. A new Spanish saint might have been part of the price.

My thanks to Esfandiar, Agnes Korn, Luis Mendieta, and Varun Singh and all those on the Parthia-List for their help.

04 October 2007

How 'God's Wife Hatshepsut' became 'The Good Goddess Maatkare'

If you haven't read the previous post (Hatshepsut Cheek by Jowl with Judy Chicago), you might have a look at that first.

Or why she turns in her 'God's Wife' cartouche (left) for that of 'Goddess' (right)


[Thutmosis II] went up to heaven and was united with the gods. His son took his place as King of the Two Lands and he was the sovereign on the throne of his father. His sister, the God's Wife [of Amun] Hatshepsut, dealt with the affairs of the state: the Two Lands were under her government and taxes were paid to her.

And so begins Hatshepsut's regency as she takes over the tasks and prerogatives of ruling Egypt, as told by the high official Ineni (Overseer of the Royal Buildings, Overseer of the Granaries), who died before she mounted the throne in Year 7.

The first remarkable thing about his account (written, remember, by a courtier who lived through the recent events) is that the name of the new child-king is not even mentioned. The second thing is that Ineni does not list any of the queenly titles of
Hatshepsut (who is named) but calls her by her most important religious rank instead: God's Wife. God's Wife was top of the religious pyramid, bringing with it independent property and wealth. This may have been one of the ways that the queen-regent built up her own authority before she claimed the throne. It would not be the first time -- and far from the last -- that a woman parlayed her religious position into political power. In any event, Hatshepsut only relinquishes the privileges of God's Wife when she takes on the full titles of a king.

Her Great Steward (and possible lover) Senenmut left more early evidence cut into the rock at Aswan, where he had gone in order to lead the works ... on the two great obelisks of millions of years; that is, to supervise the quarrying of a pair of obelisks in the red and black speckled Aswan granite to be erected at the great Temple of Amun in Thebes. Senenmut stands in the pose of admiration before his royal mistress. She is portrayed in female dress, wearing the double plume crown of chief queens; in her right hand she holds the sceptre of the God's Wife of Amun.

The inscription reads in part:

hereditary princess, great of praise and charm, great of love, one to whom Ra has given the kingship, righteously in the opinion of the ... gods, king's daughter, king's sister, god's wife, great king's wife ... Hatshepsut, may she live.
The text in bold is an undoubted claim to kingship, but are his words rank flattery or a pointer to the future? It looks to me (but I could be wrong) that Senenmut, a great and beloved friend of Hatshepsut and her great confidant, is simply the first to know and had no hesitation in spreading the word.

Now, across the length of Egypt, a stela (left) from the Temple of Hathor near the ancient turquoise mines in Sinai, shows Hatshepsut standing before the goddess attended by two unnamed officials. She is still dressed as a queen ... but her two cartouches name her, first , as 'God's Wife Hatshepsut' and, second, as 'Maatkare' -- the throne name which she would have taken upon her coronation. Her new eminence is underlined by the added title, 'King of Upper and Lower Egypt".

It's seems a gradual thing and, as I said, she is feeling her way. She is clearly experimenting with alterations to her formal titulary as well as with different ways of depicting herself, as Peter Dorman explains in his on-line paper Hatshepsut: Wicked Stepmother or Joan of Arc (the source of much information on the early years of her co-regency*).

She next stakes her claims in the heart of Egypt, at Karnak itself, where a limestone block (left) from a dismantled shrine in the Temple of Amun shows her making a wine offering to the great god, a very kingly thing to do. The scene illustrates in large what we already glimpsed in small on the seal in the Brooklyn Museum: she is portrayed on both in female dress and also wearing the tall atef-crown of male kings. This block gives more detail: crucially, she is no longer named 'God's Wife', but 'King of Upper and Lower Egypt' and, newly, 'Mistress of the Two Lands, Maatkare'.

Now she's just a step away from becoming a fully-fledged male king, adopting male clothing and the false beard of the pharaoh (and note: it's just as false a beard when stuck on a male chin). Once again, Senenmut first signals the move. Just prior to her accession, he writes these words on his cenotaph at Gebel Sisila, north of Aswan:

Live, the king's firstborn daughter, Hatshepsut, may she live, beloved of Amun, lord of the thrones of the two lands, king of the gods.

Just as she's no longer 'God's Wife', she's no longer queen of Thutmosis II. Instead, she has become the direct heir and chosen successor to her father, Thutmosis I. This is Year 7.

Yes, other women had ruled Egypt before Hatshepsut and one of them at least -- Sobekneferu at the end of the 12th Dynasty-- had adopted some pharaonic paraphernalia and titles. All power to them! Sobekneferu, like Hatshepsut (left) was shown sitting on the throne, wearing the nemes headdress, the striped head-cloth with the uraeus, the rearing sacred cobra, on her brow. But never before had a woman taken on all the attributes of a pharaoh. Only Hatshepsut surpassed her female condition to both rule and reign.

The royal role requires her to dress in male attire, not because she is a man but because she is a king. Both perfect goddess and perfect god, she strides in full royal regalia (as on the right) while the pronouns and adjectives of the texts are in feminine form.

In short, she is not a woman who rules but a female king.

And this is why I say that she was the only true female Pharaoh of Egypt.

Which brings us to the destruction of her monuments. Why did Thutmosis III do it? Now that we have to rethink the vengeance of a slighted, usurped stepson, there remain basically two lines of argument.

The first is simply that she was a woman, which might have detracted from his own glory or even legitimacy. In a stronger version, he might have feared dynastic instability. Since Hatshepsut showed that a woman was as capable at governing Egypt as a male king, her success could persuade future generations of strong women that being wife, sister and mother of a king wasn't quite the same as being king yourself. So he may have done it to warn off other uppity women.

A second possibility is that he was engaged in personal propaganda, giving Hatshepsut a place below him, as queen regent rather than king. By eliminating the more obvious traces of her as pharaoh, he could claim all of her achievements as his. I rather like this idea, and wonder if we can't take it a little further. Thutmosis III had a very long (and brilliant) reign of 53 years -- a co-regency with Hatshepsut of 22 years and more than 30 years as sole pharaoh. Could it have been plain megalomania, such as comes even to 'gods' who live too long?

As many other things in Egyptian history, much is based on the assumptions we make. We've come a long way from my starting point, that his early statues look so much like hers that experts can hardly tell them apart. That doesn't make sense if he hated her. His destruction of her memory, towards the end of his reign, could have been a cold calculation, or, he wouldn't be the first-- and far from the last -- great dictator to have a master-of-the-universe kind of end.


* More information on Hatshepsut's early years can be found on Dr Karl H. Leser's webpages: see especially his critical discussions of her history, date of coronation, and death and persecution.

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