22 December 2010

We Twelve Kings of Orient Are

... following yonder star.

And the names of the 12 kings who followed yonder star

1. Zaharwandad
2. Hōrmizd
3. Auštazp
4. Aršak
5. Zarwand
6. Arīhō
7. Artahšišat
8. Aštanbōzan
9. Mihruq
10. Ahširaš
11. Nasardīh
12. Merōdak

Twelve kings?  And Persians all.  Or not?

First of all, what happened to Three Magi (aka Three Wise Men, or Three Kings)?

Are we facing a Magus bubble this Christmas?

Let's clarify the record.  The earliest story about the Magi is, course, Matthew 2:1-12 (go back to 'The Magi and Christmas' to get the scoop on Matthew, Magi, Marco Polo and that star, as it appeared to this blogger in 2007).  Matthew -- most likely writing between 85-90 AD -- tells of a visit by wise men (Greek: μάγοι; magoi)* from the East; to be precise: 
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage."
He says nothing about their homeland -- other than that it is east of Jerusalem -- nor about their being kings, nor even how many men made the trip. 

Nonetheless, the belief in the early church was that the Magi were Persians (with a minority rooting for Arabians; hence all those camels).  They were pictured dressed in belted tunics and trousers, and wearing pointed Phrygian caps which, in the Graeco-Roman world, signified Easterners (left).  It was in Europe, too, that the tradition of three kings was created -- simply because one gift [gold, frankincense, and myrrh] = one king.  But the number could fluctuate: in the Roman Catacombs, where more than 20 representations occur, the number of gift-bearing Magi varied from three to six.

A much later Persian source (al-Tabari, ninth century, citing Wahb ibn Munabbih, born about 654 CE) is similarly ambiguous as to their number, but adds some local details: (1) they were indeed Persians; (2) not themselves kings, but the king's messengers; (3) and suggests they were true Magi (not simply 'wise men') because they were astrologers:
The sovereign in Jerusalem at the time was Caesar, and it was on his behalf that Herod the Great reigned in Jerusalem. Messengers of the king of Persia came to him. Sent to Christ, they came to Herod by mistake. They informed Herod that the king of Persia had sent them to offer Christ the gifts they carried, gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense. They told him that they had observed that Christ's star had risen - they had learned through computation.

Twelve Good (Wise) Men and True

Now, into the old, old story, comes a completely new ancient version from a manuscript dubbed the 'Revelation of the Magi'.  This text, written in Syriac (Middle Aramaic), purports to be an eye-witness report of events that took place in the year 0:
An account of the relevations and the visions which the kings, [sons of kings], of the great East spoke, who were called Magi in the language of that land.... 
The 'Revelation' has just been translated into English by Brent Landau, Professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, and an expert in biblical languages and literature.  The text (920 lines long) had been copied into a larger history of the world from the Creation onwards, compiled by a monk named Joshua in the Zuqnin Monastery (today, south-eastern Turkey) in 775/776 AD.  The whole manuscript later made its way to the Monastery of St Mary of the Syrian in the Scete Desert (Egypt), where it was discovered in the 18th century and taken to the Vatican Library.  There, it lay on the shelves almost unnoticed.  Prof. Landau dates the original 'Revelation' portion of the manuscript to possibly as early as late-second or third century AD; in any case, not later than the 5th century.**

The Personal Testimony of the Magi

The fantastical story told by the twelve Magi frequently departs from the common ancient Christian interpretations of Matthew 2:1-12.  

These Magi -- despite their Persian names -- do not come from Persia but from a semi-legendary country on the eastern edge of the world known as Shir.  Jewish, Christian and pagan traditions knew of a land called 'Seiris', a mysterious country on the shore of the great Ocean, sometimes identified with China or with the mountain where Noah's ark comes to rest.
And so there were those wise men, who were called Magi in the language of the land because in silence, without a sound, they praised the God of all....
'Magoi' cannot be derived from a word for 'silence' in any likely language.  Possibly the author hints at a Syriac monastic practice in which silence and solitude are means for inducing mystical experience.  Certainly, the Magi of this text are mystics ... but they are far from 'silent'; to call them 'loquacious' is putting it mildly.
the land of Shir... east of the land of Nod, that place in which dwelt Adam, head and chief of all the families of the world.  And these sons of kings received commandments, laws, and even books from their fathers.  And generation by generation, one by one, they received them, from the time of Seth, [third] son of our father Adam....
Seth was believed by many early Jews and Christians to be extremely pious and virtuous. Seth writes the commandments down in books -- without a doubt the first books ever to appear on earth:
And those books of hidden mysteries were placed on the Mountain of Victories in the east of Shir, our country, in a cave, the Cave of Treasures of the Mysteries of the Life of Silence.
These books contained instructions for Seth's offspring to wait for the appearance of a star which would signal the birth of God in human form. This star had initially hovered over the tree of life in the Garden of Eden before Adam’s sin caused it to disappear.  Now, Adam revealed to Seth that the star would one day return.  Adam, don't forget, had tasted of the forbidden fruit -- a sin, but a useful one which, in some traditions, gave him the power to foretell the future.  Really, Eve should get the credit for this, but she doesn't; only the blame (Adam hasn't forgiven her -- or the serpent; not for a moment).  Anyway, Seth wrote down his father's prophecy and generations of Magi awaited its fulfilment over thousands of years.  In expectation of the event, on the 25th of every month, the Magi purified themselves in a sacred spring and then, on the first day of the new month, ascended the sacred mountain  in silent prayer.  

Finally, just as they are gathering to commence their monthly rituals, the star appears as an ineffable pillar of light in the sky, descends from the heavens, and enters the Cave of Treasures.  This, the Magi's yonder star, is not a star, a comet, a planetary conjunction, not even an angel, but Christ himself in celestial form -- a 'star-child'.  Christ tells the Magi that he has been sent by the Father for the salvation of humanity and instructs them to follow the star to Bethlehem to see his birth in human form.

The journey from Shir to Bethlehem does not take two years -- as surmised by commentators on Matthew 2 -- but is accomplished in the blink of an eye by miraculous means.  The power of the star's light levels mountains and hills under their feet, they walk across rivers, and food supplies are constantly refreshed by the same magic.  For some reason, they, too, are sidetracked to Jerusalem, which they reach in the month of April, in the month of flowers -- thus, not within the December 25th tradition of Christmas.  Neither Herod nor the Jewish elders will listen to them (the star is visible only to the Magi) so they move on to Bethlehem.  At Bethlehem, the star enters a cave and transforms itself into a luminous infant.
We took our crowns and put them under his feet, because the everlasting kingdom is his.... And we brought forth our treasures before him.
Disappointingly, these gifts, the entire treasure that was deposited in the cave, which had been hidden away since the time of Seth, are not described: no gold, myrrh, or frankincense; not even silks from China!

Having met Mary and Joseph and heard invisible angels singing, the Magi make their wondrous journey back to Shir under the same guidance of the star. They proclaim the Gospel of Christ in their country.  Everyone is joyful.  Everyone eats from the magical provisions and has visions.  And no one is silent about what they have seen; not for a minute. 

As we come to the end of this story, we have to admit that it has not advanced the quest for the historical Magi by even a jot.  But it tells us some things none of us knew about the beliefs of an early group of Christians somewhere in old Mesopotamia. That's a lovely way to end the year.  

Happy Christmas, Happy Holidays to all.

I am grateful to the Paleojudaica blog for first highlighting the 'Revelation' and for continuing to update reviews and comments on Landau's book.  See especially the discussions on the Patheos blog and Landau's responses to some.

Translation of al-Tabari from M. Perlmann, The History of Al-Tabari, Volume IV, The Ancient Kingdoms, State Univ. New York, Albany 1987, 124-5.

* Besides meaning 'wise men', magoi can also be translated as magicians, teachers, Zoroastrian priests, astrologers, seers, or interpreter of dreams.

** The text presents the Holy Spirit as grammatically feminine, a practice in Syriac Christianity that dies out in the fifth century; online: Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men's Journey to Bethlehem, 2010,


Above left:  Syriac icon now in Berlin (Preuss. Bibl. Sachau 220 fo 8v.);  note the kings ride horseback, not on camels.  My thanks to Hanna Hajjar for this link and notes.

Middle left: 2nd Century Sarcophagus, Vatican Museums, Rome. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Upper centre: 3rd C Painting in the Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome. Photo credit: Edicolaweb.

Lower centre: from the doors of Basilica di Santa Sabina, Rome (2nd half 5th C). Photo credit: Gliscritti Gallery.

Lower left: ancient Roman map of the world, produced by M. Vipsanius Agrippa, commissioned by Augustus: Appiuslucretiusmartius Audax Alma (I've added arrows to indicate Seres (China) and Judea). Turn the map 90 degrees clockwise to get our more familiar view of the world.

15 December 2010

The Secret Language of Palmyra (Part II)

(Click here for Part I)

My soul is in this stone

I, Kuttamuwa, servant of [the king] Panamuwa, am the one who oversaw the production of this stele for myself while still living.  I placed it in an eternal chamber [?] and established a feast at this chamber: a bull for [the storm-god] Hadad, a ram for [the sun-god] Shamash and a ram for my soul that is in this stele.

So spoke Kuttamuwa, a high official in Sam'al (modern Zincirli near the Turkish-Syrian border), the capital city of a Neo-Hittite kingdom which was ruled during his lifetime -- late 8th century BCE -- by kings of a native dynasty, among whom was his lord Panamuwa.

The well preserved basalt stele (95 x 70 cm [ca. 3' x 2']) shows Kuttamuwa enjoying his own future funerary banquet.  He sits before an offering table laden with loaves of bread, a big meatball, and a cooked duck.  In one hand, he grasps a pine-cone -- symbol of eternity -- and, in the other, a fluted metal cup from which he will either drink or libate to his gods.  The words he uttered were recorded in Samalian Aramaic, the local West Semitic dialect of the language spoken throughout northern Syria and parts of Mesopotamia at this time.  

The stele was discovered in 2008.  What caused the most excitement (and was even written up in the New York Times) was the extraordinary line saying that he offered up a ram 'for my soul that is in this stele', a totally unexpected insight into the purpose of this -- and presumably similar -- funerary monuments: Kuttamuwa's soul is thus not only independent of his body but resides within the stone.  Professor David Schloen of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute and director of excavations, explains that this idea results from the fusion of two different traditions:
... a fascinating mixture of non-Semitic and Semitic cultural elements including a belief in the enduring human soul  -- which did not inhabit the bones of the deceased, as in traditional Semitic thought ... [but that] the soul of the deceased inhabited the monument on which his image was carved and on which his final words were recorded.
 Semitic religions traditionally held that a person's soul adhered to the bones of the deceased (which is why, to this day, Jews may not be cremated).  But, in north-Syria in the Iron Age, elite Samalians clearly believed that an individual's identity, his personal soul, resided apart from the bones -- and held court within his funerary monument.

The word used for 'soul' in Kuttamuwa's inscription is nebesh, which, as Schloen points out, is a variant of the same word for soul used in the Bible, nephesh.  This  Hebrew word, however, broadly describes the tomb as the house of dead souls (a widespread belief in the Semitic Near East).  There is a world of difference between that belief and the notion that a soul lives on, if I may put it so, in the commemorative stone.

The Palmyrene nefesh

Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Copenhagen (2nd C CE)
Palmyrans certainly shared the Semitic view of the tomb as the place of the souls of the dead.  In Palmyrene, naphsa (related to Hebrew nephesh and Samalian nebesh) refers to the 'spirit' or 'soul': two inscriptions on early tower tombs describe these tombs as nps, the same word used to describe funerary sculptures or reliefs.  So naturally, I am wondering if, so many centuries after Kuttamuwa, Palmyrans, too, believed that the soul of the dead person resided in his or her funerary monument.  In short, is the individual portrait not merely an enduring image and memorial of the dead but, in fact, the actual residence of the soul of the person portrayed on the stone?

Such a possibility will affect the way we think about these portraits and, inevitably, their poses, attributes, and gestures.  It would make them, at least to some extent, no longer monuments of a 'visible absence' but rather 'visible presences'.  

As such, I think, they are actively directing our gaze.

My soul is in my stone?

Atenatan Gurai (133 CE) 
In the first part of this post, I discussed the different hand and finger gestures shown by women on their portrait busts.*  Most commonly (70%), a woman raised one hand, usually the right hand, to her face, chin, or to collarbone level, often touching her veil -- a gesture highly reminiscent of the Roman female pudicitia pose.  Men, on the contrary, never lift a hand to face or chin, although they do sometimes touch the area of the collarbone (upper left).  The great majority of men (78%) hold their right arms across the chests, resting in a sling created by the draping of their cloaks, with the right hand extended over the fold; this pose, too, is well-known on male funerary reliefs in Rome.

Yet, as we saw with the women, even those who pose their hands in more or less identical positions do not necessarily display the same finger gestures. 

Rather, it seems that, for both sexes, fingers are free to speak for themselves.

Boy Talk

Here are some numbers for what males are 'saying' with their fingers*:

Portrait of a man, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
Gesture of Right Hand in Male Relief busts

195     All fingers clenched or extended
 60      Index finger extended
 50      Index and middle fingers extended
   3      Index and little fingers extended
   2      Index, middle, and little fingers extended.

Gesture of Left Hand in Male Relief Busts 

 89      All fingers clenched or extended
 81      Index finger extended
 63      Index and middle fingers extended
 48      Index and little fingers extended
 26      Index, middle, and little fingers extended.

Portrait of a priest, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
For reasons unknown the left hand displays more varied finger gestures than the right hand -- even though the left hand is very often holding an object as well.  Although it can be argued that the norm for both hands is for fingers to be extended or clenched,* the word 'norm' perhaps gives the wrong impression: these are, in fact, merely the most common gestures.  In my opinion, this does not make either clenched or extended into a 'default' gesture. It would be a mistake, I think, to imagine that when the hands are clenched (right: right hand) or spread (below left: both hands of the man pictured with his camel), the fingers are any less expressive than in the variant finger arrangements.   It may not be that he hasn't anything to say, he's just repeating what the majority of men are saying.

Holding on for dear death

Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Copenhagen
Just as the ladies are regularly portrayed holding an object in their hands, so are men -- for both sexes, almost always in the left hand.  The most common masculine object is the book roll, although no one really knows what the good book means; more rarely, they hold a stylus and writing tablet, a leaf, jug, or the pommel of their sword.  Men are, in any case, pictured in ways that sometimes suggest either their profession (a sword for a desert warrior; a camel for a caravan merchant, as left) or their status (the tall cylindrical cap of a priest, as above right).  When a woman holds an object, it is inevitably related to the domestic sphere, underlining her life (and death) as wife, housewife, or mother.  There is more variety in how men are portrayed: if one were to think in axioms, one might say 'male social identity is often constructed; whereas a woman simply is'.   

So, it seems natural that the sexes rarely share the same hand poses in death, and that most such poses are strongly gender-specific.

Why, then, do they so often share the same animated finger gestures? 

Yarhai son of Elahbe (late 2nd C CE)
This magnificent bust of Yarhai son of Elahbe (late 2nd century CE) is distinguished by the unusual opulence of his dress: the cloak has two bands of embroidered vine-shoots, amongst which a vigorous naked male is gathering the grapes -- an exuberance that contrasts with the simplicity of costume of so many other funerary figures at the time.  Quite unusually, Yarhai's head and eyes are not frontal, but show a somewhat Graeco-Roman naturalism.

His chest, however, is fully frontal.  Despite the richness of the garment and relative realism of his face, his large hands have the typical Palmyran swollen, undifferentiated look (which we talked about in Part I), with fleshly details omitted.  The fingers of his right hand are  extended in a comfortable pose, fingertips slightly curled; the left hand, which holds a palm frond -- perhaps a symbol of victory over evil powers -- has an over-long index finger pointing nowhere in particular;  three fingers are folded back but not held under the visible thumb.

Yarhai is clearly from the top-drawer, probably of a priestly family, though not himself a priest (priests are clean-shaven and identifiable by their special caps).  His finger gestures compare closely with those of the ladies Aqimat and in the Vatican portrait (lowest right) in Part I.  Just as close --  once one allows for the different placement of their right hands -- are the gestures of the gentleman now in the Hermitage Museum (third Palmyran portrait down) and those of Lady Haliphat (in Part I): the right hands show two fingers extended, two partly folded; and the left hands make the mano cornuta gesture.  We could make the same argument, one by one, for each group of finger gestures, but you get the idea.

So, why do men and women display the same finger gestures?  There may be a straightforward answer: both sexes face the same dangers (or utter the same postmortem wishes).  There does not seem to be a specific -- or at least not a stereotyped -- Palmyran mourning gesture so it seems likely that most (if not all) gestures are essentially protective.  If we add this simple idea to our earlier speculation -- that the naphsa, the soul, lives on in the portrait stele -- then it makes sense, I think, to situate the need for protection right there in the tomb and not in a distant underworld.  

Of course the souls of the dead want your dutiful food and drink offerings but, every time the door to the tomb is opened, dangerous elements may enter, too.

"Blessings! May evil eyes not be cast here."

I warned you. It is you who are disturbing the dead in their 'house of eternity'. 

They are just reacting to your gaze. 

* As in Part I, all statistics and many arguments are from the new study by Maura K. Heyn, 'Gesture and Identity in the Funerary Art of Palmyra', AJA (October 2010): more information in Part I. I hope I've made clear which are her ideas and which are mine.  You may be sure the crazier ones are mind but, if in doubt, kindly send me a comment.  There are, of course, also double funerary reliefs as well as the  large, elegant banquet scenes.  Hayn did discuss the double portraits (as well as the few 'duplicates') and they are certainly interesting.  But I won't have anything to say about them this year, perhaps sometime in 2011.

A paper (available online) by Harold Craig Melchert, 'Remarks on the Kuttamuwa Inscription'  really started me thinking about the possible migration of Kuttamuwa's beliefs to the farthest reaches of Syria over the centuries.  Further valuable discussions of the meanings of the word nefesh in M. Mouton, 'Les tours funéaires d’Arabie: nefesh monumentales', Syria 74 (1997) 81-98; and A. Henning, Die Turmgräber von Palmyra, diss. Köln (2001) 147-49.  Obviously, none of these scholars are responsible for my speculations on a naphsa-in-the-stele at Palmyra.

On Kuttamuwa, I've made use of discussions on Kris's Archaeology Blog; Eti Bonn-Muller, 'Insight into the Soul', in Archaeology magazine; and John Noble Wilford, Found: An Ancient Monument to the Soul, New York Times, 17 November 2008.


Top left: Kuttamuwa stele.  Photo credit: Eudora Struble, University of Chicago.

First Palmyran man: Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Via Wikimedia. Photo credit: © 2006 David Monniaux.

Second Palmyran man (Atenatan Gurai ): Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek,  Via Wikimedia. Photo credit: Wolfgang Sauber.

Third Palmyran man: State Hermitage Museum. Via Palmyra Tombs . Photo credit: Prof. Michael Fuller, St. Louis Community College.

Palmyran priest (right): State Hermitage Museum. Via Palmyra Tombs . Photo credit: Prof. Michael Fuller,  St. Louis Community College.

Palmyran man with camel:  Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Via Wikimedia.  Photo credit: Wolfgang Sauber.

Bottom left: Yarhai son of Elahbe, Photo credit: © Musée du Louvre/C. Larrieu.

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