22 Aug 2010

The scarab rises in Etruria

The Greek scholar Hesychios of the 5th century CE claimed that the word for the beetle (= Greek κάνθαρος) among the Tyrrhenoi (ie. Etruscans) was βύρρος (burros) in his work Glossai. This teases my curiosity for a number of reasons but I'm surprised that Etruscanists, as far as I've read, haven't picked up on what I'm about to explore here. Etruscanists will typically quote Hesychios' gloss blindly but offer no further insights.

As is well known, the beetle was a reknowned symbol of the sun god as he rose from the netherworld and, by extension, a symbol of the eternal human soul after death. This symbol was not just worshipped in Egypt, but judging by the archaeological finds, the icon had also spread into Minoan Crete[1] and even into later Etruria through the migration of the Etruscans and their culture where we find yet more scarabs[2], particularly as funerary offerings, testimony to a widespread heliocentric faith.

The beetle was a widely worshipped animal for a very specific reason that can be firmly traced back to the Egyptians and their language. The source of the symbolism was pure word-play since in Egyptian, the word for 'to become' was *ḫāpar (> Sahidic ϣⲱⲡⲉ) while the symbol for 'beetle' contained the same consonantal skeleton, ḫpr, but presumably with different vowels. The rising sun was subsequently known by his holy epithet, Khepri 'The Becoming One' (written in Egyptian only as ḫprỉ). His name came to be written by scribes with the similar-sounding 'beetle' ideogram and even envisioned by Egyptian artists as a man with a beetle's head.

Given that we can be certain of the Egyptian origin of scarab iconography, it stands to reason that Etruscans borrowed the symbolism from them somehow, probably during the 2nd millennium BCE when Proto-Etruscans were still in the environs of Cyprus and Southern Turkey. The question I must pose however is: What was the vocalism of the Egyptian word for 'beetle', and is the above gloss by Hesychios a hint to its original pronunciation?

I'll dare to offer a hypothesis for the sake of debate and to connect dots that I believe need to be connected. Is it possible that the Egyptian word for 'beetle' was pronounced *ḫapúri? (Unfortunately Coptic gives me no hints on this.) Such a term could then have entered Proto-Aegean or later dialects before 1500 BCE in the form *apúri. By way of Cyprian Syncope which crops up in many other words on a regular basis, this yields *pur with which we might assign the Etruscan name for 'beetle', thereby addressing Hesychios' claim and tying everything together into a neat package.

[1] Aruz, Marks of distinction: Seals and cultural exchange between the Aegean and the Orient (ca. 2600-1360 B.C.) (2008), p.56 (see link).
[2] Scarisbrick, Historic rings: Four thousand years of craftsmanship (2004), p.19 (see link).


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