30 Aug 2011

The sun and the lion

Here's a seemingly simple question: How do you pronounce Egyptian rw 'lion'? Coptic has laboi 'lioness'[1] and isn't a direct descendent of rw; it can't guide us. William Albright had suggested a pronunciation *ruw[2][3] based on very little. To help us backtrack, we have additional data from surrounding languages and language groups and it all shows that this word travelled far and wide across the seas.
  • Indo-European: Greek λέων, Latin leō.
  • Semitic: Akkadian aria, Hebrew arī.
  • Aegean: Etruscan leu.
  • Egyptian: rw.
The reason why I'm pondering this now is because of my latest reflection on the Etruscan reflex. It's easy to dismiss the question of its origin by setting it beside Greek λέων and assuming that the Greeks gave them the word. It's not impossible from a purely linguistic standpoint afterall since there are a few Etruscan terms that have once ended in -un only to lose the trailing nasal over time - eg. Petru 'Petron', Χaru(n) 'Charon', θu(n) 'one', etc. However we should ask ourselves why the Etruscans would have borrowed the 'lion' word from the Greeks when the animal's habitat lies in Africa.[4][5] One would think that Etruscans would adopt the word from Africans themselves. It's not as if Etruscans were unfamiliar with Africans (hint: Carthaginian trade).

So the hypothesis I've held onto for a while, is that leu could be inherited, thereby indicating earlier Proto-Aegean *lau, assuming a raising of Old Etruscan a to e before resonants, as with Old Etruscan clan 'son' > Late Etruscan clen. With the direct antecedent of Etruscan in Lydia, an Egyptian source for this word is the only thing sensible.

However, I'm beginning to ponder a more extensive idea - perhaps it's not so much Proto-Aegean *lau as *liwa. Then Etruscan leu is the result of an aforementioned Cyprian Syncope as well as the lowering of i to e. This also better explains the god mentioned in the Aleksandu Treaty, Apaliunas, whose complex name defies attempts at etymology although it's the stuff of long essays by overspecialized Hittitists.

As far as I'm concerned, Apaliunas is only understandable in Aegean terms and grammar. With the new reconstruction above we have: *apa 'father' (cf. Etruscan apa 'father') + *liwa-na 'leonine, of lions, lion-like' < *Apa-Liwana 'Lion Father'. This is apt for a sun god who would later become Greek Apollon. Unlike my former root *lau, this new form accounts more directly for the -i- in Apaliunas.

Yet there's perhaps another bonus. It's finally dawned on me that while the lion is a common sun symbol in the 2nd and 1st millennia BCE, the Egyptian language holds the key to it through simple word pun. Based on the ideogram value r` and Coptic , the word for 'sun' was undoubtedly once *rīʕa. The consonantal value for 'lion' is known to be rw but its vowels are harder to reconstruct because the word has not survived into Coptic times. Since I know Egyptian scribes couldn't resist good puns, I wonder if the sun was associated with lion for the simple reason that the two words shared the same vocalic matrix. Could the word then have been *rīwa? A pun between *rīʕa and *rīwa could clarify a lot.

The Semitic reflexes too seem to justify this Egyptian reconstruction since they reflect *ʔarīwu ~ *ʔarīyu. The -y- also replaces expected -w-, a typical preference of North-West Semitic languages. Glück published this very assessment.[6] I'm sure this word is yet another Egyptian loan. The only problem is the prothetic vowel. Where is it from? The obvious answer would be from Egyptian. And so, we might want to tweak *rīwa to *arīwa. (The stress accent remains on the long vowel.)

If Egyptian contains this "prothetic vowel", should we then consider Aegean *alíwa instead of *liwa? Does this still work? Apparently so. As I said before, unstressed initial *a- is regularly dropped in Etruscan. An *Apa-Alíwana manages to keep aligned to Luwian Apaliunas. Regardless, I figure that Greek λέων must be somehow based on Minoan *(a)líwa.


  1. However we should ask ourselves why the Etruscans would have borrowed the 'lion' word from the Greeks when the animal's habitat lies in Africa.

    Europe had its own lions until about 100CE.

  2. Here's a most apt quote.
    Barker/Rasmussen, The Etruscans (2000), p.119:

    "So, for example, the lion is an important subject of Etruscan art, but there were no lions to be seen in Italy (nor, for that matter, would there have been many opportunities to see them in Greece)."

  3. See also Jashemski/Meyer, The natural history of Pompeii (2002), p.440: "The main source of supply for the lions that came to Italy appears to have been North Africa, although Syria was also known as a source (Toynbee 1973: 60)."

    It notes earlier what I assumed already, that lions "were brought to Italy in some numbers for the amphitheater".

  4. I thought I'd just add that the Berber word seems completely unrelated and is notoriously difficult to reconstruct.

    In Ouargla we find ar which would be an exiting correspondence with Semitic if we didn't have more cognates.

    The closely related language Mzab has war. People generally think Ouargla has an analogical form with a removed w- because it was interpreted as the marker of state with the prefix w-.

    Ghadamès has aβor Showing both a labial element and a r but in the wrong order.

    Zénaga has waʔr with a w that probably is a reflex of the but we don't quite understand how, and a glottal stop, which is also reflected by the o in Ghadamès.

    Touareg has ahăr with the expected h for but an unexpected short vowel in the second syllable.

    The Proto-Berber root, then, was definitely *βʔr and the word itself should probably be reconstructed as *uβă/aʔr. The initial *u is necessary to explain the initial w in Mzab (and maybe also Zénaga?).

    So, despite the Ouargla word looking like Semitic, and the Mzab root WR looking a bit like egyptian, these words probably aren't related, but I figured I'd supplement some information!

    Curiously, most Northern Berber languages have a different root for Lions. izem is found in Kabyle, Tamazight and Tashelhiyt (among others). Because of a lack of Zénaga or Ghadamès cognate, both the vowels and the amount of radicals are uncertain. An accurate Proto-Berber reconstruction would look something like this: *i/e(ʔ)z(ʔ)ə/ă(ʔ)m(əʔ)

  5. To add: Your post seems to imply a relation between Lion and Sun. Why is this? Was Lion written with the character for sun? is there any mythological reason why these two are equated? (completely clueless about egyptian culture)

  6. Yes, so Berber can be ruled out.

    "To add: Your post seems to imply a relation between Lion and Sun. Why is this?"

    Imply? No, I *assert* a widespread connection based on things like the following.

    In Egypt: The lion-bodied sphinx is a representation of Harmachis/Hor-em-akhti 'Horus of the two horizons', a direct symbol of the rising sun and thus of eternal life.

    In Etruria: The Chimera of Arezzo, a symbol of the three classical seasons of the year, is yet another mythical leonine hybrid; inscribed on it is tinscvil which I continue to translate as 'Eye (cvil) of the sun (tins)'. We can see that its mane is likely crafted to look like flames.

    In the Near East: The name of Old Testament Samson in Hebrew is Šimšon based on šemeš 'sun' who had a penchant to wrestle lions; his hair (ie. mane) is a curious source of his physical strength.

    So this is an important symbolism not just for Egyptian culture but for many other cultures lying around the Mediterranean coast. I just think that the connection lies in the aforementioned Egyptian word pun.

  7. Didn't Herodotus write about lions in the Balkans during the 1rst millennium B.C.? Not to say that the Etruscans wouldn't have inherited the word from Egyptian...

  8. Yet there was also a lot of trade in the 1st millennium BCE between Carthage and Etruria and animals were clearly imported all around (notice the civet labeled krankru on one Etruscan wall which could only have been an African import through Carthage). Likewise lions have no doubt also been transported to foreign locales because they were, afterall, considered mystical animals.

    And I don't think the Etruscans got the word directly from the Egyptians per se. I think it was inherited from Proto-Aegean and it was at that early point in time that they adopted the Egyptian word from their southerly neighbours.

  9. Greetings!
    It is more possible that Egyptian word for lion had an -l sound rather than -r. (*lw)

  10. Moder-type lions probably managed to colonise post-glacial SE Europe from Asia Minor across the Bosphorus. There are some early Holocene lion bones from Northern Spain, but it isn't clear if they represent "modern" or residual "cave" lions. I don't know of any subfossil record of lions in Italy. Between ca. 5500 and 3000 BC lions were common in the Pannonian Basin, on the west coast of the Black Sea, and throiughout Greece. Between 3000 and 1000 BC they were apparently restricted to what is now Bulgaria and Greece (all the way south to the Peloponnese), and in the first millennium BC they were still occasionally sighted in Macedonia.

    See Sommer & Benecke (2006)