16 Jul 2012

The river, the lady and the egg

I'll just cut to the chase on this one by first unleashing a data dump of three interesting crosslinguistic word themes ("lady", "egg" and "river") I've noticed that suggest some fascinating substrate influence emerging from the region of the Eastern Mediterranean. I also don't believe that any of these words can be convincingly explained by appeal to Proto-Indo-European as is so often attempted but rather that this is the product of a common package of religious beliefs shared across the area.

*lota 'seed, blossom, bud; egg'

- Greek λωτός lōtós 'lotus', λῶτα lōta 'bloom, blossom', λυταρίς lutarís 'poppy-like flower', λωτάριον lōtárion 'lotus flower'
- Egyptian *lāṭa 'growth, bud, plant' [rd]
(Note Loprieno reconstructs *rāduw 'plant' with *r yet there is Sahidic rōt together with Fayyumic lōt.)
- Hebrew לֹט lōṭ 'myrrh'
- Etruscan luθ 'seed, bud, blossom; egg'

*laṭá ~ *laṭó 'lady, woman'

- Hieroglyphic Luwian and Lycian lada- 'woman, lady, wife'
- Greek Λητώ Lētṓ 'Leto' (Doric Λᾱτώ Lātṓ), mother of Apollo (sun) and Artemis (moon)
- Etruscan lasa 'lady, woman' (usually overspecified as 'nymph')

*lata 'flowing water, flood, river, stream'

- Greek Λήδη Lḗdē 'Leda', mother of Castor and Polydeuces (the Dioscuri).
- Greek Λήθη Lḗthē (Doric λάθα), a river in the underworld (< λήθη lḗthē 'forgetfulness')
- Etruscan laθ 'flood, river, stream' (> Leθams, the god of streams)

When presented this way, we can see the opportunity for clever interplay among speakers of some Bronze Age substrate language containing these three lexemes together. I do believe this substrate to be "Aegean" (ie. the family to which I attribute Minoan and Etruscan among other Cyclado-Cyprian dialects). The fact that we know so little of Minoan merits exploring this idea.

The surviving Greek myths add to this hypothesis. Through Zeus, Leto is the mother of Apollo and Artemis who were considered twins representing the two orbs in the sky, the sun and the moon respectively. The similarly named Leda was by coincidence said to be the mother of Castor and Polydeuces, revered together under the term Dioscuri among Romans and Tinias clenar by the Etruscans. They two are also twin offspring and can be understood to represent the sun and the moon. The father is Zeus as in the story of Leto, this time in the guise of a swan. Surely these stories are the same and contain repeating symbolisms that shed light on Etruscan mythology. Given the external evidence in comparative mythology, the Etruscan Dioscuri must have been the sons of the sun god Tinia, king of all gods, and the mother would have been the "river swan" seen on one mirror (ET OI S.45). In these stories are the curious combination of a "stream" (as a swan), an "egg" and a "lady" that would appear to outsiders as absurd associations. A common set of vocabulary as a source of pun gives us a decent explanation of this odd jumble of images.

This is only a summary of a wealth of other pertinent connections, mind you, but it's best to absorb these ideas in parts so as not to overwhelm discussion and distract from this larger picture of religious symbolism that spans several linguistic and cultural boundaries around the local maritime region.


  1. Fascinating triad there. I know of a Nart myth from the North-West Caucasus that involves a man seeing a goddess bathing, ejaculating on a stone by the riverside, and the goddess nursing the stone until a powerful god is born from it. The substitution of a stone for a seed/blossom/bud/egg is easily done, and the other elements are present; could there be a connection?

    Also, on the topic of water, I was considering some of the sea-life the early Aegeans would have been familiar with - in particular, crustacean sea-life. A quick scan of Wiktionary, Google Trans, and Perseus of Latin terms provided some interesting leads:

    Astacus: lobster. From Greek ἄστακος "lobster" (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ἄστακος)
    LSJ: ἀστακός , ὁ: the smooth lobster (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0057:entry=a)stako/s&highlight=lobster)

    Cammarus (also camarus, gammarus, cammaros): lobster; "cammaros" also sea crab. From Greek κάμμαρος . Compare καμάρα "Anything with an arched cover such as a covered carriage or boat, a vaulted chamber, or a vault" (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/καμάρα); putative IE root *kam "curved, bent". (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/cammarus)
    Perseus: cammărus (camărus, gammă-rus ), i, m., = κάμμαρος: a sea-crab, lobster (so called from its vaulted back) (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0059:entry=cammarus&highlight=lobster)

    Carcinos, carcinus: crab. From Greek κάρκινος "crab" (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/καρκίνος); notice Sanskrit कर्कट /karkaṭa/ "crab" (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/कर्कट), Proto-Slavic *rakъ "crayfish, crab" (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/rak , http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/рак), Latin cancer, maybe Ancient Greek χάλιξ "pebble, gravel"

    LSJ καρίς, ἡ: prob. a general term for small crustaceans, incl.: shrimp, prawn (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0057:entry=kari/s&highlight=prawn)

    LSJ: καράβος, ο: horned or cerambycid beetle; a prickly crustacean, crayfish (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0057:entry=ka/rabos&highlight=crayfish_)
    LSJ: γραψαῖος, o: crab
    LSJ: κολύβδαινα: kind of crab

    LSJ: κύλλαρος: hermit crab [any relation to the following two items?]
    LSJ: χέλειον , τό: crab's shell; tortoise-shell, chelium testudinum. Perhaps compare χηλή (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=xe%2Fleion&la=greek&can=xe%2Fleion0&prior=pinoth/rhs#lexicon)
    LSJ: χηλή: horses's hoof, cloven hoof, talons, claws, cloven/hooked implement (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=xhlh%2F&la=greek&can=xhlh%2F0&prior=xe/lion#lexicon)

    LSJ: σκίλλα: squill, Urginea maritima; used in purificatory rites. Source of Latin scilla, squilla, "sea-onion, sea-leek, squill, prawn, shrimp, kind of crab". (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=ski%2Flla&la=greek#lexicon) (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=scilla&la=la#lexicon)

  2. The Nart connection is excellent. Good find. As strange as the story sounds it is indeed recorded. There may very well be a connection here.

    What I find even more interesting is the account of Nart burial practices: "When somebody was dying, either someone's brother or relative, somebody from the tribe brought a small portion of wheat seeds as a symbol of grief."

    I had been wondering just a while ago whether Etruscans were thinking of their dead symbolically as either eggs or seeds. If we think of the dead as seeds, then they are "planted" in the ground and are reborn. If I'm correct about the semantic range of luθ as either 'seed' or 'egg' (cf. Greek ᾠόν 'egg, seed'), then this paints a rich and endearing symbolism.

    On a last note, I want to discourage you from off-topic, page-long data dumps. None of these vocabulary items, fascinating as they are, have anything to do with the three themes of my post. (That being said, we can peck away at ἀστακός with alternant ὀστακός traceable to Indo-European words for "bone". For what it's worth, I can only remain suspicious of an IE root *kam- but I can as yet say little else on that.)

  3. That's the very book from which I learned that story. I gotta dig it out of my book boxes sometime...

    My apologies regarding the data dump; I'll just post links, and I'll try my best to keep it to relevant articles. The trouble I find is that sometimes I suddenly get a good idea (at least, it seems good to me at the time) regarding Etruscan, Aegean, PIE or something similar, but there's no post that's quite relevant to it!

  4. To me, something is a "data dump" when the data is unexamined and adds nothing to strengthen any points. We can be here all day idly scanning the entire Greek lexicon but that strategy (or lack thereof) is a grievous waste of time.

    The premise that words for sea animals might likely be Minoan loanwords into Greek is very reasonable and needs little convincing. So it could have been stated without this long and *random* selection of Greek words.

    If however you had refined your data to show that some of these above words are very likely substrate, this would be more useful and could fuel more constructive debate. For example, one may do that by noting foreign glosses by ancient scholars like Hesychios, by showing how the same wanderword exists in a number of separate languages in the immediate region, by showing the dubiousness of their Indo-European-based etymologies, or simply by citing other scholars like Robert Beekes who suggest that these words are substrate.

    Back to the seeds and burial connection though, I jus remembered that the name of Catha and the word luθcva are inscribed together in TLE 131, an inscription dedicated to Laris Pulena. It makes sense to me that Catha, a goddess of grains and earth's bounty, is being ritually evoked here to in effect receive the "harvest" of a newly deceased person by offering grains during the burial ceremony as a symbolism. I think at this point I've thoroughly convinced myself that both eggs and grains are equally important and interchangeable as Etruscan metaphors for death and afterlife. Still, I wish I had more linguistic data to munch on to strengthen my own case that luθ truly means both "egg" and "seed". I find that the "egg" case is weak (although apparently necessary in translating the Liber Linteus passage where "grain" doesn't appear appropriate.) I suppose what I have will have to suffice for now.

  5. Can be 'luth-' related to latin 'luteus'? I don't know the precise etymolology of the latter term, but it seems (from Ovidius) that the adjective luteus, -a, -um can assume the semantic of 'di terra, fangoso' ('related to the ground', muddy').
    From Fasti, I° book, 157 - 158: "ignotaque prodit hirundo et luteum celsa sub trabe figit opus" => "and the stranger swallow composes its muddy structure under a high beam" (translation found in "Ovidius, Fasti I: A Commentary" - Steven J. Green).
    Mud, ground, fertility and harvest seem to be connected for me.

  6. Latin luteus 'dirty, muddy' is from lutum 'mud, filth', built on the verb luere 'to cleanse'. This is explained already at the Wiktionary website.

  7. I found an interesting article about the strong connection between egg/oval stones and the etruscan underworld here: