10 Feb 2008

Pava and the 'boy' hoax

Each word in the Etruscan language has a story of botched translations that nonetheless, no matter how obviously incorrect, continue to get published and accepted by a world of blind yesmen. I know I sound blasphemous but keep reading. Let's do some more thinking outside the box.

The word pava has been (mis)translated as 'boy' by the Bonfantes[1]. There are two instances of this word, one is on a mirror (NRIE 759) in the phrase pava Tarχies. Massimo Pallottino hypothesized in 1979 that Tarχies refers to Tages[2], a child divinity with the wisdom of an old man that popped up in the fields one day. I'm usually skeptical of what many of these Etruscologists say but I think I can swallow that idea nicely. It appears sound. According to Etruscan myth, Tages taught humans the art of divination. In this mirror (shown above as a drawing only because Etruscologists don't seem to like to publish photos for some curious reason), he holds some organs in his left hand and is inspecting it with his right, no doubt reflecting on some blemish that is supposed to mean something of concern to the man who ponders with hand to chin, thought to be Tarchon an important mythical ancestor of the Etruscans. His wife appears to look on, pointing to the disconcerting blemish in question. This is no doubt what the interpretation of pava is based on. While it's complete folly to compare Etruscan to Latin nowdays considering that they're understood to be unrelated, it would be moderately forgiveable that some unfastidious academics are convinced that it means 'boy' based on Latin puer (in reference to the boy Tages), even if naive from a grammatical point of view[3]. I'll explain further below.

The second instance of pavac is divided between the 5th and 6th lines of a bronze sheet known as the Tabula Cortonensis. It's part of the phrase pes Petruś pava-c traula-c. Luckily I do have a photo of this one (shown above this paragraph). Beautiful, isn't it? It's a little rusty but still useful to us in the present tense.

Now, about the grammar. On the mirror we have the phrase pava Tarχies, which shows pava in the nomino-accusative (subject) and Tarχies is in the genitive (meaning "of Tages"). The unmarked form of the name for subject or object is Tarχie, not Tarχies. Afterall, Latin Tages can't sensibly be a word loaned into Etruscan as Tarχies. Rather the Etruscan name Tarχie has been borrowed into Latin as Tages (with -s predictably added on for the masculine nominative case according to Latin grammar). So this phrase means "pava *of* Tages". Obviously if Tages himself is a boy, he does not have a boy of his own. Therefore, Bonfantes' lazy claim doesn't last five seconds. I can't fathom why they bothered to publish something so immediately falsifiable but this is typical in the field.

It gets worse. When you look at page 180 of The Etruscan Language: An Introduction (2002), we can see that pava as 'boy', already falsified, is used to further mangle the translation of the Tabula Cortonensis. Ick. Let me assert that there is no mention of a "boy" anywhere in the artifact. The artifact was not written to write about boys. It was made to write about religious rituals, sacrifical offerings and such. I would like to make the suggestion that pava, far from meaning 'boy', refers rather to a ritual offering or rite. This would fit the subject of the mirror as well. On the Tabula Cortonensis, the word pava and the following word traula is marked with the conjunctive ending -c 'and', therefore having the semantic pattern "both X and Y". I've identified traula with libations because the participle trau is used in the Liber Linteus, acting upon vinum 'wine' (LL 4.xxii). It stands to reason that pava refers to some similar thing: a ritual offering or a rite. At any rate, it's not 'boy' by any means.

[1] See Bonfante/Bonfante, The Etruscan Language: An Introduction (2002), rev.ed., p.180 (see link) and also p.218 (see link).
[2] On the Rasna forums, someone going by the name Marce Camitlnas remarks that the tale of Tages is told in origin by Cicero and that I was in err for saying that Pallottino hypothesized (and published) the connection between Latin Tages and the Etruscan name Tarχies on this mirror in 1979. Well, I can't help it he did. Perhaps this is a communication barrier because "to hypothesize" simply means "to assert a hypothesis" regardless of whether an idea is one's own or not. Additionally, Cicero only mentioned the name Tages , not *Tarchies, so Marce has misread in eagerness to accuse me of being only 'reasonably literate'. Lol! However, it is indeed correct to attribute the mythological tale ultimately to Cicero for everyone's information (specifically Cicero, De Divinatione, 2.23).
[3] Etruscan historians often have a hayday comparing Etruscan to whatever Latin or Greek words suit their fancy, while ignoring the context of the texts where these words are located. Words in Latin built on the Indo-European root *peh₂u- 'to be small' are especially used to translate Etruscan pava in desperate fashion. Compare Latin paucus 'small' (*peh₂u-ko-), puer 'boy' (*ph₂u-ero-) and all that jazz.

(Feb 10 2008) No sooner did I post this, I found a critique, albeit a weakly argued one, of the boy theory published in Religion in Republican Italy (2006) by Harvey & Schultz (see link): "While pava tarxies could mean 'the child Tarchu/Tages,' the scene is not a perfect match for the myth as we know it,[...]" And of course I already mentioned that the phrase cannot mean this and so it's even worse than these authors are apparently aware.
(Feb 16 2008) Added a footnote to remark concerning the basis of Pallottino's views.


  1. Great blog! Personally, I kind of wish you were looking at Meroitic or Libyan, but Etruscan'll do very nicely...

    However, I do feel compelled to point out that there's nothing inherently wrong with trying to compare Etruscan words to Latin or other Italic ones. One expects a language to borrow from its neighbours, after all, irrespective of whether they're related.

  2. Meroitic, yes! A very interesting language. It reminded me a little of Swahili when I browsed through it. I'm not well versed in African languages though and I feel safer with European languages.

    Lameen Souag said: "However, I do feel compelled to point out that there's nothing inherently wrong with trying to compare Etruscan words to Latin or other Italic ones."

    Yes, absolutely. However, what you're reading in my firey Etruscan posts are my attempts at counteracting an over-indulgence in Greco-Roman comparisons at the expense of sounder linguistic methodology.

    My philosophy is that internal analysis of the language comes first and only after this is done should borrowings be explored. I hate when words are whimsically translated by ripping them from their contexts and then flipping through Greek or Latin dictionaries to find idle look-alikes. That's not proper methodology. The meaning of words must be determined by their context, not "dictionary thumb-throughs".

    Etruscologists I've read so far aren't very good linguists. This field seems swamped with Greco-Roman historians and archaeologists, not linguists or historians of the Near-East. So I feel that certain perspectives are lacking in the treatment of the language and some aspects of Etruscan religion and culture.

    I do accept borrowings when I think they're sensible and clear. For example, the name Apulun > Aplu 'Apollo' is evidently Greek in origin. These more obvious examples of loans can tell us a lot about the phonetics of either language at the time of borrowing.