4 Jan 2011

Translating the Liber linteus religious formula

After Boxing Day, I came across the Wikipedia entry for Liber Linteus. Casey Goranson had in zeal attempted to translate this artifact's repeated religious formula with the use of my dictionary applet last month. Flattered though I am, his translation needed to be revised. "For this soul to endure/remain in the town of night and amidst the people" would be something quite different in Etruscan than what we find attested, perhaps something like *Ca śacni eneri śpureθi cilθl meθlumeθic.

The confusion is expected however since I don't believe I officially gave a clear translation after grappling with its interesting declensional variations back in 2007 in Liber Linteus and religious formulae (read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3). Published Etruscanists like the Bonfantes have only ever given piecemeal and vague translations.[1] So it's high time I spilled the beans on this by 2011!

Introduction to case marking variants in the formula

As I previously reckoned, variations in case must have revolved around a same basic jist. In the following the prevailing case markings are respectively locative -e (signifying 'at, with') plus postposition -ri 'for (the benefit/purpose of)', directive -is (signifying 'to, towards') plus postposition -tra 'through' and finally genitive (marking possessor and recipient) without an accompanying postposition:

Śacni-cle-ri cilθl, śpure-ri, meθlume-ri-c enaś.
"For the spirit of night, for (the) city and for (its) people everlasting."

Śacni-cś-treś cilθś, spureś-treś enaś.
"To the night-spirit (and) to (the) city everlasting."

Śacni-cla cilθl, śpural, meθlumeś-c enaś.
"For the spirit of night, for (the) city, and to (its) people everlasting."

Breaking down the grammar

A test of any translation is the theorist's ability to break the whole into its parts as lucidly and thoroughly as possible.

We can see that śacni 'soul, spirit' (literally 'sacred one') is declined only indirectly through the use of postposed deictics with their own case markings (-cle, -cś, -cla) which are to be treated as weakened demonstratives meaning 'the' rather than the more emphatic 'this'. In the variant with directive case, the underlying noun phrase without case marking would be *śacni-ca cilθ, equivalent to an English compound 'the night-spirit', as opposed to the other variants building on *śacni-ca cilθl 'the spirit of (the) night'. These creative variants don't change the meaning but have an impact on grammar. When expressing a compound 'night-spirit' instead of 'spirit of the night', the two consecutive nouns were both declined with the same directive case deliberately, via Suffixaufnahme, since the two nouns in succession were referring to a single idea. This is why first and last names in Etruscan also occasionally display Suffixaufnahme because, again, the two names point to a single person.

The postposition -tra is a transparent, early borrowing from Umbrian tra comparable to other inherited Italic words for 'through', 'over' and 'across' (cf. Latin trans). In this case, this particle in partnership with the directive marking can only be alluding to the transfer of gifts to the recipient and thereby has a terminative nuance indicating that which the action affects. In this case, the action is giving and the listed recipients provide the point where the action ends, so to speak.

The final word enaś seems to be an infinitive verb related to the present-future perfective eniaca of the Pyrgi Tablets, implying a basic root *en-. In both contexts, and through the help of the accompanying Punic translation of those tablets, the word must involve endurance (ie. 'may it outlast the stars'). The termination in -aś seems to mark a state. So a value of 'everlasting' is contextually and grammatically reasonable here. It follows the noun phrase it modifies just like an Etruscan adjective should.

Breaking down the larger religious meaning

Another test of a translation is the greater meaning and context it can provide.

One might debate whether this "night-spirit" is to be understood in this context to refer to a plurality of night spirits in the collective sense (ie. Roman manes) or whether it's best to treat the singular form as it is, a singular deceased person who had recently passed on. Is the reference generic or specific? Either way, the choice of the word śacni establishes a subject of death and resurrection since 'human soul' or 'human spirit' is its strict semantic usage in other documents from what I've seen.

Building on this theme of an immortal soul, and since the "city" here is never overtly specified in the mantra, it probably refers to the City of the Underworld. The "people" then are its non-living citizens held captive by the grip of death for eternity. In fact, LL 11 seems to confirm this interpretation by a pretty clear reference to just such a city of the dead: spur-ta eisna hinθu 'the holy city below'[2].

The document is already agreed to pertain to the adherence of important rites on specific calendar dates, and so my above translation fits well with the facts. There's a focus in this text on funerary rite, it appears.

[1] According to Bonfante/Bonfante, The Etruscan language: An introduction (2002), 2nd ed., p.93 (see link), sacni means 'priest', a contextual impossibility persisting no doubt by an outdated connection to Latin sacerdos 'priest'. Priests themselves are certainly not to whom offerings are being devoted in these passages. As per Jannot, Religion in Etruria (2005), p.128 (see link), sacnicstra is "a collective term designating men devoted to a god". This mistake together with his other mistake confusing caθesan as a single name and variant of goddess name Caθa (see p.158) shows that Jannot, despite publishing on Etruscology since the 1970s remains persistently naive about basic Etruscan demonstratives. Meanwhile in Pittau, La lingua etrusca (1997), pp.106, 212 & 217 (see link), the author repeats several times that sacni means 'rite'. All of these translations are random and have only blockaded more conscientious attempts at coherently translating full sentences in the Liber Linteus.
[2] Van der Meer, Liber linteus zagrabiensis (2007), p.149 (see link) lists out verses 11.ix-x as: slapiχun slapinaś. favin. ufli. spurta. eisna. hinθu cla. θesns.


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