27 Feb 2012

The magic of literacy

As I read through Duane Smith's latest entry, Cuneiform writing and scribal values, I'm reminded once again that writing wasn't just a practical tool to store information for ancient people. It was something magical by a great many, and for most of our recorded history. Once upon a time, we saw magic in the mere act of representing spoken language in a visual form. (Or in the case of the Inca, the magic was tactile in the form of knotted strings called quipus.) The smallest word pun or special use of a symbol was an opportunity for awe and contemplation, regardless of the writing system used.

Then I think on one of my favourite scenes from Black Robe, demonstrating a dramatic culture clash between the Algonquin perspective and that of the European point-of-view of the priest. The French Catholic priest, referred to as a "black-robe" by the locals, has made it his mission to "educate the primitives" through the love of his Saviour. He takes for granted that writing in his world is an everyday thing, For him, writing is something good and, in the case of his bible, divinely blessed as well. To the Algonquin band journeying with him however, the priest's alien ideas are shocking to their traditional way of thinking and he comes to be seen as a harbinger of death, an otherly curse. The magic of his writing that he demonstrates to them is interpreted negatively as a sign that he's a demon using black magic.

This dramatizes well both the positive and negative reactions to this power to communicate, two halves of our human quest into the unknown country beyond the comforting territory of what we know, the reverence and the fear, the worlds of our angels and demons. Both holy writ and written curses well up from the same source, an infinite universe of imagination within, incapable of ever being conveyed in its purest totality, and only insufficiently so through our finite systems of language. In our modern internet culture, we still swing between awe and dread in regards to what kinds of information exchange are to be considered good and what are to be assigned to evil (ie. copyright issues, piracy, Wikileaks, etc.).

22 Feb 2012

Devotions to an Etruscan deity in TLE 939

According to Helmut Rix's Etruskische Texte, an important resource that lists inscriptions on Etruscan artifacts, an inscription written on a vessel from Caere in the 7th century BCE labeled ET Cr 0.4 (aka TLE 939 in Testimoniae linguae Etruscae) is transliterated as follows:
zusatunina atiuθ: arvasa
aφanuva θi masuvem maniχiur:
ala alχuvaisera turannuve
inelusisnial θui uriaθi litilta
lipileka turanuve
ecmima-ṛịmatesi ara turanuve
velusinas eχeθai ara ina asi
ikan ziχ: akarai
It seems apparent to me that the continuous text as it's presented here demands more accurate parsing. Some of these words are just too long and are likely multiple words strung together. So I would suggest that it be parsed more like this:
zusa tunina atiuθ: arvasa
aφanuvaθi masuvem maniχiur:
ala alχuvai sera turannuve
in elusisnial θui uriaθi litilta
lipileka turanuve
ec mima-ṛị matesi ara turanuve
velusinase χeθai ara ina asi
ikan ziχ: akarai
Let's first approach this with what we know. This text is quite a few centuries older than the text of the Zagreb Mummy Text. This is Old Etruscan. The intent of the final sentence is rather apparent: Ikan ziχ akarai "This text shall be done". (We'd expect *Ecn ziχ acari in 1st-century Etruscan.) This is a commitment by the parties involved to respecting the gods by proper rite and it recalls the concluding sentence of the Cippus PerusinusIχ ca ceχa ziχuχe "Thus this rite has been written". Preceding this concluding sentence then, we expect a list of rites being performed to bless an event, most often being the passing of a loved one and their final journey to the underworld, but there are many other reasons for ritual blessings such as to honour certain deities during yearly celebrations, to solidify contracts between people, to implore the gods for aid, etc.

I find the thrice occurrence of turanuve interesting and it seems to be a locative form of Turaniu which is in turn the diminutive of the name Turan, the goddess of fertility. According to Larissa and Giuliano Bonfanteturnu on one mirror represents Eros, the child of Turan. The meaning of the name is thought to be read in that case as 'The dear (one of) Turan' rather than 'Dear Turan'. However I wonder whether in TLE 939 we're not dealing with Turan instead of the more minor deity Eros. The last occurrence of the name is suggestive of a specific epithet declined in the locative case: Turanuve Velusinase 'before Turan of Volsinii'. Volsinii is an ancient Etruscan city, modernday Bolsena. The word masuve-m refers to a burial (nb. mas 'to entomb, to inter').

21 Feb 2012

Plagiarism versus the new online reality

Memiwanzi recently touches on the origin of the word plagiarism but in this one case, the meaning is far more interesting than the etymology to me.

Ah plagiarism and its related demon, intellectual property rights. With the digital age, "plagiarism" becomes terribly confusing morally and intellectually, if not effectively meaningless. Some intellectual issues follow:

1. Define "copy". Copying can be whole or in part, so at what point can the act of copying be sensibly called "plagiarism"? How can such a fuzzy delineation be made methodical and fair?

2. Define "author". On the net, what does "author" really mean if, say, someone remixes a preexisting song? What if the derivative work of another gains more social value than the original work of an original author? And then should one be paid for derivative works too? How derivative is "too derivative" though?

3. Define the basic moral issue with "plagiarism". Is plagiarism an issue about recognition of authorship, financial compensation, social appreciation, a combination of the above, or something else? Or is this more broadly about the fair compensation of any contributor (anonymous or otherwise, online or off) by means of any "currency" (based on financial value or some other value) according to the overall "value" of the contribution (evaluated by any kind of value or group of values)?

4. A new participatory economy? How might the pre-digital-age free-market model adapt to the new reality of open information exchange where "copying" is a gradient concept, "value" includes non-financial metrics, and where collective contribution and exchange blur the lines of an agent with her environment?

To resolve this pesky issue of plagiarism, we need a new digital economy that:
A) upholds the netizen's inherent right to copy and paste information.
B) recognizes doubly that mere copying adds no participatory value to the system.
C) sufficiently rewards contribution according to its measure of originality and overall social worth.
D) destroys any meaningful gain (in time and money) from stealing another person's work.

Cage Innoye has many interesting insights on just such an economy at his blog Diverse Philosophy. Whatever their exact details may be, competent solutions demand less laws and a more developed value theory.

14 Feb 2012

Flights of fancy and ornithomancy

Duane Smith over at Abnormal Interests makes mention of The birds in the Iliad - Identities, interactions and functions by Karin Johansson. This is an excellent and welcomed addition to educational resources on the net and I will be going through it to try to gain insight into the religious practice of ornithomancy in Etruria. It's worth learning everything we can about this ancient science made out of observing birds and their paths across the sky because it's a central component in life and faith in Etruria. Without knowing this, we can only understand Etruscan civilization at a distance.

While the author states "The methodologies in bird divination differed in different parts of the world, such as in Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Etruria and Rome," I respectfully doubt that there is enough known about Etrurian religion to be secure with that claim. There is little way thus far to accurately gauge that "difference". More likely there are connections, many connections, that continue to be missed by Etruscanists who as yet still have a hard time deciphering much of the language and rely, perhaps too much, on the second-hand reports of Romans rather than reading the extant Etruscan-language works like the Liber Linteus or Tabula Capuana directly.

11 Feb 2012

Lasa and the transgendered deity

The consensus on the Etruscan term lasa is that it may be equivalent to the Greek concept of 'nymph'. "It might be possible someday to establish some kind of correspondence between Lasa and the Greek concept of nymph," states Roman and European Mythologies by Yves Bonnefoy under the heading Etruscan Daemonology on page 41. However the Bonfantes have cautioned in The Etruscan language: An introduction (2002), "Lasa Sitmica, however, is a male winged figure." At times like this, I find myself briefly chagrining, "Why does everything have to be so complicated?" But then I realize that life wouldn't be so interesting if there wasn't a new puzzle to solve.

First off, I'm toying with the idea that lasa isn't referring to some specific deity or kind of deity but instead might be translated simply as 'lady, woman'. This has benefits. For one thing, back in Anatolia, it's curiously similar to the Lycian word lada with an identical meaning. Second, rather than apply an over-specified meaning without established reasons, applying a more generalized value such as 'lady' can at once explain its use with Venus-like characters on mirrors, its use with some nymphs, and... as I will get to in a moment... possibly the problematic male lasa aforementioned.

This is where the tale of the transgendered deity comes in. Before any of you scough and giggle, there really were transsexual deities in existence in classical times, popular ones. Across Anatolia, there was a particular cult revolving around Attis, Cybele and Agdistis. In one tradition it is said that the handsome vegetation god Attis, who cyclically died every year to be reborn for the benefit of humankind (long before Jesus was invented), was esteemed greatly by Cybele, goddess of fertility. Yet he was also desired by Agdistis, the hermaphroditic deity associated with (of all things) walnuts. This created quite a mythical love triangle. Agdistis, having lost his "walnuts" one fateful day when the fearful gods of Olympus felt the need to "correct" this alternative biology, was magically transformed into a woman for all intents and purposes. Cult worshipers of this tradition were even inspired to become eunuchs in the service of this deity and this must have been one path in ancient society for many naturally transgendered people.

So coming to the mirror in question (ES 115) with the "boy" Lasa Sitmica who appears next to Atunis (= Attis) and Turan (= Cybele), I can only suspect that Lasa Sitmica might be performing the role of Agdistis. I'd be surer if I could nab a photo of that mirror but the available facsimile shown above still gives me the impression that, indeed, lasa might in this very special case be referring to transgendered Agdistis who, upon losing his male genitals, or at the very least his testicles, was considered a lady in the mindset of Etruscan culture, either as a hermaphrodite, or as in the illustration of this mirror where male features are unmistakable, as a possible eunuch.

What then is sitmica in the epithet? No specialists seem to have piped up about it, leaving me to ponder on my own. One guess I thought of is that Lasa Sitmica may mean "The Lady in Sidon". Taking away the phrase-final article -calasa would be 'lady' and Sitmi then could be the locative of *Situm 'Sidon'(?). Sidon was an important Phoenician city where such eastern cults might be easily imported. No guarantees though. It's better than nothing for now and it would be one way of explaining away the curious gender conflicts inherent in the attestation of this term.

(2012 Feb 13) Gazing at and thinking over the mirror some more, I consider a new possibility. How are we entirely sure whether Lasa Sitmica is attributable to her male attendant or whether it is referring back to Turan? Perhaps Turan is described twice, both with her direct name and by the title Lasa Sitmi-ca 'The Lady in Sidon'. Afterall this phrase seems more in line with the historic fame of Sidon as a destination for the worship of the equivalent fertility goddess Ashtarte more than anything. The attendant then would be an unmarked feature of the background, merely a servant aiding Turan (still possibly a eunuch attendant as many chamberlains were and as many men in devotion to the Asian Cybele were).

6 Feb 2012

Thoughts to think about next...

Alas, I have no methodically thought-out post for you all today. It's not as if I don't have thoughts to write about but it takes some time to structure ideas, find relevant links and get out nicely proved points. So I'll just simplify my life this week and jot out half-thought-out ideas. Some commenters out there might have unexpected perspectives to add on some of these things so it's constructive to share in whatever small way we can. Consider this "Glen's January 2012 leftovers", a big pile of leftover thoughts demanding my attention lately, loose threads that need to be tied.

Old Chinese phonology problems

Baxter-Sagart's Old Chinese uvular stops still irk me. I need to resolve that problem in my head. While I'm well aware of the reasons they use for proposing this, nothing can convince me that this reconstruction is sound. Oh sure, the phonemes may be properly identified in abstract terms at least, but these sounds are certainly not mapped properly to real-world phonetics and this is a flaw that needs to be fixed. When I see their sign for a labialized, aspirated, pharyngealized uvular stop, my mind keeps screaming "Bullocks!" The unnecessary complexity of some of their phonemes is beyond sanity. Yet what creates a problem is that they have some interesting evidence for reconstructing the uvular stops in the first place, based on an aspirated/plain/voiced alternation in some roots, the same as already established for pre-existing plosives. Thus Baxter and Sagart reconstruct *q/*qʰ/ even though every fiber of my being reviles this suspiciously rare series.

Mysteries of the Piacenza Liver

My eyes are focused on the "celestial" region of the interior portion. My previous analysis has been that tlusc arc should be reconstructed as *Tluschval Arcam 'Bow of Tluschva (Seas)', hence the rainbow as messenger of the gods (like Greek Iris). Going with this and my prior identification of the eight gods seated in the shadow of the prominent "celestial peak" as male-female pairs of the four winds, I wonder more about the significance of this structure and the significance of each character in the pantheon. The concept of such a rainbow deity coupled with the wind gods reminds me of Greek myth regarding the rainbow goddess Iris and her sisters, the Harpies. A connection? Are Harpies just wind gods in the end? What is the nature of the pairs I observe among the wind gods? Catha (Earth) and Fufluns (Hades) seem to represent the west, the direction of the setting sun as it sets into the underworld. Tins Thneth (Thundering Tinia) and Thufaltha (Truth) then should represent east (the rising sun). This leaves Tins Thufal (Tinia of Oath) and Lasa (presumably like Venus) in the south and Lethams (Rivers) and Tul(??) in the north. But then perhaps I've paired them improperly. What I need is an analogy with surrounding religious beliefs of that period with this same motif.

I also need to find an analogy to the six infernal gods seated around in a wheel pattern on the opposite side of the liver. Is this an omphalos in the center of it? How should all these things be tied together conceptually? What are the analogical concepts behind these interesting representations of the cosmos?

Phonation, root and tone in Pre-Indo-European

I had a flashback of some unresolved business between Phoenix and I regarding the reasons for why known Indo-European phonotactic rules in a monosyllabic root show us that only voiceless stops can co-exist, or voiced breathy stops can, but not both types at once. Curiously, the voiced plain (ie. creaky voiced stops in the revised phonology) can coexist with either voiceless stops or voiced breathy stops just fine. There are even apparent alternations between voiced and unvoiced variants of a same underlying root. Does this indicate "phonation harmony" across a syllable? Or tone? How can it properly fit in my model of Old and Mid IE? I haven't come up with firm answers yet but then again, I haven't devoted enough time on it.