Thursday, November 26, 2009

How to cure a migraine
and other ailments in old Egypt

I was reading an article from the Journal of Coptic Studies about Coptic medicine practices.  Apparently one of the first Coptic kings, Manaqiusch ibn Aschmun, of whom nothing is now known, ordered the construction of the first Egyptian hospitals.  Also, during this early period in history, ca. 1300 AD, women were among the practicing doctors of Egypt, as mentioned in early Coptic medical documents: TCAEIN EEI EHOUN (tsaein eei ehoun) 'the (female) doctor (who) entered' (the T- prefix is the feminine definite article, thus indicating a female).  The Coptic word for doctor, CAEIN1, goes back to Ancient Egyptian (AE) swnw (sunu); the word for medication, prescription or treatment, PAHRE (pahre), goes back to AE phrt (pahret?).2 

Following are a couple of the more interesting treatments (some of the documents appear incomplete or in fragments):

For migraine: KOPROC N[EROMPE, LIBANOC, ARCUNIKON ... ;NOOU HI HYMJ (kopros ncherompe livanos arsynikon ... thno'ou hi heimdj xro) 'pigeon dung, incense, arsenic... rub  with vinegar and turn.'

For a cold: OUACCWWD ETBE PEHREUMA MN PMAUE ETHORS ECWTM JI NAK ...  NEUVORBIOU, ;NOOU HI NEH ME ] EHRAI HN SENTF SAULO EUO NHREUMA NCECWTM NKECOP (ouassood etve pehreuma mn pmaue ethorsh esotm dji nak ... neuforviou thno'ou hi neh me ti ehrai hn shentf shaulo euo nhreuma nsesotm nkesop) 'A cure for a cold and hard-of-hearingness: Take ... Euphorbium (?), rub it with olive oil.  Give it in the nostril.  The patient will cease being stuffed up and will again be able to hear.'

Well, it's up to you if you want to try these treatments at home!


Kolta, Kamal.  2004.  Krankheit und Therapiemethoden bei den Kopten.  In Journal of Coptic Studies 6, 149-160.

(Translation from the original German is mine.)

1 Could this Egyptian word be the ultimate origin of the -cine and -cian suffixes of English medi-cine, physi-cian?

2 The vowel sounds of AE are often still a mystery, since the AE hieroglyphic writing did not indicate vowel sounds, only consonant sounds, as in the scripts of other Semitic languages.  Coptic, written in a version of the Greek alphabet, can often help supply the unknown vowel sounds, however.



Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Tocharians
Celts in western China?

Among the interesting books I read during the summer was one called The Mummies of Urumchi, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber (1999).  She is an archaeologist, linguist, and textile expert all wrapped up in one.  During the 1990s she went to western China to visit the museums of Ürümchi, the capital city of China's Xinjiang province, a.k.a. the Uyghur1 Autonomous Region, also sometimes called East Turkestan.  Her main objective was to examine the mummies that have been retrieved from the sands of the Teklimakan Desert, or the Tarim Basin, found in almost perfectly preserved condition despite being around the same age as their Egyptian counterparts, ca. 2000 BC.  Barber examined not only the physical features of the mummies but also the fabric of their well-preserved clothing.

One of the "Mummies of Ürümchi" unearthed in the Teklimakan desert

These mummies are not east Asian in appearance, but rather they exhibit western European physical features, including being tall (men and women often over 6 feet tall) and reddish-blond hair, with their method of textile manufacture and patterns appearing most like those of northern European groups, especially that of the Celts.  Were there truly people of northern European descent living in the deserts of western China?

The "Beauty of Loulan" - mummy, bottom, and facial reconstruction, top.

There is both archaeological (Caucasoid mummies, fabrics, textiles) and linguistic evidence for it.  Late in the nineteenth century, documents were found in the Teklimakan region (Tarim Basin) written in an Indic (Sanskrit-like) script that, when transcribed and translated, revealed an Indo-European (the large language family that includes Sanskrit, Persian, Latin, Greek, Russian, German, and English) language with close affinity to the Celtic languages.  The language is called Tocharian, known to the Greeks, since Alexander probably encountered them, as tokharoi. Further, artwork of the region dating back to the ninth century reveals paintings of men with Caucasian features, reddish-blond head hair, and prolific facial hair.  That they were converts to Buddhism is revealed not only by the artwork but also by the unearthed documents in the Tocharian language that relate to Buddhist teachings and philosophy.

Paintings (ca. 900 AD) showing Tocharians in what is now western China. Note Caucasian appearance and thick facial hair of (Celtic?) Tocharians.  Both paintings portray the Tocharian association with Buddhism.

1 Although the Tarim Basin, or Teklimakan, was once a Tocharian and Persian settlement region, the Uyghurs, a Turkic group, often erroneously called Chinese Muslims, have inhabited the region since about the ninth century.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Will the Coptic Language Rise Again?

Portion of an article appearing in Egyptology News and RantRave.

Some people agonise over endangered species. My pet cause is endangered languages. When I hear that a dialect is dying out or that young people aren’t passing on an obscure language, it saddens me. It is one thing to examine shards of pottery or fragments of a manuscript found insulating a wall. It is another matter entirely when people alive today represent and advocate a point of view that fell from political dominance. When I hear about the descendants of British Loyalists proudly proclaiming their ancestry, it makes my own country’s history come alive with the freshness and immediacy of current events. It is for this reason that I so enjoy Alistair Cooke’s history of America. To me, the proper way to study the past is to recreate the crossroads at which past generations once stood, to wonder anew about truths received as a part of collective memory.

It is generally believed that Coptic is an extinct language, alive only in the prayer books and scriptures of Coptic Christianity, which is one of the major branches of the Christian faith tradition. Coptic is the language of ancient Egypt. Unlike Arabic , it is not Semitic but Afro Asiatic.1 In its earliest from, it was written with hieroglyphics. Later, it was written with a phonetic alphabet which is mainly Greek but has added characters for sounds not found in Greek.

The Islamic conquest of Egypt involved harsh repression of coptic as a spoken language. Indeed even today, the adherents of Coptic Christianity endure civic liabilities in Egypt that are unimaginable in the west.

The most commonly believed time line of the Coptic language lists the mid 1600’s as the time in which the last speaker of this language died. Now there are reports that the language may still be spoken, still a living language.

The most solid report of Coptic language survival comes from the Coptic Monastery of St. Anthony in the Red Sea Mountains about 110 miles southeast of Cairo. According to the “redbooks” web site, the monks in this monastery speak Coptic among themselves as a language of daily business and discourse . The article notes as follows.

“Amazingly, the monks who live here still speak Coptic, a language directly descended from the language of the ancient Egyptians.”

Of course, what really makes a language alive is when families pass it on to children, or better still, when villages perpetuate an endangered tongue. Such reports about Coptic are not numerous enough for those who wish the language well.

Despite this, there is a report of an extended Egyptian family that speaks Coptic among themselves, including even the detail of a woman who got strange looks when she spoke it on her cell phone.

The Daily Star of Egypt reports ‘ “Mona Zaki is one of only a handful of people that continue to use the language in everyday conversation. She speaks a colloquial form of Coptic with her parents and a few relatives that dates back 2,000 years.


I also hope that Coptic will revitalize and be successful.  It would be a shame for the rich language and culture of the Egyptians to forever end up, like so many others, in the dustbin of history.  - Dave

1  I must respectfully disagree with the author here.  Semitic is part of the Afro-Asiatic family.  Egyptian is related to Arabic, Hebrew, and Akkadian.
El Mirador

One of the largest ancient Maya cities, and home to possibly the world's largest pyramid.

Click here to see CNN story on this ancient American metropolis.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Ancient Mound Destruction

City leaders in Oxford, Ala. have approved the destruction of a 1,500-year-old Native American ceremonial mound and are using the dirt as fill for a new Sam's Club, a retail warehouse store operated by Wal-Mart.

This is proof that ignorance and racism against Native Americans persists to this day. This story represents the continuation of a 500-year-old Eurocentric racist idealism that basically says that nothing created by the American Indians is worth saving or even acknowledging. It's the continuation of an ethnocentric Euro-American attitude that says American history only began in 1492. Never mind the fact that American Indians had established civilizations on our continent thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans on its shores.

Part of the reason for this historical denial is the Western propensity to think that if a language and culture weren't written down then it certainly never achieved any level of 'civilization,' that such 'preliterate' people were mere nomads wandering through an 'unspoiled wilderness' chasing bison and gathering plants, nuts, and berries. But let's set the record straight: oral tradition is thought to be much more accurate than written tradition, less subject to manipulation and deception. And oral tradition forces feats of memorization and the learning of complex mnemonic devices the likes of which we, in our modern 'porta-brain' society of laptops and Blackberries, can scarcely hope to appreciate or imitate.
Added to this of course was the U.S. government's policy of genocide and forced assimilation of American indigenous peoples, a policy which necessitated the spread of propaganda declaring Native Americans vastly inferior to 'civilized' Europeans. It is this propaganda of Manifest Destiny which still persists to this day.
This story reminds us that indeed there continues blatant disrespect for the nations that came before us on this continent. The Mississippian civilization, traditionally dated from ca. 950 A.D. to ca. 1550 A.D., constructed thousands of pyramidal mounds along the Mississippi River from Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico and all across the southeastern U.S. Many of these flat-top mounds contained civic or religious buildings on their summits, or the houses of the highest-ranking elites.  (Mississippian civilization is noted for being highly socially stratified, like Mesoamerican societies, with sharp class divisions.  These were highly aristocratic agrarian societies, not more egalitarian hunter-gatherers.)  Nobody now knows how many Mississippian mound cities or towns there actually were, since, in the nineteenth century, the soil of many unoccupied mounds was used for rail bed ballast (Kehoe 2002: 170) during the construction of the nation’s railroad system. Mounds were dismantled and built over with impunity, even though one large one, destroyed in 1869 for rail ballast and upon which modern St. Louis was built, “contained a tomb chamber described as having a ceiling of logs and plastered walls and floor,” many bodies lying in rows, “torsos covered with thousands of shell beads ... conch shell spine pendants, marine shell beads, ... and a pair of small copper masks (pendants)...” (ibid.: 173-74). Another large mound in Spiro, Oklahoma, was so filled with artistic riches, including thousands of pearl beads, blankets, conch shell gorgets, effigy pipes, repoussé copper plates, figurines, earspools, and copper hairpins (La Vere 2007), that the Kansas City Star named it a “King Tut Tomb” in North America. The second largest mound at Cahokia, Illinois, the largest Native American city-state north of Mexico, larger than the city of London at the time and built while Europe was entering the Dark Ages, was destroyed as late as 1930 (Pauketat 2004: 17).
(The first largest mound, Monks Mound, which was larger in size than the Great Pyramid of Khufu in Egypt, has largely been preserved as a national monument in what is currently East St. Louis.)

Unfortunately, this story is proof that old habits and ways of thinking die hard, and history repeats itself, again.

Click here for the original article.


Kehoe, Alice. 1998. The land of prehistory: a critical history of American archaeology. New York: Routledge.
La Vere, David. 2007. Looting Spiro mounds: an American King Tut's tomb. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Pauketat, Timothy. 2004. Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

A Coptic (Egyptian) Magical Text

Yes, yes, I admit, it has been a long time since my last post. But my time offline has been productive. I have, in fact, begun learning Coptic, the 'modern' form of ancient Egyptian, and the official language of the Copts, the Egyptians who converted to Christianity early in the first millennium AD.

Just some notes on the following passage and on the language: Coptic is highly agglutinative, meaning that words often consist of a root plus one or more (usually more!) affixes, primarily prefixes. An interesting thing about Coptic is that verb conjugations are not suffixed but are prefixed to the verb. Also, the definite and indefinite articles are always prefixed to the noun, e.g., prome (p[e] 'masc def article' + rome 'man') 'the man'; the feminine definite article is t[e], thus tsxime (t[e] 'fem def article' + sxime 'woman') 'the woman' (the e of the articles often drops out before the noun). (The x here is pronounced like an h, although perhaps a bit more guttural.) Coptic incorporated many Greek words during the time of Greek rule over Egypt, so those of you familiar with Greek may notice some of these, e.g., soma 'body', sarks 'flesh', and tavos 'tomb.'

The translation is that of the author; the transliteration into the Roman alphabet from the Coptic is mine.

I can't help but wonder what the poor Pharaouo did to deserve such a curse upon him!

pmour etpe pmour epkah pmour epaeir pmour epestrewma pmour etchefmoute pmour eprei pmour epo'oh pmour enhalate pmour e peksoure epiot pmour entauror TC pe XC nheitf hijn pshe mpestis nheitf pmour epsashf n shaje nta-hiliseo'os jo'os ejn tape net toua'av ete nai ne newran Psuchou, Chasnai, Chasna, Ithouni, Anashns, Shourani, Shouranai. Mare pmour etnma'au1 shope hijo psoma nho'out nfaraouo men tefsarks ntetnsho'oye mos nthe noushe auou ntetna'as nthe noutoeis hijn tkoupria nnepefset dos nnefto'oun nneftisperma nnefkenonia men Touaien tsheinKamar men la'au nsxime oute ho'out oute tefnei shanta osh anok alla marefsho'oue npsoma nho'out nfaraouo psheinKirantales nnef kononia men Touaien tsheinKamar nthe nourefmo'out efkei hnou tavos ennefaraouo psheinKiranpoles neishkeinonia men Touaein tsheinKamar.

Aio aio, taxei taxei.

O spell of the sky, O spell of the earth, O spell of the air, O spell of the firmament, O spell of the Pleiades, O spell of the sun, O spell of the moon, O spell of the birds, O spell of the father’s ring, O spell with which Jesus the Christ was bound upon the cross, O spell of the seven words which Eliseus uttered over the heads of the saints, whose names are these: Psuchou, Chasnai, Chasna, Ithouni, Anashns, Shourani, Shouranai. May that spell be upon the male organ of Pharaouo, and his phallus, may ye dry it like wood, and may ye make it like a rag upon the dunghill. May his phallus not become stiff, may it not erect, may it not produce seed, may he not have intercourse with Touaein, the daughter of Kamar, or with any woman, wild or tame, until I myself call out; but may it dry the male organ of Pharaouo, the son of Kiranpales, may he not have intercourse with Touaein, the daughter of Kamar. Like a dead man lying in a tomb. May not Pharaouo, the son of Kiranpolis be able to have intercourse with Touaein, the daughter of Kamar.

Yea, yea. Quickly, quickly!

1 ma'au means 'mother,' but this doesn't appear anywhere in the author's translation (?). The ' equals a glottal stop.

Appearing in the
American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, Vol. 56, No. 3, 1939, 305-7. From documents in the Moritz Collection, Oriental Institute No. 13767. Author and date of original document unknown.
Author of text translation: Elizabeth Stefanski.