Byblos Priests Write Spells to Protect Pharaoh's Mummy
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The oldest Semitic text ever discovered, a spell by the priests of Byblos to protect a pharaoh's mummy from snakes.

A 5,000 year old spell in hieroglyphics was discovered in the tomb of an Egyptian Pharaoh, Unas in Saqqara, Egypt. Early on, scholars were unable to decipher the hieroglyphics until an expert in Semitic languages, Prof. Richard Steiner of New York's Yeshiva University cracked the case. Steiner was readily able to read the transliterated Semitic text in hieroglyphics.

The text, written between 3,000 and 2,500 B.C., was inscribed on a subterranean wall of the pyramid of King Unas. Initial attempt at reading the text in the language of the pharaohs did not make sense in that language. Steiner recognized the transliterated inscription as Canaanite based on the evident reference of "mother snake," typical of Canaanite spells. Other hieroglyphic spells in the Egyptian language further supported the decipherment, based on the subject matter of the "mother snake."

Further, the incantation was formulated by the Canaanite priests of the Phoenician city of Byblos, specifically provided for the kings of Egypt. It is useful to mention that Byblos was a vital center for the Egyptians from where they imported timber and resin for building and mummification. Evidently, the Egyptians also imported magical spells from Byblos intended to protect royal mummies against poisonous snakes that were thought to understand Canaanite. They included the magic spells on two sides of the sarcophagus of the pharaoh in an effort to ward them off.

"Come, come to my house," reads one section in the Semitic language that is supposed to be the snake's mother speaking, trying to lure him out of the tomb. In another passage, the snake is addressed as if he is a lover with "Turn aside, O my beloved."

"Mother snake, mother snake says mucus-mucus." Utterance of rir-rir mother snake, mother snake. The words "rir-rir" refer to the drivel, the venom of the snake.

Despite the fact that the Egyptian arrogantly viewed their culture as far superior to that of their neighbors, their morbid fear of snakes made them open to the borrowing of Semitic magic.

The text is said to be the oldest Semitic text ever discovered since a more recent one discovered nearly a century ago from the 24th century B.C. "The phrases, interspersed throughout religious texts in Egyptian characters in the underground chambers of a pyramid south of Cairo, stumped Egyptian experts for about a century, until the Semitic connection was found." Reported, AP, Jerusalem, Thursday, Jan 25, 2007, Page 6.

"This finding should be of great interest to cultural historians," said Prof. Steiner. "Linguists, too, will be interested in these texts. They show that Proto-Canaanite, the common ancestor of Phoenician, Moabite, Ammonite and Hebrew, existed already in the third millennium B.C.E as a language distinct from Aramaic, Ugaritic, and the other Semitic languages. And they provide the first direct evidence for the pronunciation of Egyptian in this early period." The texts will also be important to biblical scholars, since they shed light on several rare words in the Bible, he said. "This is a sensational discovery," said Moshe Bar-Asher, Bialik Professor of Hebrew Language at the Hebrew University and president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. "It is the earliest attestation of a Semitic language, in general, and Proto-Canaanite, in particular."

Sources:

  1. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
  2. An ancient Semitic text may be magic formula for snakes, AP, Jerusalem, The Taipei Times. Thursday, Jan 25, 2007, Page 6
  3. Lefkovits, E. Deciphering of earliest Semitic text reveals talk of snakes and spells, Jerusalem Post, January 23, 2007.

 

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