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Interesting Incantations

April 27, 2007

Somehow in my rush to finish a chapter, I forsook reading National Geographic. Back in February they covered an interesting story that just recently came to my attention: Ancient Semitic Snake Spells Deciphered in Egyptian Pyramid. In Pyramid texts dated 3000-2400BCE proto-Canaanite forms for “mother snake” have been discovered. The article is tantalizing but too brief.

The passages, inscribed on the subterranean walls of the pyramid of King Unas at Saqqara, reveal that the Egyptians enlisted the magical assistance of Semitic Canaanites from the ancient city of Byblos, located in what is now Lebanon.

While the passages in question have been known since the 19th century, Richard Steiner from New York’s Yeshiva University was the first to realize the passage that had confounded Egyptologists might be Semitic. A pdf of his lecture “Proto-Canaanite Spells in the Pyramid Texts: A First Look at the History of Hebrew in the Third Millennium BCE,” (in Hebrew) can be found at the Academy of the Hebrew Language website. This lecture is much more detailed, but I’m hoping that he will soon publish his findings.

To my mind, two things are of immediate interest. First, while separated by over a millennium, the snake charms from Ugarit (CAT 1.100; 1.107) are an obvious Levantine parallel. Given the nature of the rituals mentioned in these early Egyptian texts, the importance of finding an ally when dealing with snakes is fascinating. Granted, this might just be a standard ritual derivation in the ancient Near East, but it is still an important attestation of the same phenomenon. Second, the use of a foreign tongue — in this case proto-Canaanite — in ritual texts is again quite interesting. This practice is standard in Hittite, Akkadian, and Ugaritic ritual texts from the second millennium BCE, but this might be the earliest attestation of finding ritual words of power from foreign lands. Then again, it might also indicate the common practice of embracing ritual practitioners of foreign origins (once again, note numerous Hittite rituals).

I came about the piece from Codex’s post Ancient Egyptian Semitic Snake Spells (or “Snakes in a Pyramid”) who in turn seems to have found it at S. W. Flyn’s Palimpsest blog Egyptian Semitic Snakes. A trackback and a shout out to both of you

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