Deciphering of earliest Semitic text reveals talk of snakes and spells
2007-01-26 0:00


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These serpent spells, written in hieroglyphic characters and discovered in an Egyptian pyramid, are the earliest continuous Semitic texts to have been deciphered.
A 5,000-year-old Semitic text dealing with magical spells and snakes has been deciphered from an ancient Egyptian pyramid inscription, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem announced Monday.

The texts, which were first discovered a century ago in a 24th Century BCE Egyptian pyramid, are the earliest continuous Semitic texts ever to have been deciphered, said Semitic languages Prof. Richard Steiner of New York's Yeshiva University in a premiere presentation at the Hebrew University.

The passages, serpent spells written in hieroglyphic characters, are estimated to have been written between the 25th to the 30th centuries BCE.

Steiner, a former fellow of the Institute of Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University and a member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, has deciphered a number of Semitic texts in various Egyptian scripts over the past 25 years.

View of the Saqqara Pyramid, Egypt
The passages, which were inscribed on the subterranean walls of the pyramid of King Unas at Saqqara, Egypt, had puzzled scholars who tried to read them as if they were ordinary Egyptian texts.

Four years ago, Steiner received an e-mail message from Robert Ritner, professor of Egyptology at the University of Chicago, asking whether any of the passages could be Semitic.

"I immediately recognized the Semitic words for 'mother snake,'" Steiner said.

"Later it became clear that the surrounding spells, composed in Egyptian rather than Semitic, also speak of the mother snake, and that the Egyptian and Semitic texts elucidate each other."

Although written in Egyptian characters, the texts turned out to be composed in the Semitic language spoken by the Canaanites in the third millennium BCE, a very archaic form of the languages later known as Phoenician and Hebrew.

The Canaanite priests of the ancient city of Byblos, in present-day Lebanon, provided these texts to the kings of Egypt.

The port city of Byblos was of vital importance for the ancient Egyptians, and it was from there that they imported timber for construction and resin for mummification.

The new discovery shows that they also imported magical spells intended to protect royal mummies against poisonous snakes that were thought to understand Canaanite.

Although the Egyptians 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.

"This finding should be of great interest to cultural historians, linguists and Biblical scholars" Steiner said.

"This is a sensational discovery," said Hebrew University Professor Moshe Bar-Asher who is the president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language.

"It is the earliest attestation of a Semitic language, in general, and Proto-Canaanite, in particular."

The texts also shed light on several rare words in the Bible, Steiner said.

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