Monday, July 30, 2007

THE DEATH OF ASA



SINAI INSCRIPTION 358

Asa the Semitic Smith was working in the Sinai turquoise mines in the Bronze Age (perhaps around 1500 BCE). He had dedicated an inscribed sphinx statuette to the goddess Ba`alat (Egyptian Hat-Hor), which was found in the temple at the work site.

His words (in Cana`anite language and protoalphabetic writing) were: "This is my offering to Ba`alat. Asa Smith ("son of the furnace"), beloved of Ba`alat".

On a rock wall near the main water supply for the mines, he had written: "The tool has engraved the sickness of Asa Smith ("son of the furnace") in writing".

The inscription before us now (Sinai 358) is on a wall inside one of the turquoise mines (Mine M). Besides the monochrome photograph, and my drawing, there is a photograph in colour.

Notice that a tablet-frame has been drawn around the graffito, especially visible in the colour-picture.

The text is brief and poignant; i
n my decipherment and interpretation, it declares:

"Asa has done his work".

' S P ` L M L (') K T H

The familiar sequence of an ox-head and a fish give us the name 'Asa.

Then we can detect a mouth (with teeth?). This is the sign for P. In the Iron Age, most of one lip was surgically excised, leaving the letter looking like a crook; the Greeks left the wound gaping in their letter Pi (but eventually squared it to become the sign we use in "Pi R squared"); the Roman P has the form of Greek Rho, and for R they put the Semitic beard back on the head. It might not have happened exactly in that way, but our concern here is to establish that the mouth-sign represents P. If you look at tables of signs in books on the alphabet, you will often find the origin of P given as "corner", and to find such a sign the perpetraters have to steal most of the boomerangs, which really stand for G (as is generally recognized), and G is as rare as P in Semitic languages.

My case for recognizing a mouth-sign for P is manifold. First, the Hebrew name for the letter is Pe, meaning "mouth" (and the Ethiopic name is Af, also "mouth").

Second, on the Thebes ostrakon which records the letters of the protoalphabet, it is easier to find a mouth than a corner. The boomerang for G is a small character
on the left side, between Dh (two strokes) and R (head), and with Ss (tied bag) on its right. The mouth is to the right of the fish, and between the D (door) and the Q (cord on stick); the top of Q is poking into the mouth (compare the stem of K in the eye, bottom left).

Third, on another protoalphabeitic ostrakon (published by Flinders Petrie in the same collection, the one I have labeled Thebes 4) there is a mouth-sign above the two lines that represent Dh, hence PDh, equivalent to Hebrew paz, "fine gold"; the mouth has a straight top lip, and a curved bottom lip.

Fourth, a sign that puzzles scholars on the horizontal graffito from Wadi el-Hhol, fifth from the left, between the ox-head (') and the wavy water-sign (M), is obviously a mouth (though I have seen guesses that describe it as "rabbit ears", "the sun", "an eye"): the upper and lower lips are separated by a line, which is unusual, but it should be compared with the line marking the mouth of the ox on the right, and this is unique (except that it also occurs on the 'Aleph on the vertical
graffito, and I take this to be an indication that both inscriptions belong together). My interpretation of this section of the vertical text is:

' P M Kh
"an ox (logogram) and (P) a fatling (MKh)"
These animals would be on the menu for the banquet (MShT) in the celebrations for the goddess `Anat, as announced on the other inscription.

The conclusion of this fourth point is that the mouth is P on the vertical graffito and the boomerang in the same text stands for G (and is not a "corner" representing P).

Fifth, the West Semitic cuneiform alphabet (used extensively at the city of Ugarit) has two parallel wedges for P (representing the two lips), and on a damaged tablet giving the initial sounds of each character the pronunciation seems to be pu, "mouth".

And that wraps up my case for recognizing the mouth-sign as P.

Moving on down the 'Asa inscription in Mine M (Sinai 358), we see that the engraver has carefully distinguished the eye (it has a pupil) and the mouth (with teeth?). We can now recognize the verb P`L (pa`al), "he has done/made".

Then we are confronted by a cluster of letters, to the left: L and K (a small hand), both on the same level as M. The combination MLK is the root for "rule" and nouns meaning "king" and "kingdom". None of these words fit satisfactorily, but I suggest that there is a cross above the K and beside the L, which has not been noticed and has not been highlighted with whitening. MLKT could mean "queen", but also "work", though its correct spelling is ML'KT; nevertheless, the letter 'Aleph is sometimes dropped in these Sinai inscriptions, notably (4 times out of 8) in M(')HB, "loved", in the phrase "beloved of Ba'alat", which appears on the sphinx inscription, with its 'Aleph intact.

The word ML'KT is used in the Hebrew Bible; for example, it is said that God finished his work (Genesis 2:2). And I think that "his work" is what we have here. The last sign, rather than K (we have a K below it), is H: the celebrater is doing acrobatics (there is an equivalent Egyptian hieroglyph of a man in an upside-down stance, A29). Adding -H to the word for "work" provides the suffix -hu, meaning 'his". When God completed his work, he rested. When 'Asa had "done his work", we may assume he died. A gravestone bearing his name has been found nearby, and we will study that in a separate essay.

More details on this document (Sinai 358) can be found in my published article: Brian E. Colless, The proto-alphabetic inscriptions of Sinai, Abr-Nahrain 28 (1990) 1-52, particularly 40-41.

In this instalment of the 'Asa saga the new letter was P (with a slightly variant H). The letters Z, Sh, and Th, which we have discussed and identified, have not appeared yet.

The letter P can be added to the list:
' B D Dh H W Y K L M N S ` Ss P Q R T [Sh Th Z]

'Alp (ox) Bayt (house) Dalt (door) Dhayp (eyebrow) Hillul (celebration) Waw (hook) Yad (forearm) Kap (hand, palm) Lamd (crook) Mu (water) Nahhash (snake) Samk (fish; and spine) `ayin (eye) Ssirar (tied bag) Pu (mouth) Qaw (line, cord on stick) Ra'sh (head) Taw (signature mark) [Shimsh (sun) Thad (breast)].



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