Archive for Language and archeology

Zoroastrianism and Mazdaism: Evidence from Sogdian and Pahlavi

Since we've been having, and will continue to have, a series of posts on Zoroastrianism and related topics, this is a good opportunity to review a recent, substantial publication related to this subject:

Barakatullo Ashurov, "Religions and Religious Space in Sogdian Culture: A View from Archaeological and Written Sources", Sino-Platonic Papers, 306 (December, 2020), 1-41. (free pdf)

[The following is a guest post by Richard Foltz in reaction to the above paper.]

I cannot understand why scholars (and others) insist upon talking about Sogdian "Zoroastrianism", even while presenting evidence that usually suggests it was something else. Ashurov goes so far as to call it the "national religion" of the Sogdians, despite noting that they had no supreme deity such as Ahura Mazda. The term "mazdayasnish zarathushtrish", used as the self-identification in the Pahlavi texts, means literally "[we who] sacrifice to Mazda [in the manner prescribed by] Zarathushtra". So if a religion doesn't demonstrably consist of performing sacrifices to Mazda by following the liturgical prescriptions of Zarathushtra, then what is the basis for calling that religion Zoroastrianism? The Sogdian Ashem Vohu prayer discussed at length by Ashurov could indeed seem to provide evidence of the presence of a Zoroastrian rite among the Sogdians, but this isolated example can hardly justify calling Zoroastrianism the Sogdians' "national religion". We don't know the context for this prayer, whether it was part of a full Sogdian liturgy (which we do not possess), or represents an attempt by Sasanian missionaries to impose their form of religion on Sogdiana, or (as Gershevitch suggested) was part of a Manichaean text. Meanwhile the bulk of textual, iconographic and architectural relics from Sogdiana show devotional practices which were either their own particular expressions of pan-Iranian religiosity (Siyavash, Nana/Anahita) or — the cult of Vakhsh, for example — entirely local in nature.

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Of precious swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions, part 7

[This is a guest post by Chau Wu, with additions at the bottom by VHM and others]

On the akinakes* (Scythian dagger / short sword) and Xiongnu (Hunnish) horse sacrifice

Chinese historical records suggest that the akinakes, transliterated from Greek ἀκῑνάκης, may be endowed with spiritual significance in the eyes of ancient Chinese and Northern Barbarians, for it was used in solemn ceremonies.  Let me cite two recorded ceremonies and a special occasion where an akinakes is used to “finesse” an emperor.

In the Book of Han (漢書), Chapter 94 B, Records of Xiongnu (匈奴傳下), we see an akinakes is used in a ceremony sealing a treaty of friendship between the Han and Xiongnu.  The Han emissaries, the Chief Commandant of charioteers and cavalry [車騎都尉] Han Chang (韓昌) and an Imperial Court Grandee [光祿大夫] Zhang Meng (張猛) visited the Xiongnu chanyu** (單于) [VHM:  chief of the Xiongnu / Huns] in 43 BC.  Han and Zhang, together with the chanyu and high officials, climbed the eastern hill by the river Nuo (諾水)***, killed a white horse, and the chanyu using a jinglu knife (徑路刀) and a golden liuli**** (金留犁, said to be a spoon for rice) mixed the horse blood with wine.  Then they drank the blood-oath together from the skull of the King of Yuezhi, who had been defeated by the ancestor of the chanyu and whose skull had been made into a goblet.  Essentially, this jinglu knife was a holy mixer.

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Middle Eastern harps and "harp" in Eastern Central Asia

There is an abundance of ancient harps archeologically recovered from the Tarim Basin and surrounding areas.  Just in the Tarim Basin alone, there are 23 harps dating to the first millennium BC:

Yánghǎi 洋海 (east of Turpan, just south of the foothills of the Flaming Mountains at the broad, pebbly ("gobi") terrace embouchement of the Toyuq Gorge) — Uyghur Yankhi, Yanghi, Yangkhe, Yangxé. Uyghur Wikipedia has Yanqir; Turkic Yarghol (5 harps dating from 999-250 BC)

Zhāgǔnlǔkè 扎滚鲁克 (village in Toglaklik Township, Chärchän / Qiemo County) — Uyghur Zaghunluq (3 harps dating 600-300 BC)

Àisīkèxiáěr 艾斯克霞尔 (southern cemetery, along the lower reaches of the Baiyang / White Poplar River [originally a Mongolian name transcribed in Sinitic as Nàmùguōlè 纳木郭勒] in the vicinity of Qumul / Hami) — Uyghur Eskişehir, Eski Sheher ("Old City") (11 harps dating 8th-5th c. BC)

Qūmàn 曲曼 (Zankar cemetery near Tashkurgan) — Chushman (2 harps dating 6th-3rd c. BC

Yú'érgōu 鱼儿沟 (west of Turpan about a hundred miles and south of Ürümchi about a hundred miles, in Dabancheng District — modern Uyghur name is Iwirghol or Éwirghol (1 harp dating 3rd c. BC)

Chärchän / Qiemo District Museum (1 harp collected from the people)

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Inscription decipherment with digital image enhancement

John Bellezza, an archeologist and cultural historian whose work focuses on the pre-Buddhist heritage of Tibet and the Western Himalaya, and who has lived in high Asia for three decades, sent me the following two photographs of inscriptions that he took at Lake Gnam-mtsho, Tibet (TAR):


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Nomadic affinity with oracle bone divination

Anyone who has studied the history of writing in China is aware that the earliest manifestation of the Sinitic script dates to around the 13th century BC, under the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600- BC).  It is referred to as jiǎgǔwén 甲骨文 ("oracle bone writing") and was used primarily (almost exclusively) for the purpose of divination.  The most ideal bones for this purpose were ox scapulae, since they were broad and flat, and had other suitable properties, which I shall describe below.

The bones used for divination were prepared by cleaning and then having indentations drilled into their surface, but not all the way through.  A hot poker was applied to the declivities, causing cracks to radiate from the heated focal point.  This cracking was called bǔ卜, a pictograph of the lines that form in a heat-stressed bone.

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Horse culture comes east

In Friday's New York Times:

"A Record of Horseback Riding, Written in Bone and Teeth:  Close examination of horse remains has clarified the timeline of when equestrianism helped transform ancient Chinese civilization", by Katherine Kornei (11/13/20)

More archeological evidence that the horse, horse riding, and related equestrian technologies and culture came to East Asia from the Eurasian interior before the rise of extensive trade along the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty (202 BC-9 AD), and that these developments had a profound impact on the civilization and political organization of East Asia.

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"Skin" and "hide" ("pelt") in Old Sinitic and Proto-Indo-European

Browsing through the The American Heritage Dictionary "Indo-European Roots Appendix", a favorite activity of mine, even before the pandemic lockdowns, I came to "pel-3" and was stunned when I saw that one of the derived words was Greek peltē, a shield (made of hide), about which three years ago I had written a very long post (nearly three thousand words): 

"Of armaments and Old Sinitic reconstructions, part 6" (12/23/17)

Utilizing a mass of archeological, art historical, textual, linguistic, and other types of evidence, I had shown a close resemblance between the Greek peltē and Sinitic fá 瞂  pelta; small shield — Middle Sinitic bjwot — as defined in Paul Kroll, ed., A Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese (Leiden: Brill, 2015), p. 104a.  In that whole, long post, I did not mention Sinitic pí 皮 ("skin; hide; pelt; leather"), because I was determined to cite only linguistic evidence from the Classical Greek to the Middle Sinitic period and the associated artifacts and images.

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The dissemination of iron and the spread of languages

This incredibly fine NHK documentary on "The Iron Road" will only be available online until November 8.  Since I do not know whether and in what form it will be available after November 8, I'm including it here only as a link embedded in the title.  If anyone discovers that, after November 8, it might be available on YouTube, Vimeo, or other easily accessible platform, I would be very grateful.  In any event, if you are interested in the history and transmission of ferrous metallurgy across Eurasia, together with its cultural and political impact, as well as Hittite and Scythian art, architecture, and language, and what came before the Silk Road, I strongly urge you to view this video by November 8.  This is one of the best Eurasian archeology documentaries that I have ever seen.

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Trefoils across Eurasia: the importance of archeology for historical linguistics, part 4

Hour-long video:  "A Sacred Emblem: Trefoil in Early Korean Metalwork and Beyond":

October 8, 2020 – Trefoil or “three-leaved plant” is a stylized form found in artifacts and architecture across culture and time. Dr. Minjee Kim begins the story with her first encounter with a gold headdress ornament of the Balhae kingdom (698-926) and traces the migration of its trefoil form throughout the 4th-6th century across Asia. Then, she travels to France, where “fleur-de-lis” adorned French crowns, clothing, textiles, and furniture as a symbol of royalty, leading to its wide contemporary appropriation by many Western institutions. The journey ends with the long and rich tradition in Kyrgyzstan where the motif is still strongly embedded in various realms of material culture of the people. While offering a view on Korean artifacts within a wider context of material resonance in human history, Dr. Kim highlights the way these artifacts adorned the body and how the craftsmanship was employed to articulate the social hierarchy.

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Indo-European religion, Scythian philosophy, and the date of Zoroaster: a linguistic quibble

On September 23, 2020, Christopher Beckwith delivered the following lecture at  Indiana University:

Scythian Philosophy
So, Was There a Classical Age of Eurasia After All?

Christopher I. Beckwith
Sept. 23, 2020, 12:00 noon

In the middle of the first millennium BCE philosophy appeared in several ancient cultures. Its most prominent early practitioners were Anacharsis (‘the Scythian’, fl. 590 BC), Zoroaster (whose texts are in a Scythian dialect, fl. 620 BC), Gautama the Buddha (‘the Scythian Sage’, fl. 490 BC), and Laotzu (*Gautama, fl. 400 BC). They use logic to pose the metaphysical-political problem of polytheism versus monotheism, the ethical problem of achieving happiness or equanimity, and especially the epistemological problem of categorization. This talk examines their ideas and builds on the latest advances in Scythology to address the much-avoided question in the subtitle. 

C.I. Beckwith, Distinguished Professor of Central Eurasian Studies, Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, is author of Greek Buddha (2015), Warriors of the Cloisters (2012), Empires of the Silk Road (2009), etc., and The Scythian Empire (ms. Nearing completion).

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Headless men with face on chest

The hapless condition of headlessness may be a physical phenomenon, but it may also be a grammatical or orthographic category in linguistics, and we have dealt with both kinds on Language Log, e.g.:

Now, what shall we make of the following?

Xingtian as drawn by Jiang Yinghao, 17th century; there are many different versions of this figure, but all basically with the same features and pose.

One of the Blemmyes, from a map of 1566 by Guillaume Le Testu. Among the scores of Blemmye representations I've seen, they're all roughly of this nature.

Both figures are pictured on a flat space amidst mountainous terrain.  Both have a weapon in their right hand and a shield / pail in their left hand.  Both have their right leg raised / advanced.  Both have their face on their chest and lack a head.  Etc.  I doubt very much that they could have arisen completely independently.

The Blemmye is associated with the word Scythe, an Iranian people who traversed the vast lands between Crimea and Korea.  More than any other group in the first millennium BC, which was so crucial for transeurasian exchange during the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, the Scythians were responsible for the transmission of cultural products across Eurasia.  This was due to their mastery of horse riding, advanced weaponry, and organizational and mental prowess.

This fits with the paradigm of long distance transmission of culture and language that I've been developing for decades in scores of posts, articles, and books.

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Ethnogenesis of the Mongolian people and their language

The late 13th and 14th c. portraits of the Mongol khans and their wives often show them with rather light (hazel or greenish) eyes.  For example, the 14th c. portrait of Ögedei Khan (1186-1241) clearly depicts him as having greenish blue eyes and a reddish (definitely light colored) mustache and beard.


(National Palace Museum)

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Tilting vessel

Earlier this year, we had a post about a fascinating new Wikipedia article on "Goblet word" (5/30/20).  That post was about a vessel that served as an analogy for a rhetorical device called zhīyán 卮言 ("goblet word").  Now we have another magisterial Wikipedia article by an anonymous master of Chinese esoterica.  It's about another name for a similar type of vessel called qīqì 欹器, "tilting vessel".

The qīqì (欹器, "tilting vessel" or "tipping vessel") was an ancient Chinese ceremonial utensil that automatically overturned and spilled its contents once it reached capacity, thus symbolizing moderation and caution. Both Confucian and Daoist Chinese classics include a famous anecdote about the first time Confucius saw a tilting vessel. In the Confucian tradition (e.g., Xunzi) it was also named yòuzuò zhī qì (宥座之器, "vessel on the right of one's seat"), with three positions, the vessel tilts to one side when empty, stands upright when filled halfway, and overturns when filled to the brim—illustrating the philosophical value of the golden mean. In the Daoist tradition, the tilting vessel was named yòuzhī (宥卮, "urging goblet" or "warning goblet"), with two positions, staying upright when empty and overturning when full—illustrating the metaphysical value of emptiness, and later associated with the Zhuangzian zhīyán (卮言, "goblet words") rhetorical device.

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