BYTYLLION.

I’m over a quarter of the way through Travelling Heroes: In the Epic Age of Homer and I’m enjoying the immersion in the details of the eastern Mediterranean in and around the eighth century B.C., but I’m starting to worry about his presentation and use of evidence. This is a tiny example, but it crystallized my worries, so I’m going to share it, and if you think it’s nitpicking, well, LH is nitpicking central.
In chapter 6, “Up to Unqi” (Unqi being an Aramaic name for the north Syrian plain around the Orontes), Lane Fox describes the sea route up the coast and the evidence for Greek contact with the locals, and on page 91, in a discussion of the ancient port at Ras Ibn Hani, he writes:

What, then, did the Greeks call the settlement which they found by this harbour? At [nearby] Ras Shamra, texts and statues show the honours accorded to El, father of the gods. Ras Shamra’s later small settlement and the nearby Ras Ibn Hani were surely the site which Greeks later knew as “Betyllion” (their version of the Semitic phrase “bait-El” or “House of El”). They noted Betyllion for its natural harbour, namely the “White Harbour” which we can still admire and which had been the port since Ugarit’s Bronze Age. We can therefore understand why Betyllion’s “natural” harbour is described as the first staging-post for the Roman emperor Trajan when he set out from Rome to join his troops in Syria for their fateful campaign into Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) in AD 114-17.24 He had landed at ancient Ugarit. The correct location of Betyllion is important for different reasons, not because it was a Greek settlement but because it has become involved in a major topographical puzzle about Greek contact further north and also because the name (“house of El”) confirms that Canaanite-Phoenician culture never entirely died at the site.

Now, the first warning bell was that word “surely,” which tends to mean “I can’t document this so I’ll wave my hand and hope you don’t look into it too closely.” I was also curious about that odd name Betyllion. So I went to his footnote 24 and found: “Jo. Malalas, Chron. 11.3 (ed. J. Thurn, 2000, 205); Frost (2001), 61-74.” Malalas! Another warning bell: the guy wrote in the sixth century A.D., which is certainly “later,” but 1,400 years is quite a lot later when you’re trying to retrieve a place name. Well, thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can actually see that passage of Book XI in the 1831 Dindorf edition, and what do we find? Not “Betyllion” but Bytyllion—or, to be more exact, Βυτυλλίου in the Greek text and Bytyllii in the Latin translation at the bottom of the page (both are in the genitive case). But perhaps this is corrected in Thurn’s modern edition? No, thanks to “Search inside the book” at the Amazon listing, we can see that Thurn too has Bytyllion. (I checked with other sources, too, like the Barrington Atlas, and they all had Bytyllion.) The only conclusion I can come to is that Lane Fox changed the form to fit his thesis and neglected to mention the fact.
This is not good. I presume he intends “Betyllion” to represent a Greek Βητύλλιον (with eta), and it’s true eta and iota were pronounced identically by Malalas’s day, but that doesn’t mean you can just substitute one for the other. So his sentence “Ras Shamra’s later small settlement and the nearby Ras Ibn Hani were surely the site which Greeks later knew as ‘Betyllion’ (their version of the Semitic phrase ‘bait-El’ or ‘House of El’)” can be deconstructed as “Ras Shamra’s later small settlement and the nearby Ras Ibn Hani might have been the site which Greeks fourteen hundred years later knew as Bytyllion, but which I prefer to think of as ‘Betyllion’ because then I can better make it fit the Semitic phrase ‘bait-El’ or ‘House of El’, which I need for my theory.” Sure, all this stuff is speculative anyway, but I prefer the speculation up front rather than swept under the rug.


Incidentally, that other reference in the footnote, Frost (2001), is Honor Frost, “Two Cypriot Anchors,” in Larissa Bonfante and Vassos Karageorghis (eds.), Italy and Cyprus in Antiquity: 1500-450 BC (Nicosia, 2001); I can’t access the book, but this review says it “uses the similarity between seventh century anchor-stocks from Cyprus and Italy as a device for entering into a discussion of Bronze and Iron Age anchors, their use in sanctuaries, and the relationship between cult space, towers, and sea-travel,” which doesn’t sound like it relates to the things that bother me—but if you have read the article and are aware of something that bears on this stuff, please share.

Comments

  1. What’s more, eta and iota may have been the same, but upsilon was not; it was still /y/. So if Malalas wrote Bytyllion, he meant it.

  2. marie-lucie says:

    I agree with John. Relating the Greek sequence bytyl to the Hebrew words for ‘house’ and ‘God’ seems far-fetched unless there is other evidence for a similar Greek-Hebrew (or at least Greek-Semitic) vowel correspondence elsewhere, which does not look very promising.

  3. John Emerson says:

    You’re a hard man, Mr. Hat.
    But fair.

  4. John Emerson says:

    You’re a hard man, Mr. Hat.
    But fair.

  5. I’m a hard man who wears a soft hat.

  6. Bill Walderman says:

    Your qualms about the book, LH, led me to look at the write-up on Amazon and then to one-click. I’m curious to see what he has to say about Homer, or perhaps I should write “Homer.”
    While some scholars place the composition of the Homeric poems in the 8th c. BCE, others place it later, in the 6th c. or even 5th c. There’s a huge amount of speculation on the question of the origins of the Homeric poems, supported by very little hard evidence.
    The big challenge for those who think the poems were written down in the 8th c. (as Lane Fox seems to think) is: what material were they written on? Papyrus doesn’t seem to have become available in Greece until the 7th c. And how many oxhides would it take to write 20,000-30,000 hexameters? But the 8th c. can’t be ruled out as impossible.
    Concomitant with the question of the writing material is the question of when and where the Greek alphabet was invented. There is a theory that it was invented in Euboea or at the Euboean trading station at Al-Mina in Syria, and that “Homer” was Euboean, but all of these theories are based on the most tenuous evidence.
    I’ll be curious to see how Lane Fox addresses these questions, though I suspect I’ll remain a skeptic

  7. There’s a Β[ΗΘ]ΥΛΙΟΝ on the Madaba Mosaic Map. See here or here.
    And βαίτυλος / Baetylus really is בית־אל (Gen 28:19), isn’t it?

  8. scarabaeus says:

    “LH is nitpicking central.”
    ’tis good to be solid and reliable.
    Most that be written is opinion, hard core facts are hard to pin down, subject to deviations of understanding of meaning.
    Everything has a minimum of 3 sides, the right side [truth?] wrong side [lies?] and the unprovable or unknown side.
    Even an orb has 3 sides, the side facing [in the light] the far side [usually dark] and the area in the shade.
    Lies do have an element of truth, but exposing them be crux of the problem.
    Did Troy or any Greek Gods exist?

  9. David Marjanović says:

    The big challenge for those who think the poems were written down in the 8th c.

    Wait a second. Why can’t they have been composed in the 8th century (digammata and all) and only written down in the 6th or 5th?
    If you have nothing else to do, learning an epic of that size by heart is challenging (…almost wrote “an epic challenge”…) but possible. Around the end of the 19th century, there was a guy in the Belgian Congo who knew the entire Bible by heart, and the Bible isn’t even in verse.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    It seems that learning the Bible by heart was a fairly common pastime before the internet (well, quite some time before it).

  11. Bill Walderman says:

    “Why can’t they have been composed in the 8th century (digammata and all) and only written down in the 6th or 5th?”
    I actually wrote “written down,” not “composed” for precisely that reason. The possibility that the poems were composed orally and then transmitted orally for a couple of centuries is advocated by G.S. Kirk, the General Editor of the six-volume Cambridge commentary on the Iliad. It’s one possibility among several that can’t be ruled out. But there’s no clear and compelling evidence for any of the various ingenious theories about the origins of the Homeric poems.
    A number of years ago, I read in my college alumni magazine about an alumnus, an accountant by profession, who had memorized the Iliad and the Odyssey in Greek in their entirety. I took the claim at face value–accountants never lie or distort the facts, of course–but I doubt anyone sat through the whole performance, text in hand, to check its validity.
    Regarding the digamma–the /w/ sound that left its traces in the Homeric poems after disappearing in the language (at least in the Attic and Ionic dialects; it persisted into the fourth century and later in other dialects that didn’t leave a body of literature). I don’t think the digamma was ever part of the “text” of the Iliad or the Odyssey (including a possible wholly oral stage of transmission) because it’s frequently neglected–about 17-18% of the time on average. (according to Richard Janko, Homer, Hesiod and the Homeric Hymns, Table 10, p. 47). But it left its traces in the scansion, preventing elisions and lengthening the quantity of otherwise short closed syllables. Now that we have an understanding, imperfect to be sure, of the formulaic nature of the compositional process of the Homeric poems, it’s possible to see how that happened: even after it disappeared from the language, the metrical effects of the digamma were reflected in many of the traditional formulas that the creator (or creators?) of the poems strung together in composing them.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    The “ghost phoneme” role of forgotten digamma sounds like the role of h (in Germanic borrowings) in French, eg le hareng “the herring”, not *l’hareng. (The word hareng rhymes with parent).

  13. An excellent comparison; I’m surprised it never occurred to me. I wonder if it’s been brought up by Homeric scholars?

  14. The locus classicus of the h aspiré is of course a political orator speaking of les héros de la révolution française with elision ([lezero]) instead of the correct hiatus ([leero]), producing les zéros de la révolution française!

  15. Bill Walderman says:

    ‘The “ghost phoneme” role of forgotten digamma sounds like the role of h (in Germanic borrowings) in French,’
    I was once chastised by someone with a faint memory of high-school French for failing to make the liaison in the name of a restaurant that used to be located near my office in DC–les Halles. I responded with an indignant e-mail message explaining the phenomenon, which I think is technically referred to as “sandhi.”
    But the vestigial survival of the digamma in the Homeric poems may not have been quite the same thing as the French h aspire/. It’s not clear that it was felt synchronically by the speakers of Greek in “Homer’s” environment–as I mentioned, “Homer” neglects it in a substantial number of instances where it would have been etymologically appropriate. The explanation for its survival may be that the oral formulas out of which the poems are constructed arose at a time when the digamma was actually pronounced. “Homer” and other archaic Greek poets working within a largely oral tradition built their poems largely out of this body of pre-existing formulas, not by stringing together individual words in accordance with strict rules of scansion.

  16. marie-lucie says:

    JC: the irony is that the pronunciation les zéros which makes the speaker sound illiterate is actually the one that would be etymologically correct, since French generally follows Latin in ignoring the written h in most Greek words (eg l’histoire, l’harmonie, etc – cf Old French l’istoire, hence English story).
    Bill W: “sandhi” is a cover term for a variety of processes which have in common the change(s) in the pronunciation of a word when it is pronounced together with other words rather than by itself, especially in common sequences such as article + noun in French. So for instance in l’enfant, les enfants, le drops its vowel, and les is pronounced [lez], because the next word begins with a vowel, but the article remains the same as if said alone if the next word begins with a consonant: the dropping of the article vowel and the presence of [z] in the first case are instances of sandhi since they only occur before another word of a certain type, not when the article is said alone or before some other types of words.
    In your example les Halles (plural of la halle, not *l’halle), the presence of h (which in this Germanic word was pronounced in earlier stages of French and in some regional varietie) inhibits sandhi because it works as a consonant even though there is no [h] sound any more. This is why I refer to it as a “phantom” consonant. Another example is the name of Descartes where the s of the des is not pronounced, because it is before a consonant (so [de-kart], and similarly Deshayes [de-(h)E] (here E = epsilon), where haye is an old spelling of modern (la) haie ‘the hedge’, as in the French name of the capital of the Netherlands, La Haye. The singular equivalent Delahaye is also a common name in French. (Actually, Descartes was from another La Haye, now known as La Haye-Descartes).
    Your explanation of the inconsistency of the digamma effect in Homer actually ties in very well with the French case, because people would be more likely to respect the “phantom h” (or the “phantom digamma”) in phrases that are in general use (eg la haute (société) ‘high society’) than with less common words they might have learned only from reading: compare in French the inconsistency in le héros ‘the hero’, with phantom h, but his female counterpart l’héroïne ‘the heroine’ (or also ‘heroin’), where the h is ignored in pronunciation. (Perhaps the pronunciation of le héros was influenced by that of the similar but unrelated word le héron ‘the heron’).

  17. Diable! That language will be the death of me yet. More stuff to assimilate! And I thought I was so cool to know to say les Zalles. There is only the shining example of marie-lucie to draw me onwards and upwards. She has mastered an impeccant English, the orthography of which is of course just as unruly as that of French. So there is nothing I can complain about in good faith. That’s what’s so frustrating.

    In your example les Halles (plural of la halle, not *l’halle), the presence of h (which in this Germanic word was pronounced in earlier stages of French and in some regional varieties) inhibits sandhi because it works as a consonant even though there is no [h] sound any more. This is why I refer to it as a “phantom” consonant.

    What a useful explanation! Thanks, marie-lucie.

  18. Yes, marie-lucie is an inspiration to us all.

  19. (My French-orthography story: a good friend in NYC kept raving about the steaks at a place she called /leal/ and which I mentally wrote Léal. It was only when I went there that I realized it was Les Halles. And yes, the steaks were excellent.)

  20. David Marjanović says:

    it persisted into the fourth century and later in other dialects that didn’t leave a body of literature

    Wow! What’s the evidence for that?

    les zéros de la révolution française

    La révolution française pour les nuls ! (“…for dummies”.) ;-)

    English, the orthography of which is of course just as unruly as that of French.

    It’s worse. In French, except for some proper names, a few small common words, and in some contexts the h aspiré, you can always guess the pronunciation from the spelling (even though, like in English, the reverse isn’t possible). In English… well, compare though and through… there are rules, but they don’t hold much over 85 % of the time.

  21. marie-lucie says:

    LH: la brasserie Les Halles: it is wonderful to hear a few bars of typical old-fashioned French accordeon music on the site you link to. I hope that is the music they play in the restaurant.

  22. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you, fan club, but n’en jetez plus! I have to balance your good opinions with a comment I got from an anonymous student in a French course a couple of years ago: “She did not know English well enough to explain French grammar to us”.

  23. Etienne says:

    David: I believe that in Tsakonian, the only living dialect(?At least until recently) that does not stem directly from the Greek KOINE, a number of words still have reflexes of the digamma, clearly proving its survival.
    Marie-Lucie: It was the dialectologist Jules Gillieron who claimed that it was solely to avoid homophonie with LE ZERO that LE HEROS ended up with an aspirate H.
    John Cowan: this sort of “mistake” is still found today: a group of Quebec humorists once parodied a rather hagiographical add praising a Canadian politician and concluded of the man that he was “un de nos grands /zero/ canadiens”.

  24. Bill Walderman says:

    Etienne, Tsakonian is thought to be a survival of a an ancient Doric dialect. the dialect group that was spoken in the Peloponnesos in antiquity, the dialects of Pindar, Alcman and Theocritus! The koine is based on Attic, the dialect of Athens. The split between Doric/Northwest Greek and Attic/Ionic goes back to pre-Mycenean times.

  25. Bill Walderman says:

    And Marie-Lucie, the student who wrote that about you didn’t know English grammar well enough to understand French grammar. Count me a member of your fan club!
    Unfortunately the DC branch of Les Halles was forced out by the owner of the building, who raised the rent. The space is still unoccupied.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    Etienne: It was the dialectologist Jules Gilliéron who claimed that it was solely to avoid homophonie with LE ZERO that LE HEROS ended up with an aspirate H.
    I checked in the TLF and they say the same thing. However, it is only in the plural that the homophony is possible. I think that there may have been hesitation between “h-ful” and “h-less” pronunciations, probably not because of le héron as I suggested earlier, but rather le héraut “the herald” which is an exact homophone of le héros. The TLF’s quotations are mostly of the plural use where the pronunciation cannot be determined from the spelling, and all the examples of the singular have le héros, never *l’héros, but they are all considerably later than the first attestation of the word itself, in 1550 according to my Petit Robert. Do you know of examples of l’héros which would definitely show an older “h-less” pronunciation?

  27. It’s a shame that someone would apparently make up a bit of history that was not actually known. Sometimes finding out what is not known is more interesting (not to mention more accurate) than a conjecture, which often mas more to do with the writer’s life that the lives of anyone in antiquity.
    One more good reason to document sources–if someone didn’t get the same answer you got, at least they can see how you got the answer.

  28. Through rough bough dough trough thorough cough

  29. Through rough bough dough trough thorough cough

  30. I think that there may have been hesitation between “h-ful” and “h-less” pronunciations, probably not because of le héron as I suggested earlier, but rather le héraut “the herald” which is an exact homophone of le héros.
    Makes sense to me.

  31. I’m not a specialist in “Homer” myself, but I’ve once discussed the origin of the poems with one of them, a proponent of a modern version of Lord’s oral theory.
    The main takeaway was that not only one should make the distinction between written and composed, but the word composed itself is misleading. According to this school of thought (mentioned briefly by Bill Walderman above), the huge poems were memorized and reproduced orally, but with none of the exactitude we’re used to today (or even the exactitude associated with copied manuscripts). Instead, performers learned to make up verse from traditional idioms as they sang, and felt free to rearrange the text around the main story lines whenever they failed to remember the previous version verbatim.
    As far as I understand, this central idea is fairly mainstream today, even though the particulars of Lord’s interpretation are of course challenged. I’d love to hear more from specialists :)

  32. David Marjanović says:

    To my considerable surprise, the Wikipedia article on Tsakonian confirms that the preclassical /w/ survives to this day as /v/.
    That said, the article is not as good as it could be; it consists more of tantalizing hints than of well-explained information…

  33. Tsakonian: it’s one word, /vane/ (as the Wikipedia article mentions). Tsakonian is not in my book primarily interesting for its archaisms anyway (and they are fewer and more controversial than wide-eyed retellings would have you think), but for its innovations.
    I’ll take requests on the Wikipedia page. :)
    The new locus classicus for the death of the digamma is this fanfic on Xenwa, Warrior Wprincress.
    We know about the digamma from non-literary texts, of course (inscriptions), and a few digammas made it to papyri of Corinna and Sappho. Including the title of Corinna’s collection of poems, ϝεροῖα.

  34. Bill Walderman says:

    “the word composed itself is misleading…the huge poems were memorized and reproduced orally, but with none of the exactitude we’re used to today . . . performers learned to make up verse from traditional idioms as they sang, and felt free to rearrange the text around the main story lines whenever they failed to remember the previous version verbatim.”
    One of the few facts that everyone generally agrees on in this area is that the Homeric poems are the end-product of an oral tradition that encompassed not just the language and formulas but also the themes and basic elements of the narrative and the techniques for telling the story.
    But that still doesn’t answer the question of how the written texts that we know today, which are based largely on the medieval manuscript tradition (the so-called “medieval vulgate”), with some contribution from the abundant Homeric papyrus fragments and from quotations in ancient writers, came into being. Were they written down all at once? If so, when did this happen and what were the circumstances in which it happened? (These questions are bound up with the mysterious circumstances surrounding the origins of the Greek alphabet, which seems to have suddenly appeared throughout the Greek world–some of the earliest examples are from southern Italy, not Greece proper–in the second half of the eighth century BCE.)
    If the poems are not the product of a single writing event, what was the process by which the written texts came into being? Were the poems in the form we know them shaped by a single individual (and were both the product of a single individual)? Were the poems dictated or were they written down directly by one or more traditional oral “bards?”
    There are those who think the texts we know today were the products of a single writing event in the seventh, sixth or even eighth centuries BCE (e.g., M. L. West, who places that event in the seventh c. and whose Teubner edition of the Iliad relies on philology to restore archaic forms that he thinks would have been found in the “original”). Others think that written texts based on individual recitations or performances of the poems began circulating sometime before the fifth century and the text more or less “stabilized” by that period, but that the text of the medieval vulgate wasn’t put into final shape until the Hellenistic period by scholars in Alexandria, sometime around the second century BCE, emphasizing that the poems were largely experienced as performances, not by reading, and that recitations of the poems would have not have followed any canonical form (Gregory Nagy).
    The earliest papyrus fragments, which date from before the period of Alexandrian scholarship show texts that are wildly divergent from those we know, with lots of extra verses, but that doesn’t necessary rule out the existence of a canonical text in the earlier period. There’s also a question as to how the Alexandrian scholars went about editing the text and what critical standards they applied.
    As I mentioned earlier, there is very little evidence for these questions, and what little exists is confusing and contradictory, but scholars’ views on the issues nevertheless tend to be fierce and tenacious.

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