Half Man, Half Book.

I’m running behind in catching up with my NYRB subscription, so I’m still making my way through the issue from last Dec. 4, and I’ve gotten to Christian Caryl’s review (paywalled, I’m afraid) of Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East; I feel compelled to pass along this striking passage:

In Oxford’s Bodleian Library, Russell steeps himself in the works of E.S. Drower, a British scholar from the 1930s who managed to record the esoteric beliefs of the Mandaeans, a group from the marshes of southern Iraq. Russell is particularly impressed by the figures who populate their legends:

There is Krun, the flesh mountain, who sounds a bit like Jabba the Hutt; as Drower wrote, “The whole visible world rests on this king of darkness, and his shape is that of a huge house.” There is Abraham, who appears as a failed Mandaean guided by an evil spirit to leave and found his own community. There is the dragon Ur, whose belly is made of fire and sits above an ocean of flammable oil. There is Ptahil, “who takes souls to be weighed and sends his spirits to fetch souls from their bodies.” My favorite was the demon Dinanukht, who is half man and half book and “sits by the waters between the worlds, reading himself.”

My favorite too; I’ve told my wife that that’s how I hope to be reincarnated.

Comments

  1. John Emerson says:

    As I remmeber, the Mandaeans survived in moderate numbers up until the Gulf War but were dispersed then. They’ve been described as Christian Gnostics, descended from very early Christians who took a Gnostic path markedly different than the various Trinitarian paths.

  2. In The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs, the magical, sentient book is described as reading itself. It seems that this is supposed to come across as terrifying, but it did not work for me.

  3. “Not man … not book! Half man! Half book! Thing!!!!

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    The Mandaeans are certainly Gnostic, probably the only truly authentic group remaining. The name itself basically means “Gnostic” from the root familiar in Hebrew as ידע. They probably emerged in a Jewish milieu rather than Christian.

    Their language, which is very severely endangered but not altogether extinct, is particularly conservative for modern Aramaic, notably in having kept most of the old verb flexion system, which has been replaced in other languages by forms derived from periphrases. It’s also unique as the only modern Aramaic language directly descended from one of the older classical written forms of Aramaic.

  5. John Emerson says:

    They emerged from the same Jewish milieu as the early Christians did, as I understand. Up to a certain point Jews could be Christians and Christians could be Jews, anyway. They revere John the Baptist rather than Jesus, so perhaps they’re neither.

    “The Mandaeans, revere Adam, Abel, Seth, Enosh, Noah, Shem, Aram and especially John the Baptist, but reject Abraham, Moses and Jesus of Nazareth”. (Wiki, I confess).

  6. Trond Engen says:

    Hat: the esoteric beliefs of the Mandaeans, a group from the marshes of southern Iraq

    They’re also the heirs of the Sumerians. Some of those beliefs are surely local.

  7. Trond Engen says:

    Also, I’ve met Krun, and that description is exaggerated.

  8. They’re also the heirs of the Sumerians.

    In the sense that they live in the same place, yes. Is there any reason to think they have inherited anything else?

  9. Trond Engen says:

    Nah. I just wanted to get Emerson going.

    But I’d be very interested in the history and etymology of the more idiosyncretic Mandean creatures.

  10. I’ve kindled the book, and will probably tackle it this weekend.

  11. Surprised nobody made the obvious joke: the real terror is the demon who is half book and half literary critic, Metacriticus. Behold his works on his works of his works of his works, and despair.

  12. But seriously, can anyone shed any light on why a book that reads itself would be terrifying, if terrifying this is meant to be? If not terrifying, what is it?

    A book that could write in itself seems quite a bit scarier to me, especially if it writes stuff in itself that is destined to mess with its current reader.

  13. But seriously, can anyone shed any light on why a book that reads itself would be terrifying, if terrifying this is meant to be?

    Doesn’t terrify me, and I’m not sure why it would terrify anybody.

  14. For us the fantastic is not necessarily the monstrous, because we have gotten used to the idea that there are things we don’t (yet) understand, but we expect that in principle, at least, we will be able to understand them if we want to. When Moses hears a voice speaking out of a burning bush, he hides his face so as not to reveal his fear. People with a modern scientific world-view would probably be filled with curiosity instead. (It’s characteristic, though, that Moses argues with the voice rather just doing what it tells him.)

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    Moses was afraid because he *did* understand.

    The arguing is part of what makes the story so strange and so interesting; like Abraham haggling with God.

  16. The website of the Mandanean Associations Union contains information on “Ginza Rabba ‘The Great Treasure’ The Holy Book of the Mandaeans in English”, the Mandaean alphabet, and much more.

    To me, “Ginza Rabba” is transparently Aramaic. Ginza recalls Hebrew גניזה genizah, as in the Cairo Genizah, which means archives, and which is ultimately, per Klein, from Farsi ganza, where it means treasure. Rabba recalls Hebrew רב rav “much” and רבי rabbi “my great one” (literally — but long ago having acquired the meaning of much-learned man or spiritual leader).

    In searching for information on Mandaeans, I came across a “Mandean Medical Professionals Conference.” It’s a pretty thin website. Try mandeanmedical dot com

  17. (It’s characteristic, though, that Moses argues with the voice rather just doing what it tells him.)

    Which is why Israel is least likely of all countries in the world to ever have a dictator. “YOU are telling ME what to do?”

  18. David Eddyshaw says:

    Reminds me of the story about Stalin reading out a telegram from Trotsky (unfortunately rather difficult to convey in text. You need the punctuation …)

  19. Yup!

  20. It’s been a long time since I read The Face in the Frost, so I don’t remember exactly what was going on with the book in that scene. It may have been both writing itself and reading itself. I am sure, however, that the scene did not have the intended effect on me, the reader. This was a bit surprising to me, since I had found Bellairs’ several series of horror novels for children quite effective when I was about nine. (The Curse of the Blue Figurine was the second-scariest thing I read as a kid.) The book scene certainly seemed a bit eerie, but no more so that other magical happenings that Bellairs handled quite light-heartedly. As I recall, Prospero—not that one—finds the book just after he meets a rabbi who lives in a snow globe.

    Speaking of Judaism, and crossing over from another discussion, I wanted to mention that in the Torah, the subject of arguing or bargaining with God is one of the easiest to identify with a particular source (that being J).

  21. The Mandaeans are certainly Gnostic, probably the only truly authentic group remaining. The name itself basically means “Gnostic” from the root familiar in Hebrew as ידע.

    … which makes them cognate with (the second half of) Khatul Madan.

  22. GeorgeW says:

    Paul Ogden: “Rabba recalls Hebrew רב rav “much” and רבי rabbi “my great one”

    And Arabic رب /rab/ ‘lord.’ FWIW, it is my observation that this is used by Arabic Christians more than Muslims. Muslims are more likely to address, or refer to God, using ‘Allah.’ (Although, both groups have and use both terms)

  23. George Gibbard says:

    “Treasure” in Farsi is ganj; *ganza is reconstructed for Old Persian on the basis of loanwords, according to this 2002 book: http://google.com/books?id=lxQ9W6F1oSYC
    Armenian has what is also transliterated ganj, but this is pronounced [gand͡z] (while [d͡ʒ] is transliterated ǰ). Arabic has kanz.

  24. Klein suggests a connection between גנז ganaz and כנס kanas. As opposed to ganaz, kanas and its derivations are widely used in modern Hebrew. They include כניסה knisa (entrance), בית כנסת bet knesset (synagogue), כנסיה knessiah (church), כנסת (knesset, the Israeli parliament) and כנס keness (conference). The core notion is entering, gathering, assembling, convening, collecting. Klein compares it with Arabic kanasa = he swept, and recalls Akkadian kissatu = the whole.

    Attesting to the late borrowing from Farsi, Brown Driver Briggs’ lists גנז ganaz only in its Aramaic roots section, where it’s defined as ‘treasure’ and given only one citation, in the Book of Ezra. For כנס kanas, BDB also provides an Arabic cognate that can mean not only sweep or sweep away, but also destroy.

    Now that we see a connection to treasure, it’s up to David M or Stu C to determine a connection with the German name of the fowl that laid the golden eggs.

  25. And would there be a relation to Ganges and ganja?

  26. Ganges and ganja

    Seemingly not: ganja is < Skt गञ्जा gañjā ‘hemp’ (among other things), whereas Ganges is < Skt गङ्गा gáṅgā ‘the swift-moving’, ultimately related to English gone, German gegangen.

    The story that terrified me most as a child was Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”, whereas the most terrifying novel was Brian Aldiss’s Cryptozoic!, which is not conventional horror fiction at all. The central conceit, however, that time was really running in reverse toward the Big Bang, and our own lives from death to birth, but our conscious minds were deluding us on this point, was something I found utterly impossible to either discard or accept: it creeped me out thoroughly. When I reread the book decades later, it had no such power over me.

  27. Huh, I should read that, it sounds like fun.

  28. Sorry for spoilerating it, then.

  29. Nah, if you hadn’t spoilerated it, I wouldn’t have been interested in reading it.

  30. Yeah Cryptozoic! made an impression on me too. My uncle had read it when it first came out, when he was a kid, and by the time all the science fiction that my father and his brothers had left at their parents’ house was passed down to me, that book was almost falling apart from having been read and reread. I didn’t find it excessively scary exactly, but it was definitely a good story.

    I love Lovecraft, but I never found any of this writing all that scary. I was almost 18 when I started reading him though; had I been younger, I think I would have been petrified by “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “At the Mountains of Madness.”

    A couple months ago, my eleven-year-old daughter was boasting about how scary the current young adult book she was reading was. She said it was even scarier than the scariest book that I had ever read—John Christopher’s The City of Gold and Lead. I had to tell her, no, that was only the scariest thing I had read as a kid. The absolute scariest book I had ever read was Nineteen Eighty-Four. Her response was that she’d heard a lot about that book already, and it didn’t sound very scary; in fact, she figured that she already pretty much knew what it was all about, so she didn’t think it would be worth reading.

  31. I was literally about to push the button to order Cryptozoic! on Amazon when a faint bell went off in my deep memory, and just to double-check, I did a search on LibraryThing. Sure enough, I had a copy of the book club printing of the 1967 first edition; apparently I’ve had it for almost a half century without ever reading it. The alternative, and scarier, possibility is that I read it and forgot. At any rate, it’s now on top of the to-be-read pile.

  32. it’s now on top of the to-be-read pile

    How do you get up there? Do you keep a crane parked outside the house?

  33. Klein suggests a connection between גנז ganaz and כנס kanas.

    That hardly seems possible if the former is a borrowing from Persian. But anyway, whether this particular case is an example of this or not, what is up with these near-synonymous doublet roots in Hebrew that are distinguished by voicing only? There’s g-z-z / k-ṣ-ṣ, both ‘shear, trim, snip’; s-r-t ‘cut’ / z-r-d ‘prune’; ʕ-g-l / ʕ-q-l, both ‘be round or curved’; g-l-p ‘carve’ / q-l-p ‘peel’; and probably a bunch more I can’t think of at the moment. Is one of each pair a dialect borrowing (like English shirt/skirt)? Or are they all somehow onomatopoeic? Or what?

  34. David Marjanović says:

    Skt गङ्गा gáṅgā ‘the swift-moving’, ultimately related to English gone, German gegangen.

    How does that work? Grassmann’s law explains one of the Sanskrit gs, but not both…?

  35. David Marjanović says:

    what is up with these near-synonymous doublet roots in Hebrew that are distinguished by voicing only?

    It has been observed that this extends into Indo-European. Give and have are an example, derived from gʰ-bʰ (through Grimm) and k-p (through Verner)…

  36. @TR: Also z-g-g/s-k-k forming words relating to glass (and related concepts).

  37. These Hebrew stem pairs are not limited to differences in voicing, but also in place, ʔkl~ʕkl ‘eat, digest’, or manner, zʕq~ṣʕk ‘yell’. Some are definitely later, e.g. ṣħq~śħq ‘laugh’, which postdates the change of sin from [ɬ] to [s].
    Gesenius talks about these, in §30l. He distinguishes language-internal ‘hardening’ and ‘softening’ of the stem consonants, as well as pairs due to Aramaic loans, e.g. tʕh/ṭʕh ‘to be lost/to err’.
    There’s no doubt much better later research on this, but I haven’t looked into it.

  38. George Gibbard says:

    > Skt गङ्गा gáṅgā ‘the swift-moving’, ultimately related to English gone, German gegangen.

    this is indeed puzzling in that that Sanskrit gam- ‘go’ is thought to be related not to English ‘go’ but English ‘come’, Latin veniō, and Greek βαίνω.

  39. what is up with these near-synonymous doublet roots in Hebrew that are distinguished by voicing only? There’s g-z-z / k-ṣ-ṣ, both ‘shear, trim, snip’; s-r-t ‘cut’ / z-r-d ‘prune’; ʕ-g-l / ʕ-q-l, both ‘be round or curved’; g-l-p ‘carve’ / q-l-p ‘peel’; and probably a bunch more I can’t think of at the moment. Is one of each pair a dialect borrowing (like English shirt/skirt)? Or are they all somehow onomatopoeic? Or what?

    Edward Horowitz, in How the Hebrew Language Grew, has a chapter titled “How Two Letters Became Three.” He posits (I think scholarship generally agrees with him, and I suppose this applies to Semitic languages generally) that many triliteral roots began as biliteral roots. As societies became more complex a need for more complex communication arose; a third letter added to the root enabled the expression of greater nuance.

    He uses the example of גוז gooz (cut):
    גזר gazar cut, leading to גזרה gazra decree. Also with metathesis גרז garaz the root of גרזן axe
    גזע gaza cut, but also גזע geza (hard g), tree trunk, i.e., what’s left when the branches are cut
    גזז gazaz shear, and גזה geeza (hard g) sheared wool.
    גזה gaza is the root of גזית gazit hewn stones
    גזל gazal steal, i.e., take away

    In another chapter Horowitz talks about the multiple sounds of some letters and how they changed over time, giving rise to near-synonyms. I’d add that post-biblical borrowing from Aramaic probably accounts for quite a number of these pairs.

    Note: גזע gaza above is NOT the Gaza of the Gaza strip. That area is spelled עזה in Hebrew and pronounced ‘Aza. The initial ayin is an excellent example of a letter that at one time represented two sounds. Apparently the second sound was forgotten by the time diacritics were developed c 800 AD; had it not been, developers of the diacritics would have distinguished the sounds with a dot to the upper left and upper right of the letter, much as they did with ש shin or sin, depending on the dot’s placement, although even in that case, there was at one time a third sound the letter represented. That’s what Y referred to above when he wrote “which postdates the change of sin from [ɬ] to [s].”

    g-l-p ‘carve’ / q-l-p ‘peel’

    That one’s different. The first is a borrowing from Greek glyph; the latter is Semitic.

  40. Indeed, the idea of many triconsonantal roots forming from early biconsonantal ones is more or less accepted, as far as I know. What isn’t is the idea that Proto Semitic or whatever was so ‘primitive’, that it only needed the limited vocabulary that shorter roots could provide, as Horowitz put it when discussing גוז:
    “Do not be surprised if so many of these comparatively few two-lettered roots mean to cut, to split, to slit, or slice. After all, everything that primitive man did in the way of making a living for himself and his family in some way or another involve a cutting action, whether it was wounding animals, felling trees, digging into the earth to plow or to find water, fighting his enemies, or dividing the prey that he brought home. The word ‘cut’ in the Kaufman English-Hebrew dictionary has over a hundred Hebrew translations, and actually there are even more.” That’s almost cartoonishly ignorant.

  41. That’s almost cartoonishly ignorant.

    Maybe so. But Horowitz, a teacher — not a linguist — who served as president of the American Association of Teachers of Hebrew, was writing (in 1960) for high school students. I’d like to see a scholarly refutation of his ‘primitive man and his vocabulary’ idea.

  42. The point is that Proto Semitic and “primitive man” have nothing to do with each other; the latter, insofar as he existed, lived long, long before any language we can even glimpse through a glass darkly.

  43. g-l-p ‘carve’ / q-l-p ‘peel’

    That one’s different. The first is a borrowing from Greek glyph; the latter is Semitic.

    Yes, of course; should have remembered that.

  44. The Skt derivations in my post above are solid, but the Germanic connections come from I-forget-where and are likely wrong.

  45. I understand Horowitz was a popularizer, not a linguist, and he succeeded in writing a very readable book on a very complex subject, namely Hebrew morphology. He succeeds where he knows his subject, but the ‘primitive man’ stuff is completely made up. There are no languages spoken by ‘primitive people’ which only have a few words. The description of the simple lifestyle where activities consist entirely of cutting is pure fantasy. Connecting the ancestors of the Hebrews (in some unspecified past) with this fantasic lifestyle is another arbitrary invention.

  46. It’s not just g-z-X roots that have ‘cut’ meanings, but also g-d-X roots, q-ṭ-X roots, and q-ṣ-X roots. This looks like a kind of abstract phonestheme where dorsal + coronal = ‘cut’. In IE too there is Latin scindo, Greek σχίζω, and of course cut itself.

  47. gwenllian says:

    And Arabic رب /rab/ ‘lord.’ FWIW, it is my observation that this is used by Arabic Christians more than Muslims. Muslims are more likely to address, or refer to God, using ‘Allah.’ (Although, both groups have and use both terms)

    Your observation is correct. The Copts actually seem to be averse to using Allah much. Other Arab Christians not so much. The Malaysians have famously, and stupidly, banned non-Muslims from using Allah.

  48. gwenllian: And, there are two different names for Jesus: Yasu’ يسوع (Christian) and ‘Isa عييسي (Muslim).

  49. John Emerson says:

    The first Christians in China were Syrian Christians, refugees for the Muslim conquest of Persia, and they called God Illahu. The Chinese called them Persian Christians at first, and then Syrian Christians later. They had a presence during the Tang dynasty but were crushed / expelled along with the Muslims in the 800s.

  50. David Eddyshaw says:

    Surely Nestorian Christians would have called God by the Syriac name אלהא ‘ela:ha:?

  51. David Eddyshaw says:

    ‘ala:ha:, I mean. But you get the idea …

  52. gwenllian says:

    But the Syrian Christians of Kerala are still around.

  53. I’ve read a third of the book now, including the chapters on Mandaeans and Yazidis, and I’m about to pack it in for the night after reading the story of Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Zoroastrian (Parsee) MP, and in fact the first MP from (though not for) India of any sort: he was returned for Finsbury Park in London in 1892. I particularly liked the bit about him walking to swear the parliamentary oath with a copy of the Avesta in his pocket to use instead of the usual Bible.

    What is the parliamentary oath, you ask?

    I (name of Member) swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.

    That should work fine for any monotheist, particularly including a Zoroastrian. Since 1978 an MP may also “solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm” instead of swearing, and may also omit the last four words. What is more, though the oath must be taken in English, it may then be repeated in Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, or Cornish. Swearing on a sacred text is now optional, but the New Testament and the Old are both provided (the latter in both English and Hebrew), as well as the full Christian Bible in English, Welsh, and Scottish Gaelic, plus the Qur’an and the Guru Granth Sahib (language not specified).

  54. gwenllian says:

    What is more, though the oath must be taken in English, it may then be repeated in Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, or Cornish.

    Still no Irish?

  55. fisheyed says:
  56. Still no Irish?

    Who wants it? Not the Unionist or Alliance MPs, nor yet Sylvia Hermon (an independent Unionist). Sinn Féin doesn’t show up to take the oath. That leaves three SDLP MPs who may or may not care. Foras na Gaeilge doubtless thinks it has more pressing matters to worry about, if it’s even on their horizon at all.

  57. gwenllian says:

    I believe some Irish language activists would like for the option to exist, as a matter of principle, even if it wouldn’t be used much. And it would be be an extremely simple and at least somewhat politically useful move for the UK. NI language activists often complain about the language being treated differently from Welsh or Scottish Gaelic in the UK.

  58. Fair enough.

Speak Your Mind

*