Ancient Semitic Snake Spells Deciphered in Egyptian Pyramid

Mati Milstein in Jerusalem
for National Geographic News
February 5, 2007
The ancient Egyptians believed themselves superior to their neighboring nations in almost every aspect.

But newly interpreted symbols—the oldest Semitic passages ever deciphered—reveal that the Egyptians turned to outside help for magic.

The passages, inscribed on the subterranean walls of the pyramid of King Unas at Saqqara, reveal that the Egyptians enlisted the magical assistance of Semitic Canaanites from the ancient city of Byblos, located in what is now Lebanon.

The Canaanite spells were invoked to help protect mummified kings against poisonous snakes, one of ancient Egypt's most dreaded nemeses.

According to the incantations, female snakes—acting as mediators for Canaanite magicians—used their multiple mouths and sexual organs to prevent other snakes from entering the mummified rulers' remains.

The passages date from between 2400 to 3000 B.C. and appear to be written in Proto-Canaanite, a direct ancestor of biblical Hebrew (see a timeline of ancient Egypt).

In fact, experts say, the inscriptions may help them solve several long-standing mysteries of the Bible and ancient Egypt.

Puzzling Text

The passages were first uncovered in the 19th century, but they have remained a mystery to scholars for generations. (Related: "Egyptian Dentists' Tombs Found by Thieves" [October 23, 2006].)

Experts had attempted without success to decipher the serpent spells as if they were ordinary Egyptian texts composed in hieroglyphic characters.

But in 2002 a colleague asked Richard Steiner, a professor of Semitic languages and literature at New York's Yeshiva University, if the texts might be Semitic.

"I immediately recognized the Semitic words for 'mother snake,'" Steiner said at a recent lecture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he presenting the findings.

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

"It was hiding there in plain sight," Steiner told National Geographic News. "It's unintelligible to Egyptologists, but it makes perfect sense to Semitists."

Speaking in Tongues

The ancient Egyptian rulers called on Canaanite priests because some of the poisonous snakes so feared in Egypt were thought to understand Canaanite.

In the inscribed spells, a Canaanite-speaking mother snake cajoles and threatens invading snakes in their own language.

"You need somebody with good connections to the snake. You can't just come along and say, Get out of here, snake. Why should the snake listen to you?" Steiner said.

"You need to involve someone who commands the snake's respect, someone who can speak to the snake in its own language and who is related to it in some way—its mother or its lover," he added.

"That's the whole nature of Egyptian magic. In order to counter the bad guys, you need to enlist somebody close to them."

Moshe Bar-Asher is a Hebrew professor at the Hebrew University and president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language.

"The Egyptians had their own spells," Bar-Asher said. "But they had great respect for the magic of the Canaanites in the city of Byblos, and they imported a few of their spells."

Biblical Solution

Also of great significance, experts say, is that the newly deciphered spells provide the first glimpse of the ancestor language to Phoenician and Hebrew.

"This is a discovery of utmost importance," Bar-Asher said. "Almost all the words found [in these texts] are also found in the Bible."

"It's not as different from biblical Hebrew as some people might have expected," Yeshiva University's Steiner added. "A lot of the characteristics of Hebrew that we know from the Bible are already present in these texts."

The language of the newly deciphered spells is so similar to biblical Hebrew, in fact, that Steiner was able to solve a long-standing dispute over the meaning of the word "pot."

Isaiah 3:17 reads, in regard to the daughters of Zion, "the Lord will uncover their pot."

By the Middle Ages there was already a dispute among biblical scholars over whether the word referred to the females' genitalia or to a part of their heads, Steiner said in his lecture.

But the use of this rare word in one of the Canaanite spells appears to settle the question.

"From this text it is now clear the Hebrew term used by Isaiah refers to the female genitalia," Bar-Asher, of the Hebrew University, said.

These texts also "provide the first direct evidence for the pronunciation of Egyptian in this early period," Steiner added.

"Current theories of Old Egyptian phonetics are based on extrapolation and are the subject of controversy. These spells may help to resolve some of the controversies."

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