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Indo-European Religions

Language and Ritual in Sabellic Italy  by Michael L. Weiss (Brill's Studies in Indo-European Languages & Linguistics: Brill Academic) The Iguvine Tables (Tabulae Iguvinae) are among the most invaluable documents of Italic linguistics and religion. Seven bronze tablets discovered in 1444 in the Umbrian town of Gubbio (ancient Iguvium), they record the rites and sacral laws of a priestly brotherhood, the Fratres Atiedii, with a degree of detail unparalleled elsewhere in ancient Italy. Taking an interdisciplinary approach that combines philological and linguistic, as well as ritual analysis, Michael Weiss not only addresses the many interpretive cruces that have puzzled scholars for a century and a half, but also constructs a coherent theory of the entire ritual performance described on Tables III and IV. In addition, Weiss sheds light on many questions of Roman ritual practice and places the Iguvine Tables in their broader Italic and Indo-European contexts.

In the old Constance Garnett translation of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina part 3, chapter 14, we read how Alexey Alexandrovitch Karenin tries to settle himself down after having written Anna a cool letter offering to continue their marriage despite her infidelity:

Alexey Alexandrovitch ordered tea to be brought to the study, and playing with the massive paper-knife, he moved to his easy-chair, near which there had been placed ready for him a lamp and the French work on Egyptian hieroglyphics that he had begun. Over the easy-chair there hung in a gold frame an oval portrait of Anna, a fine painting by a celebrated artist. Alexey Alexandrovitch glanced at it. The unfathomable eyes gazed ironically and insolently at him. Insufferably insolent and challenging was the effect in Alexey Alexandrovitch's eyes of the black lace about the head, admirably touched in by the painter, the black hair and handsome white hand with one finger lifted, covered with rings. After looking at the portrait for a minute, Alexey Alexandrovitch shuddered so that his lips quivered and he uttered the sound "brrr," and turned away. He made haste to sit down in his easy-chair and opened the book. He tried to read, but he could not revive the very vivid interest he had felt before in Egyptian hieroglyphics. He looked at the book and thought of something else. He thought not of his wife, but of a complication that had arisen in his official life, which at the time constituted the chief interest of it. He felt that he had penetrated (woman) more deeply than ever before into this intricate affair, and that he had originated a leading idea—he could say it without self-flattery—calculated to clear up the whole business, to strengthen him in his official career, to discomfit his enemies, and thereby to be of the greatest benefit to the government. Directly the servant had set the tea and left the room, Alexey Alexandrovitch got up and went to the writing-table. Moving into the middle of the table a portfolio of papers, with a scarcely perceptible smile of self-satisfaction, he took a pencil from a rack and plunged into the perusal of a complex report relating to the present complication.

The portrait of Anna symbolizes the mysterious unknowability of others. The eyes, traditionally thought to be the windows of the soul, are here unfathomable, literally 'impenetrable. The unsettling nature of this unknowability is chilling to Alexey Alexandrovitch ("brrr") and he turns away first to the scholarly book and then finally to his work where he "penetrated [ from the same root as more deeply than ever before into this intricate affair:' He has soothed himself by moving from the opacity of other people to the field of his mastery.

The scholarly book that Alexey Alexandrovitch is reading is in part representative of his intellectual nature (the name Karenin is said to have been based on Ion. Grk. capn `head'), but a book on Egyptian hieroglyphics seems somewhat out of place. The logic of the passage suggests that the book should be symbolically transitional between the unfathomability of Anna's painted eyes and the masterability of the administrative problem. But in the second half of the nineteenth century, Egyptian hieroglyphics had been completely deciphered and Champollion's achievement had become something of a literary topos illustrative of the astonishing feats of understanding that humans could accomplish.' In Moby Dick, for example, Melville contrasts precisely the decipherment of hieroglyphics with the obscurity of the human and cetacean face (chapter 79):

Champollion deciphered the wrinkled granite hieroglyphics. But there is no Champollion to decipher the Egypt of every man's face and every being's face. Physiognomy, like every other human science, is but a passing fable. If then, Sir William Jones, who read in thirty languages, could not read the simplest peasant's face in its profounder and more subtle meanings, how may unlettered Ishmael hope to read the awful Chaldee of the Sperm Whale's brow? I but put that brow before you. Read it if you can.

But in fact, the original Russian makes no mention of hieroglyphics at all, instead the book Alexey Alexandrovitch reads is a French book on the Iguvine inscriptions:

"Alexey Alexandrovitch ordered tea to be brought to the study, and playing with the massive paper-knife, he moved to his easy-chair, near which there had been placed ready for him a lamp and the French work on the Iguvine inscriptions that he had begun."

The book referred to can only be Michel Bréal's Les tables eugubines, published in Paris in 1875, and Tolstoy's choice of this book is masterful.3 For not only does he show that Karenin was au courant with the latest in Western scholarship, but the Iguvine Tables are a perfect metaphor for the apparent knowability but ultimate mystery of other people. Every person's face resembles one's own in its basic lineaments, and one presumes that the operation of other people's minds is similar to that of one's own, but our understanding of the motivations of others is a plausible but incomplete working model. So the Iguvine Tables, written mainly in a perfectly legible Roman script and in a language bearing many evident similarities to Latin, "should" be easily understood, and yet they were and are, like Anna's painted eyes, full of unknown depths.

The Iguvine Tables, seven bronze tablets found in 1444 in the Umbrian town of Gubbio (ancient Iguvium), are among the most invaluable documents of Italic linguistics and religion. They record the rites and sacral laws of a priestly brotherhood, the Fratres Atiedii, with a degree of detail unparalleled elsewhere in ancient Italy. But despite more than 150 years of scholarly research since volume 1 of Aufrecht and Kirchhoff was published in 1849 and opened the age of scientific investigation, and despite the efforts of many notable scholars, some passages still defy, and may always defy, a definitive interpretation.

In the pages that follow I have attempted to shed some light on one of the murkier and more neglected parts of the Iguvine Tables: the ritual complex described on Tables III and IV. These two tablets, which apparently contain a continuous set of instructions for the rites in honor of the gods Puemun- and Vesuna, clearly belong together not only in content but also in regard to their physical form. Both tablets, written in the native Etrusco-Umbrian alphabet, are much smaller than the other five tablets and nearly identical in size to each other. Both, in contrast to all the other tablets, are inscribed on one side only.

The relative scholarly neglect that these tablets have suffered is no doubt due in large part to their obscurity: unlike the auspications and purificatory rites described on Tables I, VI, and VII, the rites of III and IV occur in only one recension. Thus an interpretation of III and IV cannot make use of the valuable evidence to be gained by comparing two versions of the same rite with variations in the native and Latin alphabets.6 The text of III and IV also contains a high percentage of words occurring only there and of hapax legomena. Some parts of the rite described appear to have no close analogues elsewhere in the Iguvine Tables or even elsewhere in Ancient Italy. Given these serious obstacles to interpretation, it is not surprising that scholars of Umbrian have turned their attention to the more promising loci. Nevertheless, this understandable neglect has led to a noticeable stagnation in the interpretation of these tablets.

In this book I hope to offer some new perspectives and hypotheses about the ritual complex of Tables III and IV. In this introduction I give a brief overview of the traditional methods available for the interpretation of a text in an imperfectly known language. I should state clearly here that I make no claims to methodological or theoretical innovation. This work, I hope, will be seen as following firmly in the tracks established by Aufrecht and Kirchhoff, Buecheler, Devoto, Rix, and others. The remainder of the introduction (3) is devoted to a kritische Auseinandersetzung with the radical views of John B. Wilkins.9 Although I find that Wilkins's charges against the traditional interpretative paradigm are baseless, his challenge has proved salutary in that it has provided an opportunity for me to make explicit the fundamental principles that guide my approach to the Iguvine Tables. The other chapters are given over to a detailed consideration of key linguistic and ritual problems arising on Tables III and IV. I should stress that these chapters are not intended to form a complete commentary. I have inevitably taken certain things for granted and consequently have not offered a justified interpretation of every single word. Further I have not felt it necessary or profitable to offer a doxography of problems that remain to me totally opaque. Problems of this sort are particularly thick on the ground in the latter parts of Table IV and consequently my discussion of those sections may appear particularly spotty. Readers interested in a summary of views on these sorts of problems may now conveniently consult Untermann 2000.

The Primacy of Linguistic Analysis

I take it as axiomatic that the ultimate—and ultimately unrealizable—goal of an interpretation of the Iguvine Tables is a complete and exhaustive linguistic and ritual understanding of each word, sentence, and sequence of events, and their respective histories. In a given instance we may understand each word, its history, and its grammatical role in the sentence completely and still have little idea of what rite is being described or prescribed. This interpretation will be incomplete, although not incorrect. On the other hand, a ritual interpretation that is based on a faulty or unlikely linguistic analysis will probably be incorrect. Therefore some degree of linguistic analysis must precede ritual interpretation. That is not to say, however, that linguistic analysis must be complete in diachronic terms before any ritual interpretation becomes possible.

Linguistic Methods The Combinatory Method

One of the most important tools for interpretation is the combinatory method. In this method all the passages containing a certain word or phrase are compared in order to deduce a meaning suitable to all occurrences. Invaluable as this method is, there are still dangers inherent in it. This approach can often lead a scholar to posit the most general and unspecific meaning in order to get a plausible fit in all contexts. Furthermore, the combinatory method rests on the working hypothesis that each identical sequence of letters does in fact represent the same lexical item. But in general, and especially when dealing with a writing system as underspecified as the native Umbrian alphabet, one can not rule out the very real possibility of homographs."

The Etymological Method

The etymological method seeks to uncover the meaning of a word through etymological comparison. It is obvious that this method in its most elementary form has always played an important part in the interpretation of the Iguvine Tables, since many Umbrian words do have clear and unproblematic matches in Latin. Most of the (unsystematic) correct interpretations in the period before the groundbreaking work of Aufrecht and Kirchhoff are due to the etymological method of this basic kind." Beyond this level, however, the etymological method becomes a much trickier undertaking. Given the complex historical phonology of Umbrian there is rarely only one mechanical reconstruction for any item. In some instances the sheer number of possible reconstructions is very high. An etymology detached from all other supports is in most cases a very poor starting point for interpretation. Nevertheless, etymology has a crucial role to play in concert with other methods and is key in any attempt to uncover linguistic and ritual prehistory.

The "Bilinguistic" Method, or The Method of Parallel Texts

If one may take for granted a well-developed Italic cultural koine" extending to Latin, the Sabellic languages, and Etruscan, one may suppose that similar genres of text produced by members of this koine describe similar things. Therefore, in theory, instances of the same text genre in different Italic languages may be used to elucidate one another. This method, first named by Karl Olzscha, has given some good results especially in the interpretation of Etruscan texts like the Liber Linteus Zagrabiensis, but has also made some limited contributions to the interpretation of the Iguvine Tables." Nevertheless, given the lack of true parallels to the Iguvine Tables in Latin, the only genuinely well-known language of ancient Italy, it seems probable that the relatively well-understood Iguvine Tables will more often serve as a key or model for even more obscure texts than be illuminated themselves by other Italic parallels.

Ritual Comparison

One may often seek to understand an individual ritual action or ritual complex by comparison with apparently similar practices in Italy or elsewhere. The essence of these comparisons may be understood in one of three ways: (1) In some instances a parallel may be found in a geographically adjacent tradition, which can be understood as a manifestation of the Italic cultural koine. It need not imply any common origin. (2) A parallel found either in a nearby or distant culture the language of which is related to Umbrian may, at least theoretically, be the result of a common inheritance from a theoretical Proto-Indo-European or Proto-Italic ritual tradition!' (3) A parallel in a nearby, distant, related, or unrelated tradition may be understood as a universal of ritual action." Distinguishing between these three kinds of similarity is not in all cases easy. The most interesting parallels from the historical point of view are 1 and 2. Determining that a ritual parallel is of the historical, nontypological sort usually depends upon the ritual action, or prayer, being expressed in two different traditions in words or phrases too similar to be the result of chance. Here again we see the crucial importance of linguistic analysis. Determining whether a ritual similarity observed between the Roman and Sabellic traditions is a common inheritance from Proto-Indo-European or Proto-Italic, or the result of diffusion in Italy is a more difficult task since there are no obvious or foolproof methods for accurately distinguishing the two types of comparisons. Each potential case must be judged on its own merits.

The Material Method

In some cases it may be possible to suggest parallels between textual descriptions and contemporary or nearly contemporary depictions of ritual action, because sacrifice was a common theme in Italic, Etruscan, and Roman are' It may also be possible in some cases to make connections between the physical remains of cult and the ritual description of the Iguvine Tables." The full employment of this method lies outside my competence. Nevertheless, I have tried to take into account the material remains and artistic depictions wherever possible.

Intermediate Conclusion

In this book I attempt to combine all of the above methods, always starting from the linguistic side but still trying to take ritual information into account, in the hope of advancing our understanding of Tables III and IV. In some cases I will offer alternative hypotheses ranked in regard to their relative plausibility. In other cases no definite conclusion will be reached, but I hope the observations and analysis may lay the groundwork for others.

problems that arise on the third and fourth tables. Each chapter covers a major sub-section of the ritual complex. Chapter I (The Preliminary Events) examines three key issues presented by the first ten lines of Table III. These are (1) the meaning of the dating formula, (2) the purpose of the preliminary purification and (3) the status of the individual called uhtur and the meaning of the events that he is involved in. Chapter II takes up lines 11-20 and examines the ritual procession to the field and the building of the kletra. Chapter III deals with lines III 20-30 and examines the arrival at the grove, the call to prayer, the beneficiary phrases for the two sacrifices, and the meaning of the form tiçlu. This chapter also examines the names of the honored divinities and attempts to establish an overall "meaning" and purpose for the rite as a whole." The case is made that the ritual complex III—IV is part of a New Year's observance. Chapter IV examines a number of problems connected with the offering of the victims. Chapter V takes up the supplementary offering and the meaning of the word supa. The conclusion offers a connected translation and a summary of findings.

This work is divided into eight parts. The present subdivision introduces the interpretative methodologies and tries to confirm their validity against the attacks of severe critics. The following six chapters are devoted to a detailed consideration of the key linguistic and ritual

Let me now summarize the findings of my investigation. The rite of the third and fourth Tabulae Iguvinae describes (part of) a New Year's Day observation. The chief divine honorands are a god and a goddess who hypostasize aspects of the year and its cyclical nature. The rite is introduced by a very specific dating formula that refers to a specific hour (probably noon) of a specific day (probably the nones of an early-spring month).

The first required act is the purification of the grounds (huntak), which is necessary because of the taboo-violating importation of iron tools into the sacred grove. In the assembly of the Atiedian Brethren the uhtur, the chief Iguvine magistrate is presented ceremonially and tasked with the leading role in the victimarum probatio.

The participants then proceed into the field for the construction of the portable seat intended to support the emblems of the gods. The items placed on the kletra are both generally symbolic (kazi `wreath'), and symbolic of the specific deities worshipped (ferehtru `splitter'). The items are affixed to the kletra to prevent an ill-ominous fall.

From the field, the procession, after lighting the fire to be deposited at the altar, proceeds into the grove issuing a call to the prayer-rite along the way. After the fire is deposited on the altar, the victims are sanctified through utterance of the sacred specifying formula (tiçlu) and the performance of the acts of immolatio (stricto sensu). The beneficiary phrase in this rite is uniquely broad, combining reference to the Brethren, intra-brotherhood structures (ahtisper eikvasatis) and the Iguvine people as a unity and in their threefold social structure.

The piglet offered to Jupiter receives the vatuva treatment, which probably is reserved for male victims and may refer to the separate offering of male parts. The accompanying offering of aruvia refers to the presentation of grain, not a part of a victim, and the form arvia and arves in the expression arepes arves are shown to be one and the same. The sheep is a joint offering for both Puemun- Pupriko- and Vesuna. Contrary to the widespread standard view, these are not or not exclusively gods of the vegetative sphere, but gods who symbolize various aspects of the yearly cycle. The sheep is offered perhaps in supine fashion (peraem) and the remnants of the carcass are ultimately to be buried (pelsanum). Various sections of the sheep are conveyed on platters (spanti) to various locations of offering. Some are deposited in the sacrally defined space on the ground (perum). Others are offered in some relation to the columnlike icon of the god (ereçlum).

After the disposition of the parts of the main offering, a round of fairly complex supplementary offerings follow. This means that the rite of III—IV belongs to the complex rite type. The form supes is argued to refer to the intestines (i.e. the under parts) and were specifically not offered to any divinity. The vempersuntres are what remains after the persuntru 'clotted blood pudding' is removed. It may tentatively be identified, in typological terms, with the Irish specialty drisheen. For nonbloody offerings such as the struçk and vestiçia cakes a two-stage sacrificial process is recognized. First, the item must be removed from profane use by placement in a sacred vessel. This is parallel to the act of slaughter for the victims. Then the nonbloody item is removed from the sacred vessel and transported to its ultimate place of offering (purtuvi-). The final act of offering is the optional and apparently open opportunity of placing a food offering on the kletra.

Next follow the concluding acts. The key events in this section are the singing of the cult hymn, a unique requirement of this rite, and the distribution of the erus, which, following others, I have identified as the share of the sacrifice given to the participants of the sacrifice. Finally, the second use of fire, also a unique feature of this rite, may be placed in the context of the New Year's bonfire and the presence of puni frehtu 'warm drink' may be understood as a fire-extinguishing tool.

I hope that all my claims are supported by substantial arguments. But, no doubt, many arguments that seem impressive to me will seem much less so to others. It is in the nature of the game that there can be no final interpretation of the Tabulae Iguvinae. What I believe I have shown is that some progress can be made in the synchronic and diachronic understanding of the Iguvine texts, not by employing new methods or creating new research paradigms, but by applying the old methods, revised and renewed. The revision and renewal are possible in large part because of our better understanding of the historical phonology and morphology of Italic and Proto-Indo-European, and to new data from other branches of Indo-European. But, surprisingly, more intensive consideration of the evidence of Roman ritual practice also seems to yield new insights.

The great heroes of Iguvine hermeneutics, in addition to their brilliant breakthroughs, made many missteps and followed up many dead ends, but even the missteps were often fruitful, since the arguments were explicit, and none was afraid to practice the ars nesciendi. The clear statement of the parameters of the problem that one finds in Aufrecht and Kirchhoff is far more valuable than the apodictic and erratic etymologizing one runs into so frequently in the works of the lesser lights of Umbrology. In my epigonic way, I have tried to follow the model of earlier scholars. I hope that future scholars will be inspired to take issue with my views, to improve or refute them, and to continue the ongoing process of reading and interpreting the Tabulae Iguvinae.


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