De origine verbi 'sibylla'

Glabrigausapes

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In the past decade, I've tried any number of times to work out a sensible etymology for the Greek σίβυλλα, which is a kind of 'prophetess' or 'seeress' that scholars seem to agree is not "native" to the Greeks (that is, not of Indo-European origin) but instead borrowed from another culture (Beekes and others throw up their hands and call such things 'Pre-Greek'). Naturally, the matter rests on extremely shaky ground: historical linguistics is intrinsically speculative, despite the ever-increasing enormity of linguistic attestation to work with, and, to make things worse, cultic practice is characterized by a high level of 'obscurantism', without exception. This probably goes without saying.

I mentioned that the 'sibyl' is probably borrowed, and I say this largely because there is not so much as a near match for the word, in form and function, in the other branches of Indo-European language. The question then becomes: from which, presumably nearby, culture does the word come into Greek? The obvious answer seems to be Afro-Asiatic (specifically Semitic), although in reality the Greeks made irrefutable contacts with an enormous span of cultures and languages, and the staggering "success" of the Greek expansion beginning roughly around the 12th century bears this out. Manifest Indo-European loanwords can be traced from as 'close by' as Finno-Uralic, to the north/northeast of the Balkans, to as far afield as Sino-Tibetan (Chinese) in the far east. But the culture, or group of cultures, which unarguably had the greatest interaction with and impact on the Indo-European world (and probably vice versa) was the Afro-Asiatic, and indeed all Indo-European alphabets and alphasyllabaries can be traced back either to the so-called Phoenician or (as in the case of Hittite) the cuneiform of Sumer and Akkad, of which only the latter is an Afro-Asiatic (East Semitic) language. But enough of this.

I came to the following hypothesis largely as a result of my effort to learn Biblical Hebrew, when I was reading 1 Sam 28. This book of the Old Testament is famous for its featuring the witch of Endor, which sounds very much, I admit, like something out of Tolkien. A synopsis is probably useful: it is established (in the old slapdash narrative style) at the beginning of the chapter that Saul, the first king of Israel, had outlawed all practitioners of magic (not that it had been mentioned before). This heightens the drama of the story in that Saul not only does what is against the Lord (i.e. consult with a sorceress as opposed to the approved method of divination, the urim and thummim), but, since it was he himself who issued the proclamation, he is a hypocrite, going against his own mishpat 'judgment, ordinance' out of fear of the rival Philistines.

Saul specifically asks his men to find him a בעלת אוב or '[female]-possessor-of an ob', and they find for him one who lives in עין דור 'Endor', which may well mean 'spring of generation'. Nobody can be sure what exactly an ob is, but given the cognates in Ugaritic, Akkadian, and others, it may well be a 'pit' out of which the dead are summoned, much like in the nekyia of the Odyssey. It always struck me as strange that the term would be so periphrastic, given that the Old Testament abounds in simplexes that either denote (e.g. חזה 'seer/one who has visions' or נביא 'one who is inspired with divine speech, prophet') or connote (כשׂדי 'Chaldean') a 'wizard' or something equally "heretical". One possible explanation has to do with what I mentioned earlier, deliberately obscuring in language what is considered taboo (much like how the Greeks are supposed to have called the Furies Εὐμενίδες in order to appease them/deprecate their anger).

But then it struck me that Hebrew may well be substituting a current, still-productive morpheme, which is common to all Semitic (the root b-'-l, to 'be lord over st., be master, possess') in place of one that it had lost, which is the Proto-Semitic *θV-, a 'relative-possessive pronoun' that is continued in Arabic, where it acquires vocalism (that is, masc. ذو ḏū, fem. ذات ḏa:t-). This form in its turn looks almost identical to the 'demonstrative' in *ḏV-, which is retained in Hebrew as זה zε: and in certain archaic uses can be relative/substantive, as in 'one who'. Clearly, the two words are cognate and their roles overlap somewhat, just as the so-called pronouns of Indo-European (e.g. the *t- y- kʷ- sequence). The fem. "personal" pronouns in Semitic regularly have an 'i' vowel, compare PS masc. *suʔati) against fem. *siʔati) (that is, respectively, Hebrew הוא hu: and היא hi:, Arabic هي هو huwa and hiya; also, cf. Arabic fem. demonstrative ذي).

You may begin to see what I'm driving at. That is, if the original term, in whatever Semitic dialect it was received from, had been something along the lines of *ḏi-'ob '[she-that-has] an ob', then what the Greeks are likely to have heard is σιοβ-. The first phoneme of the word, whether it was voiceless /θ/ or voiced fricative /ḏ/, was not native to the "standard" varieties of Ancient Greek, although we know that there was at least one dialect of West Greek (Spartan Doric) where the EG θεός was written σιός 'god'. This was such a famous dialect feature as to have inspired Aristophanes to cram the mouths of his Doric characters with the oath: ναὶ τὼ σιώ 'by the gods twain!'. Indeed, there are those who suggest that the Spartan sigma may have in fact represented the non-native /θ/.

It should come as no surprise that the Greeks should have re-syllabified the word *σιοβοδ- (and here I introduce the possibility that the word ob was in the bound or 'construct' state, common to Semitic language) as *σιβοδ- and added a recognizable fem. suffix to it (that is -ια < IE *-ih₂) so that it would obviously denote a female. Furthermore, in light of the forces of folk-etymology which, relying on the above-mentioned Doric, supposed the word to be from σιο- and (Doric) βωλά to mean '[fem. person that reveals] the will/counsel of god', the word was remodeled so as to look both foreign and recognizable. If the Greeks themselves balked at the unusual phonetics of the word, and groped at some inexplicable 'Doric origin' (without giving some bogus explanation that the West Greeks invented divination), it is yet further proof that the word came from abroad, if not specifically from the west.

Many thanks for reading; this took me a while, and I'm quite pleased with it, even if it doesn't hold up under the scrutiny of the texts (that is, is such a word actually found in all of the other branches of Afro-Asiatic language? The answer: almost certainly not). Let me know what you think! Have I solved the mystery, or am I so full of κόπρου that I can't tell high brow from holy water?
 

kizolk

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Eminently uninformed opinion here: interesting read but your reasoning passes through too many speculative intermediary steps to truly convince me.

Also, are there reasons to think the Hebrew word you propose it came from, was common enough to have been picked up by the Greeks? Couldn't that occurrence be an outlier?
 

Pacifica

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My thoughts are about the same as kizolk's.

Who knows, though.
 
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Glabrigausapes

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Eminently uninformed opinion here: interesting read but your reasoning passes through too many speculative intermediary steps to truly convince me.
That's true, but analysis will always seem this way. The reality is otherwise. Consider the Greek name Xerxes (Ξέρξης), which we know to have been a loan from Iranian. Presumably a literary Greek asked a Mede "What is he called?" and heard the name */χšayārša/ and immediately transformed it to conform to Greek euphony. It's not like he sat down and worked it out step-by-step. It was a set of rules in his head that happened more or less automatically.
Also, are there reasons to think the Hebrew word you propose it came from, was common enough to have been picked up by the Greeks?
Not really, no. But then, the word was deemed irreligious even by the time that the story of Saul was written, meaning that it's probably not a term that would be bandied around indescriminately. It's the sort of thing that, again, a learned Greek might hear the word muttered in reference to some dark mystic practice and then apply it to his own version. We can look at a mythic name like Astarte, which underwent considerable reshaping under the influence of Greek ἀστήρ (to which it may well be cognate), even though it is patently a loan from ancient Near East religion.
 

Glabrigausapes

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I also don't want to give the impression that it came directly from Hebrew. In fact, that would be outlandish. It would have been a variety of Central Semitic.

Incidentally, @Iáson. Do you happen to know any Mycenean? Is the word σίβυλλα attested in it, do you know?
 

kizolk

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That's true, but analysis will always seem this way. The reality is otherwise. Consider the Greek name Xerxes (Ξέρξης), which we know to have been a loan from Iranian. Presumably a literary Greek asked a Mede "What is he called?" and heard the name */χšayārša/ and immediately transformed it to conform to Greek euphony. It's not like he sat down and worked it out step-by-step. It was a set of rules in his head that happened more or less automatically.
I'm completely fine with there being one such hypothetical missing link in a longer reasoning, but yours relies on multiple ones, e.g. not only did you have to postulate that the Greek word was a "nativisation" of a Semitic word, but in addition to that you also had to postulate that such a Semitic word existed in the first place, which I don't find very parsimonious. Which of course doesn't mean it's not correct, but if you could find further evidence for at least some of those intermediary steps you went through, it would lend credence to the whole.
I also don't want to give the impression that it came directly from Hebrew.
It was clear from your post, but by the time I started typing my reply, the details had become fuzzy in my mind ^^'
 

Avunculus H

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Where did you find σίβυλλα in Beekes? It's not in the edition I have.
I do find it in Frisk and Chantraine; both have it as "non-Greek" (i.e., not from IE stock). Chantraine gives no further etymology, only referes to the literature at Frisk; Frisk mentions one etymology by Hrozný, who connects it to Akkadian sîbu "old"; Frisk calls this an unbegründete Hypothese "unfounded hypothesis".
 

Glabrigausapes

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Avunculus H dixit:
Where did you find σίβυλλα in Beekes? It's not in the edition I have.
I didn't look it up in Beekes specifically; I just assumed it either wouldn't be there or he would give it his signature "Pre-Greek" dismissal. :)
 

Glabrigausapes

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The basic hypothesis is:
received *σιοβοδ/λ- (from Central Semitic) metathesized/simplified to *σιβοδ/λ-, and a native Greek fem. suffix was added for transparency.

The lateral realization of a borrowed phoneme depending on dialect is evident in the many forms of the name 'Odysseus', regarding which:
"Beekes tentatively reconstructed the Pre-Greek source as *Od/lukyeu.[2]"

The idea presupposes that the Hebrew phrase בעלת אוב continues an older Semitic one that is, as far as I know, not attested. However, the two morphemes that constitute this "Ur-phrase" are well-attested. Gaps and absences of this kind are one of the snares of historical linguistics, but they are of course not a "proof". As a ready example, if all Greek suddenly vanished from our memory, and suddenly its texts started to appear, our great linguists would use their comparative knowledge to hypothesize the Greek word for 'brother' to be something like φράτηρ (which, as it happens, occurs), and yet we know that the usual word was something entirely different (that is ἀδελφός, which etymologically means †'from the same womb'). My point being that the "daughter languages" can only be of so much use in reconstructing the sum total of morpho-semantic information of a thing that simply was never written down.

There is evidence of early Greek interaction with the Canaanites in both the name and 'mytheme' of Adonis. I don't find it improbable that some matters of divination/cultic practice may have "rubbed off" at this time also.

†Sanskrit also has this word in सगर्भ्य sagarbhya-, but it also has the usual reflex of 'brother'.
 

Glabrigausapes

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Another part of the problem is that it can't be said for sure how the Old Testament 'sibyl' does her divination under Saul's direction. Supposing the ob to mean 'magic/sacrificial pit', it is nevertheless not said what she does to conjure Samuel's ghost. Does she sacrifice? Dance? Chant? Who the hell knows.
 

Iáson

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Incidentally, @Iáson. Do you happen to know any Mycenean? Is the word σίβυλλα attested in it, do you know?
nōn crēdō ibi inuenī. id quod proximum inuenīre possum est nōmen virī si-ja-pu2-ro (KN As 1516.11), sed suspicor hoc nōn idem esse (uērisimiliter magis pertinet ad nōmen si-pu2, KN As 1516.4).

quantum ad etymologiam, nōn satis iūdicāre possum quia nōn satis dē linguīs semiticīs sciō. suspicor autem difficultātem esse quod 'ob' tam brevis pars est. ex breuibus uocābulīs facilius est etymologiās fingere, et persuādent melius eae etymologiae, quae similitūdinēs plūrium phonēmatum dēmōnstrent. uērum tamen est, uocābulīs cum ueniunt in nouās linguās saepe magnopere mūtārī.

aliās nōtandum est, sibyllam prīmum dīctam esse ex erythrīs, ut fortasse cum linguīs anatolicīs coniunctum sit.

unde hoc βωλά? dīcisne hoc ex βωλά ~ βουλή <- βώλομαι/βούλομαι/δήλομαι < *gᵂol-n-, *gᵂel-n-? hoc pertinet ad ordinem et tempus mūtātiōnum quās prōpōnis, nam antīquior forma illīus uocābulī uērisimiliter nōn tam prope adest ad *σιοβοδ-.
 

Iáson

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Does she sacrifice? Dance? Chant? Who the hell knows.
certē saltat et quatit hastam sȳriam (σιβύνη), quā ex causā nōminātur σιβύν-ια ~ σιβύλ-ια (cf. νίτρον~λίτρον) > σιβύλλα -> σίβυλλα (accentus recessīvus ut saepe in uocābulīs nōn graecīs) - sī uīs etymologiam quae etiam minus uērīsimilis est!
 

Glabrigausapes

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Verbum sibyna non noram. Istanc etymologiam bene eiaculatus es... ;)
Edit:
Iáson dixit:
unde hoc βωλά?
Quod Graeci solebant dicere hoc uerbum e Dorico euenire, ideo formam Doricam dedi. Ego autem non credo ita fuisse. Haec etymologia "vulgaris" certe prodierit plerosque annos post initium uerbi.
 
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