On Soldiers and Snake-Bites

1 11 2006

Housed in the museum archives of Cairo University is a small collection of letters that were discovered in Hermopolis, an ancient island fortress in the Nile. The letters were all discovered together, in a sack, and were presumably unsent. Penned on behalf of Aramean soldiers who were garrisoned in the fortress, the letters are reasonably domestic in their tone and are addressed to the soldiers’ families on the mainland. One in particular, however, is of curious import. Written in Egyptian Aramaic, Hermopolis V (as this letter is known) is composed on behalf of two otherwise-unknown soldiers named Nabusha and Makkibanit. Like the other letters within this collection, the author spends most of his time requesting products that were unavailable in Hermopolis and enquiring after the welfare of his relatives and friends. Unlike the others, however, Hermopolis V takes a curious turn. The following is the transcribed text of the letter in question:

אל אחתי תרו ותבי מן אחיכן נבושה ומכבנית ברכנכן
לפתח זי יחזני אפיכן בשלם וכעת תדען זי מדעם
לה מפקן לן מן סון ואף מן זי נפקת מן סון שאל
לה הושר לי ספר ומנדעם וכעת יהתו לן ארון
ובינבן והן תכלן תהיתן לן תקם יתו ביד חרוץ
בר ביתאלשזב זי אתה למחתה לבמרשרי אתריה
ומהי דה זי ספר לה הושרתן
לי ואנה נכתני חויה והות מית ולה שלחתן
הן חי אנה והן מת אנה לשלמכן שלחת ספרה זנה
אל תרו מן נבושה בר פטחנם אפי יבל

The important sections are to be found in lines seven to nine, and I shall reproduce those lines below in bold:

To my sisters¹, Taru and Tabbi, from your brothers Nabusha and Makkibanit. We have blessed you
to Petach that he may show me your face/s² in peace. Now, you know that nothing
has been sent to us from Cyene. And also, since I left Cyene, Sha’il
has not sent me a letter or anything. Now, let them bring us a cabinet
and a bynbn and, if you can bring us castor oil, let them bring it with Charutz,
son of Bethelshezib, who is coming to bring …³ down to bmršry.
And what is this, that you have not sent a letter
to me? I was bitten by a snake and I was dying, and you didn’t even send [to enquire]
whether I was alive or dead! I am sending this letter [to enquire] about your well-being.
To: Taru. From Nabusha, son of Petechnum. Luxor, to be delivered.

For the student of Aramaic, there is much of interest within this letter (not least is the curious spelling of the adverbial negative, for those of you with an interest in Semitics!), but there is also much here for the layman as well. There is little within the letter itself that may assist one with proposing a date, but the letters are all believed on archaeological grounds to have dated from the late sixth to the early fifth century, BCE. The identity of the soldiers as Arameans is established on the basis of their names and the names of the gods who they invoke (although not the language: the Jewish texts from Elephantine are also in Egyptian Aramaic). Nothing else is known of these shadowy figures: what were they doing, stationed in Egypt? What are the identities of the women to whom they were writing? What is the nature of the individual items that they were requesting?

It is common, when dealing with ancient texts so shrouded in mystery, to romanticise the protagonists of the documents and to idealise their roles within society. The author of Ecclesiastes may warn us that it is a fool who suggests that life was grander “then”, but fools we often are indeed. The ancient world is so mysterious, so foreign, and so reticent to disclose its jealously-guarded secrets, that who cannot succumb to the romantic notion that makes warriors of ancient citizens and demigods of their kings? It is such a drive to idolise the past that is so delightfully thwarted by Hermopolis V.

Nabusha may, indeed, have been a great warrior – in his own mind, if not in the minds of his closest friends. His king, indeed, may have been a demigod in the opinion of the populace. But when it comes down to simple human psychology, there is little of difference between Nabusha and ourselves. Had he known that his letter would be studied intensely two-and-a-half thousand years after the scribe put down his quill, then no doubt he may have struggled hard to find a clever turn of phrase, or paint a picture that would have been worthy of posterity. On the contrary, however, Nabusha shows us all himself. He is lonely, far from his family and friends, and desperately in need of contact. He has suffered an injury, however grievous it may truly have been, and his loneliness demands a certain degree of sympathy from those he loves. The language that he spoke and the tasks that he performed may all be foreign to us today, but Nabusha himself is somebody that we all know well enough indeed. He is ourselves, and his letter from a vanished past is a reminder of that important fact.

¹ This is probably either a term of endearment or an honorific, as is born out by the commencement of Hermopolis VII: “To my mother x, from your brother, y“.
² The Aramaic word for ‘face’, as the Hebrew, is a plural form.
³ There is some debate over the meaning of אתריה. Some suggest that it is related to the word for ‘Assyrians’ and that it refers to military officials, while others suggest that it is related to the word אשרנה and that it refers to building materials.

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4 responses

1 11 2006
Jen

Grandma? Is that you?

1 11 2006
Simon Holloway

Haha. Sweet. I think my grandmother is a little like that as well, although less endearing. She’d be more liable to complain about the fact that she was almost bitten by a snake, and that people don’t call her enough.

1 11 2006
Daniel

What I find interesting is that then, as now, enquiring as to the recipient’s well-being seems to be an integral part of every letter – whether it be ritualised or genuine concern (or both). As humans, we seem to have some kind of need for people to constantly ask us how we are, just so that we can not really tell them.

2 11 2006
Simon Holloway

That is interesting, and it had not actually occurred to me at all. The secondary phenomenon, of not really relating how you actually are, is probably more cultural-specific but the former seems to be reasonably universal. At least, I think it may be…

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