Monday, September 20, 2010

A Few Minor Signs and a Stool

I want to quickly discuss three signs before getting to one of my favorites, today.  The first of the minor group needs a better name, but for now I'm calling it AY after the first letter of our alphabet.  It is similar except that one leg is longer than the other, as can be seen in the first chart shown in my earlier post on the TABLE sign.  The number I've assigned to the AY is III 18 as it is drawn with three strokes and it is the eighteenth among the three-stroke signs.  Formerly it was also KP186b where it appeared more pointed at the top, like our letter, than I see it on the single seal from Mohenjo daro (M-4).  It occurs in Fairservis as I-4, identified as a ploughshare with the meaning "to dig (plough)," and in Wells, no. 440.

CIRCLED ASTERISK appears on right in a ligature beside BEARER
(Joshi and Parpola 1987: 291 from Lothal)

The AY may indeed represent a simple plow as it resembles the Egyptian hieroglyph U13, a plow.  However, this glyph is oriented horizontally, with the short leg of the "A" at the bottom, the longer leg rising diagonally, with a small circle at the high end.  There are also two short diagonals added near the join of the two legs, their purpose a mystery to me.  The Indus symbol also resembles the Egyptian glyphs U6 and U7 which represent a hoe (distinguished by position, the first almost vertical, the second horizontal), determinatives in the verb "to cultivate."  These glyphs also somewhat resemble our letter "A," although one line is straight and shorter than the other leg, which is curved and a bit longer.  Because of these two possibilities from Egyptian, I have continually vaccillated between renaming the Indus symbol HOE or renaming it PLOW.  If any reader should care to state an opinion on the matter, please do so.

The closest Old Chinese parallel is quite distant, jin1 "the actual moment; notion of actuality, of presence....The composition is tautologic; [a chevron with a horizontal line below] union, [the outline of the Indus "A" shape without the central crossbar, tilted] contact" (Wieger 1965: 48).  I include this mainly to observe that elements which remind the viewer of physical objects may sometimes represent abstract concepts even in an ancient script.  While this seems less likely for the Indus script than for Chinese, it is worth considering, now and then.

Proto-cuneiform has a sign that looks very much like our letter "A," upright but with the crossbar passing beyond the sides of the letter on both sides.  Since the signs in this proto-writing system are conventionally laid out horizontally, this means that we should view it sideways, even though it appears vertical to our eyes.  It is termed GADA~a, which came to mean "flax; linen; linen cloth or clothing."  There is a similar sign in proto-Elamite, although it is tilted at a 45 degree angle and has not just one but two crossbars (M102~a).

A motif almost identical to the proto-cuneiform sign appears in the rock art of Texas, although oriented horizontally (Newcomb 1996: 172, Pl. 123, no. 2).  This is a rare sign and I do not recall another instance of it.  Further west, there is an "A"-like element attached to the end of a zigzag, once again oriented horizontally (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 158, fig. 95i).  Another symbol resembling the letter "A" is vertical like our letter and its crossbar only extends beyond the left leg (1984: 155, fig. 92j).  I have not seen this motif in Australian rock art.

The ASTERISK is III 19.  Unlike the symbol found on our keyboards, this Indus sign has six prongs.  Originally, I assumed it would be written with three strokes, a vertical line, a crossing line in one direction, and another crossing line, as if making an "X" over the vertical.  That's what it looks like.  But a closer view of the seals where it appears (mainly inside the circle or oval) convinces me it was usually made with a vertical, than a bent line on one side followed by a bent line on the other side.  Not that it matters that much.

This does not appear as an independent sign in the Koskenniemi and Parpola list or concordance (1982).  Neither does it appear in Fairservis (1992).  Wells does list it (W553).  He finds it on L-66A, a seal with so much abrasion that the signs must be guessed at.  My guess is as follows: DUBYA (?) / BACK CEE (?) / PINCH (?) / TWO POSTS (?) / FISH (?) / DOUBLE CEES / POT (?) (reading from the left, which appears to be the correct direction on seals, the opposite of the correct direction on tablets and impressions on pots).  I could easily be wrong about every single one of these.  The B side is the handle; the C side or edge has STACKED THREE; the D edge has a POST BETWEEN CIRCLES; the E edge has the ASTERISK in question; and the F edge has a FISH.  So there is at least one ASTERISK that is clear enough.

Lion and gazelle play Senet; note gazelle sitting on STOOL
It seems to me that there might possibly be one other, on Sktd-2 from Surkotada, although this may be an example of the QUADRUPLE DOTTED EX which I consider a different type of "asterisk."  This odd inscription is POT / CIRCLED TRI-FORK / TRI-FORK / PINCH / POT and the second row suffers from an abrasion on the left, after which there appears to be a horizontally oriented ASTERISK.  It is beside a SINGLE POST.  So, perhaps the seal must be turned sideways to read this other row of two symbols.  But which row is to be read first and which second and what is abraded and invisible?  It is also rather a bother than the part that is most legible begins and ends with the POT.  This is supposed to come at the end, so presumably there was some little insert in one of these, making it a POTTED ONE or something of the sort.  But I don't see anything like that.  Someone with better eyesight may be able to make better sense of this peculiar seal.  If that someone wishes to enlighten me, I would appreciate it.

Egyptian has no six-legged star.  It has the five-legged star mentioned in a previous post, N14.  It has a conventionalized flower with seven prongs surmounting a post, all of which is capped by overturned cow horns (the goddess Seshat's emblem), also mentioned previously (R20).  Then there is the extremely peculiar glyphs representing three fox skins tied together.  Oddly enough, this is the closest match in appearance because there are three short legs at the top and three longer legs hanging down in the glyph.  This makes it resemble the Indus ASTERISK with a very high waist.  Even odder is the Egyptian meaning.  In origin, it stood for the word mst, "apron of foxes' skins."  Well, of course, what else?!  So surely the Harppans must have made themselves foxskin aprons, too!

No, seriously, moving on, there is an asterisk symbol in proto-cuneiform also.  The eight-legged asterisk is cited most often, AN, originally the god of heaven, later "sky, heaven, An himself, a grain ear," and eventually a determinative for any god.  But there is also a six-legged variety, HAL, which came to mean "crotch, upper thigh" but also "secret; divination expert" and even "to stream; to divide."  If there is a connection among those, I don't see it.  Proto-Elamite has both the eight-legged and the six-legged asterisks (M046 and M046~a respectively).  There is also a six-legged asterisk surrounded by a starry-looking outline (M365~d).

Star-like motifs with varying numbers of "legs" appear in rock art quite often.  I cite two from Texas with six legs (Newcomb 1996: 136, Pl. 91, no. 1; 154, Pl. 106, no. 11).  Various numbers of legs occur, as I said, some of them odd, including five and seven.  Thus, it seems clear that the people were making the individual "legs" coming from the center, not making "X"-like marks that crossed each other.  In the collection from the Far West, there are 27 total occurrences of star-like forms, only some of which contain six legs (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 129: fig. 66k has 6; 159 fig. 96a has six with knobs at the ends).  Australian rock art also has many star-like motifs, although most have more than six "legs" (Flood 1997: 112, a 6-legged star on a long stem associated with giant bird tracks at Eucolo Creek, South Australia; 183, a 10-legged form at the Rockholes, Panaramitee Station; 185, an 11-legged star from Wharton Hill, Olary region, South Australia).

Old Chinese is here mentioned last because the outer form is so similar but the meaning clearly different.  What appears to be an asterisk with eight legs is mi3, "grains of different plants; the character rerpresents four grains, that are separated by the thrashing" (Wieger 1965: 285).  A early variant form of the same character is made with an "X" between the arms of which are four quotes.  The character for "star" in Old Chinese is nothing like this, containing one or more small dotted circles.

My point is this.  An asterisk-like form is so widespread among the symbol systems of the world, it is nearly universal (although not entirely).  But its meaning is not universal.  It may seem obviously stellar to us since there is an Egyptian glyph of a star (with five legs) and a very early Sumerian sign of a star (with eight or more legs).  Both Egyptian and Sumerian had other, similar signs with non-starry significance.  And Chinese has an asterisk that means "grain."  The meaning of the Indus ASTERISK cannot be presumed to mean either "star" or "grain" simply because it looks like a sign found in the script of a neighboring country.

Now we'll move on to a more common sign with two variants ZEE / BACK ZEE, III20, also known as KP188 (as BACK ZEE only), W544 (BACK ZEE) and W549 (ZEE), and Fs I-2 (BACK ZEE).  This sign actually has many variations because sometimes it stands more or less upright like our letter "Z."  More often, it tilts.  But the angle and direction of the tilt varies from rendition to rendition.  Sometimes it resembles our letter and sometimes it is backward (hence BACK ZEE).  Not all of the "backward" variants are on tablets, either. 

Since the seals were presumably made to be used to stamp things, as shown by the survival of various impressions in clay, scholars assume they are to be read backward.  The tablets presumably wouldn't work that way since many are too flat.  Besides, the order in which the signs tend to appear is reversed compared to that on the seals.  The little BI-QUOTES tend to appear toward the left on the seals, toward the right on the tablets.  The POT (which we haven't discussed yet) tends to appear toward the right on the seals, toward the left on the tablets.  It then makes sense that the signs themselves would be reversed as well, e.g. ZEE on seals, BACK ZEE on tablets.  To a certain extent this is true.  But there are also plenty of exceptions to muddy the waters.

There is one sign that might be this one in a ligature, BACK EN UNDER TABLE.  Some of the ZEE examples are tilted pretty far, so that the "letter" is about to fall on its face (e.g. M-993 and M-980).  If it did fall on its face, it would look pretty much like our "N."  If one of the BACK ZEE examples were to do this, it would look like a backward "N."  However, none of this type seems about to suffer this fate, so I can't give an example.  Still, this might be what has happened with the ligature I mentioned.  The TABLE (mentioned in a previous post) is placed over what appears to be one of these backward forms that has fallen completely over.  So, perhaps I should relabel the ligature BACK ZEE UNDER TABLE.  We will discuss this further when we get to it (in the 6-stroke signs).

There is no "Z"-shaped Egyptian hieroglyph.  But there is a zigzag, which is one possible thought for what the ZEE represents -- a very short zigzag.  The Egyptian glyph is N35, representing a ripple of water, usually with six or so points.  It is a phonetic glyph, indicating the consonant n.  It is usually placed horizontally but occasionally appears vertically.

Old Chinese has no zigzag or "Z" shape.  The closest thing is a very smooth and ever so slightly curving line, yi1, "germination" (Wieger 1965: 34).  This looks nothing like the ZEE in the old style, but has now become a straight horizontal, below which there is an attached "C"-like curve.  With a little imagination we can say this vaguely resembles our letter "Z" and it has become yi3, the second Celestial Stem, an astrological and dating symbol.

Also only vaguely similar is the doubled vertical zigzag found in Luwian hieroglyphs to represent SOLIUM, "seat" (Halet 1999: 93).  Proto-cuneiform is not much better.  There is a symbol resembling a zigzag formed by stacks of diagonal lines.  There are first seven stacked backslashes, then after a small space seven stacked slashes, another small space, and finally seven more stacked backslashes (try saying that seven times).  All this is LUM which came to mean "fertilizer; cloud; to be full; to be fertile."  Proto-Elamite makes do with a doubled line in its zigzag, which is horizontal, as usual.  As is also usual with this type of proto-writing, the line is angular, not curved.  So these are double zees, although stretched out a good deal more than our letter is (M057).

North American rock art provides fewer examples of such a short zigzag than I had expected.  I found none from Texas, but there were two in the collection from Nevada and eastern California (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 154, fig. 91d; 147, fig. 84f).  Neither is oriented as our letter would be.  The first is tilted at a 45 degree angle, more or less, the second at a 90 degree angle.

The final sign to consider today is my favorite of these, the STOOL, III21, formerly KP227, W453, Fs I-11.  Fairservis considers it to represent tongs and to mean "to gather, draw in."  He considers it a short variant of what I call the FOOTED STOOL, which he thinks is the main form of the tongs (a 5-stroke sign).  If it were really a little folding stool -- which is what it reminds me of -- it would always have fallen on its side when depicted.  I include as an illustration an old Egyptian drawing from papyrus in which a lion is playing the board game Senet with a gazelle.  One beastie sits on a folding stool like this sign, only it's right side up, as the Indus sign never is.  Thus, I do not mean to suggest that the sign represents an actual stool.  But that is a handy name for it.

Wells gives the frequency of this simple sign as three, indicating that it occurs twice at Mohenjo daro (on M-623 and M-725) and once at Kalibangan (on K-7).  I see it on two pot shards from Rahman deri also, Rhd-144 and Rhd-152 (the last one broken so that the sign is incomplete).  On the three seals, the "seat" is on the right, the "feet" on the left.  On the pot shards, of course, one cannot tell since there is no other sign to orient them.

There is no "stool" glyph in Egyptian.  The closest thing is Q4, the headrest, which I heard a museum guide refer to as the Egyptian "pillow."  Since these wooden gadgets were as hard as wood normally is, that hardly seems a good way to put it, but the average reader may think my STOOL handle just as unnatural.  Old Chinese likewise presents no parallel, although the writing of the right hand becomes an upright stool in modern calligraphy (cf. the 29th radical).

On the other hand, the Luwian hieroglyph THRONUS, "throne" is an excellent parallel.  It is triangular on top, though formed with doubled lines.  At the bottom, it has two legs, though these are curved and not straight like the Indus sign.  Thus, if the Indus STOOL were set upright like a real stool, it would look very similar to this.  The proto-Elamite sign M-096~d is virtually identical, including being oriented with the "seat" to the right and the "feet" to the left.  The only difference is that the "seat" is quite small and the "legs" comparatively long, whereas in all the Indus occurrences that I see, the "seat" is relatively large and the "legs" short.  Note that in M-623, the bottom edge of the "seat" had to be bent to accommodate the PANTS sign next to it.  Also note that the sign on the pot, Rhd-144 is a bit off-kilter so that if it were a real stool, it would probably topple over.

In rock art, a "stool"-like motif appears once in Texas (Newcomb 1996: 101, Pl. 57).  In this unusual form, the short legs are toward the right, the reverse of the Indus sign.  In the Far West, I see an upside-down "stool" as part of a more complex figure that also includes a cross at the bottom (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 146, fig. 83j).  Another, also upside-down but this time broad and thin, appears as an individual motif (1984: 155, fig. 92h).  I do not see this shape in Australian rock art.


  1. Interesting about your letter 'A' or 'Ay', and plough/hoe/dig, because of the goddess Aya/A (as in AH Sayce, Bedrich Hrozny and Barbara Walker); and/or because LA Waddell wrote on the sumerian/"aryan" 'Ar' plow glyph/graph, and I also noticed a possible -ar-/-ah- interchange in Indo-Iranian e.g. Nara/Anahita (water/sea god/dess), [plus we have like R2-D2 artoo-detoo in star wars].

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