‘In a Milk and Honeyed Land’ and ancient poetry (1)

Today’s post looks at the most basic ingredient of ancient near eastern poetry. Literally thousands of example lines of this kind can be found from all cultures in the region, ranging in date over the whole of antiquity. This ingredient has been called “parallelism” or “the parallel couplet” since at least the mid-1700’s here in England, when Robert Lowth gave his lecture series entitled “On the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews”.

A parallel couplet, at its simplest, is a pair of lines in which words at corresponding places in each line servethe same function and have similar meanings. A basic English example might be

Joe cooked the main course
    Mary made the sweet

This could hardly be considered a great piece of poetry, but it shows the key features. Joe and Mary are both personal names, cooked and made are both action-words, and main course and sweet are the results of the action. From simple examples of this kind, much more interesting and creative poems can be built. Later articles will return to Joe and Mary to see how this can be done.

From the point of view of translation, parallel couplets are enormously helpful. This is for several different reasons. First, they show us where poetic lines start and end. Although modern poems are displayed in a page or screen so that the lines are obvious, just as I did with Joe and Mary’s meal preparation, thus was not usually the case in antiquity. Space on a monument, some papyrus, or a clay tablet was at a premium, and we typically find that lines of poetry or even individual words are wrapped around the physical edges of the material with no indication like a hyphen.

Secondly, the nature of parallel lines helps us to guess the general meaning of words that are otherwise obscure. Back with Joe and Mary, if someone had never come across sweet as a shorthand for dessert they would still guess it was part of a meal.

Finally, translating such lines of poetry can be based on understanding the meaning of a word, rather than its sound quality or secondary puns that might be made. So it is comparatively easy to translate into other languages. In contrast, poems that rely heavily on rhyme patterns are notoriously hard, since the chance that two words matching in meaning will also match in rhyme is very small. Of course some features will be lost in translation. Someone fluent in English will spot the play on words between Mary and merry, or made and maid, and might suspect that the poem is hinting that Mary might be, or might become, sweet. These extra details would almost certainly be lost if those lives were translated into another language, but the main sense of the couplet would be preserved.

An example from In a Milk and Honeyed Land is the following, used at the start of the third chapter:

Refreshing like rain are my words,
    distilling like dew is my speech,
like cloudbursts upon the grassland,
    or rainfall upon the young crops.

It is based loosely on some verses near the start of the “Song of Moses”, found in the biblical book of Deuteronomy 32. The principles of the Joe and Mary couplet can be seen here, along with some other techniques that enrich the simple couplets. Later blogs will explore some of these strategies for developing basic examples into more elaborate and interesting structures.

In a Milk and Honeyed Land may be purchased online – see http://www.kephrath.com/WhereToBuy.aspx for a list of vendors.
Or ask your own local bookshop to obtain a copy – ask by title or else ISBN number:

Paperback: 978-1-4669-2166-5
Hardcover: 978-1-4669-2167-2
e-Book: 978-1-4669-2165-8

Poetry, song, and ‘In a Milk and Honeyed Land’

Today’s post looks at some of the general background to these issues – some later posts will look at how poets of the era composed their work.

Poetry and song make up an important part of In a Milk and Honeyed Land. They appear in the regular religious celebrations as well as major festivals and as a part of everyday interactions between people. The romantic and marital relations that Damariel enjoys are shaped by responses to music. What do we know about them in the real history of the second millennium Levant?

Prose accounts of various kinds – including everyday items such as personal complaints and lists of possessions as well as war diaries or historical annals – make up the majority of pieces of writing that have been recovered from the ancient near east. However, a great deal of poetry has also been found. Given the fragile nature of writing materials, and the fact that in this era a great deal of information was held and passed on verbally, we can be confident that both singing and public recital were of great social importance. Just as in In a Milk and Honeyed Land, they were used to keep hold of cultural memory and religious expression, as well as to have fun.

The Egyptian climate is much more suitable for preserving written items, especially in the south of the country, than the countries in the Levant. So it is from Egypt that we find not only poems written on papyrus, pottery and stone, but also wall pictures of male and female singers and musicians, typically performing at banquets or parties. Anyone fortunate enough to have seen the British Museum exhibition of wall paintings from the tomb of Nebamun (http://goo.gl/SgSy4), or at least to have read the accompanying book (http://goo.gl/dbHVF), will remember the group of women musicians there. We even have a few tomb paintings where fragments of songs are shown above groups of labourers at work – perhaps a romantic ideal, but also perhaps recording for posterity something of Egyptian working class culture. The overwhelming majority of poems found in Egypt address middle class and elite interest and preoccupations, naturally enough since the ability to write fluently was limited to people within these groups.

Within the Hebrew bible, of course, both poems and prose can be found, although it is not always clear from the original language which mode the author was using in every case. The very oldest layers of this complex book consist of poems, and some people think that the prose portions were developed later around a skeleton of songs and poems that held the emerging nation’s memory. Another possibility is that both prose and poems crystallised side by side out of oral tradition, and we recognise the antiquity of the poetic portions more easily than prose since it is less able to change without losing its essential core.

The poets and songsters of that age would have learned their trade from the cultures they encountered on a daily basis. Then as now, cross-cultural influences could spread as people moved about or met each other at shared venues. In a Milk and Honeyed Land proposes that Nepheret brought knowledge of Egyptian styles up into the hill country, and that she and Damariel together worked on a hybrid style blending together the music of their cultures. Later on, this fusion was introduced to the Israelites, who took up some parts and not others, merging them with their own traditions.

It is, I believe, a creative mix of this kind that we find in the oldest biblical poems – Egyptian, Canaanite and Israelite styles brought together into a unified whole. This was the major topic of the academic work I did, under the title Triumphal accounts in Egyptian and Hebrew, planned for ebook publication later this year. Meanwhile, you can enjoy the fictional presentation of these ideas in In a Milk and Honeyed Land.

In a Milk and Honeyed Land may be purchased online – see http://www.kephrath.com/WhereToBuy.aspx for a list of vendors.
Or ask your own local bookshop to obtain a copy – ask by title or else ISBN number:

Paperback: 978-1-4669-2166-5
Hardcover: 978-1-4669-2167-2
e-Book: 978-1-4669-2165-8

“In a Milk and Honeyed Land” and ancient writing

Writing of various kinds is an important background element of In a Milk and Honeyed Land. What is known about this?

The earliest writing appears before 3000 BC in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Both areas used signs that differed a great deal in appearance – hieroglyphs and cuneiform – but were built around the same idea of representing whole syllables rather than individual letters. This meant that the number of separate signs was large. The number of people who could read and write to a high standard was very small. However, it seems likely that at least in Egypt, where the signs were clearly linked to real-world objects, a larger group of people was semi-literate in the sense that they could recognise a number of important signs or words, without having either a complete knowledge or the ability to produce clear writing themselves.

During the second millennium there were several attempts to produce simpler systems. These had several features in common, including the crucial innovation that a sign represented a letter, not a syllable. This meant that they used a much smaller number of signs, typically 20-30. Also the letter names were chosen after a common everyday object that happened to start with that letter. This system is still used in teaching English – “A is for Apple-pie, B is for Bear”. All modern alphabets descended from Greek or Latin come out of this invention, which took place around 1800 BC or so.

These new scripts originally showed no vowel markers at all, only consonants, a pattern still followed in written Arabic or Hebrew. Rather later on, ways were developed of showing the vowel sounds expected, but for early inscriptions, we cannot always be certain what shade of meaning the original author intended.

During most of the 20th century it was assumed that since the new alphabetic writing had so few signs, it could be easily learned and so the rate of literacy might be much higher. This does not seem to be the case. Writing was still a minority skill, and a scribe still went through lengthy training. As well as the basics of making letters, a scribe would have learned how to reproduce them reliably with care and skill. It was also crucial that they could read and write in the older cuneiform writing, since official business was still carried out using this. Finally, a scribe must know other skills such as accounting, navigation, and logistical planning in order to satisfy the needs of his ruler or wealthy patron.

From what we can tell, there was as clear sense that some kinds of writing must be matched correctly with some kinds of material. For example, at Ugarit both traditional cuneiform and a new alphabetic form were used side by side, together with other scripts belonging to nearby nations. A scribe at Ugarit would need to be very well trained. Official letters and accounts were still written in the older syllabic forms, and the new alphabet was used for religious poems and similar material. This situation only changed later on, after the year 1000 BC, when the new alphabetic scripts finally began to achieve supremacy. Cuneiform and hieroglyphic writing, and variations of these, did not immediately disappear, but slowly dwindled in use.

In In a Milk and Honeyed Land, as well as village priest and seer, Damariel has the beginnings of a scribal training. It is unlikely that a small town would have opportunity to offer promising youngsters a complete training, but I have assumed that his apprenticeship would have included many of the elements of this. So he learns route lists in order to navigate around the land, and as well as the Kinahniy (Canaanite) alphabetic signs he learns enough of the older formal cuneiform writing to be able to draft a letter to the regional governor. However, he is not fluent enough to pick up and read straight through the portion of the Gilgamesh story that Kothar finds for him at the market in Bayth Shamsh. During Qetirah’s shorter apprenticeship, she would also have started to master the same skills, along with medical or practical talents of value to the community. Nepheret, meanwhile, although brought up in Egypt, cannot read hieroglyphic or hieratic writing to any real degree. She is able to recognise her name and a few other key words and signs. It is easy to imagine that many people in her position would be able to identify key signs such as “man”, “woman”, “town” and one or two of the names of gods of particular importance in their home town. Damariel is intrigued by the Mitsriy (Egyptian) picture writing he sees from time to time, and starts to use it with Nepheret as a spoken language, but never has the chance to learn to write it.

Towards the end of the story, the chief has cause to circulate several messages to the four towns. Since he cannot read or write, these messages are dictated to the priest Eli, who makes four copies and has them carried to each village. Committal to writing makes the matter more serious and less able to be ignored by the other seers. However, it also gives Eli the opportunity to add his own brief annotation, which the chief is unaware of.

The materials used for writing were extremely varied. At one extreme we find carefully executed royal or religious inscriptions carried out with great attention to detail. At the other, we find scraps of writing scratched on old broken pieces of pottery. Stone, leather, wood, pottery, papyrus, and wax – all of these were used at times. Some pieces of writing were clearly intended to last for generations, but others were very casual, and the original authors might be astonished – or amused – to hear that some of their writings have survived for over 3000 years.

So, writing is important to Damariel, but only for communicating with fellow scribes or others of similar training. He has no need to write to people living in the town, and they would not be able to read it if he did. Like many other cultures of low levels of literacy, oral tradition and skills of memory are highly prized and highly used. The personal and collective memory of the town functions in a similar way to written records in another age. A rare occasion when Damariel is asked to write something “ordinary” is when his brother Baruk asks for a copy of the agricultural calendar to be put up in the olive patch. Had he lived, Baruk would most likely never have been able to read this, but he would have memorised the contents and know exactly what it said. Sadly, he never had this opportunity.

‘In a Milk and Honeyed Land’ may be purchased online – see http://www.kephrath.com/WhereToBuy.aspx for a list of vendors.
Or ask your own local bookshop to obtain a copy – ask by title or else ISBN number:

Paperback: 978-1-4669-2166-5
Hardcover: 978-1-4669-2167-2
e-Book: 978-1-4669-2165-8

And now some hard-cover copies as well

And now the hard-cover copies of In a Milk and Honeyed Land have arrived. Still waiting for some glossy marketing material to arrive before I visit local bookshops to set up a book signing event…

If you don’t live near me, then online purchasing is always possible – see http://www.kephrath.com/WhereToBuy.aspx for a list of vendors.

Or ask your own local bookshop to obtain a copy – ask by title or else ISBN number:
Paperback: 978-1-4669-2166-5
Hardcover: 978-1-4669-2167-2
e-Book: 978-1-4669-2165-8

First batch of soft-cover books arrived

Today several boxes of soft-cover copies of In a Milk and Honeyed Land were delivered on the doorstep. Hard-cover will take a little longer. Now to set up a book signing event at one of the local bookshops…

If you don’t live near me, then online purchasing is always possible – see http://www.kephrath.com/WhereToBuy.aspx for a list of vendors.

Or ask your own local bookshop to obtain a copy – ask by title or else ISBN number:
Paperback: 978-1-4669-2166-5
Hardcover: 978-1-4669-2167-2
e-Book: 978-1-4669-2165-8

In a Milk and Honeyed Land

The Background

In a Milk and Honeyed Land is a novel about everyday life 3,000 years ago in the hill country of Canaan – now called Israel and Palestine – close to the end of the time of Egyptian rule of that province. It explores how the vast changes in lifestyle, politics, religion and music that occurred in that area between what archaeologists call the Bronze Age and Iron Age might have been mirrored by individual people’s words and actions. The large-scale actions and military campaigns of the Egyptian pharaoh and other great kings are nowhere in sight; this is a story of the resources and people available within four small allied communities.

The First Part of the Story

Damariel is apprenticed as a young man by the village priest, whose reckless actions lead to his disgrace. Damariel manages to avoid becoming implicated in the matter and carries on his training, marrying his childhood friend Qetirah shortly before they begin their shared ministry in the town. Feeling ashamed of their continuing inability to have children, Qetirah becomes pregnant by the chief of the four towns, but the pregnancy is difficult. Damariel’s anger and outrage spills over into the marriage. He holds the chief responsible for the situation but cannot see how to get either justice or revenge…

 

Finding the Book

In a Milk and Honeyed Land is in the final stages of publication with Trafford Press and will be available in bookshops and online retailers during the summer of 2012. Search for it by title, or by ISBN:
Soft cover – 978-1-4669-2166-5
Hard cover – 978-1-4669-2167-2
E-book – 978-1-4669-2165-8

Check out www.kephrath.com for more details and background information.

Writing, ancient and modern