The More Languages You Know… : Learning Languages in the Ancient World

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Inscription in Old Persian, Elamite and ‌Akkadian languages. It is carved on a column in Pasargadae.

In South Australia, a tribe in Encounter Bay tells this story: In remote time an old woman, named Wurruri lived towards the east and generally walked with a large stick in her hand, to scatter the fires around which others were sleeping, Wurruri at length died. Greatly delighted at this circumstance, they sent messengers in all directions to give notice of her death; men, women and children came, not to lament, but to show their joy. The Raminjerar were the first who fell upon the corpse and began eating the flesh, and immediately began to speak intelligibly. The other tribes to the eastward arriving later, ate the contents of the intestines, which caused them to speak a language slightly different. The northern tribes came last and devoured the intestines and all that remained, and immediately spoke a language differing still more from that of the Raminjerar.

According to one Hindu myth, there was once a very tall tree that grew out from the very center of the earth. It was called the “World Tree” or “Knowledge Tree”, and grew so tall that it almost reached the heavens. The tree decided that it would keep growing so that its head would be in heaven and its branches on the earth, so it could make all humankind gather under it and prevent them from ever separating. The god Brahma discovered the tree’s intentions and as punishment for it being so proud, he cut off all of the tree’s branches and scattered them all over the earth. Where each branch fell a Wata tree began to grow, and with it a new language and culture for humankind.

The need for the ability to communicate in multiple languages is as old as human history itself. In the Ancient Near East, Akkadian was the language of diplomacy. Centuries later, Latin became the dominant language of education, commerce, religion and government in much of Europe until it was mostly replaced by French, Italian and English by the end of the 16th century. Right now, more than half the people in the world are bilingual. Then, we have the polyglots, who are capable of speaking not one or two but at least five different languages fluently. Such a skill is widely looked upon with fascination, if not envy, inviting a wishful yet somewhat defeated sigh of “oh, I wish I can speak (insert language here)”. 

Learning languages, as the ancients tell us, is difficult but not impossible. In fact, it was and has always been necessary. Those ancient historians and mythologists would have learned other languages. Ovid, in compiling his Metamorphoses, one of the most complete work on mythological stories, would have combined his creativity and his knowledge of ancient Greek to be able to describe those mythological scenes in great details. At the time of its extinction, only a few educated Romans with antiquarian interests could read Etruscan language. The last person known to have been able to read Etruscan was the Roman emperor Claudius (10 BC – AD 54) who, in his youth, wanted to be a historian and authored a treatise in 20 volumes on the Etruscans, called Tyrrenikà and compiled a dictionary by interviewing the last few elderly rustics who still spoke the language.

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Sinop bilingual inscription of Kaykaus I

The Roman historian and author Pliny the Elder credited Mithridates VI as the Empire’s most formidable of enemies. Under him, the Kingdom of Pontus – in modern-day Turkey – fought and defeated the late Roman Republic in several battles of the Mithridatic Wars. While he eventually lost, Mithidrates reputation would only grow over the subsequent years and centuries as a one of the greatest polyglots who ever lived. Mithridates made a point of learning the languages of the peoples his vast kingdom ruled over. Pliny noted in Volume 7 of his Natural History: “Mithridates, who was king of 22 nations, administered their laws in as many languages, and could harangue in all of them, without employing an interpreter.” He event went one step further: although his kingdom didn’t stretch that far, Mithridates was also fluent in ancient Persian. Contemporary accounts noted that he spoke the language with Persian prisoners – before he killed them, of course. 

Descended from Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, Cleopatra was part of a dynasty that ruled over Egypt for more than three centuries. In fact, she was the last Ptolemaic ruler of the north African state, reigning for 21 years. She was also highly intelligent, not least in her recognition that learning languages could help her consolidate and grow her power. As with all the Ptolemaic rulers, Cleopatra spoke Greek as her native tongue. But while none of her predecessors bothered to learn the language of the people they ruled over, Cleopatra was different. Either way, speaking the local tongue was what a modern-day politician would call an excellent PR exercise as it kept the populace on her side. This was most probably the reason Cleopatra learned to speak at least another six languages. As Plutarch noted in his history The Life of Anthony: “And her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased, so that in her interviews with barbarians she very seldom had the need of an interpreter, but made her replies to most of them herself…whether they were Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes or Partians.”

Two thousand years ago, learning Latin just seemed to be the thing to do to progress. When the Romans ruled a vast empire whose inhabitants spoke all sorts of different languages, many of those inhabitants wanted to learn Latin as a second or third language. So they signed up for Latin classes, where they learned using textbooks with little dialogues about everyday life. These dialogues are similar to texts used today to teach foreign languages. The dialogues introduced learners to both Latin and the Roman culture. They illustrate how to use the public baths, the banks, the markets, the temples, the lawcourts and so on.

Ancient Latin learners, in fact, did most of the things modern Latin learners do. In addition to learning grammar, they translated Latin texts into their own language, and texts from their own language into Latin. They read Virgil’s Aeneid, although they usually didn’t get very far into the story, and Cicero’s Catilinarian Orations. When they had gained enough vocabulary to be able to cope with reading without a  translation, they read monolingual Latin texts, using dictionaries and commentaries to decipher them and writing translations of the hard words into their copies of the text. And, like many modern learners, some ancient learners eventually became very good at the language and went on to read texts without needing to look up the hard words and write them down.

Before the 20th century, language teaching methodology went back and forth between two types of approaches: language use – that is, speaking and understanding, and analysis – learning the grammatical rules. The Classical Greek and Medieval Latin periods were characterized by a strong emphasis on teaching people to actually use foreign languages as they were used as lingua francas. Later, higher instruction was given in these languages all over Europe and they were also used very widely in religion, politics and business – making them necessary for everyone. Although the “educated elite” became fluent speakers, readers and writers of the appropriate classical language, merely using the foreign language was no longer special as even an uneducated shopkeeper could use them if he practiced enough. Then the ability to analyse the languages became the mark of the “educated” and the practical aspect of the languages gradually disappeared.  

The focus in language study shifted back to utility rather than analysis during the 17th Century. Perhaps the most famous language teacher and methodologist of this period is Jan Comentius, a Czech, who published books about his teaching techniques between 1631 and 1658.  He wrote a complete course for learning Latin, covering the entire school curriculum, culminating in his Opera Didactica Omnia, 1657. In this work, Comenius also outlined his theory of language acquisition. Some of the techniques that he used were very simple: use imitation instead of rules to teach a language, have your students repeat after you, use a limited vocabulary initially, help your students practice reading and speaking, teach languages through pictures to make it meaningful. – basically all the things one would do to teach a language to a very young child. Not surprisingly he also published the world’s first illustrated children’s book, Orbis sensualium pictus. Thus Comenius made explicit for the first time an inductive approach to learning a language, the goal of which was to teach use rather than analysis of the language being taught.  

Comenius’ views held sway through most of the 18th Century; however, by the beginning of the 19th Century the systematic study of the grammar of Classical Latin and of classical texts had once again taken over in schools and universities throughout Europe. Based on the purely academic study of Latin, students of modern languages did much of the same exercises, studying grammatical rules and translating abstract sentences. Oral work was minimal, and students were instead required to memorize grammatical rules and apply these to decode written texts in the target language. This tradition-inspired method became known as the grammar-translation method.

The pendulum then swung back to practical uses of languages when businessman and scholar James Hamilton seemed to find the ancient Roman way of language teaching effective. He, in fact, believed that the Ancients knew how to study language better than modern day students. Hamilton popularized “interlinear translations,” an ancient method of studying Greek and Latin, and applied the system to French, Italian, and German as well. Interlinear translation made the study of texts the dominant focus of the teaching of foreign languages. “Reading,” Hamilton wrote, “is the only real, the only effectual source of instruction. It is the pure spring of nine-tenths of our intellectual enjoyments. . . . Neither should it be sacrificed to grammar or composition, nor to getting by heart any thing whatever, because these are utterly unobtainable before we have read a great deal.”

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Then it became confusing. Innovation in foreign language teaching began in the 19th century and became very rapid in the 20th century. It led to a number of different and sometimes conflicting methods, each claiming to be a major improvement over the previous or contemporary methods. However, anecdotal evidence for successful second or foreign language learning is easy to find, leading to a discrepancy between these cases and the failure of most language programs. This tends to make the research of second language acquisition emotionally charged. Older methods and approaches such as the grammar translation mehod and the direct method are dismissed and even ridiculed, as newer methods and approaches are invented and promoted as the only and complete solution to the problem of the high failure rates of foreign language students.

Most books on language teaching list the various methods that have been used in the past, often ending with the author’s new method. These new methods are usually presented as coming only from the author’s mind, as the authors generally give no credence to what was done before and do not explain how it relates to the new method. It is also often inferred or even stated that older methods were completely ineffective or have died out completely, though in reality even the oldest methods are still in use. Proponents of new methods have been so sure that their ideas are so new and so correct that they could not conceive that the older ones have enough validity to cause controversy. This was in turn caused by emphasis on new scientific advances, which has tended to blind researchers to precedents in older work.

Evolution of Languages and Writings (Time Maps Book 3) by [Fisher, R.K., Fisher, Martini]

Dr. R.K Fisher and I discuss a lot more about the evolution of ancient languages and writings on “Time Maps: Evolution of Languages and Writings” – available through this link.

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Charm of the Ancient Enchantress: The Evolution of the Dangerous Woman

Although this month I have spoken about the Ancient Greek femme fatales starting from the sirens to Aphrodite herself, the trope did not stop there. We can also find an example in the Gospel of Matthew (14:6–9), “… on Herod’s birthday, the daughter of Herodias (Salome) danced before them: and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath, to give her whatsoever she would ask of him. But she being instructed before by her mother, said: Give me here in a dish the head of John the Baptist. And the king was struck sad: yet because of his oath, and for them that sat with him at table, he commanded it to be given. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.”

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“Lady Lilith”, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The independent and mysterious women that I have spoken about this month evolved to what we know as a “femme fatale” who often portrayed as a seductress, even to the point of having some sort of mystical power as an enchantress. She is a stock character of a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers, often leading them into compromising, dangerous and deadly situations. Her ability to enchant and hypnotise her victim with a spell was in the earliest stories seen as being literally supernatural as who could even imagine the all-powerful hero succumb into an embrace of a “normal” woman? Hence, the femme fatale today is still often described as having a power akin to an enchantress, vampire, witch or demon to actually have power over men.

The femme fatale achieves her hidden purpose by using feminine wiles such as beauty, charm and sexual allure. One of the most common traits of the femme fatale includes promiscuity and the “rejection of motherhood”. However, as proven by Aphrodite, a woman can be a femme fatale and a mother. It is just that motherhood does not seem to take the centre stage of her life as she goes about in her adventures and interests. This is seen as one of her most threatening qualities since “by denying his immortality and his posterity, it leads to the ultimate destruction of the male.” Again, this quality of the femme fatale that leads to the ultimate destruction of the male leaves some room for questions as, often, the femme fatale is not the one who made the first move and pursues the male. It was the male who came to her island, eat her food and erected temples in her name. So was it not the man’s desires that led to his own destruction? Another illustration of this is presented to us by the story of Shiva and Mohini.

In Hindu mythology, Mohini, a goddess who is the only female avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, is portrayed as a femme fatale, an enchantress who maddens lovers and leads them to their doom. She is worshipped throughout Indian culture, especially in Western India where temples are devoted to her depicted as Mahalasa, the consort of Khandoba, a regional avatar of Shiva.

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“Mohini” by
Raja Ravi Varma

In the southern version of the Bhagavata Purana, after Vishnu deceives the demons by his Mohini form, Shiva sees Mohini for the first time. Shiva is overcome by Kama (love and desire), becomes “bereft of shame and robbed by her of good sense.” He runs crazily behind enchanting form, while his wife Parvati looks on.

The Tripurarahasya, a south Indian Shakta text, says that when Shiva wishes to see Vishnu’s Mohini form again, Vishnu fears that he may be burned to ashes like Kamadeva by the supreme ascetic Shiva. So, Vishnu prays to goddess Tripura, who grants half of her beauty to Vishnu, begetting the Mohini-form. As Shiva touches Mohini, his energy spills from his eyes, indicating a loss of the merit gained through of all his austerities.

In the Brahmanda Purana when the wandering sage Narada tells Shiva about Vishnu’s Mohini form that deluded the demons, Shiva dismisses him. Shiva and his wife Parvati go to Vishnu’s home. Shiva asks him to take on the Mohini form again so he can see the actual transformation for himself. Vishnu again meditates on the Goddess of Shri Lalita Mahatripurasundari and transforms himself into Mohini. Again, overcome by desire, Shiva embraces Mohini to discharge his seed from his eyes which falls on the ground leading to the birth the god Maha-Shasta (“The Great Teacher”). Mohini disappears, while Shiva returns home with Parvati. 

Although the concept of an enchantress is nothing new, the real concept started to take off during the Middle Ages. As the Middle Ages often villified female sexuality, it comes as no surprise that they would make the enchantress characters act as a warning to men. Also in the Middle Ages, Eve and the Celtic legend of Morgan La Fay became popularized as the beautiful dangerous women. It was about this time also that people started to see femme fatales as slightly paranormal in nature.

 In American early 20th century films, femme fatale characters were referred to as ”vamps”. This is thanks to actor Robert Vignola who created the first “vamp” movie based on a Rudyard Kipling poem by the same name. The “vamp,” in this case was about a femme fatale who acted almost like a sexual vampire.

Despite Circe and Calypso being descrbed as “braided haired” goddesses, there was no real “dress code” for femme fatales until after the beginning of the 20th century where femme fatales embraced the look of women who are dressed all in black, with striking red lipstick. The standard red lipstick likely began with ancient Roman prostitutes who were required by law to wear blonde wigs and red pipsticks in public to advertise the fact that they were prostitutes and, therefore not looking for a husand. Around the same time in ancient Egypt, the red lipstick was a symbol of status and power for both men and women. .

The red lipstick resurfaced in America in the 1900s, as the women’s suffrage movement advanced and women embraced lipstick as a symbol of feminine identity and defiant empowerment.

Sargon, Karna and Ion: Hidden Sons of Virgin Mothers

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Bronze head of a king of the Old Akkadian dynasty, most likely representing either Naram-Sin or Sargon of Akkad. 

Probably the oldest transmitted hero myth we know is from the period of the foundation of Babylonia (circa 2800 BC). It concerns the birth history of its founder, Sargon of Akkad.  He was best known for his conquests of the Sumerian city-states in the 24th to 23rd centuries BC. The Sumerian king list makes him the cup-bearer to king Ur- Zababa of Kish. Sargon appears as a legendary figure in Neo-Assyrian literature of the 8th to 7th centuries BC. Tablets with fragments of a Sargon Birth Legend were found in the Library of Ashurbanipal.

The story is translated as follows:

“Sargon, the mighty king, King of Agade, am I.

My mother was a vestal, my father I knew not, while my father’s brother dwelt in the mountains.

In my city Azuripani, which is situated on the bank of the Euphrates,

my mother, the vestal, bore me. In a hidden place she brought me forth.

She laid me in a vessel made of reeds, closed my door with pitch,

and dropped me down into the river, which did not drown me.

The river carried me to Akki, the water carrier.

Akki the water carrier lifted me up in the kindness of his heart,

Akki the water carrier raised me as his own son,

Akki the water carrier made of me his gardener.

In my work as a gardener I was beloved by Ishtar, I became the king,

and for forty-five years I held kingly sway.”

A rather similar story to the Sargon legend is also shown in certain features of the ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata in its account of the birth of the hero Karna. Karna’s story goes roughly like this:

A Yadava dynasty king named Surasena had a beautiful young virgin daughter named Pritha (later Kunti). As tradition had it, a rishi – Vedic scholar and seer – named Durvasa visited the king for a lengthy stay, who housed him as his palace guest. The king asked Pritha to personally ensure that the sage Durvasa’s stay was comfortable. Princess Pritha did her best, and Durvasa was delighted with his stay and her diligent services. Before leaving, Durvasa thanked her and gave her the Siddha mantra telling her that if she ever wants, she can use that mantra to call any god she desires as her lover.

Pritha became curious and wondered if the mantra would really work. Therefore, on one beautiful morning, as the golden sun rose, to explore, she called the sun god Surya. He came with a golden glow, dressed up in jewelry and breastplate. Surya impregnates her. Karna is thus the child of the princess and the Surya. After their consummation, the god Surya grants her the wish that after Karna’s birth she will regain her virginity.

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 statue of Karna fighting Ghatothkacha taken in Bali, Indonesia

Pritha hid her pregnancy. Later, the adaptation of the myth by A. Holtzmann, verse 1458 reads: “Then my nurse and I made a large basket of rushes, placed a lid thereon, and lined it with wax; into this basket I laid the boy and carried him down to the river Acva.” Floating on the waves, the basket reaches the river Ganges and travels as far as the city of Campa. “There was passing along the bank of the river, the charioteer, the noble friend of Dhritarashtra, and with him was Radha, his beautiful and pious spouse. She was wrapt in deep sorrow, because no son had been given to her. On the river she saw the basket, which the waves carried close to her on the shore; she showed it to Azirath, who went and drew it forth from the waves.” The couple then raised the boy as their own son. 

Later, Karna went to school in Hastinapura. He studied martial arts under the sages Drona, Kripa and Parashurama. However, he was often subjected to ridicule by his peers for being the son of a poor family. The boy Karna came to be known for his solitary habits, hard work, pious yoga before dawn every day, compassion and eager generosity to help anyone in need.

Kunti went on to marry King Pandu, who was forced to refrain from conjugal intercourse as he was cursed to die in the arms of his spouse. As her husband could not give her children, Kunti bore three sons again through divine conception. Years later, at a tournament, Karna appears to measure his strength against Arjuna, the third son of Kunti. Arjuna scoffingly refused to fight the charioteer’s son. In order to make him a worthy opponent, one of those present anoints Karna as king. Kunti later  recognized Karna as her son by the divine mark on his body and revealed to him the secret of his birth.

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Arjuna Karna final battle, Kurukshetra war, 12th-century Mahabharata relief, Hoysalesvara temple Halebidu

A striking resemblance to the entire structure of the Karna legend is presented by the birth history of Ion, the ancestor of the Ionians. Apollo, in the grotto of the rock of the Athenian Acropolis, procreated a son with the virgin Creusa, the daughter of Erechtheus. In this grotto the boy was also born. Creusa left the child behind in a woven basket in the hope that Apollo would not leave his son to die. At Apollo’s request, Hermes carried the boy that same night to Delphi, where the priestess finds him on the threshold of the temple in the morning. She raised the boy as her own and, when he has grown into a youth, made him a servant of the temple. Erechtheus later gave his daughter Creusa in marriage to Xuthus. As their marriage produced no child, the couple went to the Delphian oracle, praying to be blessed with a child. Apolo revealed to Xuthus that the first boy to meet him on leaving the sanctuary was his son. Xuthus hastened outside and met the youth, whom he joyfully greeted as his own son, giving him the name Ion, which means “walker.” However, Creusa refused to accept the youth as her son. She tried to poison him, but her attempt failed and the infuriated people turned against her. Ion was about to attack her, but Apollo, who did not wish his son to kill his own mother, enlightened the mind of the priestess so that she understood the connection. The priestess took the basked in which Ion was born to Creusa. Creusa recognized him as her son and revealed to him the secret of his birth.

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Statue of Apollo kitharoidos (“who plays the kithara”) 2nd century AD