Words from the Ghosts: Awakening Indo-European Philology

J. S. Ubhi

Picture this. You’re somewhere west of sunrise, but you can still taste the Mediterranean on the breeze. Ithaca, then, or Sicily. A liminal time, not quite night. The poor goat has stopped bleating long before you pour away its life, down some crack or fissure. Blood, milk, honey too. The things that give life, are life, or sustain it. It is a heavy price, but what wouldn’t you pay to speak with the dead?

Classics is necromancy. To pick up a text, trace its derivation through to early modern scholars, medieval monks, Roman scribes; to read it out in its own language, to pair the words with artefacts and remains, all this is to try to make the dead speak. No wonder that cliché – stolen (“borrowed”) from the Odyssey – of summoning the dead with blood (or milk, or honey) is so often wheeled out by Classicists. This metaphor is nowhere more piquant than when it comes to Classical Philology, especially when it branches out to the study of consanguineous languages and their shared ancestor, which scholars call Proto-Indo-European.

Writing not even a defence but a promotion of, an invitation to, what has long been considered one of the most esoteric and least accessible fields for Classicists may seem bizarre under the current circumstances. After all, we have come a long way from Martianus Capella in the 5th century AD, who apotheosised philology into an actual goddess Philologia. Indeed, there are currently serious discussions as to the very place of the Classical languages in a Classics degree.

Yet, I would like to argue that this kind of deep language study is not only of supreme utility but, more importantly, a kind of magic that should be offered open-handed to any and to all. I hope in this short piece to show some of the magic of philology and to whet the reader’s appetite for more. Let us take two different philological paths to the dead: one Latin, one Greek, both incidentally involving the idea of theft.

In 1880 an excavation team led by Heinrich Dressel working on the Quirinal Hill in Rome uncovered a kernos vase made of distinctive black bucchero (ceramic ware particularly associated with the Etruscans). The kernos has a distinctive form and is usually made up of multiple vases or pots joined in a sort of ring formation. Personally, I have always thought of them the same way one would a wine bottle carrier. Since they were often used for ritual offerings, Dressel would later argue that the kernos originally had a religious purpose. By any standard, the vase would have been a wondrous find since bucchero ware was already held to be archaic and its shape is uncommon.

Dressel’s sketch of the kernos and its inscription (first published in Hermes 16, 1881)

But as the team began to brush the accumulated dirt and detritus away, something else stood out against the dark black bodies of the vase. Scratches? Perhaps a manufacturing fault where the clay was not properly burnished? Decoration? No, the marks were too purposeful and regularly set for chance and, frankly, not pretty enough for deliberate decoration. It would have become rapidly apparent to Dressel’s team that the vase was covered in writing. This bit of writing (whose technical reference is CIL I2 2.1, 4) is now known as the ‘Duenos’ inscription from that word’s appearance in its third line. Scholars are both argumentative and cautious about when it was written, but a 7th century dating is not impossible. As the language clearly shows, it is highly archaic.

The inscription is tripartite and, despite only being three lines long on three little pots about 3.5cm tall, it has attracted a deluge of attention in the secondary literature. We are interested in the last clause of the last sentence which reads like this:


We have precious few early bits of evidence for Latin inscriptional habit (e.g. what they say, why they say it, where they say it), so we must always be cautious when dealing with these “texts”, not just in terms of interpretation but in something as simple as placing word breaks. Nevertheless, it seems obvious to us that we can rationalise the letters above into:

Ne med malos (s)tatod

This immediately looks much more friendly, if a little archaic. Early interpreters proposed variant readings which ran like “let no bad man stand me” – which gives us one of those sentences which are grammatically tenable but logically inane (like Noam Chomsky’s “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously”). Ne turns an attendant verb negative – and, sure enough, we have a verb, (s)tatod. Who is doing the verb? malos, the “bad man”, and he is doing it to med (“me”: early inscribed objects often “speak” to us, a practice that is charming on a statue and bizarre on objects. But why an injunction against being stood? Moreover, whilst in English we can use “stand” both with and without an object (“I stand” and “I stand you there”), in Latin this is not typical. Instead of the verb sto one would expect its helpful friend sisto: ne med … sistitod would be the expected wording for “let no bad man…stand me [up]”.

How do we solve the mystery? Do we chalk it up to an archaic usage? In decades past a solution was proposed based on Indo-European philology: Other related languages give evidence for a root *teh2– (the exact pronunciation is debated but you would not be terribly wrong to pronounce the root like “te-uh”), a root which means “to steal” (e.g. Hittite tāye-zzi). Yet nowhere else in Latin is a verb descending from this root testified. It is only through comparison that a sensible meaning can be redeemed: “let no bad man steal me” (a commonplace on objects found all over the ancient Mediterranean, in various languages). We can read, and understand, something that would have baffled the most learned priest or pontifex of Cicero’s generation. Of course, since the object is now in a German museum (the Staatliche Museen in Berlin), we have some recourse to doubt the efficacy of the incantation.

From one type of theft to another, from Latin to Greek. The myth of Prometheus hardly needs introduction and its influence on the mythopoetic culture of the West can perhaps be best encapsulated by the common adjective “promethean”, used to signify an especially original and rebellious thing. In fact, Prometheus was the title given by Ridley Scott to his 2012 expansion of the Aliens franchise, wherein a mythical race of alien engineers speak a language based on Proto-Indo-European. Prometheus may boast the only instance of Proto-Indo-European conversation on the silver screen, including recitation of the famous reconstructed tale, “Schleicher’s Fable”.

Prometheus clearly inspired no less fascination within his native culture, as powerful renditions of the myth may be found in the works of Hesiod, Plato, and (Pseudo-)Aeschylus. What does his name mean? The complicated history of names (onomastics) in English specifically and the Christian world generally obscures how transparent naming is for most cultures. Even when native names do survive, their etymology is hardly obvious to most speakers (e.g. Oscar = “God’s spear”, Ethel = “noble”), whereas all Ancient Greeks immediately grasped the meaning of most names they came across. What does Prometheus mean?

Prometheus escapes the liver-hungry bird with the help of Hercules (made in Athens c.500 BC, now in the Louvre Museum, Paris)

The name is seemingly obvious: “fore-thought”. Readers, however, will look in vain for that quality in the mythological character, and since the mid-1800s scholarly debate has waxed and waned over both the name’s exact meaning and the validity of an Indo-European solution specifically. There is a theory that the root –meth (-mɛːtʰ) descends in this instance not from a word meaning “thought” but one meaning “snatch”. Just like the case of the Duenos inscription, the suspected root has dropped out of later Greek and is only recoverable through philological detective work. This root, –meth, may have been dropped due to its similarities with the very common root –math (“to learn, know, think”) hence the eventual “misreading” of Prometheus’ name, from “snatcher” to “forethought”. Evidence marshalled in favour of this includes the presence of a root in Sanskrit (√math-) which provides a verb meaning, amongst other things, “to steal”. In fact, this verb appears as the first word in a hymn describing the exploits of Mātariśvan (Rig Veda 1.148), a kind of Indian Prometheus/fire-thief/culture hero. Charmingly, the Sanskrit word for a stick agitated to produce fire is pra-mantha. This suffix, pra is the Indic equivalent of the Greek πρό (pro), both descending from Proto-Indo-European *pro-, like English for. Taking the two together would give Prometheus a meaning something like “snatcher” or “thief”, rather than “forethought”.

The Sanskrit parallels are seductive. The concentration of these inherited words around a myth of fire-theft seems too good to be mere coincidence. But those of you now itching to seize your trowels and start excavating for earlier layers of the myth should down tools for a second. If this etymology were to be accepted, it does not follow that we then “correct” the myth. We owe all the ancients more respect. What it does mean is that we can, through language, peer into the (pre)history of the myth, appreciate accretions, amendments, and alterations over time.

The Greeks, for example, gave Forethought a brother, Afterthought (Epimetheus). If they really did “misunderstand” the word over time, this misunderstanding gave birth to some creative changes. This is always the way with living traditions. It is easy to lament that our scarce surviving sources (remember that most of our surviving Ancient Greek is attributed to one medical writer of the second century AD, Galen!) can provide only a snapshot into the past. That need not be the case.

Prometheus Carrying Fire, Jan Cossiers, 1637 (Museo del Prado, Madrid)

Right now, there is worry amongst certain academics and ambassadors (self-appointed or otherwise) of the field that the traditional methodology is at best inaccessible, and at worst stale, played out, and unproductive. The fashion is for a multiplicity of readings (“appropriation” and “reclamation” are the buzzwords) ideally without the confines of Europe. Yet, as I have tried to show, traditional philology – Capella’s goddess Philologia – still has life in her yet. It is capable of rendering hitherto unreadable evidence (like making the Duenos inscription legible), of conferring new shades of meaning to old myths (myths, it turns out, that were old even when Hesiod sang them – far older than he could know). Philology is simultaneously able to explicate and to complicate, whilst at the same time always keeping the Greeks and Romans in view. After all, is this not why most of us picked up a Classical text in the first place? There are many such puzzles which await a careful reader: what has Oedipus’ sphinx to do with butt-cheeks? Why does Zeus prophesise via the leaves of an oak tree? What does the abduction of Helen of Troy (née Sparta) have to do with Indian weddings and Latvian folk songs?

Suppose for a moment that Homer’s poetry is right and that one day we too will be ghostly shades. Would it not be amazing to sidle up to great scholars such as Aristarchus of Byzantium or Varro of Rome and say, “Hey, hey… do I have something to tell you!” How is that for talking to the dead?

J. S. Ubhi is a newly-minted teacher at a secondary school in the UK.

Further Reading

Some good introductory material can be found in the excellent online resources here here and here. In terms of printed resources, the academic landscape remains vast, but I offer the following selection.

  • Benjamin W. Fortson, Indo-European language and culture: An introduction (2nd ed., Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester/Malden, MA, 2011). This is perhaps the easiest introduction for the neophyte, including a chapter on culture as well as a good overview of the methodology of Indo-European linguistics.
  • J. Puhvel, Comparative Mythology (Johns Hopkins UP, Baltimore, 1987). A long-standing handbook by an eminent Hittite scholar, which clearly surveys the academic study of myth, several Indo-European branches, as well as some thematic overviews.
  • M. L. West, Indo-European Poetry and Myth (Oxford UP, 2007). Perhaps the most exhaustive compendium on Indo-European myth, this book is best approached by those who have already read a good amount of primary literature and who have some foundation in some of the relevant languages.