Thursday, August 18, 2016

More on the Serbian Greco-Aramaic (??) incantation texts

ARAMAIC WATCH? — PROBABLY NOT: Serbian archaeologists unearth mysterious messages in Roman graves (Boris Babic, Gulf Times). This article gives some additional information on the content of the amulets which makes me doubt that any Aramaic is involved.
A large Roman-era necropolis in eastern Serbia has yielded a spectacular find for archaeologists: gold and silver foils asking favours of deities and demons via deceased couriers.
These rare amulets were found in early August in a freshly exposed family tomb at Viminacium, a first-century Roman outpost near a power plant at the small town of Kostolac.
Experts are still trying to understand the messages etched on the small plates, says Miomir Korac, the chief archaeologist.
“Dobrebao. Seneseilam. Sesengemfaranges. We don’t recognise these magic words, written in Aramaic using the Greek alphabet,” he says. “For all we know, they may have tried to turn stone into gold.”
“We’re trying, but we may never decipher it.”

I don't think they are going to decipher those words. They look to me to be variants of magical terms found in the Greek Magical Papyri (notably Semesilam and, with various spellings, Sesenengen Barpharanges). It is possible that one or more of them are inspired by Aramaic or Hebrew terms (cf. Abracadabra), but in practice any putative original Hebrew or Aramaic meanings would be irrelevant. They mean something like "Abracadabra" or "Hocus Pocus" in English, that is, "this is a powerful magical word that makes things happen."

If these words are what is passing for Aramaic in the amulets, there isn't any Aramaic. But watch this space as more information comes out.

The article has a little bit more on the context of the finds and (not quoted) some more information about the site.
A golden amulet with Greek lettering was found alongside a child’s remains in a recently exposed family tomb holding 11 bodies, while another, with a still unexamined silver and gold leaflets, was buried alongside a young woman.
The content of the Viminacium amulets still baffles experts, but previously uncovered tablets carried a wide range of wishes, from the good, to the very evil.
I shall be very interested in learning more about the texts in the opened amulets and also hearing more about the still unexamined ones.

Background here.

UPDATE (19 August): Reader Martin Schwartz has written to draw attention to his article "*Sasm, Sesen, St. Sisinnios, Sesengen Barpharanges, and ...'Semanglof'" in Bulletin of the Asia Institute Volume 10 (1996), which you can read at the link. It is a quite detailed analysis of a number of the magic names found in the Greek magical texts, including one of the ones above. Aramaic appaers to be involved, but, as above, that does not make the Serbian amulets Aramaic texts.

ANOTHER UPDATE: As I look at the word Dobrebao, a possible Hebrew etymology occurs to me. Dobre could be a (bad) transliteration of Dibrê (דברי), "words of," and bao could be a transliteration of bohu (בהו), "chaos."

For the latter, compare the name of the Gnostic demiurge, Yaldabaoth, which arguably consists of the Aramaic word Yalda, "the child of" (ילדא) and an Aramaic word cognate to bohu, i.e., bahut (בהות), to mean something like "the child of chaos" or "child of disgrace."

In this case "Words of chaos" would be a pretty nice magic word of power. This is speculation, but it seems reasonably plausible.