This article first appeared in: The Skeptical Intelligencer 25:1 (2022), 5-7
Reproduced with permission
Gods and demons in the Greek Old Testament
A line from the book of Isaiah, as expressed in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the OT), appears to mean ‘they make offerings at the bases [of statues] to the gods which do not exist’ (ha ouk estin). The ‘gods’ mentioned here are pagan gods, perceived by some as evil ‘demons’ (real or imaginary) which the pagans worship in error.
Is the prophet stating, in a strictly monotheistic vein, that these entities do not exist at all? The Greek certainly suggests this interpretation; the verb in question is the normal verb meaning ‘be’ with a ‘complement’, as in ‘They are demons’, ‘They are evil’, etc., but when it has no complement, as in this example, it means ‘exist’ (a diversity of meaning which according to some created some philosophical confusion in the Greek world!). And the general view of God (Yahweh) among Jews and Christians (and Muslims) has, of course, been a monotheistic one. The 1st Commandment (often rendered as ‘You shall have no other gods before me’) and similar passages are read as implying that all other gods which some might worship (as opposed to e.g. the archangels) are simply unreal.
However, various Hebrew scholars have argued that many of these passages should actually be read as indicating or implying that these other gods do exist but are of inferior status and/or evil, and not deserving of worship; only Yahweh should be worshipped. This theological stance is known as ‘henotheism’. These Hebraicist scholars are not themselves committed to a henotheistic stance; they do not see themselves as bound by positions adumbrated in, say, the Pentateuch (although if some other believers – especially those who regard the ideas expressed in the Bible as incorrigible – were aware of this interpretation and accepted it they might feel inclined to revise their own stances). They are concerned here with the early Jewish position on God, before monotheism took over. And they read the Greek of this verse in Isaiah (and some other passages using the same words) as agreeing with the henotheistic viewpoint which they hold is widely suggested in the Old Testament.
In cases of dissent as to the meaning of a passage in the Septuagint, one would normally examine the original Hebrew text. Unfortunately, in the case of the Isaiah passage the Hebrew version is absent.
Of course, the Greek version of this sentence might conceivably be a misrepresentation of the substance or the import of the missing Hebrew. But if it is not, my Hellenist friends and I agree that it expresses a monotheistic, not a henotheistic, position. (The OT text as a whole, then, expresses at least two different theologies.) My Hebraicist contacts appear committed to a henotheistic interpretation of the OT, and have not been persuaded by my argument; but they are not themselves highly-trained Hellenists.
Another controversial claim involves a passage in the book of Esther where a name which occurs nowhere else (a ‘hapax’) has been read as the Hindu god-name Krishna by some thinkers marginal to the mainstream who regard some features of Judaism as having been transplanted from India – via the mediation of Zoroastrianism. (One such thinker is Brian Arthur Brown [Note 1].) In this specific case the Hebrew original is available, but the issue involves the vowels, and the vowels of Biblical Hebrew were added to the written version, long after these works were composed, by a group of scholars known as the Masoretes who were seeking to assist members of communities where Hebrew was no longer current as a spoken medium in understanding and pronouncing the language; it is thus not possible to confirm the original vowels of an otherwise unknown word.
However, both the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate – while disagreeing on where the vowels should be located relative to the consonants – give the vowels in this word as a, e and a. (There are differences of detail between the various versions, including the King James English translation of 1611, regarding the consonants themselves. KJV represents the name as Carshena.) In contrast, the word Krishna has only two vowels (the Sanskrit form is actually Kṛṣṇa in which -ṛ- represents a syllabic/vocalic form of /r/). The only match here involves the final –a, and the sharing of a very common vowel in a very characteristic position is not sufficient to establish any connection between these forms.
It is not impossible that this otherwise unknown Hebrew name is a ‘corruption’ of the name Krishna. But there is no positive linguistic reason to think so. And there is no positive evidence of a pattern of Hindu ideas spreading into Judaism via Zoroastrianism – of which this alleged equation might form part. Only someone committed to the revisionist idea that Zoroastrianism played a major role in linking the otherwise unconnected – and dissimilar – religions of India and Israel would think of advancing such a proposal.
Typography and gender
This time last year I discussed Charles Nix’s presentation ‘How Type Drives Culture’. A new case involving typography is that of type designer Marie Boulanger, whose book XX, XY: Sex, Letters and Stereotypes (published 2021, initially in French) proclaims that typography is ‘a dangerous tool’ for reinforcing gendered stereotypes and bias in design. These stereotypes involve the attribution of masculine or feminine qualities to fonts: ‘bold and confident lettering is often associated with masculinity, while delicate and ornamental typography tends to be deemed feminine’. This leads to gender-targeting in marketing, etc. (Choices of colour and layout are also implicated here.) Boulanger describes her background work as ‘research’ but she writes as an artist and a feminist activist rather than as a psychologist (or psycholinguist), and hard empirical evidence is conspicuous by its scarcity.
This approach is not unusual in such work. I once began an examination (ultimately abortive) of the work of the feminist visual poet Thalia, whose work consists of a mixture of orthodox verbal expression and large-format non-iconic quasi-logographic/ideographic symbols. Thaliaclaimed that women and men perceive non-iconic symbols of this kind very differently (categorically or nearly so), and that women – but not men – spontaneously understand them as referring holistically/ideographically to key aspects of female life. But no real evidence was produced in support of Thalia’s position; one was merely invited to accept it as correct. [Note 2]
Boulanger’s material, perhaps predictably, attracted some scathing online comments, including the point that insofar as her thesis is valid it is platitudinously valid, but also numerous remarks along the line of ‘this must be one of the most overblown statements I have ever read’ and some sheer parody (‘I am trans-font’, etc.). [Note 3]
When I lived in Melbourne (1990-2003) I used to frequent the Melbourne Theosophical Society’s amazing bookshop, a wonderful source of fringe material. (The main computer there was labelled AKASHIC RECORD!) Of late I have been attending online meetings of the.Society, now occupying new premises. There is clearly still a sizeable receptive audience for their ideas, outlandish as they seem to scientists and mainstream (pre)historians. Indeed, most who attend these meetings simply assume that the Theosophical account of humanity is correct.
The founder of Theosophy, H.P. Blavatsky, believed in the existence of a primordial Tibetan priestly language known as ‘Senzar’, in which the ancient wisdom of all nations (ranging as far as the Americas and the lost Atlantis) was recorded. As she admitted, Senzar is altogether unknown to modern philologists, but she held that it dated back to the earlier ‘Root Races’ of humanity which figure in her bizarre and complex ‘evolutionary’ theories, and that in its day it was known to all ‘initiates’ of the inhabited and civilized world. It was still used and studied in C19 in the supposed secret communities of the Eastern adepts. The works written in Senzar included the histories of the archaic continents and races, and also prophecies of the future. They formed the ‘Stanzas of Dzyan’; Blavatsky’s book The Secret Doctrine was supposedly based on this work.
As far as writing was concerned, Senzar had an alphabet of its own and could also be represented in several other modes of writing ‘which partake more of the nature of ideographs than of syllables’. (This comment is confused: linguistic symbols representing words as wholes are logographs rather than ideographs, syllabic writing is different again from both alphabets and logographies, and true syllabaries are not current in the region in question.) Blavatsky never furnished details of Senzar writing sufficient to draw serious attention from linguists. [Note 4]
As can be said for Theosophy as a whole, there appears to be no hard evidence of the very existence of Senzar. But this does not deter the believers, who still hang on Blavatsky’s every word (‘we are told this’).
As I have noted previously in this forum, Hungarian is probably to be regarded as an outlying member of the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralian language ‘family’ (Finnish, Estonian etc.); thus it is not Indo-European but is now geographically surrounded by IE languages. The mainstream view is that the Hungarians migrated into Eastern Europe from a base in Siberia around 500 CE. Because of this unusual situation, Hungarian and its writing systems have been the focus of much fringe linguistic attention.
One theme in this tradition is the idea that Hungarian has in fact been located in what is now Hungary for a much longer period; there was no ‘invasion’ in historic times. One claim which dates in the form I have accessed from 2008 and which is still circulating involves ancient runic and other allegedly linguistic signs dating from 15000-20000 BP and found in a cave in Bajót (Northern Hungary); they can allegedly be read as Hungarian. Other such groups of linguistic symbols are identified on the Tartaria Disc (7500-8200 BP) and in Tordos in what later became Hungarian-speaking Transylvania (6000-7000 BP). These symbols are likened to those identified in the context of the ‘Bosnian Pyramids’ and to those found far away at the mysterious site at Glozel in France. It is also claimed (anecdotally) that the runic script identified here is still known to some present-day Hungarians and is indeed well suited to the writing of modern Hungarian. [Note 5]
All this would imply not only the presence of a genuine writing system at a date long before the earliest known written language (Sumerian) but also unprecedented conservatism (a very slow rate of change) on the part of the Hungarian language. Over such a long period, a language would normally change so much that a script (of whatever structural type) devised at the earlier date would no longer be a good ‘fit’ for it. This set of claims would also call into question the Finno-Ugric identity of Hungarian and the established account of the history of runic script.
In the ensuing 14 years these claims have not been accepted in the mainstream, apparently because they have not been empirically substantiated. Of course, it is open to the advocates of such claims to produce convincing evidence. This would then constitute a most dramatic discovery.
In 2020 I referred in this column to the 1989 spoof scientific piece by the science-fiction writerPoul Anderson called ‘Uncleftish Beholding’ (‘atomic theory’), written in an invented language with English grammar and largely Germanic-derived vocabulary. A more recent work of this kind is Paul Kingsnorth’s successful 2014 debut novel The Wake, set in the aftermath of the 1066 Norman Conquest of England and written in a hybrid variety of English involving features of both Old and Modern English but no imported words or other features.
These two works are not aimed at promoting an actual reversion to a determinedly Germanic version of English, but as I noted in my earlier piece some writers (I discussed William Barnes and David Cowley; but there are quite a few more) have really sought (surely unrealistically) to move the language in this direction. There is in fact a body of scholarship dealing with this group of new varieties of English, which have been collectively labelled ‘Anglish’. [Note 6] And over the last year an online newsletter called The Anglish Times has been published, using no non-Germanic words. [Note 7]
1 See What’s New in This Book – Brian Arthur Brown
2 ‘Thalia’, New & Selected Poems (Melbourne, 1998)
3 Marie Boulanger explores how typography perpetuates gender stereotypes (dezeen.com)
Deep-diving into Typographic Journeys and Practices with Marie Boulanger – TYPE01 (type-01.com)
4 See https://www.theosociety.org/pasadena/etgloss/sed-sez.htm
5 ANCIENT HUNGARIAN RUNIC WRITING – Welcome to the official web page of the ‘Archaeological Park: Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun’ Foundation / Dobrodošli na službenu web stranicu Fondacije ‘Arheološki park: Bosanska piramida Sunca’al Park: Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun Foundation
6 Start at Linguistic purism in English – Wikipedia