Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Afro-Asiatic Conception of Purity

Sunlight through the windows of the Basilica of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Alice C. Linsley

How are we to explain the prevalence of blood sacrifice performed by a priest caste and a concern for ritual purity among peoples as geographically separated as the ancient Egyptians, the Sarki of Nepal, and some Native Americans? How do we explain similar conceptions of the sun as a purifying agent, and linguistic points of contact among widely dispersed peoples?

We might point to the common point of origin of all humans in Africa and to the development of languages from the Afro-Asiatic root stock. A comparison of the lexicons of Afro-Arabian and Semitic languages with Sanskrit and Dravidian suggests that a vast Afro-Asiatic Dominion stretched from the Wet Sahara to Asia between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago. One explanation is a common trade language.

An example of how languages are influenced by trade is the early traffic in rice from the NIle Valley to Madagascar and beyond. The language of Madagascar is Sulawe. It is related to ancient Egyptian, Dravidian, and East African words for rice.

The term "Sulawesi" appears to be related to the words write or rice records. Merchants who were moving from island to island recorded their transactions. Sulawe resembles the Egyptian word for writing ssw; and the Mande sewe; and the Dravidian ha-verasu. These terms referr to written records of rice sales or commercial records.

Rice grain formed the basis of weight measurement from East Africa to Sulawesi. On Madagascar, the weight of one grain of rice is called vary, and corresponds to the Swahili wari and to the Dravidian verasu. The Tamil word for rice is arisi, and the Old Persian word is virinzi which closely resembles vrini, the Sanskrit word for rice.

Linguistic connections are evident also in the term for the slash and burn agriculture used in Sulawesi and East Africa.The word trematrema is used in Northeast Betsimisaraa (Madagascar) to refer to a one to three year old slashed-and-burnt field. It is related to the Swahili word tema, ‘to cut’, and the redoubled form tematema, ‘to slash, to chop'.

Another explanation for common conceptions and roots is the blood-related Afro-Asiatic kingdom builders. They established their territories near major water systems which they used to transport cargo and to collect tariffs on cargo moved through their territories. Their influence can be traced using comparative linguistics and kinship analysis.

In this post we will look at the evidence of common conceptions of purity among the dispersed Afro-Asiatics.

Afro-Asiatic languages include Akkadian, Amharic, ancient Egyptian, Arabic, Aramaic, Assyrian, Babylonian, Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, Ethiopic, Hahm, Hausa, Hebrew, Omotic, Phoenician, and Ugaritic. These languages appear to share a large  number of common roots. Because this is so, linguists are able to compare the languages and draw conclusions about the older “proto” Afro-Asiatic language and dialects spoken before 10,000 years ago.

The terms for ritual purity in Akkadian, Biblical Hebrew, Hittite, Sumerian, and Ugaritic are related to the idea of radiance. (See The Semantics of Purity in the Ancient Near East, p. 5.) The ancient Nilotes also associated purity with the radiance of the sun, the emblem of the Re (which means Father) and his son Horus.

The temple purification rituals of the ancient Near East resemble the Pharaoh's daily ceremonial toilet in preparation for morning prayer. The ruler's lustration came from exposure to the Sun, the emblem of the Most High God and his son.

Likewise, the ancient Egyptian priest was to be purified before entering the temple. 

Herodotus observed that "The Egyptians were the first who made it a point of religion not to lie with women in temples, nor to enter into temples after going away from women without first bathing." (II:64)

The priests of ancient Egypt maintained shrines and temples along the Nile and regarded ritual purity as essential to their ministry. Herodotus observed II:37:
"They are religious excessively beyond all other men, and with regard to this they have customs as follows: they drink from cups of bronze and rinse them out every day, and not some only do this but all: they wear garments of linen always newly washed, and this they make a special point of practice: they circumcise themselves for the sake of cleanliness, preferring to be clean rather than comely. The priests shave themselves all over their body every other day, so that no lice or any other foul thing may come to be upon them when they minister to the gods; and the priests wear garments of linen only and sandals of papyrus, and any other garment they may not take nor other sandals; these wash themselves in cold water twice in the day and twice again in the night; and other religious services they perform (one may almost say) of infinite number."
Likewise, Plutarch noted that the “priests of the Sun at Heliopolis never carry wine into their temples, for they regard it as indecent for those who are devoted to the service of any god to indulge in the drinking of wine whilst they are under the immediate inspection of their Lord and King. The priests of the other deities are not so scrupulous in this respect, for they use it, though sparingly.”

Egyptian priests shaved their bodies and heads before their terms of service in the temples. Korah, Moses' half-brother, was a Horite Hebrew priest. Korah means "shaved head" and according to Numbers 16:17-18, he carried the censor to offer incense to the High God.This suggests that kor and tor may be cognates. There is a suggestion of a very early connection between blood, purity, and holiness.

The Hebrew thr = to be pure, corresponds to the Ancient Egyptian tr = pure, and to the Hausa/Hahm toro = clean, and to the Tamil tiru = holy. All appear to be related to the Proto-Dravidian tor = blood. Among these peoples blood was perceived to have power both to pollute and to purify; to condemn and to justify.

Related reading: Purity Seal From Herod's Temple; 2,400 BC Tomb of a Purification Priest; The Origins of Animal Sacrifice; The Red Heifer; The Priesthood is About the Blood; Blood and Water; The Sun and the Moon in Genesis; Avraham Faust, "Purity and Impurity in Iron Age Israel, Biblical Archaeology Review" (2019)

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