Thursday, April 15, 2010

What does Liahona mean? Hugh Nibley's Method for Explaining Names in the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham

Because I've been writing on Book of Mormon names, I find instructive, humbling, and sobering the following homily on parallelism, evidence, fun, method, silliness, and argument. Here stands revealed Hugh Nibley's greatest intellectual gift--plain, ordinary common sense (Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah, Chapter 9, note 80):

"The usual practice in explaining the word Liahona [suggesting a whole lot of daft tries] is to consult dictionaries of Hebrew and cognate languages, searching out words that begin with li-, aho-, hona-, etc., and to speculate on the most likely combinations. It is a pleasant game that anyone can play [that deft touch of irony], and since there are well over a hundred [!] possible combinations which, if we allow for simple and well-known sound-shifts, can be run into thousands, there is plenty of fun for everybody--provided we don't get the idea that our guesses are significant. When we are dealing with possible meanings of possible syllable combinations, there is such latitude that rigorous demonstration is out of the question. It is only when the Book of Mormon is both peculiar and specific--in such names as Paanchi, and such tales as the story of Joseph's two garments--that parallels become significant" (italics added).

So when do names and symbols become "both peculiar and specific"? And how does the phrase "rigorous demonstration" apply to latter-day scholarship on the ancient world? These are good questions. And somebody ought to sort these kinds of matters out.

Hugh Nibley continues with a bit of guessing of his own, though never leaving argument or common sense behind:

"Our own preference has always been for Le-yah-hon-na, literally, 'to God is our commanding,' i.e. 'God is our guide,' since hon hwn [the long o stands revealed in the Coptic form of the word], is the common Egyptian word for 'lead, guide, take command.' This might be supported by the oldest and commonest of all known inscriptions on divination arrows: 'My Lord hath commanded me,' but as long as scores of other explanations are possible, it is nothing but the purest guesswork."

Contrary to oft-repeated claims, Hugh Nibley did not revel in parallel mania. The phrase "this might be supported," even when at play (and Nibley always says when he's at play), shows his constant insistence on argument and evidence.

Following Nibley's lead, let's do a bit more guessing (but with much less argument):

Given that Liao or Lia reflects the original pronunciation of the name of the Egyptian sun god, Ra (a later, attested variant is Lah), Lia-hona also suggests: Lia, (the one who) guides or commands. Another possibility: r-r'-hwn or l-r/l'-hwn "to Lia or Lah or Ra is our commanding," i.e., "Ra is our Guide," or even, "Daylight is our Guide." The image of Ra as the encompassing globe of the cosmos links the idea of guiding light with that of the spherical compass.

The setting, says Nibley, is the desert, the home of divination arrows. There are the shifting sands, but what about the sea? Nephi also uses the Liahona to direct his ship: "I, Nephi, did guide (hnj?) the ship" (1 Ne. 18:32). Ra steers or navigates is a third possible reading, with -hona as, perhaps, the active participle of Eg. hnj, to steer with rudders, in this case the rudders of the solar bark. The two rudders of the solar bark compare well to the two spindles of the Liahona. Might the compass be a spherical reflection of that cosmos which the sun god, in his "ever-circling years," navigates? Sailors use compasses, after all; and the Sun and his golden light ever point the way.

And then there's the bees (Abraham in Egypt, 255 n.88).


Notes: Since Cumorah, Chapter 9, note 80 also appears in "The Liahona's Cousins," IE 64 (Feb. 1961), 104.

Hugh Nibley adopted Reynolds's and Sjodahl's reading Li-Yah, but not their reading of -on as Heliopolis (or Sun City), George Reynolds and Janne Sjodahl, Commentary on The Book of Mormon I:188 (for Reynolds's etymology and relevant discussion see Book of Mormon Onomasticon, an unpublished document prepared under the direction of Dr. Paul Y. Hoskisson, of the Willes Center for Study of The Book of Mormon at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute housed at BYU).

For the original pronunciation of Re or Ra as *liao or *lia, see Antonio Loprieno, Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction, 31, 35, 248 n. 56 (as well as my own class notes); the graphemic evidence also logically points to a possible original *ria. The original /r/ phoneme in proto-Egyptian, however, shows an outcome of glottal stop, which is written with the so-called aleph grapheme. As for the original /l/ (which differs from the Semitic /l/ phoneme): "By the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, as part of the global reorganization of liquid phonemes," any "opposition between /l/ and other sonorants" was merged or neutralized, and the so-called "r"-grapheme thus comes to mask more than one phonological outcome" (35). In other words, Re was pronounced both as ria and as lia depending on the dialect or even idiolect of the speaker. While the lambdicism may have been rarer, evidence for the reading Amoun-Lah does appear in graffiti at Abydos dating from AD 202 (Paul Perdrizet, Gustave Lefebvre, "Les graffites grecs du Memnonion d'Abydos"). The evidence, then, for (at least sometimes) pronouncing the name of the sun god with /l/ stretches over thousands of years and reflects the original merging of the sonorants. (I often note a similar merging of sonorants in spoken Swahili.) Lehi and Nephi may have pronounced our Liahona as either Le-liahona, Le-riahona, Liahona, Riahona, or even Lahona; be that as it may, Alma, writing some 500 years after Lehi, gives us the spelling Liahona.


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