Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Rahleenos, which signifies hieroglyphics

As Hugh Nibley and Michael Rhodes point out in One Eternal Round (2010), the world of Abraham embraces three vast cultures broadly defined as the Semitic, the Egyptian, and the Greek; and Abraham sojourns, physically and intellectually, in all three, though never at home in any one of them. His home, for which he sojourning, seeks, says Paul, is a city built without hands, the culture of the angels.

Fortunately, the Book of Abraham continuously furnishes the reader with just that knowledge necessary to navigate those cultural seas and just that immediacy sufficient to draw the reader in: "That you may have an understanding of these gods, I have given you the fashion of them in the figures at the beginning [Facsimile I: Abraham upon an altar], which manner of figures is called by the Chaldeans Rahleenos, which signifies hieroglyphics" (Abraham 1:14). The very strangeness of Rahleenos opens upon another world.

With such tutoring, then, Abraham guides us onto the seam of three bordering and overlapping cultural realities: his own Semitic reality ("that you may have an understanding" = his posterity), that of Egypt, and that of Chaldea. But what about the Greeks and such? What we are to understand is that the Chaldeans so-called make up a cultural compound, never well mixed, of shifting peoples which include, at minimum: Semites, or Afroasiatics, Indo-Europeans (the Hatti), and Hurrians.

Abraham then tells us that this mixed cultural universe of Chaldea (a name chosen for his posterity precisely for its temporal and spatial imprecision: what better catch-all name would serve for distant us?), knew its own versions of hieroglyphs and even had a name for such: Rahleenos. Do we need to know this? The word, strange and wonderful, pulls us into his reality, another place and time. (One is reminded of Narnia, and the pictures and mirrors that Lewis uses to pull us from world to world, from time to time.) Such words, drawn from the Three Worlds of Abraham, cram his brief record. Suddenly we are there too. And even more powerfully than the words, the Rahleenos--hieroglyphics--hieroglyphs--vignettes--facsimiles themselves pull us to Abraham in Chaldea, to Egypt, to wherever he wishes to carry us. Abraham knew the power of the word, of the symbolic. Rahleenos catches on fire the imagination.

So where do we go to find a clue for Rahleenos: to Sumer and Akkad? to the Hurrian cities? or to the West? Only the last yields results. Sumerian has a verb of striking, ra, often used for impressing seals in clay---but seals show figures which are not quite hieroglyphs, so we can drop the idea cold. Besides, the ending -as or -os points us to just that linguistic family which uses a sibilant for case endings: the Indo-European.

Moving either west or northwest from Abraham's Chaldean setting in--so Nibley--upper Mesopotamia, we encounter true hieroglyphs with the Luwians (or Luvians) who resided in Anatolia and western Syria, and used both hieroglyphic and cuneiform scripts. (The Urartians, a branch of the Hurrians, also had their hieroglyphs.) The Luwian record is sparse, and yet in that sparse lexicon can be found words which reflect Rahleenos in both structure and semantics. Not that Rahleenos need be Luwian by any means--the Indo-European grab-bag is as various in stress and current and flow as is that bag of contrary Aeolian winds held by Odysseus, that wordy, wind-blown, windbag.

And it's OK to guess.

In Professor H. Craig Melchert's 1993 Luwian lexicon we find the following (clearly spelled out in the cuneiform script):

Lah (the vowel is long)-lin-Vowel + nominative case ending -s, or Lalinas.

There are at least two words that sound like lalin or lalinas (-os would be the genitive case): the first, with the long first vowel, refers to speech; the second (lalin(a)- or lalinit = la-li-ni-[sh]a?), to designs or decorative patterns.

In Luwian, as in Greek, Hittite, and other Indo-European languages, la-la sings the song of the tongue: the babble, the chatter, the piping, and, to be sure, the tweet. Gossips, newsies, birds, and pebbles in water all babble merrily along their way: la-la-la. But here at least we have speech, and happily Luwian shows at least two hieroglyphic signs that depict the tongue. One of these logograms takes the name LINGUA and is also to be read in the regular syllabary sign list as--no surprise--la. The other, LOQUI, signifies speech (more coherent and better articulated speech, we may hope), and shows the human head with the rudest sticking-out-of-tongue known this side of Polynesian carving (the Egyptians were polite enough to substitute a cow's tongue for our own in their hieroglyphs).

Even more to the point, the Luwian logogram SCRIBA (script) writes the word lali: SCRIBA-la-li or SCRIBA (-la)-li. Professor John David Hawkins, not wishing to confuse these terms, draws a contrast "between SCRIBA (-la)-li, 'script' and 'LINGUA' -la-ti, 'languages.' My identification of the Hier. word [LINGUA] as lala(n)ti- has been refined by Starke to lalati-." In other words, LINGUA (tongue, language) would have normally been pronounced lalati, not lalanti, the -n being dropped at some point (the Luwian stone monuments date "from c. 1350 BC onwards," well after Abraham's day. As for "writing" or "script," Professor Hawkins shows the word, in nominal case, to have been lalia: SCRIBA-li(-ia)-ti(i), 'writing, script' (abl[ative case]): identified with SCRIBA-la-li-ia" in the Karatepe inscriptions. (John D. Hawkins, Corpus of Hieroglyphic Luwian Inscriptions, Berlin, 2000, 1:133; the logograms and regular syllabary signs are described on 23-34; dating, 2).

In a Luwian hieroglyphic inscription (Karkamish A15b, J. D. Hawkins, page 131), SCRIBA-li-ia-ti refers to both the "City's writing" (Luwian Hittite hieroglyphic) and to "the Assyrian writing" (cuneiform, a modified logographic, or hieroglyphic, system). What we thus find in Luwian is a word, laliati or lalia, that clearly also must have been applied to Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. And in Egypt script also embraced illustration: both writing and painting answer to the Egyptian word sS (or zh3).

This is significant because Abraham tells us it is the entire vignette we know as Facsimile 1 that in Chaldean would be described by the word Rahleenos: "which manner of figures [i.e., "the fashion of them"] is called by the Chaldeans Rahleenos, which signifies hieroglyphics." Accordingly, we again note the second Luwian lalinit/lalin-as (decoration on clothing), as defined in Melchert's Luwian lexicon; we are also told that certain objects are "furnished" with a(?) lalin. Here one thinks of patterns, abstract designs, pictures. And what appears on textiles, surely must also appear on wood and stone--which brings us back to the Luwian logogram SCRIBA and the word lalia.

But would the Luwians care anything about Egyptian hieroglyphs? In the late Karkamish inscription (A15b) the regent Yariris boasts of knowing no fewer than 12 languages and all relevant scripts: ". . .in the City's writing, in the Suraean writing, in the Assyrian writing and in the Taimani writing, and I know 12 languages. My lord gathered every country's son to to me by wayfaring concerning language [travelling scholars and teachers like Abraham], and he caused me to know every skill," (lines 19-22, J. Hawkins, page 131). The boast reflects a standard princely curriculum for the remnants of the Hittite Empire, the palace school. All of which recalls Abraham, prince without passport, in his universal quest for great knowledge (Abraham 1:1; Explanation of Facsimile 3; cf. Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, passim).

Placing Rahleenos to one side, might not lalinas, lali(n)a, or lalia best describe, in Indo-European terms, the vignette found on Facsimile 1? We know of no other foreign word for Egyptian hieroglyphs from Abraham's world.

Saxa loquuntur--and pebbles babble.

And I guess away:

Lalin-as or Lalin-os

Copyright 2010 by Val H. Sederholm


Anatolian Databases: Cuneiform Luvian Lexicon and Cuneiform Luvian Corpus are all found at

Jules Remy and Julius Brenchley, in their A Journey to Great-Salt-Lake City, p.539, wonderfully says of Rahleenos and the like: "and so [Joseph Smith] goes on with the same kind of gibberish": oh-la-la indeed!

Everyone knows that Rahleenos also appears as Kahleenos in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. That's a matter for another essay.

There are some 15 known languages in the Ancient Near East alone. Kahleenos or Rahleenos might be a loanword from any one of them.


  1. Thank you for sharing this insightful commentary on Rahleenos. As an aged (83)former student of Dr. Swenson (Professor of Ancient History at BYU, 1951)such would have been the lala of discussion--except that it was unknown at that time!

  2. Thank you for reading the little essay (to which, it seems, more could now be added).

    How interesting to hear from a student of Russell Swensen! My own BYU experience dates from the late 80's and early 90's, but I always love hearing stories about BYU in the 50's and 60's. It would also be interesting to learn about who fellow students were, what textbooks were being used then, what class notes have to say, and so on.


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