A magic spell to keep snakes away from the tombs of Egyptian kings, adopted from the Canaanites almost 5,000 years ago, could be the oldest Semitic text yet discovered, experts said Tuesday.
The phrases, interspersed throughout religious texts in Egyptian characters in the underground chambers of a pyramid south of Cairo, stumped Egyptian experts for about a century, until the Semitic connection was found.
In 2002 one of the Egyptologists e-mailed the undeciphered part of the inscription to Richard Steiner, a professor of Semitic languages at Yeshiva University in New York. Steiner discovered that the phrases are the transcription of a language used by Canaanites at some point in the period from 25th to the 30th centuries B.C.
"This is the oldest connected text that we have in any Semitic language," Steiner said in a telephone interview while visiting Israel to present his findings in a lecture sponsored by the Academy of the Hebrew Language. The previous oldest Semitic text dates from the 24th century B.C., Steiner said.
Another expert said it was still unclear whether the Egyptian text is actually the oldest.
"This is highly significant because maybe, according to the researcher, it dates to the third millennium B.C., so it's the most ancient pre-Canaanite text that we ever met and maybe ... it is the most ancient Semitic text ever discovered," said Moshe Florentine, an expert on ancient Hebrew and a member of the language academy.
Steiner has not submitted his findings to a scientific journal but plans to do so, he said. More study of the fragments will be necessary to determine how these passages fit into the evolution of Semitic languages, Florentine said.
The Egyptians' use of the magic spell demonstrates the close relations they had at the time with the Canaanites. While Egyptians considered their culture and religion superior to that of their neighbors to the north, they were willing to do anything to protect the mummies of their kings from the poisonous snakes.
Believing that some snakes spoke the Semitic language of the Canaanites, Egyptians included the magic spells in inscriptions on two sides of the sarcophagus in an effort to ward them off.
"Come, come to my house," reads one section in the Semitic language that is supposed to be the snake's mother speaking, trying to lure him out of the tomb. In another passage, the snake is addressed as if he is a lover with "Turn aside, O my beloved."
The Egyptian and Semitic sections are each an integral part of the magic spell and neither can stand alone, Steiner said. For this reason, the Egyptian experts could not fully understand parts of the religious texts until Steiner got involved.
The Semitic language of these texts that have now been deciphered was a very archaic form of the languages later known as Phoenician and Hebrew, Steiner said.
The text includes words that have the same meaning as in Hebrew, like "yad" for hand, "ari" for lion, and "beit" for house, he said.