Pseudo-Ibn Waḥšiyyah on Various Scripts

Category: Ancient Learning > Writing Systems

1 Introduction

Ibn Waḥšiyyah (let alone Pseudo-Ibn Waḥšiyyah) is not an ancient writer. When it comes to philosophy and science, he is firmly embedded in the Islamicate mainstream of 9th/10th-century CE Mesopotamia (with its Greek, Persianate, Indic and other influences). Yet Ibn Waḥshiyyah, and some others writing under his name, are of special interest for students of pagan antiquity. The so-called Nabataean Corpus (i.e., the works ascribed to Ibn Waḥshiyyah) draws on sources from antiquity long since lost, imaginatively invents others, and often subverts the religiously Islamic and culturally Arab norms of the time in favor of indigenous Mesopotamian (what was then called “Nabataean”) culture and religious traditions in which the stars and other deities are worshipped. This is a dimension of post-antique intellectual history which is often buried under the dominant narrative of development from paganism to monotheism.

The present treatise is one that (according to the suggestion of Isabel Toral-Niehoff and Annette Sundermeyer, in their article “Going Egyptian in Medieval Arabic Culture. The Long-Desired Fulfilled Knowledge of Occult Alphabets by Pseudo-Ibn Waḥshiyya”) was put together from two original texts:

“The first, which was divided into eight chapters, is an anonymous treatise on magical alphabets, entitled Shawq al-mustaham fī maʿrifat rumūz al-aqlām [‘The long-desired, (now) fulfilled knowledge of occult alphabets’], which discussed some 80 alphabets and tells some obscure legends about the Harāmisa [Hermeses] or Egyptian priests. Its main setting is Pharaonic Egypt, and it follows the traditional explanation of the hieroglyphs as symbols.

“The second is another alphabetical treatise (al-Khātima al-farīda fī dhikr aqlām iddaʿat [sic] ṭāʿifa min qawm al-Nabaṭiyyīn wa-l-Kaldāniyyīn wa-l-Ṣābiyya [‘Unique appendix mentioning scripts maintained by the people of the Nabataeans, Chaldaeans and Sabians’]) attributed to Ibn Waḥshiyya (authentic or spurious), containing among others the Shīshīm [sic] alphabet and with strong similarities to other texts attributed to the author. This second treatise was later added to the first – until both merged and were eventually interpreted and transmitted as one […] treatise […] attributed to Ibn Waḥshiyya, but circulating under the title of the first[.]”

This theory does not quite persuade (p. 23 of the English, for example, refers to a source in the Nabataean language, exactly in the manner of Ibn Waḥšiyyah), but the division into two quite different main parts is certainly correct. In any case, the scripts in the composite text are extraordinarily beautiful, and quite useful in the preparation of astrological talismans (as the text advertises) or as cyphers.

2 On the Translation

Although Ibn Waḥšiyyah has been decidedly underserved by modern scholarship, the present text was one of the first Arabic texts ever translated into modern English, in an eddition that contains both the Arabic text and the English translation, running from the respective covers to meet in the middle at their end. The translation can be found at the Internet Archive.

In the following, I will briefly describe the contents of the text. As the alphabets are largely omitted from the English text, those who wish to use them will need to be able to identify individual Arabic letters and adapt the character of the Arabic script (which ordinarily omits vowels) to the intended language.

A supposed ancient Chaldaean alphabet
(p. 133 of the Arabic)

In the present example, for instance, reading from right to left and top to bottom, the “Chaldaean” letters represent, if this edition of the text is reliable, ā, b, j, d, h, w, z, ḥ, ṭ (row 1), y, k, l, m, s, ʕ, f, ṣ, q (row 2), r, š, th (row 3). Other alphabets have different numbers of letters, and sometimes in different order.

3 The Long-Desired, (Now) Fulfilled Knowledge of Occult Alphabets

First, there is a short preface. Chapter 1 (pp. 3–4 = pp. 4–8 of the original) contains two Arabic scripts and three uses of Indian numerals as alphabets. Chapter 2 has some further “known” scripts, at least some of which were historically in use: Syriac, “Old Nabataean” (?), Hebrew, al-Birbāwī (identified by Toral-Niehoff & Sundermeyer as “Temple Script”; I do not know what that means), al-Luqumī (?), al-Musnad (Old South Arabian) and Greek (p. 4 = pp 9–15 of the original). It must be noted that the scripts have been changed significantly from their historical forms in transmission (the same is true of the Appendix), as a look at the representation of the Greek alphabet will show instantly.

Chapter 3 gives the (invented) alphabets of seven most famous philosophers: Hermes, Agathodaimon(?), Plato, Pythagoras, Asclepius, Socrates, Aristotle (pp. 4–5 English = pp. 16–22 Arabic).

Chapter 4 adds twenty-four (invented) alphabets of later philosophers—including Apollonius of Tyana (Balinas), Ptolemy, Dioscorides, Zosimus, Plato [!] and others—that were used to write books on philosophy, talismans, astrology, conjuration, and so on (pp. 5–9 English = pp. 23–46 Arabic). The descriptions of the supposed writings of these real and fictional sages are worth reading in themselves.

Chapters 5 and 6 are particularly useful for talismans: the former lists alphabets of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury and Moon (p. 10 English = pp. 47–53 Arabic); the latter, of Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces (pp. 10–12 English = pp. 54–65 Arabic).

Chapter 7 has the alphabets atributed to the ancient kings of various peoples (pp. 12–14 English = pp. 68–77 Arabic).

Chapter 8 (pp. 14–40 English = pp. 78–136 Arabic) passes from the real and fanciful alphabets to the Egyptian hieroglyphs, attributed to Hermes. They are divided into four series: a celestial/supernatural one; one of animal actions and afflictions; one of trees, plants and their produce; finally, one relating to minerals. Each sign is explained by one word or concept, with very little relation to their historical meaning. On pp. 23–31 of the English, the author gives an (invented) account of four classes of Egyptian priests.

4 Unique Appendix Mentioning Scripts Maintained by the People of the Nabataeans, Chaldaeans and Sabians

The text of Ibn Waḥšiyyah occupies pages 41 to 54 of the translation. It teaches a theory of three original alphabets: the Syriac alphabet, taught to Adam by God; the celestial alphabet used in the books Seth received from heaven; and the alphabet of Enoch, which he received from Gabriel. The Syriac alphabet (p. 117 of the original) later changed (into the square Aramaic/Hebrew alphabet, p. 118 of the original). The celestial and Enochian alphabets are not depicted.

We then come to a discussion of the Shīmshīm alphabet, in which hieroglyphic signs are used alphabetically (pp. 43–46, with no connection to their ancient pronunciation, as far as I can see). On pages 47–51, a “Nabataean” use of hieroglyphs is described, in which characters are used symbolically. One especially elaborate image is only described, not depicted.

Pages 52–54 give some fanciful historical background for, as far as I understand, equally fanciful alphabets (depicted in pp. 129–134 of the original).