Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

Axes and Arrows - from Symbolic Things to Signs

Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

Axes and Arrows - from Symbolic Things to Signs

Article excerpt

This author's intention in the present article is to focus on two categories of things, namely axes and arrows (or, rather, bows-and-arrows), whose stylized representations became symbolic and were used as ideographic signs1 already in Neolithic times. Those primeval ideograms (or at least some variants of them) survived among the signs of several pre-alphabetic and alphabetic writing systems of Europe and North Africa. Moreover, in several historical languages of Europe and of the Near-Middle East, certain terms that designate the abovementioned symbolic things survived through times, but they remained etymologically obscure, since they most probably are relics from substratal languages that vanished long ago. Such assumptions get significant support from the dominant idea of a recent book by Harald Haarmann (2014), in which he quite convincingly demonstrates that, in the case of Greek, many cultural symbols and peculiar features specific to the local pre-Greek population survived with their original ("Old European") names after Indo-Europeanization, and those names survived into modern times.2

Symbolic axes

Archaeologists and historians have pointed out that axes of various types (made of various materials, from stone to copper, bronze, iron, and even gold) functioned not only as tools and weapons, but also as insignia of prestige and power. In a previous article (Poruciuc 1990: 196-200), I assumed that the origin of the implement called topor in Slavic and Romanian has an origin that is much earlier than Old Iranian *tapara, which was propounded as source for Russian topor 'axe' (cf. Vasmer 1987, s.v. ?o?op). The connections of the term topor with the semantic sphere of prestige and power result from its etymological relationship with the title of the Hittite kings, attested in variants such as tabarna, tlabarna and labarnas, from a verbal stem tapar- 'to rule' (as I demonstrated in the same article of 1990). It is the very alternation in the first sound of those Hittite variants that reveals a connection with the Aegean name of the sacred doubleaxe, known to the Greeks as labrus (λ?βρυsfgr;).

According to mainstream etymologies, it was from an early form of labrus (of probable Lydian origin) that the name of the Cretan Labyrinth was created - cf. Chantraine's (1990) dictionary, s.v. λαβ?ρινθοsfgr;. As indicated in the same entry, there is a Mycenaean Greek attestation of a divine "Mistress of the Labyrinth" - dapuritojo potinija, a formula which, among other things, indicates that an earlier name of the Aegean double-axe had an initial dental consonant (t or d). The fact that such a consonant came to be later perceived as a liquid sonant (l), as visible in Greek labrus, most probably was due to a retroflex pronunciation in a pre-Greek language (see also the evolution t > tl > l visible in the above-mentioned variants of the Hittite royal title).3 It was such archaic (most probably substratal) aspects which led me to the conclusion that a prehistoric name (*tapar-) for a certain type of axe - which had not only practical, but also ritual usages - may have had something to do with etymologically obscure words that refer to peaks, pikes, horns, or any kind of pointed ends, such as English tap, tip, top and tup, which are as obscure as German Zapfen and as the probably related Romanian tep 'spike', Albanian thep 'ridge' and Italian zappa 'pickaxe'.4As I will point out below, not only the much-discussed double-axe, but also a more primitive axe with a single (triangular) blade may have been symbolic enough to produce prehistoric representations that eventually became signs proper.

The fact that, originally, a double-axe representation actually referred to a symbolic butterfly is now well-known (cf. Poruciuc 2010). Also known is that such a butterfly representation, stylized to the extreme, that is, to a geometric combination of two triangles looking more or less like this: ?. Such a sign (with a missing vertex of the triangle on the right) was part of what many specialists now accept as "Old European" (OE) script or as "Danube Script" (DS). …

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