. . .

Original Notes for
Cried and Measured;
Workings of the Elephantine Fragments
by Karl Young

Elephantine is an island in the Nile river at Egypt's southern border. It has been a useful base for a number of military operations: patrolling the border, watching river traffic, launching military and intelligence operations into Ethiopia, providing a resting place and sometimes a fresh escort for land caravans. The name Elephantine comes from one of its most prosperous trade goods: elephant tusks. At times it has been garrisoned by mercenaries-often including exiles and refugees. In the fifth century B.C. it was partially occupied by a community of Jewish mercenaries. We first learned of this colony in the late nineteenth century when archaeological remains were examined and a number of papyrus manuscripts were discovered. The Jews of Elephantine kept papyrus rolls in jars under the floorboards of their homes. The legal system of the day, which required presentation of deeds in any case involving property, encouraged the saving of papyri. Of course, accounts, inventories, and commissary lists were useful in the management of the colony. A few literary works and personal letters were also kept with the other papers. Nearly all we know of this community comes from archaeological research at the site and from the study of the papyrus fragments.

The papyri are written in Aramaic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew and used as an international language at the time. The people belonging to the Jewish community worshipped a god whose name they wrote , YHW, later amended to , YHWH. They apparently had no prohibition on speaking this name out loud. They gave themselves theophorous or god bearing names: you can hear the "ya" in such names as Ananiah, Azariah, and Hilkiah. These names may be parsed into brief phrases: the above three names break down into YHW answered, YHW helped, YHW is my portion. Each of these phrases apparently referred to a line of scripture: Hilkiah, for instance, alludes to Psalm 73, verse 26, which reads, in the language of the King James Bible, "God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever." We conjecture that these names were given according to circumstances surrounding a child's birth or as a kind of thanks offered by the mother. The names have a strong religious resonance - one probably not always realized, but one that might bring reassurance in hard times. Each name could have been a kind of mnemonic for a certain religious phrase closely associated with its bearer. Names usually include the name of the individual's father-the father's name indicated by the patronymic "bar" or "son of." Some of the names are Egyptian; some come from other cultural backgrounds. Through the cultural affinities of these names we know that intermarriage was common. Perhaps these names indicate a certain amount of conscious or unconscious syncretism.

The Elephantine Jews kept lists of their names - we don't know why. The lists, however, suggest several interesting possibilities and the ideogram formed by these possibilities is a profound one. Perhaps they were tax lists or possibly they were lists of people who had suffered for their religion (we know of other Jewish communities that kept such lists) or possibly they were lists of men belonging to specific military groups or regiments. You'll find three such lists on plates 5, 9, and 15; a list of names translated into their theophorous elements on plate 11; and excerpts from the scriptural referents of some of these names on plates 3 and 7 in my text.

Scholars are uneasy about the religious beliefs of these people. Their names include the names of strange gods, they swore oaths by foreign deities, they apparently spent time in the temples of gods other than YHW, and distributed some of their religious funds to Anathbethal and Eshembethal. They had their own temple to YHW, and not just a simple synagogue or meeting house but a rather grand temple suitable for making burnt offerings. Even this gives scholars pause. They worshipped other gods in addition to YHW there. And, as important, according to Deuteronomy, the Lord had chosen Jerusalem as his site and that's where the temple should be-other lands were unclean and temples were not to be built on them, even if the temple at Jerusalem had been destroyed when they left or were driven out of their own land. All of this rhymes nicely with the 44th chapter of Jeremiah, where we find, "ye provoke me unto wrath with the works of your hands, burning incense unto other gods in the land of Egypt." We don't know if the priests of this community would have answered somewhat along the lines of a later passage in Jeremiah: "As for the word thou hast spoken unto us in the name of the Lord, we will not harken unto thee."

Though the Elephantine Jews married Egyptians, swore by the goddess Sati, and fraternized with Egyptian priests, they apparently were not wholly accepted by the other inhabitants of the island: in the summer of 419 B.C. the temple was destroyed in a pogrom. During a good part of the fifth century B.C. Egypt was under Persian domination. Though the Elephantine Jews came to the area before the Persian take over, the natives may have associated them with Persian rule. Perhaps there were elements of Jewish religion that offended the Egyptians - perhaps they resented Passover (which was held at least occasionally at Elephantine) or perhaps they objected to animal sacrifices (they venerated and sometimes even mummified animals). Probably, though, the Elephantine Jews were victims of the kinds of prejudices from which their relatives have suffered in other places at other times. Some scholars hold that the destruction of the temple was the beginning of the end for the colony; others maintain that it survived a considerable time after this. We know that the Elephantine Jews at least started to rebuild their temple.

My basic source was Arthur Cowley's Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C., Oxford, 1923; my reading was supplemented and amended by Bezalel Porten's Archives from Elephantine, University of California, 1968. Readers interested in the complete unworked texts should see the former, those interested in more information on the Elephantine Jews should consult the latter. My texts are offered as poems, not scholarship or antiquarian speculation: their significance is completely in the present.

Thanks to Jerome Rothenberg for getting me started, and to him and to Harris Lenowitz for help, advice, and encouragement on this book.

Go to
Bringing the Text Back Home: Essay by Karl Young
Part 5 of a Karl Young Retrospective
Cried and Measured by Karl Young
Select Openings from Cried and Measured as published in Kalligram Magazine

Copyright © 1977 by Karl Young
First published by Tree Books, Berkeley.

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