• A New Piece of Evidence about the Sabians of Harran

The budar of Sumatar Harabesi and the Akkadian Noun (w)ardu

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This article was not intended for experts only. Over and above its central etymological and vocabulary content, the research project aims to identify one of the possible origins as well as the structure of an enormous subject. In antiquity it was taken for granted that a sage is a person capable of penetrating the divine mystery or one who indissolubly links knowledge with pietas; an idea familiar even to us in the third millennia, despite the catastrophe which at a certain point befell this kind of concept of the cosmos and of humanity. But how had it been possible to arrive at that singular reciprocal relationship between wisdom and the peoples of the world which, as well as being a topos of late antique culture [Muscolino, 2011, civi-civii], makes itself felt forcefully when investigating the enigma of the Sabians?


The overall architecture of the thesis to which reference is made here in broad outline was set out in a paper some years ago I Sebomenoi, (ton Theon), una Risposta all’Antico Enigma dei Sabei [Fratini-Prato, 1997], later re-elaborated in English [Eidem, 2003]: the basic premise was that in order to focus adequately on the historical and religious question of the Sabians and Sabianism it was necessary first to establish a new framework. On one hand, this belief came from the sudden importance attributed to the “God-worshippers” (sebomenoi ton theon/theosebeis) after the discovery in 1977 of the Stele of Aphrodisias in Anatolia, which reinforced the importance and the spread of these communities of “pious” Gentiles during the first centuries of Christian era, shedding at the same time new light on the phenomenon of pagan monotheism as a whole [Reynnolds-Tannenbaum, 1987; Athanassiadi-Frede, 1999; Mitchell-Van Nuffelen, 2010]. On the other hand, it emerged from the total re-evaluation made necessary at the end of the 1960s starting with the Italian discovery of Ebla, which once and for all shifted the focus of the ancient near-eastern culture to the north, authoritatively underlining the importance of this enormous geographical area for the universal history of civilization, in particular regarding its successive developments in the European continent [Semerano, 1994].

There were all things considered various good reasons for attempting an alternative area of research, starting from the etymology of the word “Sabians”, which differed from the classic definitions proposed to date and which seemed the first and most urgent step to take. The fact that over some 1300 years of debate about Sabianism it had not been possible to clear the field of the many areas of doubt about the subject was principally a result of the lack of a satisfactory linguistic understanding of the term.

Of considerable importance in this regard is the Akkadian lemma/word sabu, sabiu, for which the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary (hereafter CAD, vol. 16 s.v.) provides the following definitions: “group of people”, “contingent of workers”, “military troops”, “army”, “people”, “population”, but also “temple personnel”. More precisely, the word is used in ancient Babylonian documents mostly as a form of collective noun for “men”, therefore referring to any group of men, workers, prisoners or soldiers and the like (for example in a sentence like “I need men!”, usable in both military and civilian context); to the same period belongs the meaning “people”, “population”, etc. This does not mean however that sabu is not frequently used in other political and cultural contexts, even in Babylon itself in later historical periods, precisely in connection with the world of arms and war.  The aim of this rapid review is different: to examine a linguistic evolution/oscillation which is comprehensible and natural, if one considers that in the ancient Near East people enlisted in the army or called up to perform other public services when needed often originated from subjugated foreign populations, regardless of their juridical status as free men or otherwise. Moreover, the specifically military use of the word might have resulted from the fact that the word sabu normally means male individuals, as distinct from its synonym ummanu (which for simplicity’s sake we  call here ummanu 1)  for which there is no such restriction. This particular aspect will be discussed further on: suffice it to say for the moment that the same logogram – the Sumerian grapheme which in Akkadian sometimes replaces the phonetic transcription in syllables (in this case ERIN, ERIN MESH: CAD, vol. 20, s.v., cf. vol. 16) – is usually used to represent both words with no distinction, thus establishing an almost total interchangeability which it is important to note at this early stage.


The same can be said of Hebrew which, lexically speaking, is certainly the most likely source of the enigmatic Sabi’un/Sabi’yyin mentioned in the Koran [II, 62; V, 69; XXII, 17]. The word saba (both in its noun and verb form) has, in Biblical literature, a prevalently a military connotation but, as in Akkadian, here too it coincides with only one of the many different meanings of the word, whose semantic range extends considerably further to include the more general notion of “service” in all its aspects, including the routine duties carried out in cult centres. This is what emerges from the brief but helpful technical article by Helmer Ringgrenn (2007, 479-80 and 482), which convincingly underlines the overlapping meaning of saba and the other Hebrew word ‘ebed, in turn related to the universal Semitic root ‘ b d (see further on).

All this constituted an encouraging point of departure: firstly because it was now possible radically to modify one element of the hypothesis regarding the Sabians proposed as long ago as 1649 by Edward Pocock (“Saba, Exercitus… almost saba hash-shamayin, Exercitus coelitis cultores”: Tardieu, 1986, 41), referring back erroneously to a context which has little to do with the “worshippers of the celestial armies” and with “the God of the armies” (Yahwe Sebaoth) mentioned in the Bible, but rather– surely not merely a coincidence – with the “worshippers”; secondly because it hinted at a relationship between the Sabians in the Koran and the “God-worshippers” thanks, for example, to the well-known account in the Acts of the Apostles of the preaching of Paul, “the Apostle of the Gentiles”, which, referring directly to this community of believers in the Most High God, was on occasion close to but at the same time distinct from the Jewish religion, makes unequivocally the equation theosebeis/(pious) Gentiles – (potential) Christians.  Undoubtedly, from a strictly linguistical point of view, the shift from the Greek verb sebo/sebomai – from which derive the participles (theo)sebeis/sebomenoi (ton theon) – to the Hebrew word saba is by no means so obvious, both because the roots are different (in our opinion sebo mirrors the Semitic ‘b d mentioned above, despite the fact that the Greek Etymological Dictionaries continue to propose dubious links with Sanskrit) and because in the Jewish doctrinal tradition the expression yerei hash-shamayyim is systematically used for the pious Gentiles in question. But this argument is superficial.


The fact that the name of John the Baptist’s mother, Elisabeth (herself daughter of Soba!), despite always being interpreted by Biblical scholars as following the far-fetched etymological roots (“God is seven”, “[She] whose oath is God”), corresponds exactly to theosebes and means nothing else than “servant, devotee, worshipper of God”, makes a definite connection between the two verb derivations and furthermore relates back to the semantic nucleus underlining the multiple meanings of the Hebrew/Aramaic word identifiable in the generic concept of “service” referred to earlier. But there is more to come: the important position that Elisabeth occupies in the Gospel, is in some respects the same as that referred to in the official version of the Acts between the “God-worshippers” and the Christians. At this point it is not necessary to specify how the creed of the believers in the Most High God, and more generally the followers of the ancient cults, goes far beyond the field of Christianity and does not in broad terms resolve into it: suffice it to remember the dramatic attack launched by Christian intellectuals over the centuries Ad Nationes or Contra Gentiles to be convinced – if that were necessary – of the importance of this matter and of the determined resistance that the ecumenical aspirations of the Catholic Church inevitably provoked amongst the same peoples that it, insofar as it was the Ecclesia ex gentibus, purported to represent, rightly or wrongly. It is nonetheless hard to deny to the nascent Christian religion the merit of having being careful to emphasise the convergence between “Gentiles” and “piety”, and to express a relationship already present in the original Akkadian root but which, precisely for this reason, risked remaining obscure.

It is clear that these arguments – which need at the very least to take into account also the work of Shlomo Pines [1968, 151-2] which indicates as one of the most common names for Christians in Iran the word “God-fearers” (a synonym of “God-worshippers”) – were not conclusive in establishing the identity of the Sabians in the famous verses of the Sura of “The Cow”, “The Table Spread” and “The Pilgrimage”. The pieces of evidence however were indicative of a precise pattern, that is that the denomination used in the Koran by Muhammad was nothing else than an alternative denomination for Christians (Fratini-Prato, 1997, 7-8 n. 26; 25-26 n. 88; 50-53). This is to be understood, however, not in the classic sense of a separation between Judeo-Christianity and Ethno-Christianity, to which it would be in this case totally irrelevant to refer given that there is absolutely no definite proof of this. The reason why the reference to the Sabians in the Koran is so interesting lies rather with the appearance of a new idea of Christianity or at the very least of an unconventional idea of it, insofar – as this paper suggests – as it ends up linking the Christian religion to the universe of the theurgy [Luck, 1989, 187, for the synonyms: “theosophy”, “service”, “ritual”, “knowlede of the divine”, etc.]. The passage in Corpus Dyonisiacum (De Coelesti Hierarchia, IV, 4, 181B) in which specific reference is made to the “human theurgy of Jesus” seems also to lead in this direction; as does also the testimony of John of Scithopolis who, commenting in the 6th century on the text by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, sees in the incarnation of Christ “God’s preeminent mission” or rather, yet again, a theurgical concept, no more and no less [Stang, 2011, 9].


Furthermore, the identification of the Sabians with the Hanifs (the pious pagans whose prototype in the Islamic tradition is identified with the figure of Abraham: De Blois, 2002, 16-27), upheld by  Harranian  personalities such as Thabit ibn Qurra and later referred to emphatically in the famous textbook on the magic arts Ghayat al-Hakim (where also can be found the very useful clue: Sabians = “Nabataean servants amongst the Kasdaeans”, rendered later as servi capti Chaldeorum by Picatrix: Ritter-Plessner, 1962, 83, cfr. 206: Sabians andservants of the temple”; Pingree, 1986, 46) proposed the same link also for the Sabians from Harran: a careful examination of the sources allowed the conclusion to being drawn that the Harranians had the right to identify themselves without doubt with the Sabi’un mentioned by the Prophet, if we assume that this is nothing more than a transcription in Arabic of the Hebrew word saba, which in its turn includes, according to some, both the Christians and all the other “devote peoples” of the world. One important detail should be noted here: when medieval Arab writers refer to the Harranian Sabians they always avoid using the regular masculine plural to be found in the three Koranic references (once in the nominative, twice in the oblique case) choosing rather the collective form saba, sabi’a or sabia, identical to, or extremely close to, the Hebrew. [Chwolsohn, 1856 II, passim]. Notwithstanding the extremely convincing nature of the argument, there was no definite proof until now, which luckily we can provide now by re-interpreting material we studied earlier without realizing its importance [Fratini 2014, 290 n. 50].

Sumatar Harabesi is a site close to Harran dedicated to the Moon God, where initiates in the cult of Sin, who were also high-ranking military personnel, are called budar in the local Syrian inscriptions from 164-5 A.D. [Segal, 1954, 26-28; Drijvers 1980, 126 sgg.; Idem, 1973, 9, for the name wrdw]. The same noun, transcribed in Arabic (in the oblique plural masculine form) bughdariyyin appears more than eight centuries later in the Fihrist by al-Nadim in relation to the initiatory-mystery rites of the Harranian Sabians [Dodge, 1970, 769-71]. The actual origin of the word has never been explained.

But it should most likely be  related by metathesis to the Akkadian word (w)ardu (other forms being bardu, urdu, aradu [= Semitic ‘ b d] “slave”, “officer”, “servant”, “soldier”, subject [of a king]”, faithful [of a divinity]”: CAD, vol. 2, s.v ardu; for the systematic transcription of the ancient Babylonian w into Assyrian and Neoassyrian b, Semerano, 1994, II A, xciv), whose semantic link with the wide-ranging meaning of the lemmas sabu/sabiu and the Hebrew saba is beyond argument. The basic meaning shared by all these nominal forms brings us back yet again to the idea of “service”, in the military, religious and working-servile sense. This is demonstrated in later linguistic derivatives of (w)ardu: examples are the Italian words  “orda”, “guardia”, “guardiano” and “bardo”; or the survival of a term such as wor-ship (but also Arthur!) in a conservative language like Anglo-Saxon; let alone the Arab word murid, “novice (Sufi), one who aspires to the knowledge of God” [Margoliouth, 1913, 519; Plessner, 1936, 785] and ward “a courageous, intrepid person”, but above all “rose”: a symbol with extraordinary mystical and literary implications which it would be inappropriate to go into here.

The rock inscriptions from Sumatar and from the Fihrist reveal crucial evidence. In support of the validity of the reconstruction we have Arab medieval testimonies which prove that in Harran, as late as 11th-12th century, not only were the original Mesopotamian names for some of the divinities worshipped there still in use – most importantly that of the Moon God Sin – but also such religious epithets as bel Harran and names of festivities such as akitu (in the corrupted form kadi, kadha) typical of the religious vocabulary of Babylon, whose use in the context of Harran is well documented at least as early as in the neo-Assyrian and neo-Babylonian period.

It should not come as a surprise at this point that the complex lexical subject of this paper arises in a substantially similar way in the Latin-speaking world, where the verb colere and its noun form have the same meaning as the words analysed so far [Semerano, 1994 II A, liv-lv] and are thus both represented in the forms Colentes Deum, Deicolae, Coelicolae, frequently employed to indicate the “God worshippers” in the western Roman regions. It could be observed that the situation is surprisingly stable and unchanging despite the extraordinary span in terms of space and time and that it is possible to establish a pattern has whose far-distant origins clearly reflect the cultural and intellectual heritage of the “peoples of the written language” of the Ancient Near East.


The evidence from Sumatar is important not only for the linguistic confirmation it finally provides. It also provides a further and significant piece of information about the sophisticated form of syncretism of the Harranian Sabians, which has been the focus over recent decades of the research of David Pingree [1980, 1981, 1987, 1992, 1994, 2002] and others [Corbin, 1983 (but 1950), Marquet, 1966, Hjarpe, 1972; Perrone Compagni, 1975 and 1977, Green 1992; Genequand, 1999; Van Bladel, 2009; Boudet et al., 2011]. In this regard it is useful to refer also to two texts recently re-published and studied by Assyriologist Pietro Mander [Albanese-Mander, 2011, 41-49]: the first is a tablet found in the south Mesopotamian city Uruk; the other text comes from Northern Mesopotamia, from Assur and from Nineveh (there are four transcriptions). They share a common context, specifically a theurgical one. The repeated use of the word waradu (“to descend, or “make descend [of a divinity]) clearly indicates the origin in general terms of budar/(w)ardu and the actual meaning of the word, while still maintaining the idea of “subordinacy/movement from on high to lower down” which its root indicates: it does not mean generically pietas, nor a vague “cult” or “service” to be rendered to gods or the Most High God.  It is a question of applying the relevant instruments to bring about the union of man with the divine, either encouraging the Gods to descend and make themselves manifest in a receptacle made for this purpose (as happens for example with the animation of statues), or personally achieving an ascension to the mystical encounter of the theurgist with the luminous Lords of the Cosmos [for a general survey, Shaw, 1995]. This and nothing else was the objective of the astral liturgies and the practice of the art of the talismans, “the highest expressions of magic, from an intellectual point of view, developed during the Middle Ages” [Pingree, 1987, 89] in which the hermetic philosophers from Harran were surely unquestioned masters.

The Uruk text studied by Mander consists mainly of a list of the names of the seven antediluvian kings and of the seven primordial wise beings (apkallu) called upon to assist them, followed by a further eight sovereigns (mostly real people) and eight sages (ummanu) who were their advisers: at this point the list is interrupted because, unfortunately, no-one subsequently was possessed of the spiritual faculties required to aid the kings. It is not so much to distinguish the different “wise men” and “sages”, indicating a progressive/temporal movement away from the source of knowledge, that this discussion is laboured, nor for reasons of the related myth of the progressive decadence of the human condition. It is because the word ummanu (which we call here ummanu 2) used both here and in Assur-Nineveh to indicate the “sages” (CAD vol. 20, 114-5: also “experts in secret knowledge”), that is to say those able to persuade the god to “come down” (waradu) benignly to earth, is almost identical to the word ummanu 1 mentioned before because of its identical meaning to sabu/sabiu with which we are already familiar, were it not for the different lenght of the central vowel in the two words.

It is true that in the dictionary there are two separate entries, but the complex history of Sabianism would appear, on the contrary, to reveal a process of interference, of a resonance, even contamination. In the same sort of way as happens in Italian with “coltura” and “cultura” – and also with colere and its Latin derivatives – the vowel difference between the two words does not correspond to a semantic difference strictly speaking, and so a vowel shift is fairly common, whether or not it is justified: for example, a “colta” person is obviously a person of “cultura” and obviously not a “agri-cultural” person; but should one write “puericoltura” or “puericultura”? It is probably better to consult a dictionary.

It is well known that the treasure hidden in the archives of the genial inventors of written language has only relatively recently become accessible. But it seems very likely that the late 19th-century deciphering of cuneiform inscriptions has only partially hindered the comprehension of the “mystery” of the Sabians. The real problem for anyone who has over the centuries analysed the problem of Sabianism is not one of lexicon but is rather physio-logical: the use of expressions such as “true” and “false” Sabians – as Chwolsohn does, along with many others before and after him – is not so much a mistake as meaningless, for the simple reason that traditional categories of logic are powerless when confronted with a proper name which has the paradoxical ability to divide into two, to separate, to split itself  at every turn. Islam is well aware of this, and from the very beginning the exegetes of the Koran and Arab lexicographers used the expedient of explaining the term “Sabians” with two different verb forms, sab’a and saba, which have no common denominator; in this paper, to take into account the different meanings of “service”/“wisdom”/ “piety”/“humanity” indicated alternately by the word, a different solution is proposed, but the result, even in this case, is a division of the ways, a fork in the road: ummanu 1 and 2! It should not be considered a defeat. It is that there is a profound doctrinal reason for the impossibility, right from the start, of avoiding a stalemate when attempting a reductio ad unum: only a non-binary logic and non-dualistic semantics are compatible with the negative theology and the Neo-Platonic metaphysics of the “Light” professed by Sabianism, which is also a way to put down delimiting markers in this matter. But one could go further. The use of sabu, saba, sabia, sabi’un, sabi’yyin, (theo)sebeis, zabii (and also perhaps the famous semnotheoi by Diogenes Laertius and Clement of Alexandria) etc. as if they were commonly used words is ingenuous, mostly because they mean something quite different: they are a sort of Password along a precise initiation path, the Sign of belonging to that noble tradition of thought that has always drawn inspiration from the eternal springs of pia philosophia and prisca theologia dear to Ficino and his many scholarly companions.

As said earlier, one cannot attribute to the lack of tools, only now made available by the field of Assyriology, the inability to take up the challenge launched by the “Gorgon” [Marquet, 1966, 86-7; Green, 1992, 208-9]of Sabianism. It is not possible that the anonymous editor of the Picatrix Latinus (or the original Arabic compiler) had the opportunity of consulting the Akkadische Handwortebuch by Von Soden or the Assyrian Dictionary of the University of Chicago. But there is a formidable historical memory of the language, in relation to which an important theme comes to the surface again for apparently mysterious reasons, after centuries of silence. In the West, the necessity of somehow making comprehensible to the reader the identity of the proper noun “Sabians” obliges Picatrix to avoid the exotic and impenetrable term azzahabin, which in fact only appears once [Pingree, 1986, 46], and to attempt to render the meaning of the word with a periphrasis or a translation. Over and above the already mentioned term “Nabataean servants  etc., there appear also “those who worship idols and images” (idola orantes ac imagines) “men” (isti homines) and “peoples” (gentes). Nonetheless in section III, 7 dedicated to astrological magic and its arcane ceremonies for the planets or Ursa Major, the formula to which the manual tends to refer most willingly is sapientes, sapientes antiqui… and it is our feeling that at this point nothing further needs to be added.




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