Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

Etymology and context

Posted by Fredsvenn on March 14, 2016

The English adjective human is a Middle English loanword from Old French humain, ultimately from Latin hūmānus, the adjective form of homō “man”. The word’s use as a noun (with a plural: humans) dates to the 16th century.

The native English term man can refer to the species generally (a synonym for humanity), and could formerly refer to specific individuals of either sex, though this latter use is now obsolete.

Generic uses of the term “man” are declining, in favor of reserving it for referring specifically to adult males. The word is from Proto-Germanic mannaz, from a Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root man-.

The species binomial Homo sapiens was coined by Carl Linnaeus in his 18th century work Systema Naturae. The generic name Homo is a learned 18th century derivation from Latin homō “man”, ultimately “earthly being” (Old Latin hemō, a cognate to Old English guma “man”, from PIE *(dh)ghomon-, literally “earthling,” from *dhghem- “earth”.

The species-name sapiens means “wise” or “sapient”. Note that the Latin word homo refers to humans of either gender, and that sapiens is the singular form (while there is no such word as sapien).

There seems to be a parallel with the Hebrew adam “man” from adamah “ground.” Adamah is a word, translatable as ground or earth, which occurs in the Biblical account of Creation of the Book of Genesis.

The etymological link between the word adamah and the word adam is used to reinforce the teleological link between humankind and the ground, emphasising both the way in which man was created to cultivate the world, and how he originated from the “dust of the ground”.

Because man is both made from the adamah and inhabits it, his duty to realise his own potential is linked to a corresponding duty to the earth.

In Eden, the adamah has primarily positive connotations, although Adam’s close relationship with the adamah has been interpreted as likening him to the serpent, which crawls upon the ground, thus emphasising his animal nature.

After the fall of man, the adamah is duly corrupted with Adam’s punishment of lifelong agricultural toil. This explains why God favours Abel’s sacrifice of sheep to Cain’s offering of the “land’s produce” – Abel has progressed from the sin of his father, while Cain has not.

The adamah is also complicit in Cain’s later murder of Abel, swallowing Abel’s innocent blood as if to try to conceal the crime. God punishes Cain by making the ground barren to him, estranging him from the adamah.

In Hebrew, adamah is a feminine form, and the word has strong connections with woman in theology. One analogy is that the adamah is to man as a woman is to her husband: man has a duty to cultivate the earth in the same way that a husband has a duty to be fruitful with his wife. Irenaeus likened the Virgin Mary, who bore the Christ, to the adamah from which Adam came.

Adam (אדם) literally means “red”, and there is an etymological connection between adam and adamah, adamah designating “red clay” or “red ground” in a non-theological context.

In traditional Jewish theology, a strong etymological connection between the two words is often assumed. Maimonides believed the word adam to be derived from the word adamah, analogous to the way in which mankind was created from the ground.

In contemporary biblical scholarship there is a general consensus that the words have an etymological relationship, but the exact nature of it is disputed. The word adam has no feminine form in Hebrew, but if it did, it would be adamah.

However, it is considered unlikely that the word adamah is a feminization of “adam”, and the prevailing hypothesis is that both words originate from the verbal stem “adam” (to be red) and were chosen by the author of Genesis to convey the relationship between man and the adamah.

There is additional relationship between the words adam and adamah and the word dam (דם), meaning blood. This justifies the presence in the Kashrut of the prohibition of the consumption of blood: the blood of a slaughtered animal must be returned to the ground, and covered with earth.

The concept could also date back to primitive woman’s “birth magic,” or the making of clay manikins and anointing them with menstrual blood—the sacred “blood of life”—in order to conceive real children.

Women were still making clay manikins to represent people by sympathetic magic through such manikins, in the Middle Ages when such pursuits were redefined as witchcraft.

Clay was always a “feminine” material, sacred to women because it was their substance earth. Pottery was a woman’s art because of this time-honored association of ideas.

In the Jahwist’s account of creation, God’s first act is to create mankind from the adamah. Before the creation of man, the earth is barren of life, because “there was not a man to till the ground”.

These verses signify the interdependence of man and adamah – the earth is a desolate wilderness without the attention of man, while mankind needs the produce of the soil to survive.

Adapa, the first of the Mesopotamian seven sages, was a mythical figure who unknowingly refused the gift of immortality. Vague parallels can be drawn to the story of Genesis, where Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden by Yahweh, after they ate from the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thus gaining death.

Parallels are also apparent (to an even greater degree) with the story of Persephone visiting Hades, who was warned to take nothing from that kingdom. Stephanie Dalley writes “From Erra and Ishum we know that all the sages were banished … because they angered the gods, and went back to the Apsu, where Ea lived, and … the story … ended with Adapa’s banishment” p. 182.

Adapa as a fisherman was iconographically portrayed as a fish-man composite. The word Abgallu, sage (Ab = water, Gal = great, Lu = man, Sumerian) survived into Nabatean times, around the 1st century, as apkallum, used to describe the profession of a certain kind of priest.

The story is first attested in the Kassite period (14th century BC), in fragmentary tablets from Tell el-Amarna, and from Assur, of the late second millennium BC. Mesopotamian myth tells of seven antediluvian sages, who were sent by Ea, the wise god of Eridu, to bring the arts of civilisation to humankind.

The cosmogenic myth common in Sumer was that of the hieros gamos, a sacred marriage where divine principles in the form of dualistic opposites came together as male and female to give birth to the cosmos.

In the epic Enki and Ninhursag, Enki, as lord of Ab or fresh water (also the Sumerian word for semen), is living with his wife in the paradise of Dilmun. The subsequent tale, with similarities to the Biblical story of the forbidden fruit, repeats the story of how fresh water brings life to a barren land.

Enki, the Water-Lord then “caused to flow the ‘water of the heart” and having fertilised his consort Ninhursag, also known as Ki or Earth, after “Nine days being her nine months, the months of ‘womanhood’… like good butter, Nintu, the mother of the land, …like good butter, gave birth to Ninsar, (Lady Greenery)”.

When Ninhursag left him, as Water-Lord he came upon Ninsar (Lady Greenery). Not knowing her to be his daughter, and because she reminds him of his absent consort, Enki then seduces and has intercourse with her.

Ninsar then gave birth to Ninkurra (Lady Fruitfulness or Lady Pasture), and leaves Enki alone again. A second time, Enki, in his loneliness finds and seduces Ninkurra, and from the union Ninkurra gave birth to Uttu (weaver or spider, the weaver of the web of life).

A third time Enki succumbs to temptation, and attempts seduction of Uttu. Upset about Enki’s reputation, Uttu consults Ninhursag, who, upset at the promiscuous wayward nature of her spouse, advises Uttu to avoid the riverbanks, the places likely to be affected by flooding, the home of Enki.

In another version of this myth Ninhursag takes Enki’s semen from Uttu’s womb and plants it in the earth where eight plants rapidly germinate. Despite warnings, Enki consumes the other seven fruit. Consuming his own semen, he falls pregnant (ill with swellings) in his jaw, his teeth, his mouth, his hip, his throat, his limbs, his side and his rib.

The gods are at a loss to know what to do, chagrinned they “sit in the dust”. As Enki lacks a womb with which to give birth, he seems to be dying with swellings. Enki had eaten forbidden flowers and was then cursed by Ninhursaga, who was later persuaded by the other gods to heal him.

Ninhursag relents and takes Enki’s Ab (water, or semen) into her body, and gives birth to gods of healing of each part of the body. The last of the eight goddesses of healing, Ninti (Lady Rib), is also a pun on Lady Life, a title of Ninhursag herself. Her specific healing area was the rib (sumerian Ti means rib and to live).

The story thus symbolically reflects the way in which life is brought forth through the addition of water to the land, and once it grows, water is required to bring plants to fruit. It also counsels balance and responsibility, nothing to excess.

Ninti, the title of Ninhursag, also means “the mother of all living”, and was a title given to the Hurrian goddess Khebat. In the Hurrian language Hepa is the most likely pronunciation of the name of the goddess. In modern literature the sound /h/ in cuneiform sometimes is transliterated as kh. During Aramaean times Hebat also appears to have become identified with the goddess Hawwah, or Eve.

This is also the title given in the Bible to Eve, the Hebrew and Aramaic Ḥawwah (חוה), who was made from the rib of Adam, in a strange reflection of the Sumerian myth, in which Adam — not Enki — walks in the Garden of Paradise. Some scholars suggest that this served as the basis for the story of Eve created from Adam’s rib in the Book of Genesis.

Cybele was an originally Anatolian mother goddess; she has a possible precursor in the earliest neolithic at Çatalhöyük, where the statue of a pregnant, seated goddess was found in a granary dated to the 6th millennium BCE.

In Greece, Cybele met with a mixed reception. She was partially assimilated to aspects of the Earth-goddess Gaia, her Minoan equivalent Rhea, and the Harvest-Mother goddess Demeter.

The inscription Matar Kubileya at a Phrygian rock-cut shrine, dated to the first half of the 6th century BCE, is usually read as “Mother of the mountain”, a reading supported by ancient Classical sources, and consistent with Cybele as any of several similar tutelary goddesses, each known as “mother” and associated with specific Anatolian mountains or other localities: a goddess thus “born from stone”.

Ninhursag, the wife and consort of Enki, was a mother goddess of the mountains. She is principally a fertility goddess. Temple hymn sources identify her as the ‘true and great lady of heaven’ (possibly in relation to her standing on the mountain) and kings of Sumer were ‘nourished by Ninhursag’s milk’.

Nin-hursag means “lady of the sacred mountain” (from Sumerian NIN “lady” and ḪAR.SAG “sacred mountain, foothill”. Hursag (transcribed cuneiform: ḫur.saḡ (HUR.SAG)) is a Sumerian term variously translated as meaning “mountain”, “hill”, “foothills” or “piedmont”. Thorkild Jacobsen extrapolated the translation in his later career to mean literally, “head of the valleys”.

In a myth variously entitled by Samuel Noah Kramer as “The Deeds and Exploits of Ninurta” and later Ninurta Myth Lugal-e by Thorkild Jacobsen, Hursag is described as a mound of stones constructed by Ninurta after his defeat of a demon called Asag.

Ninurta’s mother Ninlil, the consort goddess of Enlil, visits the location after this great victory. In return for her love and loyalty, Ninurta gives Ninlil the hursag as a gift. Her name is consequentially changed from Ninlil to Ninhursag or the “mistress of the Hursag”.

The hursag is described here in a clear cultural myth as a high wall, levee, dam or floodbank, used to restrain the excess mountain waters and floods caused by the melting snow and spring rain.

The hursag is constructed with Ninurta’s skills in irrigation engineering and employed to improve the agriculture of the surrounding lands, farms and gardens where the water had previously been wasted.

After her death, she became the goddess of the wind, like Enlil. She may be the Goddess of the South Wind referred to in the story of Adapa, as her husband Enlil was associated with northerly winter storms. As “Lady Wind” she may be associated with the figure of the Akkadian demon “Lil-itu”, thought to have been the origin of the Hebrew Lilith legend.

In Jewish folklore, from Alphabet of Ben Sira (ca 700-1000 CE) onwards, Lilith appears as Adam’s first wife, who was created at the same time (Rosh Hashanah) and from the same earth as Adam – compare Genesis 1:27. This contrasts with Eve, who was created from one of Adam’s ribs: Genesis 2:22.

The legend developed extensively during the Middle Ages, in the tradition of Aggadic midrashim, the Zohar, and Jewish mysticism. For example, in the 13th-century writings of Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob ha-Cohen, Lilith left Adam after she refused to become subservient to him and then would not return to the Garden of Eden after she had coupled with the archangel Samael.

The resulting Lilith legend continues to serve as source material in modern Western culture, literature, occultism, fantasy, and horror.

Ninlil (𒀭DNIN.LÍL”lady of the open field” or “Lady of the Wind”) is the consort goddess of Enlil.She lived in Dilmun with her family. Impregnated by her husband Enlil, who lie with her by the water, she conceived a boy, Nanna/Suen, the future moon god. As punishment Enlil was dispatched to the underworld kingdom of Ereshkigal, where Ninlil joined him.

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