In linguistics, a “ghost word” is a word that comes into being not through an organic process, but simply because of a mistake – often an error in translation or transcription that becomes accepted as fact. These phantoms cause no end of linguistic malarchy, as scholars try to follow the retreating shadow to its origin.
In a shockingly interesting article from 1985 – bless you, Journal of the American Oriental Society; most of what you publish is so dry, but this essay was knowledgeable and didn’t put me to sleep – Hartmut Scharfe of UCLA argues convincingly for the existence of a ghost word dating from Vedic times: Sanskrit rāj/rāja/rājan, often translated as chieftain, ruler, or king.
Scharfe reminds us that “hierarchical order is conspicuously absent from the Vedic pantheon” – which alone is an excellent common-sense reason to reject king as the best possible rendering of rāja – and then explains how the word is used for several Devas in turn, always when each is at the height of power and achievement. Indra is rājan in killing Vṛtra; Agni, beguiling darkness, is rājan. And so forth. A better translation of the word, he suggests, is “the one of power and charisma,” or perhaps “the one who supremely protects.” Based on this, I think of rājan like the one fully engaged in helpful action, or the ever-active for the universal benefit.
The point is, the word later came to signify one who was worthy to rule by virtue of benevolent force. But in Vedic times it did not signify any sense of dominion.
This is one of the many reasons that I’ve never liked the name Devarāja, for Indra.
Returning briefly to my meandering ramblings from yesterday: I wish that Western culture would take the same interest in the Vedics as in the ancient Egyptians. I’d love to see a professional film or project, or museum displays on par with the wonder-inspiring traveling exhibition of Tutankhamun’s death relics.
But we want to feel the past intimately present. People buy antiquities, not for the pleasure of owning run-down things, but to finger a string of faience beads that once hung from a woman’s neck thousands of years ago, or to see their reflections in peculiar, pitted bronze surfaces that once showed faces so remote. We want to trace the same fissures and folds of metal and marble that an ancient sculptor’s hands once shaped, and touch crumbling pages while feeling anew the wonder of illiteracy, or at least imagine that we could, while slyly eyeing these relics through glass cases. But so much of the material from Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa are either simple living items – pots, pitchers, nothing otherworldly dazzling or intriguingly exotic – or else, they are objects and inscriptions so foreign that their meaning seems lost before the effort of understanding even begins.
No, the greatest legacy of the Sarasvatī River civilisation is aural, not visual or tactile – and Vedic chanting rates a Not So Much on the scale of Hollywood marketability.
Returning to Stargate for one moment, with a curious tie-in to the idea of “words established by mistakes”:
After reading the pretty-bad-novel-version of Stargate, I finally know what Daniel and that meddling academic type were squabbling about at his lecture. I always wondered why the academics were heckling him for no real reason.
It turns out that their argument was based upon a real debate: Colonel Vyse really did make the discovery of inscriptions – of the name of Pharoah Khufu, among others – within the Great Pyramid, a structure in which no writings had previously been found.
In the book, after the stuffy professor mentions “the quarryman’s inscription of Khufu’s name within the pyramid,” Daniel demonstrates that the inscription was a fraud. He shows that the writing contained a mistake, a misspelling in Khufu’s name – a mistake that an actual quarryman probably would have been killed for inscribing in a pharaoh’s resting-place. However, that mistake happened to match exactly the name of “Khufu” in a misprinted volume of ancient Egyptian history – a volume which Vyse was carrying on the expedition.
This may not be the same evidence that exists in reality, but nonetheless, many people do actually believe that Vyse’s “discovery” was a fake. So it was a neat tie-in of actual academia versus the cooked-up version in the movie – and at least I was rewarded, for plodding through a poorly-written novelization of a far superior film, by learning something new today. :flashes the “The More You Know” rainbow:
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