Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review
The book by Hans-Peter Mathys, professor of Old Testament and Semitic languages at the University of Basel, has a short title but contains considerably more than a presentation of the Astarte Square found at the Phoenician sanctuary of Bostan esh-Sheikh (near Sidon, Lebanon). To put it bluntly, it is a book about antique crosswords. And really, Mathys inspires his readers to try to decode the meaning of four fragmentary Phoenician marble inscriptions of the fourth century BCE. In addition, he provides an introduction to magical squares in antiquity, a widespread custom of playing with words by creating squares of letters. He also endeavours to situate these particular exemplars in Phoenician script within the philosophical context of the period. In so doing he opens a window into the world of religious philosophy in antiquity..
This monograph is not structured like an official archaeological excavation report. The basic information about the discussed objects are scattered throughout the book. Such data can be found more easily in the previous publication on the excavations at the sanctuary of Eshmun at Bostan esh-Sheikh. The four inscriptions in question were found on two marble tablets labelled Ph 24/25 and Ph 26/27. They can be dated to the fourth century BCE. Both plaques are inscribed on both sides. The first plaque, Ph 24/25 (ca. 20 x 20 cm, found in 1964 by Maurice Dunand, not published before 2005, subsequently lost and only known from photographs), is more complete and contains rows of regularly arranged letters. Ph 26/27 (found at the beginning of the twentieth century; now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum) is more fragmentary, but possibly comprises two other exemplars of magical squares. The meaning of the four inscriptions was not understood or discussed before the edition by Mathys in 2005.
The inscriptions are no haphazard graffiti. They are well planned and well designed, incised on precious material. They show letters arranged in columns and lines as on a chessboard (stocheidon style). The most complete inscription, Ph 24, contains one complete square of five by five letters in the upper right corner of the tablet. It's composition is based on the divine Name ‛štrt (Astarte) which can be read in the outer rows of the square. The second line, and consequently all second rows, reads šmš'r (this can be read as Shamash and 'light' or as the personal name 'Shamash is light'). The middle cross of the square reading tštšt is not readily understandable. On the left of and below the complete square are more lines of letters that are probably part of two other squares constituting an angle of three squares since no letters were incised in the lower left corner. The two fragmentary squares were most likely composed by the second line of the first square, šmš'r, and were perhaps identical. Although the ‛štrt square can be understood as a complete square of its own, there is no clear separation from the other lines, so a continued reading is theoretically possible.
The reverse of the tablet is more fragmentary, but likely contains lines of two or three squares, one formed with 'šmn(ḥ) in the vertical column only), the other with ‛štrt. As the remaining letters of the latter square show, it is an alternative ‛štrt square rather than a duplicate of the obverse.
Mathys' monograph does not confine itself to merely offering a reading and explanation of the four inscriptions. The first chapter of the book (pp. 13-42) deals with the most famous exemplar of antique magical squares, the so-called Sator Square—Roman era exemplars of which are known from places as distant as Pompeii, Dura Europos (Syria) and Watermore (England). Mathys presents the very diverse and often fanciful interpretations of this square, which still fascinate numerous scientific as well as more venturous lay interpreters. This discussion provides an impression of the difficulties encountered when attempting to understand this group of esoteric artefacts and prepares the discussion of the Sidon finds.
The next chapter covers the rest of the book (pp. 43-182). It offers an introduction to the working principles of these squares, explained by squares formed by letters as well as by numerals such as the one found on Dürer's Melencolia I (pp. 43-51). Pp. 51-75 present the four inscriptions and their possible readings and completions. The main observation is that the squares are formed by divine names, Astarte as well as Shamash and Eshmun. In addition, Mathys proposes reading more divinities such as b‛l šmm , ṣd , ṣdq , ' l, tnt or šm (all these divinities are discussed on pp. 116-139). Pp. 75-108 give an overview of other forms of meaningful playing with words from the ancient Near East, including acrostics and magical formulae on amulets.
Mathys assumes that the Sidon inscriptions were influenced by the Greek stocheidon style (see pp. 108-116). In the final sections of the book, Mathys offers an interpretation of the squares that also reckons with Greek influence. He points to the importance of cultural exchange in Phoenicia and sees an influence in the speculation by the Greek philosophical schools of the Stoa and Pythagoreans about the gods (pp. 139-182). The divine names in the squares might represent the dei multi, the square form and the interconnections of the names the deus unus (see p. 151). Thus, the inscriptions from the sanctuary at Bostan esh-Sheikh, which comprises Hellenistic as well as Near Eastern elements, are another example of the interconnectedness of the intellectual world of the Mediterranean in antiquity.
Mathys' book is an interesting read. It should be praised for presenting a highly interesting and unparalleled artefact of West Semitic epigraphy and integrating it into its intellectual context. It is, however, not an archaeological or epigraphic work in strict sense, but the emphasis instead lies on the presentation of the genre of magical squares and speculative word plays and on their philosophical interpretation. Further questions like the concrete function and usage of the inscriptions in a sanctuary are only discussed in passing. Mathys offers a number of excurses and secondary information that make the argument difficult to follow in places. The book offers an impressive bibliography, many drawings and photographs of the inscriptions and plenty of graphics further understanding and make it easier to follow the decoding and discussion. Mathys' book is an invitation to join him in exercise antique crosswords, but it is much more.