2019, Volume 16, Issue 1

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Hekmat Dirbas
Leiden University
Leiden, Netherlands

Onomastics and the Reconstruction of the Past: Rethinking Totemism in Semitic Traditions

Voprosy onomastiki, 2019, Volume 16, Issue 1, pp. 19–35 (in English)
DOI: 10.15826/vopr_onom.2019.16.1.002

Received 22 January 2018

Abstract: This paper addresses the theory that ancient Semitic proper names derived from animal names may testify to the culture of totemism. This theory, elaborated first in the works of William Robertson Smith in the late 19th century, has recently re-emerged in scholarly discussion. However, researching the onomastic material provided by historical sources in four Semitic languages (Amorite, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic), the author argues that the theory in question is highly implausible. Particular attention is given to Amorite compound names containing the element Ditāna, the Aramaic name Ara/ām, presumably derived from ri’m ‘wild bull,’ and to Arabic personal names of zoonymic origin which are sometimes considered as derived from tribal names. The paper finds that there is neither any evidence linking the names in question with the social groups known in these languages nor is there a single reference to animals as symbolic ancestors or the like. The author concludes that although in some modern “primitive” tribes or clans proper names are indeed related to their totem, this observation would not apply to proper names from other cultures, particularly the extinct ones, even if such names are semantically related, i.e. refer to animals or plants.

Keywords: Semitic, Arabic, Amorite, Hebrew, tribe names, clan names, animal names, totemism, ancestor worship, anthropology


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