Tanis, Egypt: Satan’s Citadel or Unholy Translational Error?

Ira Levin’s 1967 novel Rosemary’s Baby and the eponymous 1968 Roman Polanski film based on it both make frequent reference to a mysterious substance called “Tannis Root.” In both book and movie, the substance serves as a convenient plot device and, in film parlance, MacGuffin, simultaneously both marking those who have been compromised in the Satanic conspiracy headed by Roman and Minnie Castevet and driving the titular mother’s eventual discovery of the horrible truth about the older couple and their designs on her reproductive capacity and newborn child. Levin made up the name and concept of “Tannis Root” for his story, supposedly based on the word’s phonetic similarity to the final two syllables of the Latin form of the name Satan: Satanas. The name is also phonetically similar, however, to another fictional plant—“tanna” or “tana” leaves—which functions as a MacGuffin in several old mummy movies, starting apparently with the 1940 picture The Mummy’s Hand. In that film, the leaves prove crucial in summoning and controlling the titular monster. It is not unlikely that Levin might have had this creation in mind as well in crafting his own fictional plant.

Levin’s “tannis” likewise bears a conspicuous phonetic resemblance to the name of the ancient Egyptian city of Tanis, most famous to modern popular culture from its mention in the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark. There, the very real ancient city featured in a fictitious story of having been the final resting place of the Ark of the Convenant—before, that is, it was consumed by the surrounding desert in a massive sandstorm, presumably as an act of vengeance by the ancient God of Israel. It turns out that the real city of Tanis, which was never so destroyed, possesses a significant connection with Satan that could have made it both a more-than-adequate namesake for the crucial herb in the iconic horror-satire Rosemary’s Baby in lieu of the fictitious “Tannis” and an even bigger target for God’s wrath in Raiders of the Lost Ark than simply for happening to have been the last place a plundering army hid some important piece of stolen Israelite loot. The irony is that this real claim to Satanic fame the city of Tanis has rests entirely on a spectacular misunderstanding and mistranslation of a passage from the Hebrew Bible in the Koine Greek rendering of the Jewish scriptures produced beginning in the 3rd century BCE and known as the Septuagint. Understanding this connection will take us to the very heart of a much-discussed issue in both Biblical studies and the larger Satanic community: namely, how Satan became identified with the name and concept of Lucifer.

This is going to be a lengthy and, in places, quite technical discussion of translational issues in different versions of the Bible. Yet it will also be, I hope, both quite fun and of more than a little interest to any who would seek to know more about the Biblical bases for the figure of Satan and the now well-known tale of Satan-led angelic revolt against the one high Israelite God. If you’re up for a bit of a slog, wade on in with me here. I may need your help getting back out again!

Sometime between 155 and 167 CE or so, the second century Christian theologian and apologist Justin Martyr (100-c. 167 CE) wrote an imaginary dialogue between himself and a straw man Jewish critic named Trypho. In the fictional dramatic setting of the Dialogue, Trypho accosts Justin one day while the Christian apologist is out walking with a friend and makes the following broad request of him:

“(Smiling gently.) Tell us your opinion of these matters, and what idea you entertain respecting God, and what your philosophy is” (Dialogue with Trypho 1.1)

If that seems like a rather self-servingly open-ended way for a straw man interlocutor to open what is framed as an honest debate with a critic, well that’s because it most definitely is! But so goes much of Justin’s Dialogue.

In the seventy-ninth chapter of the work, Justin’s Jewish interlocutor levels a curious charge at the Christian—indeed at all Christians—saying:

“The utterances of God are holy, but your expositions are mere contrivances, as is plain from what has been explained by you; nay, even blasphemies, for you assert that angels sinned and revolted from God.”

Here Trypho alleges that Christianity as explained by Justin Martyr is blasphemous because it includes a doctrine of angelic rebellion and sin against God. I call this idea “curious” because the Hebrew Bible and Hellenistic Judaism were certainly no strangers to the idea of angelic rebellion. So much so, in fact, that one begins to suspect the entire technique here is simply Justin’s way of claiming the whole Satan mythos as a uniquely Christian invention.

One of the most famous examples of a myth of angelic revolt can be found quite early on in the Hebrew Bible, in Genesis, chapter 6, verses 1-4, in the story of the so-called “Watchers.” This term is applied to the beings designated in Hebrew as bĕnê hā’ĕlōhîm (literally “sons of God”) or angelic divine beings who look down from heaven, see how fair and comely female human beings are, lust after them, and descend from heaven to mate with them, ultimately producing a race of giants known as the Nephilim. This latter term is a Hebrew word that, on first inspection, looks conspicuously like a simple passive form of the verb n-p-l meaning “to fall” and thus may be interpreted as “fallen ones,” though much scholarly controversy over the years has revolved around the question of how best to understand this term. At any rate, the naming of a penalty accruing to humanity in the form of a foreshortened lifespan (verse 3) as a result of this affair and the placement of this narrative right before the lead-up to God’s sending of the Flood both seem calculated to suggest that the actions of the Nephilim were profoundly disruptive to creation. In the verses that immediately follow, 5-8, the Genesis account dwells on the considerable wickedness of humanity on the earth, a population which must now include the offspring of the union of the Nephilim with human women, offspring whom the Biblical narrative (verse 4) describes as “heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.” This disruption in God’s creation proves so total that the Creator is actually said to regret his own act of creation, to such an extent that he finally decides to simply wipe out all of humanity in the Flood. This rather bare-bones narrative of angelic revolt will later receive considerable amplification and elaboration in the so-called Book of the Watchers, the first portion of the intertestamental apocalyptic work entitled The Book of Enoch, eventually becoming the familiar narrative of angelic war in heaven known from later tradition.

There is also the example of Psalm 82, a short poem in which the Israelite God Yahweh excoriates the other members of the divine council for failing to issue just judgments. The Israelite God even goes so far as to threaten the other divine beings with death like mortals and with a punishment of “fall[ing] like [any] one of the princes” (82:7). Here, the Hebrew word usually translated as “princes,” śārîm, derives from a root ś-r-r which is cognate with the older Akkadian verb šarâru, meaning “rise in splendor,” a common descriptor of the activity of celestial bodies like the sun. Some scholars have suggested that a more correct rendering for this passage would therefore be “like the shining ones” or even “like the shining one,” where what appears to be a plural ending is interpreted as an emphatic marker. These translations would bring the passage more closely in line with perhaps the most discussed incidence of a myth of divine rebellion in the Hebrew Bible: Isaiah 14:12, the (in)famous Lucifer passage.

Chapter 14 of Isaiah falls within a portion of the voluminous prophetic book consisting of the first thirty-nine chapters that modern Biblical scholars understand as the redacted work of a single author, perhaps the historic Isaiah ben Amoz, who lived from the mid to late 8th century BCE. At that time, the Mesopotamian empire of Assyria was expanding westward and would, between 722 and 701 BCE, subjugate both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of ancient Israel/Judah. This political struggle forms much of the backdrop of the prophetic writings of so-called First or Proto Isaiah.

Chapter 14 dishes out some harsh prophecy apparently intended for an enemy king, accusing this individual of hubris in having tried to make himself the equal of God and predicting both his and his kingdom’s eventual downfall and destruction. Because the poem bears no internal evidence of dating, it’s hard to say exactly who the earthly king is that the prophet is taking aim at in the chapter. But because Egypt and Assyria were ancient Israel’s foremost external oppressors, often standing in as representatives of all of the Biblical land’s political foes, and the end of the 8th century was a time period marked by Assyrian military ascendency and conquest in both Israel and Judah, most scholars have assumed that the earthly king Isaiah is inveighing against is an Assyrian, usually referred to in the literature and Bible commentaries as the “King of Babylon.”

What has served to make the passage so evocative from the standpoint of a possible connection to Satan is its use of a myth of the fall from heaven of some divine being or other as a parallel to the anticipated downfall of the king of Babylon. The problem, though, is that multiple authorial hands can be detected in the chapter, and the mythological material contained in verse 12 doesn’t seem to match that contained in verses 13-15. That is, the Biblical account appears to conflate two different myths of a divine fall, both linked by the theme of hubris. Here are the key verses from for reference. I quote them from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the standard Bible translation for citation in Biblical scholarship.

12 How you are fallen from heaven,

O Day Star, son of Dawn!

How you are cut down to the ground,

you who laid the nations low!

13 You said in your heart,

“I will ascend to heaven;

I will raise my throne

above the stars of God;

I will sit on the mount of assembly

on the heights of Zaphon;

14 I will ascend to the tops of the clouds,

I will make myself like the Most High.”

15 But you are brought down to Sheol,

to the depths of the Pit.

The key phrase in verse 12, “Day Star, son of Dawn,” reflects the Hebrew expression hêlēl ben-šaḥar (literally “shining one son of Shahar”), which clearly refers to the Canaanite myth of twin brothers Shahar, the dawn star, and Shalim, the dusk star, both ultimately manifestations of the planet Venus, possibly conceived of as embodied in two different aspects. Many scholars regard Shahar and Shalim as a twinned representation of the ancient Semitic deity whose name appears variously as Attar, Athtar (Aṯtar), Ashtar, and, in Mesopotamia, the more familiar Ishtar, all associated with Venus. As with its name, this Venerian deity’s gender identity (whether masculine or feminine) also varies from place to place across the ancient Near East. In the Greek of the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible, the famous Hebrew phrase was rendered as ho heōsphoros ho prōi anatellōn, literally “the dawn-bringer who rises early,” while St. Jerome’s 4th century CE Vulgate version of the Bible in Latin translates it with lucifer qui mane oriebaris, literally “light-bearer, you who used to rise early in the morning.” It is from this translational choice, obviously, that the modern name Lucifer comes.

One of the clearest ancient parallels to the mythical idea expressed in verse 12 is the Phaethon myth from ancient Greece—itself said to be based on a Phoenician, and thus Semitic, original—known in its fullest expression from the 1st century BCE Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses 1.747-2.400. Phaethon, whose name is actually the present active participle phaethōn meaning “shining one” in Greek, sought reassurance from his mother after an age-mate had taunted him that his claim to parentage by the sun god, Helios, was false. Phaethon’s mother assured him that his father really was Helios and suggested that the boy turn to his dad for further proof. When Phaethon asked the sun god for evidence of his parentage, Helios said he would grant the boy whatever he asked, whereupon Phaethon promptly requested permission to pilot the solar chariot for a day. Despite his father’s misgivings and warnings that the boy would not be able to handle the horses of the sun, Helios granted Phaethon’s request. As promised, Phaethon was permitted to drive the celestial chariot for a day, and, just as his father had warned, he proved unable to steer the powerful animals along the proper course. Instead, Phaethon ended up scorching large portions of the earth’s surface and wreaking so much havoc that Zeus grew angry and dashed the rash youth from the sky with a thunderbolt.

The 3rd century BCE Hellenistic poet Callimachus (c. 310/305-c. 240 BCE) alludes to the Phaethon myth in a humorous punchline to a short, occasional poem inscribed on a lamp dedicated in a Sarapic temple in Canopus, Egypt (Epigram 56). The words Callimachus uses to invoke the myth strikingly parallel the wording of the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 14:12. The full Septuagint Greek of the Biblical line reads pōs exepesen ek tou ouranou ho heōsphoros ho prōi anatellōn (“how it has fallen out of the sky, the dawn-bearer who rises early”). Callimachus’ epigram, meanwhile, concludes rather hilariously with the phrase hespere pōs epeses (“Hesperus/evening-star how you have fallen”), said to be the content of what the dedicatee of the lamp, the god of Canopus, will say when he beholds the beautiful light it sheds. (To get the humor here, just imagine a poem addressing God in dedication of a lamp left as a gift or sacrifice to Him, and, at the end of verse, the conclusion is: “God, when you see the beautiful light this little lamp sheds, you will say ‘How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!’”) Note that, in his highly abridged version of the myth, Callimachus names the fallen entity by the name of the dusk twin (evening-star) rather than by that of the dawn twin, Shahar, as the Septuagint does. The Greek hesperus is cognate with the Latin vesper (“evening”) from which derives the name of the evening prayers or “vespers” in the Divine Office of the Western Christian Church. Note, too, that the Septuagint rendering of the original Hebrew verse changes the direct second-person address to a third person statement; the Hebrew clearly has a second person verb (êk nāpaltā, “how you have fallen”) like Callimachus’ epeses “you have fallen,” making the phrase hêlēl ben-šaḥar (literally “shining one son of Shahar”) a vocative, as is Callimachus’ reference to Hesperus. Jerome’s Vulgate version, which was made upon close study of the original Hebrew, also has the lucifer phrase as a vocative with a second-person verb: quomodo cecidisti de caelo lucifer… (“how you have fallen from the sky, lucifer”).

Verses 13 through 15 of the passage in Isaiah 14 wed this Phaethon-type material to still another myth of angelic rebellion against God, using the theme of hubris and its punishment from on high as the connecting link. Though this passage has no direct bearing on Satan in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament passages like Luke 10:18, 2 Corinthians 11:14, and Revelation 12:9 seem already to be making that connection or, at the very least, to make such a connection inevitable in subsequent tradition. And sure enough, that’s just what early Church Fathers did. Justin Martyr calls the Isaiah passage “the story concerning the devil, dramatized in the person of the Assyrian as if in a tragedy” (Patrologia Graeca 6:1593), and the Latin Father Tertullian, who lived from about 155 to 240 CE, quotes verses 13 and 14 of Isaiah 14 in his anti-gnostic work Against Marcion (5:11, 17) as though Satan himself spoke them:

“…the devil, who once said, as the prophet describes him: ‘I will be like the Most High; I will exalt my throne in the clouds.’ ….even as the prophet makes him say: ‘I will set my throne above the stars; … I will go up above the clouds; I will be like the Most High.’”

A quite similar myth of angelic rebellion used in prophecy and lamentation against an earthly political enemy of ancient Israel—in this case, the ancient Phoenician coastal city of Tyre—appears in Ezekiel 28:1-19. This passage too is connected by an early Church Father, this time Origen of Alexandria (c. 184 – c. 253 CE), with Satan and the myth of his fall from heaven (Against Celsus 6.44).

This rich history of Biblical narratives involving angelic rebellions against the power and sovereignty of Yahweh conspires to make the complaint of  Justin’s Trypho regarding what he alleges is Christian blasphemy in indulging doctrine surrounding angelic revolt and sin strike one as passing strange. What is perhaps even stranger, though, is an element from Justin’s response to Trypho on the issue.

Justin answers his interlocutor’s concern by quoting from scripture in an effort to demonstrate that the supposedly deviant Christian angelology derives directly from the Hebrew Bible. Here, he quotes from the usual expected passages, like Zechariah 3:1-2, where “the Satan,” in his analogical role as “King’s Eye,” stands to the right of the High Priest Joshua to accuse him, and the Angel of the Lord before whom the proceeding is taking place, as before a judge, speaks up to rebuke Satan, saying: “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?” The text is maddeningly mum on the question of why the representative of God is here rebuking Satan, but the mere fact of a rebuke has traditionally been enough for pious interpreters to intuit a disconnect of will between God and his appointed enforcer. After citing Zechariah, Justin moves on to Job 1:6, where no explicit hint of rebellion can be detected, yet, immediately following the Zechariah passage with its rebuke, the Job verse nevertheless appears somewhat ominous in context, with its parallel introduction of “the heavenly beings (angels)” who “came to present themselves before the Lord” and “the Satan” who “also came among them.”

Justin also somewhat predictably lumps the serpent in the Garden of Eden in as an example of angelic rebellion in the Bible, though no such identification of that benighted snake with Satan is ever made in either Old or New Testaments. Many point to the evidence of Revelation 12:9 and 20:2 to justify such an assumption, but the cosmic beast with red skin and seven heads mentioned in the Bible’s final apocalyptic book is a far cry from the simple proverbial “snake in the grass” of Genesis 3. The monster of Revelation has struck many scholars as likely drawn more from ancient myths of combat between all-powerful gods and chaos serpents or primordial sea monsters like Marduk v. Tiamat in the Babylonian Creation Myth Enuma Elish or Baal v. Yam/Nahar in the Canaanite myth cycle.

Justin also throws in a reference to Psalm 96:5 at the tail end of his “scriptural evidence,” though here his laundry list significantly loses coherence. Justin is quoting the passage from the Septuagint translation, where the Psalm is actually numbered as Psalm 95 and the verse in question reads: “all the gods of the nations are demons (daimonia).” Since the classical Greek word daimōn, from which the modern English demon is derived, originally referred to the natural spirits, chthonic forces, and personal gods that ancient Greeks believed were operative in everyday life, requiring their attention and propitiation, the word is routinely used in the Septuagint to characterize foreign and especially malevolent pagan spiritual powers. Justin’s insinuation in quoting the passage must be that Satan and his fellow rebellious angels are demons, and worshippers of foreign gods have been deceived by Satan into lavishing their attention on still other such demons. The devil is the arch “deceiver of the whole world,” after all. Intriguingly, though, the original Hebrew word which the Septuagint translators rendered as daimonia was ‘ĕlîlîm, from the root ‘-l-l meaning “to be weak or insufficient.” The term ‘ĕlîlîm, meaning something like “worthless things,” is especially applied in the Hebrew Bible to pagan idols, seen by the pious authors of Biblical texts as inert, senseless objects of frivolous and misguided veneration. So the word refers not to active demonic powers, but rather to insensate and impotent idols, quite the contrary of evidence for any kind of (demonic) angelic revolt against God. When St. Jerome rendered the verse into the Latin of his Vulgate Bible, he corrected this mistranslation of the Septuagint, bringing the sense back in line with the Hebrew: omnes enim dii populorum sculptilia, literally “for all the gods of the peoples are sculpted.” As irony would have it, though, the Hebrew word ‘ĕlîlîm occurs yet again in a nearby later passage from Psalms, Psalm 97:7, where it clearly refers solely to pagan idols, as evidenced by the word’s occurrence in poetic parallelism in relation to the term pesel or “idol,” from the root p-s-l meaning “to hew (into shape),” as one does with an idol crafted from wood or stone. Here, the Septuagint (where the Psalm is number 96) renders the Hebrew word with the Greek eidōlois, literally “idols,” the very word from which our modern English term derives. An even greater irony arises from the fact that this passage, like Psalm 96:5, asserts the preeminence of Yahweh to foreign gods but does so by commanding those other gods to bow down and worship the Israelite deity, using the word ‘ĕlōhîm (“gods”) to refer to the foreign divinities. When the Septuagint translators rendered this verse into Greek, they chose to translate ‘ĕlōhîm with the Greek word angeloi, from which English “angels” derives! So the Greek of the Septuagint literally reads for the verse:

“Let them be ashamed, all those who bow down to carved [images], who boast of their idols. Bow down to Him, all [you] His angels.”

As a result, this verse would have been a much, much better case in point, at least as far as the Septuagint translation goes, for Justin Martyr’s imagined argument with his Jewish critic! St. Jerome, though, again corrected this Septuagintal straying from the Hebrew text, rendering ‘ĕlōhîm as dii (“gods”) and thus marring the applicability of the verse to Justin’s argument.

Now the really strange part of Justin’s response to Trypho—as well as the relevance of all this to the original subject of the “Tannis Root”/City of Tanis connection—actually stems from the very first piece of evidence the Christian Apologist adduces in his imaginary argument with the Jewish critic. As his first supporting passage, Justin quotes the entire first five verses of Isaiah Chapter 30, but he does so only after making the striking assertion that the Hebrew Bible “affirms that evil angels have dwelt and do dwell in Tanis, in Egypt” (Dialogue with Trypho 79). What in the world?! The striking strangeness of this claim has previously been dealt with by author and skeptic Jason Colavito, who unfortunately seems to depend for his discussion of the original Hebrew of the Isaiah passage on the writing of fundamentalist Illuminati conspiracy theorist and author Chris Relitz, who likewise brought up this particular passage in his 2012 book Antichrist Osiris: the History of the Luciferian Conspiracy. (Relitz, by the way, was apparently attacked and severely injured while in the line of duty on his job as registered nurse and has a GoFundMe campaign up in his name to help with defraying the costs of his recovery. You can access that campaign here, if you’re of a mind to contribute to Relitz’ welfare.) Understanding what is going on with this passage requires a detailed understanding of both Greek and Hebrew, something Colavito admits to not possessing. Let’s see if we can’t do better.

Isaiah 30 again forms part of the same series of prophecies against ancient Israel’s two foremost political opponents—Egypt and Assyria—that we saw operative in the discussion of chapter 14 above. Specifically, chapter 30 warns Israelites who may be thinking they can call upon the might of Egypt as a protection against the on-coming Assyrian forces against attempting to do so. The gist of verses 3-5 is this: even though Pharaoh is powerful and has his emissaries and officials strategically stationed in northeastern Egyptian cities like Tanis and Tahpanhes that are within reach of Israelites fleeing the Babylonian sack of Jerusalem, seeking aid from Egypt will only bring shame and disgrace.

In the original Hebrew of the Masoretic text of Isaiah 30:4, the mention of Pharaoh’s officials occurs inside of a small chiasmus, a figure of speech common in ancient literature—that of the Hebrew Bible in particular—where elements are arranged in an ABBA pattern: bĕṣō`an śārāyw umal’ākāyw ḥānēs, “at Tanis his princes and his messengers [at] Tahpanhes.” Now the Hebrew word mal’āk “messenger,” deriving from the root l-‘-k “to send,” is customarily translated in the Greek of the Septuagint by the word angelos, itself from the verb angellō meaning “to send.” This Greek word obviously lies at the root of the English term “angel,” though the original angelos need not refer solely to celestial emissaries. So there’s your reference to angels, again ignoring the literal context of political machinations and focusing instead on a celestial significance. But what of the rest of what the Septuagint does to this verse? Eisin en Tanei archēgoi angeloi ponēroi; matēn kopiasousin is what the Septuagint has for this verse, literally “there are in Tanis princes/rulers, wicked angels; in vain shall they labor.” The Old Latin (Vetus Latina) version of the Bible in use in western Christendom prior to St. Jerome’s 4th century Vulgate follows the Septuagint closely here: “4 Sunt enim in Tani principes, nuntii pessimi. 5 Frustra laborabunt….” Where’s this “wicked” business coming from, and why do the Greek and Old Latin speak of “laboring in vain” when the original Hebrew has the final verb phrase as “reach/arrive at Tahpanhes”?

In seeking to answer at least the first of these questions in his work, Relitz does what so many conspiracy writers with no direct knowledge of ancient languages or the methodologies of comparative and historical linguistics do, namely he appears to pretend that the Hebrew of Isaiah 30:4 had no definite written form and that he can just perform a free-flowing folk etymology on the bare “phonetic” form of the words, in particular the word śārāyw (“his princes/rulers”). This word is, in fact, the same term we saw above in the discussion of Psalm 87:2, meaning “prince” or “ruler” and derived from a root ś-r-r which is itself cognate with the older Akkadian verb šarâru or “rise in splendor,” a usual descriptor of celestial bodies transferred metaphorically to the majesty of earthly potentates. Relitz, however, provides this word with the “phonetic” rendering of “shaw-rah’” and, pairing it with the word mal’āk which, again, means “messenger” or “angel” in the etymological sense, suggests that the phrase “translates directly as ‘hostile angels.’” Relitz’ pseudo-phonetic spelling of śārāyw as “shaw-rah,’” which—it should be noted—transfers the position of the final waw consonant to a word-medial position, provides a clue to the writer’s false Hebrew folk etymology. The Hebrew root š-w-‘, vocalized as šāw’ or “shaw” if you like, means “emptiness, nothingness, vanity, worthlessness” and, yes, even “evil.” Meanwhile the Hebrew word ra` (=Relitz’ “rah’”), from a root r-`-`, means “bad, evil.” So, if you simply juxtapose those two Hebrew words, šāw’ and ra`, and then make them into a compound adjective that apparently precedes the noun it modifies—two things that Hebrew never does and indeed cannot grammatically do—you could conceivably arrive at a (mis)translation of the combination of the words “shaw-rah’ mal’ak” as “hostile angels,” the fact of the final noun’s being singular and not plural notwithstanding. Colavito also alleges that, as he has it, “śā·rāw” means “hostile” or “evil,” though he states that the word derives from a root “sharar” which he then attempts to spell with Hebrew letters that actually spell out šōrĕrê. So not only has he confused the distinct Hebrew letters śin and šin, but there is, in fact, no Hebrew root beginning with either letter and continued by -r-r that means “evil” or “hostile.” The closest would be the root š-r-r which has to do with being “firm, hard, or strong.” So again we have to ask: what the heck is going on with this particular verse?

The key to seeing what has happened between the Hebrew of the Masoretic text and the Greek of the Septuagint in this verse is to line the two versions up with one another and, crucially, to read across the boundary between verses 4 and 5 by a word or two. The Septuagint makes clear that its rendering reads across the numbered verse boundary by placing a midline dot · separating the “wicked angels” bit from the “in vain shall they labor” part, the latter phrase being construed as the beginning of a new thought: “in vain shall they labor [begin verse 5] [in seeking] to a people, which shall not profit them for help, but shall be for a shame and reproach.” Here are the two versions, translated into English, but aligned with the words of each in their respective linear order:

Heb: in Tanis princes messengers/angels  ø            Tahpanhes  will-reach        all-shame to people
Grk:  in Tanis princes messengers/angels wicked   in-vain    will-struggle   ø                 to people

You notice three big differences between the two when they’re lined up like this. First, the Greek “wicked” corresponds to nothing at all in the Hebrew verse. Second, as Colavito correctly observes, the Septuagint translators misunderstood the rare Hebrew proper name ḥānēs (“[to] Tahpanhes”) and instead read the word as if it were the much more common adverb ḥinnām (“for nothing, in vain”), not a hard error to produce given that the two words in Hebrew letters, without vocalizations as would certainly have been the case in the Septuagint translators’ vorlage, appear almost identical: חנס and חנם respectively. Indeed, as has been noted, some ancient manuscripts still contain the ḥinnām reading, reflecting this scribal error. Third, the Hebrew words referring to the bringing of shame on all are missing from the Septuagint Greek. The complementary nature of the two bits of missing material in the Hebrew and Greek lines is not a coincidence.

The only element from the Greek not accounted for in some fashion in the original Hebrew text as we have it is the adjective “wicked.” As I’ve shown, that piece of the puzzle definitely does not come from śārāyw. Just in case there is any lingering doubt as to the correctness of that conclusion, let me point out that the proper name Tanis appears twice more in the book of Isaiah in 19:11 and 19:13, and both times the name appears in a so-called “construct chain” with our good friend, the noun śārîm (“princes”): śārê ṣō`an, “the princes/rulers of Tanis.” (For your information, a “construct chain” is a special noun-noun grammatical arrangement where noun #2 acts as an adjective modifying noun #1, which must appear in a special form called the “construct,” whence the name of the overall construction as a “construct chain.”) In both of these cases, the Septuagint renders the Hebrew with hoi archontes Taneōs, “the leaders of Tanis,” recalling the rendering archēgoi for a different form of the same word, śārāyw, in Isaiah 30:4. There’s nothing about evil or wickedness in either of those two passages from Isaiah 19, despite the fact that the underlying Hebrew is all but identical to what we have in Isaiah 30:4. So where does the reference to evil or wickedness in this latter passage come from?

In answer to this question, at least one commentator has suggested (vide ad loc.,  p. 252) that the Septuagint translators actually read the word ḥānēs wrong twice, not once. According to this theory, not only did they confuse חנס and חנם but they also confused חנס with חמם, again not implausible in terms of the graphic presentation and overall similarity of the letters. This last root, ḥ-m-m, means to “wrong” or “treat violently,” and, as the noun ḥāmām, translates simply as “violence” or “wrong [doing].” Still another possibility in  keeping with the double-error hypothesis involves the less likely confusion of חנס with חנף, the latter root, ḥ-n-p, having to do with “being profane or polluted” or, as a noun, with “profaneness, irreligiousness, or godlessness.” Apart from the inherent implausibility of a scribe or translator reading the same word twice (an instance of the well-known scribal error called dittography) but reading it as the wrong word on both occasions, this approach to locating the source of the “wicked” adjective also fails to account for the other significant apparent gap we noticed when placing the Septuagint Greek text of verses 4 and 5 alongside the Masoretic Hebrew version.

In the Masoretic Hebrew text, Isaiah 30:5 begins with two words that are completely omitted in the Septuagint translation, which, as you’ll recall, reads over the verse break and connects the flawed reading “in vain will struggle” with the Hebrew phrase `al-`am meaning literally “to a people.” In between the Hebrew verb yaggî`û (“they will reach, strive”) which ends verse 4 in the Masoretic text and the `al-`am phrase in verse 5, two words intervene: kōl hb’š. I’ve left this last word unvocalized for good reason: it provides an instance of a tricky phenomenon in the Masoretic Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible known as ketiv-qere. It is precisely this phenomenon that is most likely chiefly responsible for the difficulty the Septuagint translators had in dealing with the word they encountered on the page.

Ketiv and qere are two Aramaic words meaning, respectively, “[what is] written” and “read!” They form part of a system created sometime from the 6th to the 10th centuries CE by the same Jewish scribes and scholars known as Masoretes who also developed the present-day system for vowel notation via a seeming myriad of jots and tittles above, below, before, and after letters. The Masoretes created both this system for vowel notation and the ketiv-qere system in order to protect the sacred text of the Hebrew Bible from corruption: by their time, Hebrew hadn’t been a common, everyday spoken language for at least a few centuries, having been largely supplanted as a vernacular by Aramaic. The ketiv-qere system functions to preserve the sanctity of the consonantal Hebrew text of the Bible by allowing for the preservation of the sacred consonants handed down by tradition while, at the same time, correcting the occasional errors that pop up within them by simply altering the vowel points that the Masoretes began placing on them. A classic example of this process in action can be seen all over the Pentateuch, where the third-person singular feminine personal pronoun hî’ meaning “she” is routinely spelled with the consonants of the third-person singular masculine personal pronoun hû’ meaning “he.” In order to prevent readers from misinterpreting such instances, the Masoretes left the original consonantal text alone (the ketiv reading hw’) but put in the vowel pointing for the word intended to be read (the qere reading hî’). So what you’re left with on the page is a word whose consonants spell the incorrect word handed down by tradition, but whose vowels indicate the correct word to be read in its place, in this case hî’.

Perhaps the most famous example of this ketiv-qere practice involves the sacred divine name of the Israelite God Yahweh, the so-called tetragrammaton or “four-lettered thing,” which is not to be pronounced by pious Jewish readers. (Yes, yes, you read that right: in Hebrew the sacred and ineffable name of God is, in fact, a four letter word!) In order to forestall efforts at saying the unpronounceable divine name, the Masoretes pointed the consonants YHWH with the vowels corresponding to the word ădōnāy, meaning “my lord.” Mistakenly wedding the vowels of ădōnāy with the tetragrammaton, such as one might do in ignorance of the functioning of the ketiv-qere system, is thought by many scholars to have given rise to the incorrect idea that Jehovah is somehow an appropriate spoken form of the sacred and ineffable divine name. This mistake would arise by mapping the three core vowels of ădōnāy—a vocal schewa plus a long o vowel and then a long a vowel—directly onto the four consonants of the tetragrammaton, resulting in yĕhōwāh or Jehovah, with initial j in place of y in accordance with Germanic orthography. This very error was made by a Spanish monk named Raymundo Martini in his 1278 work Pugio Fidei or “Dagger of Faith” and repeated in the 1303 work of anti-Semitic Genoese monk Porchetus de Salvaticci entitled Victoria Porcheti adversus Impios Hebraeos or “Porchetus’ Victory Against the Ungodly Hebrews” and then repeated yet again in 1518 in a book entitled De Arcanis Catholicae Veritatis or “Concerning the Secrets of the Universal Truth” (imagine the hubris of titling your book with that!) written by Patrus Galatinus, confessor to Pope Leo X. When William Tyndale published his English translation of the first five books of the Bible in 1530, he followed suit and included the Divine Name in the form Iehouah in several verses, writing in a note in his edition: “Iehouah is God’s name…. [M]oreover as oft as thou seist LORD in great letters (except there be any error in the printing) is in Hebrew Iehouah.” Martin Luther, too, had voiced this sentiment in a sermon on Jeremiah 23:1-8 delivered in 1526, saying “The name Iehovah, Lord, belongs exclusively to the true God.” Once certain spelling conventions had changed as a result of Louis Elzevir’s printing press in Leyden at the turn of the 17th century, the name Jehovah appeared in the Authorized King James Version of 1611, the Spanish Valera version of 1602, the Portuguese Almeida of 1681, the German Elberfelder of 1871, and the American Standard version of 1901. Before 1278, however, “Jehovah” had at no time and in no language ever served as a name of the Jewish or Christian God. And so, when, in the last of the three Indiana Jones films, the doctors Jones are found using Jehovah as the ancient name of God, and Dr. Jones the younger can’t remember that in the Latin alphabet, the word begins with “i” and not “j,” this despite the fact that the letter “j” as we know it didn’t come into being as a consonantal letter until the 17th century CE, it’s all rather less than impressive. Maybe the younger Jones should have spent less time in class ogling the pretty ladies—a habit he clearly carried into his adult life, as dramatized in the first film—and more time concentrating on his ancient languages.

So the second of the two Hebrew words missing from the Greek Septuagint translation of Isaiah 30:5, hb’š, is spelled in the consonantal text (ketiv) like the word hib’îš (the so-called hiphil or causative form of root b-‘-š “cause to have a bad smell, cause to stink”) but is vocalized with the qere reading of hôbîš (hiphil form of root b-w-š “cause to be ashamed, put to shame”). Now, remember what I said above about Hebrew giving way to Aramaic as the common vernacular language at some point? Scholars are very much divided over the question of when this process of transition began and was finally completed, but it is certainly clear that Aramaic as a spoken language, possibly alongside and gradually competing with Hebrew, came into vogue pretty early, maybe around the Hellenistic period. Well, it just so happens that, in Aramaic, the root b-’-š and the adjective b’îš mean “bad, evil, wicked.” Since the ketiv reading hib’îš of the Masoretic text with the meaning “cause to stink” doesn’t make any sense in the context, it’s natural that scribes and translators would seek to correct that reading to something else, something they were more familiar with and which seemed to them to make better sense, possibly because it formed part of the then spoken vernacular language. In this case, it looks like the Septuagint translators, unlike the much later Masoretes, corrected the ketiv to the Aramaic-inspired b’îš “bad, wicked, evil,” simply disregarding the initial h consonant in a way the pious Masoretes could never allow themselves to do, rather than to the less familiar Hebrew hôbîš “put to shame” that would form the eventual qere reading. But that’s not all they did. The Septuagint translators also apparently shifted the position of the problematic word to after umal’ākāyw (“and his messengers/angels”), making it an attributive adjective for the preceding noun, since Hebrew adjectives of quality always follow the nouns they modify. There would still have been a grammatical problem with this arrangement in the resultant Hebrew text, as the form of b’îš doesn’t match the noun it modifies in number and even trying to understand it as a noun in a construct chain with mal’ākāyw isn’t feasible due to the possessive suffix on this latter noun. However, if the translators have already done this much violence to the original Hebrew wording, what’s a little more, right? Finally, the Septuagint translators simply omitted the Hebrew word kōl “all, every” which precedes the problematic hb’š—again something the Masoretes would never have permitted—yielding the final verse in Greek word order: “there are in Tanis princes/rulers, angels wicked; in vain they will struggle to a people.” In this version, the two Hebrew nouns śārāyw umal’ākāyw (“his princes and his messengers”) are no longer a conjoined pair; rather the new noun-adjective pair mal’ākāyw b’îš (“wicked angels”) stands in apposition to the first noun śārāyw (“his princes/rulers”).

So there you have it: take the Septuagint version of Isaiah 30:4, reading “at Tanis leaders, wicked angels,” and combine it with the additional mentions of “leaders of Tanis” to be found in Isaiah 19:11 and 19:13 and the fact of the use of Egypt and Assyria in Isaiah chapters 30 and 14 as exemplars of ancient Israel’s external political enemies against whom are pronounced prophecies that utilize ancient myths of hubris, angelic rebellion, and ultimate downfall, and you’ve got a perfect combination of factors all conspiring to make the Egyptian city of Tanis a veritable hub of (imagined) Satanic activity. It forms the very first example Justin Martyr adduces of the Hebrew scriptures countenancing tales of angelic revolt and would surely have made for better fodder both for the producers of Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark to motivate their fictitious destruction of the city at the hands of God and for Ira Levin to name his fictional diabolical witches’ herb after. In this last connection, it should also be noted that extreme irony accrues to the fact that the single Hebrew word so badly mangled in the Septuagint translation and responsible for the interjection into that version of the verse of the idea of evilness or wickedness means, according to the letter of its ketiv form, “to cause something to stink,” just like Levin’s “Tannis Root” does to the people who use and wear it, with its strong, unpleasant odor that receives so much commentary throughout the story of Rosemary’s Baby and initially impels even the titular mother to recoil in disgust

So the next time someone calls you to account for some bad action you don’t want to cop to, feel free to lay the blame squarely at the feet of the archons of Tanis: those evil minions of Satan. Say: “The princes of Tanis” made me do it. And follow that up with: “Wicked angels, all of them!”


5 thoughts on “Tanis, Egypt: Satan’s Citadel or Unholy Translational Error?

  1. Pingback: Tanis, Tannis, and Satan: A Stinky Herb and a Fishy Story – The Devil's Fane

  2. FML, this is some really dense reading, and I feel like it’s one of those things that I don’t have the minimally required background education to really follow. *le sigh* I’ll have to come back and read it again later, but at this moment it’s feeling like too many different threads for me to keep them neatly tied xD


    • Haha! It definitely is dense, whence the fair warning I gave. But it’s also a pretty fascinating bit of textual archeology. And don’t sell yourself short: you definitely have way more than the minimally required background. Maybe I just didn’t write it very clearly. Thanks for trying it out. I hope you’ll get back to it later!


  3. Pingback: Pirates, Satanists, and the New Horizon of Human Groupishness – The Devil's Fane

  4. Pingback: Abundance and Ownership: Competing Claims on the Complicated Life of Words and Symbols – The Devil's Fane

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