What are some of the world’s rare books in forgotten languages? In this post, we explore awesome texts that have intrigued and mystified scholars and linguists throughout history. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the first text we investigate, gives a fascinating insight into the long-dead language of Akkadian. The amazing Pyrgi gold tablets, our second text, came to light in the mid-twentieth century. They have since helped to provide insight into other classic texts. The Rohonc Codex, our third manuscript, has an unknown origin. Scholars still seek to untangle this text’s mysterious history. Enjoy this tour of awesome rare books in forgotten languages that still have the power to intrigue and enthrall all who encounter them.
Epic of Gilgamesh (Akkadian)
Written in the long-dead language of Akkadian, the Epic of Gilgamesh serves as one of the world’s oldest surviving literary works. Clay tablets helped to preserve the Mesopotamian epic poem. Scholars believe the tablets date from the 18th and the 13th to 10th centuries BC. The best preserved version of the epic is a set of 7th-century BC tablets from the library of an Assyrian king. The 4,000-year-old narrative recounts the epic adventures of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. In the story, Uruk loses a beloved friend, Enkidu, and then searches for him throughout the Netherworld.
Transcribed on clay tablets, the standard version of the Epic of Gilgamesh reflects a literary dialect of Akkadian. The Akkadian language shares the Sumerian alphabet. It also serves as a record in cuneiform, the oldest known writing system. In addition, the Akkadian language contains a grammar comparable to ancient Arabic. Before it began to decline in of common use after 8 BCE, Akkadian was one of the major languages of the Ancient Near East, where modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, and neighboring countries are located, for close to 2,000 years. Akkadian served as a language of diplomacy for the region. Even after it fell out of use, the language continued to be employed by scholars and priests.
Illuminating the Ancient Clay Tablets with Modern Translations
Lost for centuries, the clay tablets containing the Epic of Gilgamesh were rediscovered in the 1850s. Scholars published the first modern translation of the epic in the 1870s. Since then, dozens of translations have been published of the fragmented narrative from the original clay tablets. No one knows exactly what Akkadian would sound like. Despite this fact, scholars have sought to recreate the language and to bring its literature to life for contemporary audiences. You can hear a scholar’s oral rendering of the Epic of Gilgamesh, along with other Sumerian works. For a highly readable, poetic rendering of the Epic of Gilgamesh, read David Ferry’s engaging translation. The tablets themselves, one of the world’s prize rare books in forgotten languages, are held by the British Museum among their research collections and are viewable online.
Pyrgi Gold Tablets (Phoenician and Etruscan)
Unearthed in 1964 during an archeological excavation of an ancient Italian port, the Pyrgi gold tablets date from around 500 B.C. The tablets serve as a rare example of an ancient bilingual text. Written in two languages, Etruscan and Phoenician, they differ from other texts of the same period. The holes around the edges of three gold plates indicate they once attached to one another. As a result, scholars believe the Pyrgi tablet represent one manuscript instead of three different ones. The inscription on the plates or leaves include a dedication to a Phoenician goddess and may relate to a Roman and Carthaginian treaty.
Deciphering a Forgotten Language with Bilingual Gold Tablets
Two of the tablets contain Etruscan and one contains Phoenician. The bilingual nature of the tablets have provided a unique opportunity for linguists to decipher the challenging Etruscan language. Estruscan served as the spoken and written language of the Etruscan civilization in ancient Italy. As such, the language impacted Latin and its descendants, including English and Romance languages like French and Italian. In addition to the Pyrgi gold tablets, the Etruscan civilization left some 13,000 inscriptions behind, a number of which can be viewed online at the Etruscan Texts Project.
The Pyrgi gold tablets were discovered in the ancient port of Pyrgi where modern-day Santa Severa can be found, in the town of Caere, Italy. The dedication on the tablets is by then king of Caere Thefarie Velianas to the Phoenician goddess Ashtaret or Astarte. As one of the world’s rare books in forgotten languages, the Pyrgi gold tablets are currently housed at the National Etruscan Museum in Villa Giulia, Rome, Italy. You can read more about the Etruscan language and grammar, along with the English translation of a series of Etruscan inscriptions, in Giuliano Bonfante and Larissa Bonfante’s book The Estruscan Language: An Introduction.
The Rohonc Codex (Unknown)
Discovered in Hungary in the 1839, the Rohonc Codex has mystified linguists and scientists for more than a century. The Codex manuscript contains 448 hand-written, richly-illustrated pages. Scholars believed that the codex gave evidence of an unknown language. The tiny 10 × 12 centimeter book also contains close to 90 religious and military images. Efforts to decipher Codex’s the close to 200 symbols met with naught. For many years linguists did not know who wrote the text or what the text said. Some scholars even posited the Codex gives evidence of an elaborate antiquarian hoax.
Unraveling the Artificial Code of a Puzzling Codex
Recent findings have indicated that the Codex is not written in an ancient alphabet at all, but instead written in an artificial code system. Due to these findings, scholars believe the Codex to have been written around 1592 CE. The unique book’s content includes paraphrases of passages from the Biblical New Testament. These paraphrases include a narration of the passion of Jesus Christ from the Gospels. The text also contains non-Biblical passages, like prayers to the Virgin Mary.
The Codex, or Rohonci kódex in Hungarian, is one of the world’s rare books in forgotten languages and is held by the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The book’s unique code system and visual symbology can also be viewed online. If you are curious and detail-oriented, you can even hunt down Benedek Láng’s book about the Codex’s mysterious history and those who have sought to unlock it.
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