Letter Puzzles, Word Games and Number Games among Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Jews

In our previous article, we spoke about the purpose and types of Letter Puzzles and Word-Play in general.  Now we will discuss such things from an ancient context, among the Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Jews, to establish the fact that such things were very commonplace in that era, but to also try to assess the attitudes that they had toward these practices.  Some of the attitudes and practices have a slightly different context from the modern practice of word and letter games and puzzles in the modern context.

John Tvedtnes and Richley Crapo, two LDS scholars wrote:
The scribes of ancient Egypt were quite fond of word-games; this was a natural development for the land which Jean Capart chose to dub the “pays du symbolisme.”7 J. J. Clère has shown that the Egyptians composed not only crosswords, but acrostics as well.8 Etienne Drioton, the renowned Belgian Egyptologist and Catholic priest, in his “La Cryptographie Egyptienne,” gives several examples of Egyptian cryptograms (symbols — ornamental and otherwise — which convey dual meanings). These may consist of one or more symbols composing but a single word, or of entire sentences which have dual meanings. The latter most often display their dual meanings through homophones,9 to which we have had recourse in our Hor Sensen Papyrus investigations. (http://ancientamerica.org/library/media/HTML/hay1gflq/THE%20USE%20OF%20MNEMONIC%20DEVICES%20IN%20ORAL%20TRADITIONS.htm?n=0)
Here are the notes that are referenced above in the quote from Tvedtnes and Crapo:
7. Jean Capart, “Au pays du symbolisme,” in Chronique d’Egypte, No. 63 (janvier 1957), pp. 219-241. (Brussels: Fondation Egyptologique Reine Elisabeth.)
8. J. J. Clère, “Acrostiches et Mots Croisés des Anciens Egyptiens,” in Chronique d’Egypte, No. 25 (janvier 1938), pp. 35-58.
9. Etienne Drioton, “La Cryptographie Egyptienne,” in Chronique d~Egypte, No. 17 (janvier 1934), pp. 192-206.
Acrostics and many other word/letter puzzle forms are well known in the Bible, such as in the Psalms.  Alliteration is also used, as well as a number of other types. Chiasms are well-known among Bible scholars as being used throughout the Bible (as well as among LDS scholars).  See Word Play in Biblical Hebrew: An Eclectic Collection, by Gary A. Rendsberg, Cornell University, in Puns and Pundits: Word Play in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Literature.

Chiasms are parallel poetic structures in a composition, where the pattern is like this:

ABC-CBA

In other words, phrase or sentence A occurs at the first, and its parallel A occurs at the end.  And then B would be the second from the first, but its parallel, B is second from the last, etc.  It is an "inverted parallelism."  This is a structure similar to the phrase in the scriptures:  "The last shall be the first, and the first shall be the last."

Another example that is not as common in the Old Testament is known as Atbash.  Atbash is a substitution "code" where the letters of the alphabet are substituted one for another.  It occurs when the first letter of the alphabet is substituted for the last and the second for the second to last, etc.

An Atbash code using our English letters would look like this:

Normal: a-b-c-d-e-f-g-h-i-j-k-l-m-n-o-p-q-r-s-t-u-v-w-x-y-z
Atbash:  z-y-x-w-v-u-t-s-r-q-p-o-n-m-l-k-j-i-h-g-f-e-d-c-b-a

A good example of this is in Jeremiah 51:1:

1 Thus saith the Lord; Behold, I will raise up against Babylon, and against them that dwell in the midst of them that rise up against me, a destroying wind . . .

The people that "midst of them that rise up against me" is Leb Kamai in Hebrew.  Leb Kamai, using the principle of Atbash, is the Kasdim, or Babylonians.

Dr. Rodney P. Carlisle is a professor emeritus of Rutgers University. He received his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.  He writes:
The Assyrians are perhaps best known today as disciplined warriors and skilled technicians and engineers; the Babylonians are still associated with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon mentioned in the Bible.  However, the culture created by these two peoples was complex and sophisticated.  They enjoyed literary word games as much as practicing hunting or gardening and were probably the inventors of games still played today such as Backgammon and Chess . . .
Assyrians and Babylonians were particularly well-versed in language games.  Scholars have found several examples of puns in grammar, religious, and even official texts.  In particular, the myths narrating the stories of the gods and goddesses of the Mesopotamian pantheon offer several examples of word games that become central for the development, or the resolution, of the story, as Jean Bottero has highlighted.  One interesting text tells the story of the god Nergal and of his wife-to-be, Ereshkigal . . . Ea, the king of the gods, manages to combine the wedding by using a language game: the goddess wanted Nergal to put him to death (ana muti), but she is given him as consort (ana muti).  Another fascinating story tells how Ea played a trick on human beings.  Following the tricky suggestions of Ea, Adapa, the first human being, misses the chance to gain immortality for humankind by refusing the foods that will grant him immortality. (Encyclopedia of Play in Today's Society, Volume 1, By Rodney P. Carlisle, pp. 39-40)
Eve of course, according to the mythological language of the Bible was taken from Adam's rib.  In Babylonian mythology, the god Enki fell ill, and a new goddess, Nin-ti, was created to heal his organs.  Ti, in Sumerian, means both rib, as well as life.  So, there is a word-play going on in that myth between the idea of a rib and life.  The Bible is full of Letter and Word Puzzles.

Scott B. Noegel is a Professor of Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization, University of Washington, Seattle.  Kasia Szpakowska is an Associate Professor of Egyptology at Swansea University, Wales, United Kingdom, and Director of the Ancient Egyptian Demonology Project: Second Millennium BCE.  These two scholars wrote the following:
Word play has long been acknowledged as a common feature in ancient Egyptian texts. This article offers an examination of word play in one divinatory text: the Ramesside Dream Manual (P.Chester Beatty 111, r. 1-1 1). While scholars have noted some examples of word play in conjunction with sociological and philological analyses of the Dream Manual, the phenomenon has not been studied in depth. This investigation offers a typology for word play in the Dream Manual by examining it in the light of ancient Near Eastern word play generally . . . 
Egyptologists have long been aware of the presence of word play in ancient Egyptian literature. . . . 
Since these three terms are too broad to account for all the types of punning found in the Dream Manual, we offer here the following eight types and their definitions. We fully realize that the types do not represent native (emic) categories. Nevertheless, they shall allow us to classify the various phenomena in order to appreciate more fully the range of sophistication found in the Dream Manual specifically and Egyptian texts generally. 
1. Alliteration: punning that ties words together by means of identical or similar
sounding consonants.
 2. Antanaclasis: words which appear identical in form but which possess different meanings when they are repeated.
3. Homoeoteleuton: different words that possess the same endings.
4. Onomatopoeia: words that imitate the things to which they refer or which imitate sounds.
5. Paronomasia: punning that ties words together by way of a similarity of sound, such as alliteration and assonance.
6. Polysemy: words that convey more than one meaning in a single context.
7. Translexical punning: a device in which the lexical association of one word is evoked upon by another word even though the said lexical item does not appear in the text.
8. Visual puns: punning that is achieved by way of determinatives or other orthographic features that are not meant to be pronounced. 
These categories are by no means mutually exclusive, and in fact, as will become evident below, they often overlap a great deal . . . 
As in the contemporary world punning could serve a variety of functions in the ancient Near East. However, unlike the contemporary understanding of punning, there is little that might be considered playful about word play in antiquity. Since some words were deemed as inherently powerful (whether in written or spoken form), manipulating them constituted an act of potentially serious consequence.  Punning was hardly a "literary" device, in the contemporary sense of the word, though it has been treated as such consistently in the literature. Rather it was considered a rhetorical, hermeneutic, and illocutionary tool of ritual power. 
Within the context of the Dream Manual, puns often connect the recorded dream (protasis) to its interpretation (apodosis); an interpretive strategy that the Manual shares with oneirocritic texts found elsewhere in the ancient Near East, most notably from Mesopotamia . . . 
The issue of native systems of classification raises a related point. When we discuss word play in contemporary Western contexts, we invariably assume that the basic linguistic unit upon which word play is founded is the word. Yet, as Friedrich Junge has shown, the basic linguistic unit upon which puns are founded in Egyptian was not the word, but the colon. In Akkadian, it is arguably the syllable or individual sign that serves as a basis for puns. Indeed, it ultimately might not prove useful or appropriate to use the term "word play" in conjunction with these languages since it imposes a foreign classificatory scheme. 
If we also see punning as operating in a mantic and illocutionary context, then, as noted above, we similarly will need to discard the term "play." At the very least, greater attention to native classificatory and ontological systems will undoubtedly change the way research on punning is conducted . . . ("'Word Play' in the Ramesside Dream Manual," by Scott Noegel and Kasia Szpakowska, Studien Zur Altagyptischen Kultur, Hamburg Germany, 2006, pp. 194-197, http://faculty.washington.edu/snoegel/PDFs/articles/Noegel%2052%20SAK%202007.pdf)
As was established in the previous article, many people see word-play and letter-play as fun in modern times.  Yet, it is the position of these scholars in the preceding quote, that word-play was very serious and ritualistic to the ancients, because they believed that the manipulation of words and letters (or hieroglyphs) had a real consequence.  This also describes what we see with the Egyptian game of Senet (as shown in the previous article), that it was a ritualistic game, yet there was also a secular and "mundane" version of the game that was not so serious, which did not have the same expectations or context as the ritualistic version.

Some scholars have shown evidence that the colon is the basic component for punning in Egyptian documents.  Richard Abbott, PhD, is an IT Professional and author of books on Historical Fiction in the Near East who lives in England.  He describes the colon this way:
Textual studies in Egyptian focused for many years on gaining a basic grasp of the material from a historical rather than a literary perspective.  Hence, the process of analysing poetry in this way is much less developed, and much more tentative, than is the case for Hebrew . . . 
[One theory] is metrically based . . . in which the main sense-unit is the colon, from which verses are built . . . Each colon is a rhythmic speech unit with a single stress and a varying number of unstressed syllables.  Other structural devices such as numerical progressions (typically based on cycles of 7), end-rhyme, alliteration, parallelism and so forth are subordinated to metrical considerations. (Triumphal accounts in Hebrew and Egyptian, By Richard Abbott)
As is clear from all of this evidence, word-play and letter-play were very common in the Near East, and the Egytpians were no strangers to this practice.  Though it is true that they did such things for mostly serious and ritualistic reasons, it cannot be entirely ruled out that there may also have been an art and entertainment context for their use of such things as well, just as there was with their board games.

Now I will speak a little bit about the Egyptian “alphabet” to make another point about these types of these letter puzzles and word games.

Now, some people claim that the Egyptians had no alphabet in the usual sense, but that they instead had myriads of symbols.  However, the fact of the matter is, there were indeed uniliteral (single-consonantal) characters (regularly 24 of them) that were used sometimes to spell out foreign names and other usages.  While it is technically possible to spell out Egyptian names with these characters as well, more often, the Egyptians used the bilateral (dual-consonantal) characters and trilateral (tri-consonantal) characters to spell Egyptian names and words.

François Gaudard is an Egyptologist and research associate at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.  He wrote that the Egyptians “designated each letter of the alphabet by a bird name . . .”  He goes on to say:

 This practice dates back as early as the fourth century BC and was probably adopted for mnemonic reasons.  A number of studies have been devoted to the problem of the order in which the letters appear in the Egyptian alphabet. Smith and Tait, followed by Buchberger, first suggested the existence of “a tradition that identified the consonants of the Egyptian language by the names of birds,” and thought that “it may give some indication of the regular order in which the Egyptians remembered their consonants.” (Birds in the Ancient Egyptian and Coptic Alphabets, Oriental Institute Museum Publications 35, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago)

In one of the papyrus manuscripts from the fourth or third century BC, Gaudard describes that it contains alphabetical lists:

In the first list (lines 2–7), “various birds are said to be ‘upon’ various trees or plants” with which they are paired. In each pair, the bird and plant names always begin with the same letter.  For example, in line 2, the first phrase of the list reads . . . “the ibis (was) upon the ebony-tree,” in which the word hb “ibis” is paired with hbyn “ebony-tree,” both beginning with the letter h. In the second list (lines 9–14), “various birds are said to ‘go away’ to various places.” In line 10, for instance, one finds the sentence . . . “the Benu-bird went off to Baby[lon]” in which, according to the same pattern, the word bnw “heron” is paired with Bb[l] “Baby[lon],” both names beginning with the letter b. (ibid.)

This is acrostic-like, where one item of a pair starts with the same letter as the other item in the pair.  He also makes the extremely important observation that:

In some of these papyri, such as P. Berlin 8278 and its fragments, letter names could also be placed at the beginning of a line as a way of classifying different sections of the text by using letters instead of numbers. (ibid.)


We will come back to this later on in other articles.  But suffice it to say that the Egyptians used these types of constructs in order to pair items together.  Because of these pairings, Gaudard shows that the Egyptian letters had the names of birds applied to them.  But this is the case only because the names in this way were assigned to them through these types of linkages between the pairs.