Language and ritual in Sabellic Italy

Language and ritual in Sabellic Italy: The ritual complex of the third and fourth Tabulae Iguvinae. By Michael Weiss. (Brill’s studies in Indo-European languages and linguistics 1.) Leiden: Brill, 2010. Pp. xvi, 516. ISBN 9789004177895. $231 (Hb).

Reviewed by Ilya Yakubovich, Moscow State University

The Iguvine Tablets (Tabulae Iguvinae), the largest cache of extant Umbrian texts, constitute our main source of knowledge of the Umbrian language, a member of the Italic group of the Indo-European language family. Altogether nine tablets, two now lost, were found in the Umbrian town of Gubbio (ancient Iguvium) in 1444. They deal with the administration of the local pagan cults in the third through first centuries BC. The decipherment of the Iguvine tablets began easily enough thanks to the relatively close relationship between Umbrian and Latin, but many passages still have not been fully elucidated. By far the most obscure are Tablets 3 and 4, which contain a continuous set of instructions for the rites of the deities Puemun and Vesuna. The main purpose of this book is to treat these tablets anew using combinatory and etymological methods and ritual comparisons. Michael Weiss, who combines thorough training in comparative Indo-European linguistics with expertise in Latin philology, is ideally suited to this task.

The book is organized like a detective story. The bulk of it (29–431) is divided into sections that follow the sequence of ritual acts prescribed in Tablets 3 and 4. The treatment of each act begins with a provisional translation of the corresponding passage that leaves items of disputed meaning untranslated. W then addresses the conflicting viewpoints of earlier scholars and discusses his preference for one of the interpretations or suggests his own solution. The discussion of particularly complicated philological problems is relegated to a series of excurses. A cohesive translation of Tablets 3 and 4 reflecting W’s interpretation is provided only at the end (433–39), which readers are invited to compare with the Latin translation of Giacomo Devoto (439–41). W concludes with a brief exposition of his philological findings (441–43).

This book is intended for Indo-Europeanists and classical philologists. Most professional readers will find it most helpful to read it not as a mystery story but as a textual edition, beginning with W’s close reading of Tables 3 and 4 and turning to the preceding essays for philological commentary. An alternative strategy fitting for some Indo-Europeanists would be to browse through the detailed indices and turn to the essays for items of interest. For example, scholars working on Hittite may find the discussion useful of the possible relationship between Umbrian supa ‘intestines’ and Hittite suppi– ‘sacred’, UZUsuppa ‘taboo-meat’. Supporting W’s skepticism towards this etymology is new evidence that Hitt. suppi– is a non-Indo-European loanword (Thomas Zehnder, Die hethitischen Frauennamen, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2010, 5–8).