Tuesday, May 11, 2010

tuval kayin and volcano

The volcano is in the news again, and its cloud may even be getting close to Israel. But are we close to an etymological connection between the word "volcano" and a Hebrew root?

Let's start by looking at the word "volcano". It gets its name from the Roman god Vulcan(us):

1610s, from It. vulcano "burning mountain," from L. Vulcanus "Vulcan," Roman god of fire, also "fire, flames, volcano" (see Vulcan). The name was first applied to Mt. Etna by the Romans, who believed it was the forge of Vulcan.
There is an interesting etymology that tries to connect "Vulcan" with the Biblical Tuval Kayin from Bereishit 4:22

וְצִלָּה גַם-הִוא יָלְדָה אֶת-תּוּבַל קַיִן לֹטֵשׁ כָּל-חֹרֵשׁ נְחֹשֶׁת וּבַרְזֶל וַאֲחוֹת תּוּבַל-קַיִן נַעֲמָה.

And Tzila, she bore Tuval-kayin, who forged all implements of copper and iron. And the sister of Tuval-Kayin was Na'ama.
Both based on the similarity of sound between (tu)val-kain and vulcan, and the fact that Tuval-Kayin was a smith (we've discussed the connection between Kayin and craftsmen and smiths here) there is an assumed connection between the two.

This is a very old theory, with perhaps Walter Raleigh being the first person to make the connection between the two figures. He wrote of Tuval Kayin:

whence came the name of Vulcan by aphaeresis of the two first letters

Many others promoted and developed this theory, and thousands of mentions can be found on the internet and in other sources. For example this 1825 book provides a number of "proofs":

M. De Lavaur, in his Conférence de la Fable avec l'Histoire Sainte, supposes that the Greeks and Romans, took their smith-god Vulcan, from Tubal-cain, the son of Lamech. The probability of this will appear —

1. From the name, which, by the omission of the Tu and turning the b into v, a change frequently made among the Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans, makes Vulcain or Vulcan.

2. From his occupation, he was an artificer, a master smith in brass and iron.

3. He thinks this farther probable from the names and sounds in this verse. The melting metals in the fire, and hammering them, bears a near resemblance to the hissing sound of צלה tsillah, the mother of Tubal-cain; and צלל tsalal, signifies to tinkle or make a sound like a bell, 1 Sam. iii. II, 2 Kings xxi. 12.

4. Vulcan is said to have been lame: M. De Lavaur thinks that this notion was taken from the noun צלע tsela, which signifies a halting or lameness.

5. Vulcan had to wife Venus the goddess of beauty: Naamah, the sister of Tubal-cain, he thinks, may have given rise to this part of the fable, as her name, in Hebrew signifies beautiful or gracious.

6. Vulcan is reported to have been jealous of his wife, and to have forged nets in which he took Mars and her, and exposed them to the view of the whole celestial court; this idea he thinks was derived from the literal import of the name Tubal-cain; תבל tebel, signifies an incestuous mixture of relatives, Lev. xx. 12. and קנא kana, to burn with jealousy ; from these and concomitant circumstances, the case of the detected adultery of Mars and Venus might be easily deduced.

He is of opinion that a tradition of this kind might have readily found its way from the Egyptians to the Greeks, as the former had frequent intercourse with the Hebrews.
Even Shadal makes a connection, and I've heard (but not found) that Cassuto may have as well.

So with this long and impressive list - am I convinced? Not really.

Why not? First of all, Klein in his entry for  וולקני (the Modern Hebrew word for "volcanic" - even though the word for volcano, הר געש, har ga'ash, has an adjective, געשי, ga'ashi, for some reason the adjective vulkani is much more common) does not mention the theory, only saying that the name Vulcan probably has an Etruscan origin. And Avineri (Yad Halashon p. 343) also says he's very reluctant to accept the theory.

But mostly, although the theory seems attractive externally, it doesn't seem to make much sense historically. We've discussed many times how the Greeks borrowed words from their Semitic neighbors to to the East - including even one of their gods, Adonis. But the Romans had far fewer exchanges of this kind, and the names of their gods, who they adopted primarily from the Etruscans would be even more ancient. (There's much similarity between Greek and Roman mythology, but the Etruscan/Roman names predate the connection between the two.)

A discussion of more reasonable etymologies appear in this book:

Vulcan is the god of fire. The etymology of the name is difficult to determine. G. Dumezil (Fetes romaines d'ete et d'automme [Paris 1925], pp. 72-76) reviews all the principal attempts to elucidate it and shows how precarious they are. They include a comparison with the the Cretan welchanos; an explanation by way of the Ossetic noun (Kurd-alae)-waergon; and an Etruscan hypothesis based on the abbreviation Vel from the Piacenza liver, which is arbitrarily completed to yield Vel(chans), whereas the Etruscan homologue of Hephaestus is Sethlans. Dumezil prefers a derivation from the Vedic varcas ("brightness," or "flash," one of the properties of Agni, the god of fire), but as a good comparativist, he hastens to point out the difficulty: "no verbal or nominal derivative of this version of the root exists in Latin" (ibid, p. 74.).
While there may not be a Semitic origin to "volcano" or "Vulcan", the word does appear in Israel today - the Vulcan factory got its name from the Roman god of fire, and from the factory we get the nearby Tzomet Vulcan intersection. (The Volcani Institute of Agricultural Research is not related - it was named for its founder, Yitzhak Elazari Volcani, who Hebraized his name from Vilkanski.) Let's hope that this is the only volcanic impact in our area...

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