Dr. Cyrus Herzl Gordon passed away quietly at his home in Brookline, Mass. on March 30, 2001. He was born in Philadelphia on June 29, 1908, enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania at the age of 16, and earned his Ph.D. when he was 22. As a leading Semitic languages scholar and with well over 600 publications to his credit, the latest edition of Marquis Who’s Who in America has an entry on him several times larger than that of most political leaders, any season’s menu of celebrity misfits, or other necessarily significant individuals. I never met the man, but I went to his funeral. For ten years we exchanged letters and telephone calls, yet though I’ve recently lived less than an hour from his home, I decided it’d be best if I didn’t bother the old guy. That was a dumb decision. As his coffin was wheeled past me, I bid another farewell. Life sucks and death swallows. Now, that’s my view, and not the way it worked by Prof. Gordon, as his allotted time was well earned and spent. Way, way well spent. Goodbye, sir.
Of his many major academic contributions, perhaps Prof. Gordon’s most lasting will prove to be his efforts to better understand Ugaritic, a Semitic language used by Late Bronze Age Canaanites at Ugarit, Syria, c. 1550-1175 BCE., and written with a unique cuneiform alphabet. Prof. Gordon’s intimate knowledge of Ugaritic primary sources enabled him to advance a model of cultural diffusion between the Greeks and Hebrews, as well as other Eastern Mediterranean and Near Eastern peoples. To put it simply, Prof. Gordon believed he’d encountered evidence that many ancient peoples had exchanged cultural materials (traditions, myths, calendars, scripts, etc.) despite war, differences, and distances. His support of a model of cultural diffusion both inspired and confused other scholars. Prof. Gordon’s passing is not likely to have an effect on those feelings.
After already achieving a full and remarkable academic career and nearing retirement from Brandeis University, by 1970 and 1971 Prof. Gordon had extended his interests in cultural diffusionism to include the study of possible inter-societal contacts between the Old and New worlds in pre-Columbian times. That cultural diffusion had occurred between unexpected ancient peoples on at least a few occasions was a given and self-evident for him, but his next publications would push the argument of cultural diffusionism in ways which are still controversial and hotly debated. The two major publications at that time which continue to generate interest are the article, “The Accidental Invention of the Phonemic Alphabet,” and the book, Before Columbus. [Note: See bibliography below.]
Prof. Gordon’s alphabet article proposed a lunar-based calendar technology and narrative mnemonic attached to the Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet, and argued that the acrophonic principle and a mathematical calendar ultimately combined to directly inspire our abc’s. This model arose from an appreciation of the groundbreaking work of Hugh Moran and Prof. David H. Kelley (The Alphabet and the Ancient Calendar Signs, by Hugh A. Moran and David H. Kelley, with an introduction by David Diringer, second edition, Palo Alto, CA: Daily Press, 1969), which put forth a basic hypothesis of a profound relationship between writing and the calendar. Moran regarded the alphabet as a means to convey tradition, myth, and establish a lunar-based calendar, and received the support of the day’s (1952, for the first edition)) leading alphabetologist, Dr. David Diringer. Kelley added his knowledge of Mayan “day names,” as well as improved upon many of Moran’s proposed Old World correspondences. Prof. Gordon suggested the 30 cuneiform characters of the Ugaritic alphabet could function as a lunar-based calendar, with the last three “letters” being adjustable, due to the inherent difficulties of poor weather viewing and being unable to establish a sighting with absolute surety. [Note: The general work of Alexander Marshack has argued that prehistoric peoples used flexible lunar-cycles (due to probable occurences of inclement weather) and such a realistic approach was continued down to at least the time of Hesiod, who described back-up traditions for farmers in his Works and Days; see: “Fail-Safe Stellar Dating: Forgotten Phases,” by Harald A. T. Reiche, Transactions of the American Philological Association, No. 119, 1989, pp. 37-53.] Are our abc’s the result of a calendar? Ah, now this is what I call fun!
Of course, there is no current consensus as to the origin of the alphabet. The apocryphal tradition that the alphabet was given to Moses at Sinai has been quietly bypassed as examples of Sinaitic and Old (“Early”) Canaanite have been discovered and tentatively dated well before any conjectured revolt under the Pharaoh Ramesses (Ramesses II, c. 1301-1235, through Ramesses XI, c. 1113-1085). A popular view, as put forth by Harvard’s Prof. Frank Moore Cross, Jr., is that the Late Middle Kingdom Egyptian scribes possessed the idea for an alphabet, used it occasionally, didn’t refine or develop it, and the idea was seized and exploited by the later Canaanite/Phoenician/Hebrew scribes. To this day Prof. Cross, as well as others, believe the alphabet is of Egyptian origin, despite ample extant evidence outside of Egypt, which demonstrates its antiquity and probable origin in a non-Egyptian setting. It’s one thing to propose a model of a Canaanite invention of the alphabet, contrary to the conventional and overly cautious assessment of Prof. Cross, but what about an approach like Prof. Gordon’s which pulls in other peoples as well as the Egyptians and Hebrews? Sumerians? Chinese? Indians? Prof. Gordon considered Moran and Kelley’s appreciation of the wonder, mystery, and majesty of the alphabet and offered the Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet as further proof toward the thesis.
Alessandro Bausani suggested the Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet was connected with a lunar-based calendar in his article, “L’ alfabeto come calendario arcaico” (Oriens Antiquus, No. 17, 1978, pp. 131-146). He gave a singular reference to an earlier publication by Prof. Gordon on Ugaritic studies, but didn’t mention the alphabet article in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies. One might imagine this could be either simple oversight, laziness, or calculated omission. The popular Die Keilalphabete – Die phonizisch-kanaanaischen und altarabischen Alphabete in Ugarit, by Manfried Dietrich and Oswald Loretz (DEU: Verlag, 1988) remarks on Bausani’s assumption, but fails to mention Prof. Gordon (in conjunction with an alphabet and lunar calendar origin model). I refuse to follow the espoused paranoia of those who believe The Media is controlled, though I am available for testimony that mistakes get made with superb and annoying regularity. I notified Prof. Gordon in 1994 about Bausani and the Verlag book. He politely suggested they missed important information “full of data” in his alphabet article. I have difficulty with that level of politeness. It was laziness.
Though I’m often tempted to dig up Rudyard Kipling and engage a tattoo artist to indelibly mark the corpse with “Wrong! East and West have met often and continue to do so,” I more than likely won’t. Still, a century of fascination with the Indo-European Tocharian languages, coupled with the recent discovery and assessment of the “Blonde Mummies” of China, has substantially reduced Kipling’s prophesy to the status of an out-of-print Hallmark Card. Marco Polo has been feeling the rough ride of criticism for quite some time, however what is currently before us is the solid efforts of Victor Mair and his good work to bring migration, cultural diffusion, and physical anthropology together. [Note: See The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West, by J. P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair, New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000.] Mair suspects that the origin of the Chinese script had something to do with “west Eurasian zodiacal signs,” and is interested in such possible occurrences of cultural diffusion as suggested by Gordon, Kelley, and Moran. In a letter to me he stated “there is no longer a problem concerning the means of transmission.” Letting Kipling go might be difficult, but potential rewards beckon. Towards a better understanding of our alphabet, we go...
As a leading Semitic scholar and a proponent of cultural diffusionism, others sought out Prof. Gordon to comment on some of the enigmatic and anomalous inscriptions discovered in the New World which appear to show examples of Hebrew or a related script. The Metcalf Stone, the Newark Holy Stones, the Bat Creek Stone, the Los Lunas Decalogue Inscription, and the Paraíba Inscription all received the tentative backing of Prof. Gordon. That position did not go unchallenged.
The conjecture that ancient Hebrews journeyed to the New World began shortly after Columbus discovered America, with speculation some of the so-called “Lost Tribes” of Israel may have somehow become or influenced the Native Americans. This approach reached its nadir with the racist science-fiction of Joseph Smith and his The Book of Mormon (Palmyra, NY: Grandin, 1830), which purports to be a historical account of Hebrews who immigrated to the New World in ancient times, how Jesus made an appearance in the New World after he was through with Palestine, and how those ancient Hebrews who didn’t believe Jesus was the resurrected Christ had their skins burnt dark and became modern Native Americans. [Note: see the website of Jerald and Sandra Tanner, noted Mormon critics; No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, by Fawn Brodie, New York: Knopf, 1954; and The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844, by John L. Brooke, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.]
Prof. Gordon believed the Metcalf Stone, discovered in 1966 in Georgia (he was sent a cast of the stone in 1968 by the late Dr. Joseph B. Mahan, of ISAC), was inscribed with characters representing a hitherto unknown point between the development of syllabic Linear A and our acrophonic alphabet. As this is an example of an otherwise unattested singularity, there appears to be no associated archaeological remains to support an Old World presence in pre-Columbian Georgia, it may be merely that the marks of the “inscription” fortuitously resemble a hypothetical Old World script. Nothing further may be advanced at this time.
The Newark Holy Stones, the Bat Creek Stone, and the Los Lunas Decalogue Inscription are thought by some, including the late Prof. Gordon, to be examples of the Hebrew script in the New World and thought to date from well before the arrival of Columbus. Much ink (and, now, bandwidth) has been wasted discussing the authenticity of the inscriptions, perhaps involving 19th century Freemasonic ritual, like the Davenport Tablets from Iowa and the so-called Tucson or Silverbell Artifacts from Arizona. [Note: See The Davenport Conspiracy Revisited, by Marshall McKusick, Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1990, and “On the Level with the Tucson Artifacts,” by Bill Rudersdorf, The Epigraphic Society Occasional Papers, Vol. 19, 1990, pp. 128-144.] Some hold them to be genuine and quite old, while skeptics lean toward modern manufacture. As with the Metcalf Stone, there appears to be no associated archaeological remains to support an Old World presence in pre-Columbian times in the New World. Some supporters of the antiquity of the inscriptions ignore the lack of corroborating evidence and often feel persecuted when their claims are ignored by mainstream science. I regard the argument of the supporters as directed specifically against establishment institutions and consensual knowledge, that it seeks to propose a theory that we’ve all been lied to and professionals don’t know what they’re talking about, and the individual “inscriptions” are a mere front for a much more serious agenda to rewrite ancient history to include high fantasy and heroic adventure. I prefer Burroughs over Burrows. [Note: the website of Ohio State economics professor, J. Huston McCulloch, contains a wealth of online material about the Newark Holy Stones, the Bat Creek Stone, and the Los Lunas Decalogue Inscription. For an alternative explanation of the Bat Creek Stone, click here.]
Unlike the above mentioned stones and inscriptions, the Paraíba Inscription exists only in drawings, as the stone, if there ever was one, disappeared immediately after its alleged 1872 “discovery.” Prof. Gordon believed the text (which describes “Sidonian Canaanites,” or Phoenicians, sailing to Brazil in the “nineteenth year of our mighty King Hiram”) to accurately follow extant commemorative inscriptions in Northwest Semitic, such as the example found at Karatepe, Cilicia (in Turkey) in 1947. The ensuing debate was lively, enlightening to non-specialists, and continues from time to time, refusing to take its much deserved place in The Twilight Zone. [Note: See “The Authenticity of the Phoenician Text from Paraiba, by Cyrus H. Gordon, Orientalia, No. 37, 1968, pp. 75-80, “The Canaanite Text from Brazil,” by Cyrus H. Gordon, Orientalia, No. 37, 1968, pp. 425-436, “The Phoenician Inscription from Brazil: A Nineteenth Century Forgery?,” by Frank M. Cross, Jr., Orientalia, No. 37, pp. 437-460, “Reply to Professor Cross,” by Cyrus H. Gordon, Orientalia, No. 37, 1968, pp. 461-463, as well as “Phoenicians in Brazil?,” by Frank Moore Cross, Jr., Biblical Archaeology Review, Jan/Feb 1979, pp. 36-43.]
Troubled by the many examples of purported Old World epigraphy said to have been discovered in the New World, claimed to date from pre-Columbian times, and which contain characters and scripts common to the major players in The Bible, I decided to investigate the possibility some of these examples might be modern Freemasonic ritual items, like the Tucson Artifacts referred to above. I went to the Samuel Crocker Lawrence Library at the M.W. Grand Lodge A.F. & A.M. of Massachusetts, 186 Tremont St, Boston, and soon discovered a copious amount of material relating to Freemasons in Davenport, IA around the time of the infamous “tablets.” Also, I looked into 19th century Freemasonry in Brazil.
Why? Simple, actually. The standard advice: “If it looks too good to be true, chances are it isn’t,” brought my attention to bear on the name “King Hiram” in the Paraíba Inscription. Hiram figures prominently in many Freemasonic rituals. What if the Paraíba Inscription was the remnant of some staged Brazilian Freemasonic ritual, and never intended to be offered as proof of pre-Columbian trans-Atlantic contact? In the Grand Lodge Library I examined many books and pamphlets from the mid to late 19th century on Brazilian Freemasonry and the name da Costa appeared often. [Note: A letter from a “Joaquim Alves da Costa,” along with a copy of the Paraíba Inscription was sent to the Instituto Historico in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which was dated Sept. 11, 1872. All subsequent attempts to locate the author failed.] Several Grand Masters of lodges in Brazil bore the name, da Costa. A few also contained Joaquim, as well as Alves, but none, in my cursory examinations of the Brazilian Freemasonic material, contained the exact name. These are common Portuguese names and the presence in a Brazilian Freemason setting proves nothing. However, it does allow for an alternative to blindly accepting the authenticity of an inscribed stone no one has ever seen. Prof. Gordon saw the alternative as well, and in his last years began to hedge on his previous opinion regarding the Paraíba Inscription.
Though cultural diffusionism remained a field he regularly stayed in touch with, Prof. Gordon continued true to his calling as a Semitic languages authority, and assisted in the translation and drew further attention to the far-reaching importance of the Ebla archive, discovered in Syria during the 1974 and 1975 archaeological “dig” seasons. Recognizing the significance of such early Canaanite material, Prof. Gordon contributed what he could. Anyone would be envious of him at that late point in his life (and, probably, most earlier points, if the truth could be told), that he was engaged with something he was good at, he could still make important contributions to a major field of study, and that it was superbly satisfying. I’m sure Jimmy Stewart is somewhere congratulating Prof. Gordon on having A Wonderful Life.
Recommended works by and about Prof. Gordon:
Minoan and Eteocretan:
Ebla and the Eblaite Language:
The Alphabet and Ancient
Extending sympathy and my best to
of Prof. Gordon,