On the language of San Sosti Axe-Head inscription

The San Sosti Axe-Head was unearthed near the small town of San Sosti in the province of Cosenza, Calabria, southern Italy. This bronze axe-head, dating back to the 6th century BC, is rich in decorations, including a winged sphinx and intricate palmettes, reflect the high level of artistry achieved by craftsmen of that era.

However, the most intriguing element is the inscription, thought to be written in the Achaean dialect of Ancient Greek. The axe-head was likely dedicated in a religious context, as an offering to the temple.

Today, this remarkable piece of history resides in the British Museum (see it here).

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According to the scholars, the text reads:

I am the sacred property of Hera-in-the-Plain:
Kyniskos the butcher dedicated me,
a tithe from his works.

However, the truth is that nobody knows why would Hera have the epithet “in the plain”, as this name was not attested anywhere else. For this translation to make sense, we are expected to imagine that it reffers to some, now lost temple that was located under the mountain, in the plain.

Also, if every butcher dedicated a tithe of his works, how many similar objects should be out there? And what about all other professions? How come we ended up with only one axe-head?

My translation of the San Sotis inscription

Unfortunately, it is not easy to find the official transcription of the text. In a few works written about this object the English translation is often quoted without the original text.

However, the text is fairly easy to read, even though the spacing between the words was not clearly indicated.

My reading looks like this:

TAS HERAS HIAROS
EMITAS EN PEDIOI KUNISKOS 
MEANETHEIFE ORTAMOS 
FERION DEKATAN

Translation:

Blessed by Hera
I deposit this for my child Kunisko
from Meanete
Ferion Dekatan

My translation explained

  • TAS HERAS: This translates to “of Hera” or “of the holy,” with “τᾶς” being a form of the definite article and “ερᾶς” an adjective meaning sacred or holy, likely referring to Hera.
  • HIAROS: from Ancient Greek ῐ̔ερός (hierós), meaning:
  • – connected with the gods, supernatural
  • – holy, sacred, consecrated
  • – under divine protection
  • “EMITAS”: I interpret this word as “deposited,” “placed,” or “bought.” This implies an action of dedication or offering, suggesting that the axe-head was deliberately placed as an offering or perhaps purchased for the purpose of dedication.
  • Moreover, I have already encountered this same word in the Sikulian inscription from Centorbi (Centuripe) inscription, 5th century BC (similar period). In my translation, a part of that inscription reads:
  • Mí emito meiti – I buy for myself a maiden
    Durom na Nepos  – Durom of Nepos (a personal name of a girl and her father)
    Duromí emito – Duromi I buy
    mesti Veliomne – in the city of Velia
  • See the full text here.
  • “EN PEDIOI”: Translated as “for a child,” it indicates that the dedication or offering of the axe-head was made on behalf of, or in relation to, a child.
  • “KUNISKOS”: A personal name, likely referring to the individual who dedicated or offered the axe-head.
  • I have already encountered this exact phrase in the Rhaetic inscriptions. The scolars read it as “pirikanisnu”, but in my translation, it simply reads “pidi kanisnu” or “for the child Kanishnu”. See the full text here.
  • “MEANETHEIFE”: I believe that this as a toponym, but the specific location or place it refers to isn’t clear. It could be the name of a sanctuary, town, or region relevant to the dedication. Considering the Rhaetic connection, a good candidate is Meano, near Trento, Italy. However, there were many similar toponyms in the ancient world, as the name seems to be derrived from the word “mediana” – “border”.
  • “ORTAMOS”: I interpret this as “originated”, based on the Latin word “ortus” – “having originated”
  • “FERION”: This could be a personal name of the person who dedicated the object.
  • “DEKATAN”: This word is obscure. I see how scolars translated it as “a tiithe” meaning “a tenth”, as the only similar sounding word is Latin “deka”. However, to my ear this would rather be a military rank of Ferion, meaning that he was in charge of ten soldiers, or it could mean “dedicated,” confirming the nature of the axe-head as a votive offering. However, these theories are hard to prove.

Conclusion

It is assumed that this object was made in the city of Sybaris, not far from San Sostis. This city was an Achaean Greek colony since the 8th century BC.

The text starts by referencing Hera, a Greek goddess, and the word “hieros,” meaning “holy” in Greek. However, the rest of the content doesn’t align much with Greek elements.

The name Kuniska, for instance, isn’t Greek; it’s likely Rhaetic. The term “emitas” is found in Silkulian. Moreover, numerous other words in the text have a resemblance to Proto-Italic rather than Greek.

So how could we clasify this language?

Firstly, this whole region in Italy is known as Calabria. It takes its name from the Balkan Illyrian tribe known as the Galabri. And while the name ‘Calabria’ first appears in Italian records in the 3rd century BC, other Illyrian and Indo-European tribes had been in the region for a much longer period. Consider, for instance, the Bruttiians (who may have also reached and named Brittain) and the Oenotrians. The name ‘Oenotrians’ translates to ‘the wine-makers,’ which may resemble the name of the Venetians.

Essentially, this region has always been marked by linguistic diversity from the earliest times of recorded history. This suggests that Achaean Greek isn’t the sole plausible language for interpreting this inscription. In this article, I’ve presented my interpretation, which, in my opinion, seems more fluid and natural.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Hi! Kuniska (Κυνίσκα) is in fact a famous character in greek history:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynisca
    Although she lived a bit later than this axe is dated, and her olympic inscription doesnt feature the archaic style seen on this inscription…
    But what if the axe is misdated, and the inscriptions are from around the same time, they just represent different letter forming traditions? They may mention the same Kuniska then…

    Or the famous Kuniska was simply not the first and only person living eith this name.

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