27 January 2007

Holy Mary, Beloved of Amun

It's sometimes surprising how many elements of Christianity derive from Ancient Egypt. The Trinity, Moses in his basket, even some of the Psalms and Proverbs.

However, did you know that it is very likely that the name of the mother of Jesus himself (Mary, in case you're new to this) is derived from Egyptian?

We need to go back to the story of the Exodus for this. Moses (a perfectly good Egyptian name of the New Kingdom, usually rendered "Mose" in Egyptological anglicisations) had a sister named Miriam. The traditional meaning of this is "Bitterness", reflecting the tough time the Hebrews were apparently having at the hands of a rather truculent Pharaoh. That this is an unlikely etymology of Miriam's name is pretty darned obvious. Nobody calls their child "pain in the arse", even if they *are*.

There is a more likely explanation. "Miriam" is nothing other than a slight contraction of the relatively common female first name "Meret-Amun". The "t" was silent in spoken Egyptian of this period, so it would have been vocalised "Meryamun". The "un" simply got dropped (either deliberately or by accident). This is supported by Miriam's role as a priestess; while she was evidently a colleague of Mose, it is not clear whether she actually was his sister.

So we are faced with the irony that the mother of the Christ in fact had the theophoric name of a "pagan" god. While this poses no problem for a Christian Atheist (to whom Christianity is but one manifestation of a wide cultural load carried by humanity in general), it may bother some fundamentalists.

That in itself seems to me like a good reason to carry out some more research, in order to see whether this is a supportable hypothesis, or just pie in the sky.


  1. Hi. I wandered here from Pharyngula. Two thoughts on this post:

    1. The derivation of "Miriam" from the word for bitterness doesn't strike me as impossible. The name "Dolores" means "sadness" (approximately) and I've been told (though can't verify this one) that "Helga" means "war". So people do name their children strange and negative things. Though your derivation for Miriam sounds at least as likely.

    2. Didn't the ancient Egyptians sometimes refer to their lovers as "brother" or "sister"? Maybe Miriam was Moses' partner.

  2. Hi Dianne,
    The Hebrews liked to retro-fit toponyms and other names to catch-phrases that they liked - they were notorious punners. I don't have the etymological training to take this one much further, but I think it's a very interesting idea. Of course, the whole Moses story is probably not recoverable from real history, having been written down at least 600 years after the events it purports to represent, but we may yet see :-)
    Thanks for dropping by! (I'm lonely here, with only PB to keep me company).

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