Wednesday, August 26, 2009


So, in my recent forays in Egyptology I was struck by a curious resemblance between the Quenya word KEMEN, meaning "Earth, soil" (as in the Ring of Earth, one of the Three Rings of the Elves in the LotR Mss), and KMT or Kemet, the ancient Egyptian name for their own land,* which means pretty much the same thing (soil, black earth). 

Now, is this mere coincidence? A Tolkienian borrowing from an uncharacteristic source? Whatever the case, it's not ephemeral but a long-established, long-lasting word in Elvish, appearing not just in the LotR drafts and the Etymologies  (HME.V.363) but going all the way back to the QENYA LEXICON of circa 1920 or before (PARMA ELDALAMBERON XII.46).

If anyone has looked into this before, I'd appreciate being pointed to a link.


*"Egypt" is the Greek name for KMT, just as "Greek" is the Roman word for the folks who called themselves Hellenes.


Eosphoros said...
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Eosphoros said...

Personally, I wouldn’t assume that Tolkien knew of this Egyptian word or was influenced by it, unless there is unambiguous proof.
As a comparison, the Quenya interrogative morpheme ma- (as in man ‘who’) corresponds to the interrogative morpheme ma- (as in maiga ‘where’) found in Tamasheq – but I am not aware of any evidence that Tolkien possibly knew about Tamasheq. I think the most plausible assumption is that this congruence is accidental, and cemen/KMT likewise.

[Why can’t I edit comments? The comment above is deleted because I tried to improve my wording … I’m non-native, after all.]

Josh Long said...

I have found one bit of evidence that is, at least suggestive, that Tolkien was aware of this Egyptian name. He did own a set of the _Book of the Dead_:
The article makes reference to one of Tolkien's published letters as well as a dissertation that can be found here:
Drout's Encyclopedia has an entry for "Egypt: Relationship to Numenoreans"; Scull and Hammond also handle this topic in C&G (Reader's Guide) 369-70.
My own opinion of the subject is Tolkien was probably aware of the connection and a strong case could be made of this relationship if the Egyptian word or character appears in that edition of the _Book of the Dead_. An article on this topic would certainly be interesting. Not sure how much you are into Egyptology or this specific book's connection to Tolkien, but a set can be found on for about $200; I just did a quick search. I'd try a library first, though.
By the way, thanks for THoTH. It is an endlessly interesting book, though I still haven't finished v. 2 (this year I will be teaching 4 different high school English classes & tackling 2 courses of Freshman Writing at the college level). When will I ever get to read the stuff I want to read? Congrats on your award, you rightly deserve it.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Eosphoros

By itself, I'd say the resemblance between the two words was just coincidence. But add the following three factors

(1) Tolkien himself said that the Numenoreans were best pictured in Egyptian terms, and drew an Egyptian-style crown as an example of what a Numenorean crown looked like (see his letter to Rhona Beare). Christina Scull devotes about five pages to Egypt in her groundbreaking essay on real-world archeology underlying Tolkien's world and I think builds up an unassailable case.

(2) Tolkien sometimes borrowed directly from real-world languages into his Elvish. It's my impression he did more of this early on than later, but he still did it occasionally even during the LotR period.

(3) I would argue that the cosmology of THE BOOK OF LOST TALES, in which the sun-boat and moon-boat sail beneath the earth and are under constant threat of attack by the forces of Chaos is directly based on Egyptian cosmology of Ra, the sun-boat, and the Duat, with Tolkien substituting Ungoliant for Apep.

So, given these three additional factors, it makes a borrowing possible. It would only become probable if someone carried out an analysis and found a similar pattern of other borrowings -- a study I'm not qualified to undertake.

Hence, my pointing it out as an interesting possibility, without claiming it as fact.

--John R.

Eosphoros said...

You are certainly right, the knowledge of Ancient Egypt Tolkien exhibited makes it quite possible that he knew the word. I am/was sceptical, though, because the words are not entirely identical.

@J.L.: That’s an interesting lead. We have a copy of Budge’s book at the University, and I think I will take a look at it. I will post here if I find anything of interest.

As an aside: I greatly enjoyed The History of The Hobbit, too. I tried to point out an error to you, though, by means of the contact form on your website quite some time ago, but it seemed not to work. So I will just repeat it here: Compare vol. 2, Fifth Phase, New Chapter III, text note 10 (page 804 in the Houghton Mifflin hardcover edition) to The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A, III Durin’s Folk, where it is stated that Thrór and his family went south after the sack of Erebor, and that they (temporarily) settled in Dunland.

John D. Rateliff said...

Josh: thanks for the information about Tolkien's personal copy of THE BOOK OF THE DEAD. My own copy is not the famous Budge edition but the Faulkner translation. I was rather horrified to learn what Budge had done with the original papyrus, but he deserves enormous credit for having popularized the text.

According to the new Flieger/Anderson edition of TOLKIEN ON FAIRY STORIES, JRRT also owned a first edition copy of Budge's EGYPTIAN READING BOOK [1896] in his personal library (Anderson/Flieger p. 99].

And, while I'm at it, I shd have provided better references to some of the pieces I mentioned in my earlier comment. For JRRT's comparison of the Numenorean realms in exile to Upper & Lower Egpyt, cf. JRRT to Rhona Beare, letter of Oct. 14th 1958, esp LETTERS p. 281. Christina Scull's article -- one of her v. best, I think, is titled "The Influence of Archaeology and History on Tolkien's World" and appeared in SCHOLARSHIP & FANTASY: PROCEEDINGS OF THE TOLKIEN PHENOMENON, MAY 1992, UNIVERSITY OF TURKU, FINLAND, ed. K. J. Battarbee; cf. esp pages 36-40.

I'm glad you enjoyed H.o.H. so far. My own backlog of essential books I v. much want to read is far too long, and never gets any shorter because I'm always adding new must-read (or re-read) books to it. Good luck on the six classes; sounds like a heavy schedule

Eosphoros: Thank you for pointing out my oversight re. Thror/Thrain/Thorin's sojourn in Dunland, which I entirely overlooked. I don't think it completely destroys my main point, that they must have had some experience with the East-West Road and mountain pass, but it weakens it and certainly should have been taken into account. Many thanks.

--John R.

Eosphoros said...

So, I’ve just been to the Egyptologists’ library and had a quick look at some books by Budge – obviously, I didn’t read them thoroughly.

In the first volume of the Book of the Dead I didn’t find any clue. In the Introduction, Budge doesn’t mention Kemt, he just calls it Egypt. Perhaps I overlooked something, I only just dipped into this book.

In the Egyptian Reading Book (which contains hieroglyphic texts, transliterations, a glossary and some translations) there are the glosses ‘Qemt […] the black land, Egypt’ and ‘qem, qemt […] black stone’ (Sorry, I didn’t note down the page number! Not what I’d call serious scholarship!), and in the texts there’s the alternative spelling Qamt.

Perhaps Tolkien also consulted A Hieroglyphic Vocabulary to the Theban Recension of the Book of the Dead by Budge, which is the follow-up to the Book of the Dead. This book contains the glosses ‘Kemt […] the “black” land, i.e. Egypt.’ and ‘kem […] black.’

I didn’t find the explanation of Kemt as deriving from ‘black soil’ in either of the books; it’s not in the glossaries or the Introduction to the Reading Book; it could be somewhere in the Book of the Dead, though.

My personal opinion is that this is not sufficient evidence to assume a connection: Qemt/Qamt ‘black land’ and kemen ‘earth, soil’ seem to be rather dissimilar.
Of course, I still do not know how much Tolkien knew about the Egyptian language – if he read the Egyptian Reading Book, he must have had a reasonably good understanding of Egyptian, because it offers Egyptian texts without translation. After all, it’s possible that he used sources that we do not know of.

If there is further interest in this issue, I could forward the question to Alexandra Velten, who is a linguist and egyptologist as well as a Tolkien aficionado. A little expertise of Egyptian could help clarify this point …

Re. the dwarves: It’s a pleasure!