God in Old Nubian

For a long time, I have been wondering what is the origin of the term for “God”, “till(i)” used in Old Nubian. Interestingly, it is one of these cases that G.M. Browne did not propose an etymology in his Old Nubian Dictionary.

About a year ago, I was chatting with Sudanese refugees in Volda originating from Darfur, and one of them told me that he knew of a term “telli” meaning precisely “God” in one of the languages of his region; later on, I found out that this was Meidob, a language of North Darfur, thanks to Vincent van Gerven Oei who informed me that Roland Werner had already made this observation in his work Tidn-Áal: A Study of Midob (Berlin 1993, p. 129: téllí = God). According to Claude Rilly, Le méroïtique et sa famille linguistique (Leuven: Peeters, 2010, pp. 440–41), this M(e)idob term should be seen as a loan-word from Old Nubian, and this would fit nicely with ideas about Nubians moving to West Sudan (Kordofan and Darfur) in the end of the medieval era. On the other hand, the root till/tell has no cognates in any of the contemporary Nubian languages, suggesting it is not Proto-Nubian either. Therefore, it must have a non-Nubian origin. So, the question would be when was it introduced into Old Nubian?

It has been my opinion for long that there should be some Meroitic theonym that could fill this gap (interestingly, Rilly has characterized Nubians and Meroites as “cousins”). And then, just yesterday, Michael Zach shared on his academia.edu page his latest publication: “Thoughts on the Goddess Tley” from the proceedings of the Fifth Day for Nubian Studies, about which we wrote HERE. There is indeed every reason to believe that the phonology of the term Tley and Tilli are almost identical.

The goddess Tley: Image taken by Michael Zach in 1998

What is even more intriguing in terms of the religious beliefs and their survival across the fictitious border between paganism and Christianity is that the Goddess Tley was iconographically inspired by winged goddesses of the Greco-Roman pantheon, be they genii, Victoriae, Fortunae, Æternitates and so on, as Zach very nicely showed in his article.

So, can it be that apart for a possible Meroitic antecedent to the word God in Old Nubian, we also find in the goddess Tley another marker for the importance of the angels and Archangels in medieval Nubia? And finally, not to live the particular gender-aspect uncommented, can it be that the un-gendered understanding of angels in Mediterranean Christianity has influenced the way the name of a goddess could be used to describe a God whose nature traditionally is masculine? Or is rather this admixture of genders between Tley and Tilli a result of the un-gendered nature of the Old Nubian language more generally?

Perhaps some discussion following this posting will throw more light on the issue.

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8 Responses to God in Old Nubian

  1. joyshimmers says:

    AMAZING!! ✨🙏❤️😇

  2. Vincent says:

    I think what is also relevant here is the other Meroitic/pre-Nubian loanwords in Old Nubian, which include the spheres of statecraft, warcraft, and the household. Royal and official titles, unless borrowed from Greek, seem to be largely borrowed from a pre-Nubian language. So borrowing the word for the Supreme Being is not unthinkable. Furthermore, we have a reconstruction of the proto-Nubian word for “God-Creator,” *ebed, showing that the Tley must have been preferable over the indigenous god.

    • ergamenis says:

      Thank you Vincent!
      Very interesting and important points.
      On your last observation:
      Would this mean that till(i) is rather the Victorious-God than the Creator-God?

      • Vincent says:

        It means that till(i) took over the role of the most important god for the Medieval Nubians from a supposed proto-Nubian god *ebed. Attributes of course may have varied, but if till(i) indeed derives from tley, I suppose that this particular godhead better matched whatever attributes Medieval Nubians liked their supreme being to have (and liked their imported, Christian god to have).

  3. NubanTod says:

    in the new nubian(Nobiin) of old nubian (The language of Nobatia kingdom)
    , God is mean “noor”

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