Unbelievable part 10: Etymology

10 January 2020

The guidebook text for Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is attributed to Amie Corry who has been an editor, writer and the head of content for Damien Hirst and his company Science Ltd since 2013. The exhibition’s introductory text draws attention to the significance and etymology of names, and there is much to be gleaned from probing its claims.

While detailing the story of the freed slave Cif Amotan II whose shipwrecked cargo of one hundred recovered items was said to feature in the exhibition, the text asserts that apistos, the name of the ship, is ancient Greek for unbelievable.i Upon consulting various dictionaries, the meaning seems to be more complex depending on the context. More nuanced meanings include finding something to be untrustworthy, to be an unbeliever, a disbeliever, to be unpersuaded and therefore without (religious) faith. The Henry Liddell and Robert Scott Greek-English Lexicon short definition is given ‘as not to be trusted’ (1901, 190). From the term stems apistevism and being an apistevist, an extension of atheist activism using YouTube to demonstrate practices of science-based knowledge rather than relying on faith to know things. As with the Tempest association (six lines from which form an epigraph), the language in the exhibition’s opening text was flashing warning signals to its own unreliability as a narrator. However, there are truths to be excavated from the gaps, as shown by what information emerges when investigating the meanings of further names in this new ancient myth. 

Part of Scale model of the 'Unbelievable', Palazzo Grassi room 23, 2017

As I mentioned in part 8, a fair few commentators and reviewers pointed out that ‘Cif Amotan II’ is an anagram for ‘I am a fiction’. Notably, as Laura Cumming observes, some drawings are signed in Hirst’s self-anagram ‘in this dream’. Amotan as Hirst’s fictional autobiographical cypher is alternatively referred to as Aulus Calidus Amotan, which in the Greek spelling the initials would likely be equivalent to A. K. A. Aulus was a common Latin name, which maintains plausibility. The feminine aula means palace and calidus means warm, hot, fiery, eager, impetuous or fierce. Amotan in Cebuano means contribute. From the Latin amare, amotan is also an obscure conjugation of the Esperanto verb ami meaning to love that specifically seems to describe an intention of or a command to love something in the future. Indeed, the Latin passive future participle amota means about to be loved. In reverse it is the Indian Sanskrit name Natoma – the Indian/eastern influences in the show will be examined in due course. Amotan’s name certainly seems to have anticipated the polarised and impassioned responses to the show as well as reflecting its palatial surroundings and self-perceived boldness and hubris.

The guide’s opening text continues by explaining that Amotan’s ‘collection lay submerged in the Indian Ocean for some two thousand years before the site was discovered in 2008, near the ancient trading ports of Azania (south-east African coast)’ (p. 3). This is the closest reference to a name or location for the finds; in the film ‘the host country’ is mentioned but never named and the first artefact said to be found was attributed to fishermen from an unnamed village on the east coast of Africa. Looking at the geography we might narrow this down to the coast of Tanzania, or possibly Kenya, but this is still vague at best given the expanse of coastline these countries alone possess.

The reference to Azania opens up many more rabbit holes. Not wanting to rely on Wikipedia, whose page on Azania seems robust and informative, I’ve been looking at what limited academic articles I can access to try to fill in gaps. Like the guide, Wikipedia situates Azania on the south east coast, and explains that it is ancient Greek and a former name for an area expanding across today’s Kenya and Tanzania in the Roman period, and perhaps earlier.

Exploring the name’s etymology is proving fruitful for the relevant concepts that emerge. In an article published in Acta Classica journal in 1992, John Hilton draws together different approaches to understanding the etymology of Azania, including presenting evidence that African Azania in antiquity (and long before the more contemporary use as a reclaimed African name for South Africa) referring to a large area of land along much of the continent’s east coast (including the horn and perhaps further north along the Red Sea) was unlikely to be Greek. The Greek term azania is separate – although it is significant in teasing out details hidden within the exhibition lore – and likely the place name was a result of similar words from different languages creolizing when ancient Greek merchants plied their trade in east African ports.

What’s of most relevance in Hilton’s findings is the issue of the ‘initial alpha’ in Azania. He explains the different possible roots for Azania in Afro-Asian languages, for example zan or san meaning brother leading to land of our brothers with a privative a giving us land not of our brothers (pp. 154–5), which fits given the reshaping of communities, society and culture by influxes of Arab and Greek traders to east Africa before the common era. The Greek meaning of Azania, according to Hilton’s research, likely stems from the mythological family of Azan’s link with the beginning of the cult of Zeus. As well as deriving from the family name, zan is taken by Liddell and Scott to refer to the king of the gods and posit that Arcadian Azania means land of Zeus (Hilton p. 151). Alternatively, G.W.B. Huntingford connects it to ancient Greek meaning to dry up or become parched. Hilton reconciles these by examining the initial alpha, proposing its privative use in the name meaning land without Zeus. He argues that the harsh, arid environment Greek merchants were met with works because Zeus controlled the weather, and so Azania could logically refer to the lack of rain across the area.

Hilton ultimately deems the intentionality of these Greek meanings of Azania in Africa to be unlikely, but the lore that can be drawn from them informs a reading of the naming of the Apistos. Although the Liddell and Scott reading refers specifically to Zeus, given that he was the ruler of all the gods, he is the closest example to, and perhaps a model for, the monotheistic gods that emerged later. By pairing a broader meaning of Azania as land without god with apistos meaning without faith, between the lines of the exhibition’s opening text can be deciphered an invitation to be sceptical, to be without belief or automatic acceptance of truth claims, and a challenge posed to undertake a voyage of discovery of one’s own. At least that’s how I take it and is what I am doing in compiling this fascinating research.ii

John Hilton, ‘Azania — Some Etymological Considerations’, Acta Classica 35 (1992), pp. 151–159 

iIt is also the name of a South American freshwater fish, so the aquatic theme is maintained.

iiOn this talk of language, translation and meaning, I would love to know if there are discrepancies between the English, French and Italian versions of the exhibition text and audio guides. That, unfortunately, is a task I will have to leave to anyone more moneyed and/or more au fait with languages than me!


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