Prows with horse-heads on Phoenician ships

tags:  Semitic phoenix pun · symbol   —   by Gerry · Jun 2019 · 406 words

Phoenician ships had horse-head prows because the word for “jumping” or “springing” horses was פנך pnk, almost the same word as Punic, and derived from the same root pn for “turning”.

Phoenician ships & boats with horse-heads

Phoenician ships & boats are often depicted as having horse-heads on their prows. Sometimes there’s a horse-head on the stern as well.

Phoenician boats with horse-head prows on Balawat band

Phoenician boats with horse-head prows & sterns ferry goods from Tyre to the mainland.
(from Balawat gate bronze band, now in British Museum)

Phoenician ships with horse-head prows from Dur Sharrukin frieze

Phoenician ships with horse-head prows transporting cedar logs for Sargon.
(from Dur Sharukkin, now in Louvre)

More slabs from the horse-head ship series can be seen at the Louvre website:

Semitic pnk meaning “springing” horse

The Phoenicians were said to be a seafaring people, with the narrow coastal strip of the Levant having little to no plains. They would not have a great cavalry, and while the merchants certainly traded horses, it was not their main export or import good.

Why then did Phoenician shipowners commission their ships & boats to be built with horse-head prows?

The explanation is that it’s all a pun, as usual: The Semitic word for a “springing” horse was פנך pnk pinnuk, written & pronounced much like “Punic” or “Phoenician”. Saying “springer” was like saying “Phoenician”, in the Phoenician language.

Aramaic pnk = springing horse

פנך pnk : to jump or kick (of horses) — Aramaic (CAL)

פנוך pnwk : jumping, springing (of horses) — Aramaic (CAL)

Etymological relation to other puns

The words for “springing” & “Phoenicians” are etymologically related: Both are derived from the word root √pn for “turning” & “changing”: Springing horses quickly turn directions, and the merchant-bankers were exchanging wealth.

For a full derivation with many other meanings, see the entries for the Phoenicians and the root √pn.

Proof in the horse context is that the main Semitic term for “horse” is סוס sws, which has the same basic meaning: The same word סוס sws is also used for swallows & lilies, all used in aristocratic heraldry. It’s even used for knives & worms! What do all these things have in common? It’s the curve: Horses & swallows display fast zigzag movements, and the lily has curved petals.

Modern references to this pun are the horse-head prow sculpture of the National Bank of Hungary, and the spook name Springer.

tags:  Semitic phoenix pun · symbol