Sunday, October 15, 2017

Rorschach Philology

Six years ago, Fox News (and imitators) ran a most ill-founded story in a genre that we may term Allah-sightings.

The underbelly of a plane was streaked, thus:

Mene, mene, tekel  upharsin

Omigosh!  Arabic writing!  Terrorists on the tarmac!  How did they get access to the airplane!!  At whom shall we point the finger of blame!!!
BLUF:  Bogus.  The streaks on the airplane are not writing of any sort, let alone a terrorist message in Arabic.  (Our post on the matter, and on the underlying problem of the semiotic ambiguity of abstract images, can be viewed  here.)

Later, someone imagined that, by tilting your head a certain way, a decorative swipe on a certain brand of sneakers looked rather like … you guessed it,  “Allah”.  Only this time, it hadn’t been placed there by jihadis;  rather, by Islamophobes, since shoes are well-known to be held in low esteem in circum-Mediterranean Islamic lands.  Hullabaloo on social media.  Fortunately that story died before it could become a staple of the jihadi media, else we might have faced further killings such as those that followed the Danish-cartoons scandal.
Here you can read about that episode:

Again:  Bogus. Judge for yourself:

And now we are being told, by such gullible outlets as the BBC and the New York Times, that (in the words of the headline in National Geographic),

    Viking Funeral Clothes Reveal Surprising Arabic Lettering

Namely, once again, that ubiquitous "Allah".  Along with (as a bonus) "Ali", another simple graph that is little more than an extended swoop.
The proper response to such a claim (by a Swedish “textile archaeologist”, not a linguist) is to present the evidence, and weigh it.  But that would be merely one step in the arduous progress of empirical science.  Instead, to pump up their headlines, the media assume the truth of that unproven assertion, reporting the claims in factive mood, as “Why Are These Viking Burial Clothes Inscribed with Arabic Script? “(History) and “Why did Vikings have 'Allah' embroidered into funeral clothes?” (BBC).   At the same level:  Has Eric the Red stopped beating his wife?

What is really going on this that the clothing is decorated with an abstract geometrical blocky design, part of which reminded the textile specialist of something she’d seen somewhere in Arabic script -- specifically, the early variety known as Kufic script -- or rather, a decorative blocky variant of Kufic. 

Now, it is unquestionably the case that Arabic scripts have been used for calligraphy, typically depicting brief Koranic quotations.   Great ingenuity was devoted to some of these, so that the results  in some cases  resembled those Hispanic-American “tags” which only the initiated could make any sense of, or the similarly cryptic Hippie-era posters for San Francisco rock concerts.

Poster for a SF Shiite mosque
known as the “Fillmore West”.
Notice the “Allah” hidden in the picture.

The fabric pattern in question, however, is extremely simple, and likely merely generic.  Thus:

For an example of genuine Kufic-block-script-(influenced) design, cf. this:

And sure, if you select a bit here and a bit there, there is a sort of resemblance -- as there could hardly fail to be  in sketches so schematic.  Actually, even at that, the match is not close, so that the Swedes conceded that, to read the thing as “Allah”, you had to read it in a mirror.   Which would seem to be a sort of Black-Mass version of the holy name, like Satanists chanting the Credo backwards.  Hardly evidence of Islamic influence.

(For many examples of  subjectively-similar or suggestive designs, simply google-image "fret motifs".  You will find  to your surprise  that Islamic influence extended even to the Aztecs and the ancient Greeks!)

[Note btw, that that serious-looking graphic with the mirror and all, is by no means a photo of any part of the actual tattered garments.  Rather, it is an idealization of a piece of the garment, which then in turn is given subjective interpretation.  Thus, there are actually two layers of "Rorschach" here.]

Medieval Islamic abstract decorative designs, whether linguistic-influenced or not, are quite lovely, and have been influential in many sister cultures.    As to whether these Viking funeral garments were directly or indirectly influenced by these, I can have no opinion, not being an art historian.   
Certainly it is within the bounds of historical possibility that there was contact, since the Vikings were great seafarers, and the Arabs  great wayfarers; they intersected, in particular, during the time of the Moors in Spain.  (Raid on Seville, 844 A.D.)
But as a student of linguistic sociology, I detect a few clues as to why, despite but a slender stalk of empirical support, this story has legs.  By the same NY Times reporter  (though in this case, she is rather more guarded, having run her rough-draft past some skeptics)  came this recent article:

[Note:  In the PC Guardian's  article,

in a picture purporting to show a "re-enactment" of Viking combat, the only warrior with face visible is ... a woman.]

And, even more telling, this spin

(Someone bring Steve Bannon his smelling-salts.)

The pattern of journalistic dots, though as sketchy as those on the Viking garments, at least suggests why so empirically underbuttressed a claim  would be embraced for a comforting narrative.

[Footnote for the Arabic-literate]  Even with that mirror-image sleight of hand, there isn’t really a match.  The Viking design shows three horizontal strokes, all of them connected; whereas in Arabic, the initial alif is non-connecting.  And the blob that struck the Swedes as resembling the final hā’  of Allāh  would be upside-down.  So, if the design had been intended to spell Allah, it was a (double) misspelling, and thus blasphemous.

Seeing Allāh in that clothing  is like spotting Orion in a skyful of stars.   And from there to such gormless headlines as “Were some Vikings Muslim?” (National Post), and even speculations as to whether they were indeed Shiites (based upon another supposed sighting of the simple design for "Ali"), is like concluding that the skies proclaim the truth of the Olympic religion.

For a wide-ranging survey of Arabic language and stylistics, check out this:

[Footnote 19 October 2017]  A day or so after this post went up, another Arabist went up on Twitter to scoff at the Swedish claims, making some of the same points (e.g. about non-connecting alif), but adding a new one based on timelines.  For, whereas Kufic script is ancient, the subvariety of ‘square’ or blocky Kufic, supposedly postdates the Vikings’ floruit by centuries.
A nice idea, but there’s a hitch.  For, the design was constrained by medium in which it was worked (whether made by Vikings, or merely captured by them), a thin strip of stiff fabric:  the weave imposes its own rectilinear preferences.   Just as Babylonian clay tablets virtually dictated the geometry of cuneiform, so this hem would itself bring forth or invent `square Kufic’, pour les besoins de la cause, independent of any prior existence of the style  or imitation thereof.

[Sociopolitical footnote:  It is perhaps no accident that this fond fantasy was emitted out of Sweden.  As is well known, that nation has, in recent years, been wondering whether it has perhaps bitten off rather more than it can chew, so far as imported demographics.  However, it has long been politically impermissible in Sweden to remark publically on the elephant in the room.  So the sparring goes on  in code  and behind cover.] 

Who knew that Vikings were so controversial?  For a quite aggrieved-sounding feminist article from that same drearily reliable Guardian, try this:

That article's headline is conclusively proven by a passage in the Protocols of the Elders of Patriarchy, where historians of old were caught bwa-ha-ha'ing as they inked out all such records.


Appendix on Steganography

A genuine case of a name hidden in designs, is that of the stellar cartoonist Al Hirschfeld, who used to work-in the name of his daughter  NINA (all-caps), in drawing after drawing.  Here is one with the hidden items highlighted:

Notice that, as was the case with the Arabic spelling of Allah and `Ali, the ease with which the name Nina can be secreted away as part of a larger design, is dependent on its simple form;  if his daughter’s name had been Murgatroyd, Hirschfeld would have been out of luck.

After signing his name in a lower corner, he would usually append a small Arabic (Arabic!) numeral, showing the number of times the name was hidden in that particular drawing.  Here, for example, in a (rather cruel) portrait of Katherine Hepburn, we are challenged to find three occurrences:


And in this tour de force, the name “NINA” appears no fewer than thirteen thousand times.:


Can you spot them all?  Set aside the rest of your life, full-time, to accomplish this necessary task.


An earlier instance  of steganographic eisegesis:

Ancillary to the great Hollywood witch-hunt, a satellite inquisition in 1951  was mounted against ‘subversive modern art’ at the (old) County Museum in Exposition Park.

A group called Sanity in art  swore they detected maps of secret defense fortifications  sequestered in abstract paintings, and one painter … was accused … of incorporating propaganda in the form of a thinly disguised hammer-and-sickle within a seascape.

-- Mike Davis, City of Quartz (1990), p. 63

NORAD installation, Cheyenne Mountain (artist’s impression)

For more along these lines, try
=> Rorschach Morphology
[Update] XXX-clusive!
 [Update 25 II 2018] The latest example   of seeing something that isn't there, and getting the world spun-up:



  1. News websites that copied (and edited) this NYT report have also cropped the picture to leave out the Nazi-looking symbol.

    1. For another example of judicious journalistic clipping, cf.