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Lehite GN 1. Sea, most likely off the Arabian coast, meaning “many waters” (1 Nephi 17:5)


IRREANTUM is one of the few Book of Mormon names that is defined with a textual gloss in the Book of Mormon. This gloss signals that its meaning was not readily discernible to readers of the plates and was not in their language. A number of different etymologies have been proposed for IRREANTUM, one Semitic and four EGYPTIAN. (The etymologies are more complex than usual, and so are numbered for convenience but are listed, as usual, from most preferred to least preferred.)

I: Semitic

IRREANTUM may be composed of four elements: a prosthetic aleph, the root rwy, the nominalizing affix -an, and the root tmm. Together, these four elements would yield the literal meaning, “abundant watering of completeness.” This meaning is an acceptable match with the translation given in 1 Nephi 17:5, “many waters.”[1]

The root rwy is common to the West Semitic languages and has the general meaning “thorough watering, to water plentifully.”[2] That IRREANTUM has a doubled /r/ does not present any problems. None of the West Semitic languages originally indicated in the orthography the doubling of consonants. (Akkadian, the East Semitic language group, did indicate on occasion the doubling of a consonant.) Not until more than a thousand years after the time of LEHI were diacritical marks introduced into written HEBREW and Arabic that indicated the doubling of a consonant. However, the pronunciation of doubled consonants in LEHI’s day is certain, both on the basis of comparative Semitics and because the doubling, which is phonemic in Semitic languages, shows up when doubling is marked.

The /i/ that precedes the doubled /r/ is also easily explained as either a prosthetic aleph added to the name to break up a consonant cluster,[3] or as the aleph of the South Semitic definite article il. When the article is pronounced together with the noun that follows it, the /l/ assimilates to the following consonant, doubling it.[4] Supporting this interpretation of the first two elements of IRREANTUM is the existence of a pre-Islamic city/village name ʾrwy,[5] exactly what might be expected from the combination of a prosthetic aleph or an assimilated definite article and the root rwy. The first part of IRREANTUM would then be *ʾrrȇ-<*ʾrrey-<*rwey-.

The element -ān is a common affix (a particle appended to a word) used in all the Semitic languages, including ancient South Semitic. It occurs especially in abstracts,[6] meaning abstract nouns, similar to the use of the affix "-ship" in the English word "kingship." An abstraction from "watering" seems to fit the requirement here that IRREANTUM have something to do with "water."[7]

The final element, tmm, could well be the common West Semitic root meaning “complete, whole; innocent, perfect;" etc. Both the noun form and the infinitive form in HEBREW are tōm, which reverts to its earliest form, tūm, when it is not stressed. Together with the first part of IRREANTUM, the name would mean, somewhat literally, “abundant watering of completeness,” or “fully abundant waters.” That Irrean and tum are separate words would also explain why the /n/ does not assimilate to the following /t/, which always happens within a word of HEBREW origin, but not when the /n/ ends one word and the /t/ begins another.

It is unlikely that the Akkadian city name URU a-ri-ia-an-ta in north-west Syria[8] is etymologically related to IRREANTUM. (PYH)


The first of these etymologies is composed of several EGYPTIAN elements: *itrw-ʿ3-n-tm.

Robert F. Smith proposed that the irre- element might be related to EGYPTIAN itrw which, though etymologically spelled with a t is known to have lost it in pronunciation by the Late Bronze Age being borrowed into HEBREW as יאר ye'or and surviving in Coptic as eioor (Sahidic dialect), ioore (Akhmimic dialect), ior (Bohairic dialect), and iaar or iaal (Fayyumic dialect).[9] It also occurs as part of the Akkadian term niaru "papyrus"[10] (from EGYPTIAN n3-itrw "the things of the river"). The term means a "watercourse, river or canal."[11]

The second element ʿ3 is the EGYPTIAN word for "great"[12] surviving into Coptic as o (Sahidic and Bohairic dialects), ou (Sahidic dialect), au (Sahidic dialect), or a (Fayyumic dialect).[13]

Together the term itrw-ʿ3 was the "name of one of the three main Delta Nile-arms,"[14] and appeared in Neo-Assyrian as maru-ya-ru-ʻu-ú.[15] The term, surviving in Coptic as eiero (Sahidic dialect) and iaro (Bohairic dialect), also "signified the entire main course of the river" and "not only was the commonest designation of the Nile, but also was extended to other great rivers like the Euphrates and Danube."[16] The term could also refer to canals.[17]

The n is the genitive marker "of."[18]

The tm element means "perfect, complete."[19] Together the elements would mean "great watercourse of all." (JG)

This etymology, however, does not account for the doubled r and would we expect another vowel before the r.

Additional EGYPTIAN etymologies:

Hugh W. Nibley marked two different phrases in an execration ritual as possible EGYPTIAN sources for the term IRREANTUM in marginalia penciled into the copy of the text that he read.[20] This ritual is found in a pair of papyri: P. Louvre N 3129, and BM EA 10252.[21] The British Museum version has the text along with a parallel interpretation in what has been termed proto-Demotic.[22]


The first of Nibley's possible suggestions for IRREANTUM was the phrase he transliterated (following the Egyptologist Siegfried Schott) iiry-ʿnḏtyw-mw which is the proto-Demotic translation of r-gs-ʿnḏtyw "beside the waters of Busiris.[23] The sign for ʿnḏtyw is an official on a standard (variant of N74).[24]

This interpretation, however, does not work for two reasons:

(1) The sign that Nibley read as mw (N35a),[25] is in fact the water determinative and not a pronounced element. Robert F. Smith, however, points out that the water sign might represent EGYPTIAN group-writing and may represent -um.[26] Group writing, however, is not otherwise used in the two papyri, nor expected in an EGYPTIAN place name.

(2) The context of the papyrus, moreover, argues against such an interpretation. The passage itself reads (with the phrase in italics): "O lord of the slaughter that is beside the water of Busiris, who is over the water of the ocean, who extends the life of the chief of the palace, who lives and causes others to live, come that you may protect me from death today, and the terror and the coming of darkness because I am he who binds on heads and establishes necks, and who gives breath to the weary of heart."[27] So neither the writing nor the context support this proposed etymology.(JG)


The second of Nibley's suggestions is the phrase r3-ʿq3 which is interpreted in proto-Demotic as r3-n-n-t3-[...]w-dšr. Nibley, following Schott, read this as r3-ʿnty-mw.[28] The phrase was interpreted by Siegfried Schott as the “mouth of ʿnty-waters,"[29] with the dual of ʿnt, “finger, ten thousand” (perhaps to be associated with the dual or plural of ḏbʿ),[30] which might be taken as the philological equivalent of the HEBREW rb, rbb, “myriad, ten thousand,” the highest number in HEBREW for which there is a word (RFS, “Egyptianisms”).[31]

This interpretation, however, does not work for three reasons:

(1) The key sign which Schott (and Nibley) read as ʿnty others have read as ʿq3.[32] Both readings are conjectural and the sign may read something else entirely.

(2) The sign that Nibley read as mw might not be read that way (see III 2).

(3) The context of the papyrus also argues against such an interpretation. The passage itself reads (with the phrase in italics): "May the crocodile not grab the drowning one at the mouth of the Aqa-waters"[33] So the context does not support this proposed etymology.(JG)


Hugh W. Nibley also points out that “one of the more common EGYPTIAN names for the Red Sea was Iaru.”[34] and that “antum” from iny-t and ʿnjt both describe large bodies of water. Also note that “many waters” is a typical EGYPTIAN designation, e.g., Fayyum (< EGYPTIAN p3 ym "the sea") (SC, 195.). The term i3rw, however, is an EGYPTIAN term for "reed".[35] It usually appears in the phrase "Field of Reeds" which is a designation for a region of the sky south of the ecliptic.[36]



Deseret Alphabet: 𐐆𐐡𐐀𐐈𐐤𐐓𐐊𐐣 (ɪriːæntʌm)


  1. The fact that NEPHI provides a translation of the transliterated name may indicate that some or all of the name may not have been completely transparent to native HEBREW speakers.
  2. The root rwy appears in HEBREW and other North-west Semitic languages. For example, HEBREW has rwh, which has the following meanings in its various verbal forms: Qal, to drink one’s fill, to be refreshed; Piel, to give to drink abundantly, water thoroughly; and Hifʿil, to water thoroughly. (See Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, CD-ROM version [Leiden: Brill], under rwh.) In Ugaritic, the root occurs also in a personal name, bn rwy, but the meaning of the name is uncertain. (See Frauke Gröndahl, Die Personennamen der Texte aus Ugarit, Studia Pohl 1 [Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1967], 312.) In South Semitic languages, the area where the land of Bountiful is located, the root also appears. For example, in inscriptional Qatabanian, the root rwy means "irrigation system" (Stephen D. Ricks, Lexicon of Inscriptional Qatabanian [Roma: Editrice Pontifico Istituto Biblico], 153). In Sabaic, yhrwy[n] means to "provide with irrigation," while rwym is a well, or watering place. (See Joan Copeland Biella, Dictionary of Old South Arabic: Sabean Dialect. Harvard Semitic Studies 25 [Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982], 482.) Finally, in modern Arabic, the root rwy is associated with water for drinking and irrigation. See Edward William Lane, An Arabic-English Lexicon, 8 parts (Beirut, Lebanon: Librairie du Liban, 1980), 3:1194B1195.
  3. Other instances of prosthetic aleph in HEBREW include ʾeṣbaʿ ʾarbaʿ, and ʾezrôaʿ. Spanish also prefixes a prosthetic vowel before the initial /st/ consonant cluster, e.g., Estefan instead of Stefan.
  4. As I will later point out, there seem to be reasons to believe that this name given to this place name may have been influenced by South Arabian, where it is located.
  5. G. Lankester Harding, An Index and Concordance of Pre-Islamic Arabian Names and Inscriptions (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971), 38. (I have not yet been able to find the location of the town based on the information provided, partly because the BYU library does not have the relevant sources.) In addition, there are family, clan, and/or tribe names in pre-Islamic inscriptions, such as rwyn and rwym, containing the root rwy, which in the Arabic form rawiy means "abundant, well watered" (see Harding, 291). I thank my friend and colleague, Brian Hauglid, for drawing my attention to this entry in Lankester Harding.
  6. Sabatino Moscati and others, An Introduction to the Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1969), 82, '12.21.
  7. Some people may argue that the element as rendered here, cannot be a HEBREW form of the affix. Due to the so-called Canaanite shift in HEBREW, where other Semitic languages have an (accented) long /ā/, HEBREW and a few other North-west Semitic languages have a long /ō/. Thus, this common Semitic affix, -ān, became -ōn in HEBREW. There are however examples of -ān remaining -ān in HEBREW, e.g., šulhān, "table," and qorbān, "offering" or "sacrifice." See Moscati, 82, '12.21. However, since the first part of IRREANTUM is attested as a place name in Arabia, and since IRREANTUM is most likely located on the southern coast of Arabia, it should not be surprising to find the regular South Semitic form of this affix and not the usual HEBREW form -ōn.
  8. Michael C. Astour, “The Partition of the Confederacy of Mukiš-Nuhašše-Nii by Šuppiluliuma,” Orientalia 38 [1969] 410.
  9. W. E. Crum, A Coptic Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939), 82.
  10. CAD N2:200-201.
  11. Adolf Erman and Hermann Grapow, Wörterbuch der aegyptischen Sprache, 1:146; R. O. Faulkner, A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian (Oxford: Griffith Institute, 1962), 33; W. E. Crum, A Coptic Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939), 82.
  12. Erman and Grapow, Wörterbuch der aegyptischen Sprache, 1:161-62; Faulkner, 'Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian', 37.
  13. Crum, Coptic Dictionary, 253.
  14. Alan H. Gardiner, Ancient Egyptian Onomastica (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1947), 2:163*.
  15. H. Ranke, Keilschriftliches Material zur altägyptischen Vokalisation (Berlin, 1910), 29, cited in Y. Muchiki, Egyptian Proper Names and Loanwords in North-West Semitic (Atlanta: SBL, 1999), 248
  16. Gardiner, Ancient Egyptian Onomastica, 2:163*
  17. Gardiner, Ancient Egyptian Onomastica, 2:164-65*.
  18. Erman and Grapow, Wörterbuch der aegyptischen Sprache, 2:196-97.
  19. Erman and Grapow, Wörterbuch der aegyptischen Sprache, 5:303-4.
  20. H. Nibley found this source over 40 years ago, and sent copies of it with a letter of explanation to Robert F. Smith, Sept 25, 1968.
  21. Siegfried Schott, Urkunden mythologischen Inhalts (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1929), 1-3; Victoria Altmann, Die Kultfrevel des Seth: Die Gefährdung der göttlichen Ordnung in zwei Vernichtungsritualen der ägyptischen Spätzeit (Urk. VI) (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2010), 2-4.
  22. Altmann, Die Kultfrevel des Seth, 4.
  23. Schott, Urkunden mythologischen Inhalts, 67.
  24. The sign is not in Alan H. Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, 492, nor is it in Petra Vomberg and Orell Witthuhn, Hieroglyphenschlüssel (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2008), 244-45. It may be found in Christian Leitz, Quellentexte zur ägyptischen Religion I: Die Tempelinschriften der greichisch-römischen Zeit (Münster: LIT Verlag, 2004), 167 and in Rainer Hannig, Großes Handwörterbuch Ägyptisch-Deutsch (2800-950 v. Chr.) (Mainz am Rhein: Philipp von Zabern, 1995), 1151, 1321. It is the sign for the ninth Lower EGYPTIAN nome.
  25. Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, 490; Vomberg and Witthuhn, Hieroglyphenschlüssel, 240.
  26. James E. Hoch, Semitic Words in Egyptian Texts of the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period, §§52 (pp. 52-53), 304 (p. 221); Table 8, and page 508 (mu3).
  27. Siegfried Schott, Urkunden mythologischen Inhalts (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1929), 67; translation in Paul Y. Hoskisson, with Brian Hauglid and John Gee, “Irreantum,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 11,1 (2002): 92-93.
  28. In order to fully understand this, it must first be explained that the biblical HEBREW phrase for “Many Waters” is מים רבים mayîm rabbîm (Psalms 32:6, 69:2-3,14-15, 93:4, Job 27:20, Isaiah 17:12-13, Jeremiah 51:13, Ezekiel 19:10, 31:5,7, 32:13; ǁ”rivers” Song of Songs 8:7), which has a very significant meaning as the “Deep” (tĕhôm) source of rivers, seas, springs, etc. (cf. 1 Nephi 14:11Revelation 17:1 hudatōn pollōn in a quotation from LXX Jeremiah 51:13, referring to the waters of Babylon], Psalm 18:16 [2 Samuel 22:17], Jeremiah 51:55, Ezekiel 31:15, 43:2, Revelation 1:15, 14:2, 19:6; “seas”ǁ”rivers” Psalm 98:7-8). The Indian Ocean area referred to in 1 Nephi 17:5 is elsewhere described variously as Aramaic yammaʾ śimmoqaʾ “the Red Sea” (including the Persian Gulf; cf. HEBREW smq “red”) = the Erythrean Sea/ erythran . . . thalassan, as noted by Joseph Fitzmyer in his translation-commentary on The Genesis Apocryphon of Qumran Cave I Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Genesis Apocryphon of Qumran Cave I: A Commentary (Rome 1966 /2nd ed., 1971), citing Josephus, Antiquities, I,1,3 §39; Herodotus 1:180, 2:11,158, 4:42; Pliny, Natural History 6:28; Jubilees 8:21, 9:2, 1 Enoch 32:2, 77:7-9; 4QEnc frag 2:20; Berossus; and Xenophon. at 1QapGn 21:17-18 (cf. ymʾ rbʾ “Great Sea” at 16:12). This is also familiar from LXX Greek erythra thalassa = Masoretic HEBREW yam sûp “Sea of Reeds.” Cf. J. T. Milik, Revue biblique, 65 (1958), 71, also cited in Fitzmyer, The Genesis Apocryphon of Qumran Cave I: A Commentary, . Since LEHI and NEPHI clearly knew EGYPTIAN language (1 Nephi 1:2), perhaps HEBREW “Many Waters” would have immediately brought to mind EGYPTIAN mw ʿЗw “Great Waters,” A. Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 1957), 199, n. 21, citing ZÄS, 59 (1924), 47* (plate VIII,22), and Papyrus Boulaq xviii,4 – all vis à vis 1 Nephi 17:17; cf. Crum Coptic Dictionary 742a. or a likely precursor of Bohairic Coptic Fiyom Nhah “The Endless Sea (Red Sea)” H. Nibley, Lehi in the Desert (Deseret 1952) 89-90 = Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, V:78, citing W. Spiegelberg, Koptisches Handwörterbuch, 204,258. Nibley also suggests a comparison of Coptic irnahte “great, many” + yum “sea,” also on the same pages of LID; Nibley, Since Cumorah, 1st ed., 195 = 2nd ed., 171; W. Westendorf, KHw, 2nd ed., 49, 324, citing Towers, JNES, 18:150-153, pЗ ym n šy-iЗrw (cf. Fayyum, and Exodus 23:31, Deuteronomy 1:1). The HEBREW word for “many” rabbîm might likewise have brought to mind the numerical usage of that same HEBREW root in rĕbābâ “myriad, ten-thousand,” (as in Genesis 24:60, Judges 20:10, Song of Songs 5:10), which in turn might also have conjured up the EGYPTIAN numerical equivalent, tbʿ “finger; ten-thousand,” or possibly ʿnt(y) “fingernail; ten-thousand, many” – to judge from Schott’s reading of duplicate lines of Papyrus Louvre 3129, J, 57, and British Museum 10252, 11, 33, as “mouth of many waters” (ʿanty-Wassers), and “mouth of the Red Sea.” Siegfried Schott, Urkunden mythologischen Inhalts (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1929), 128-129. Since cosmic “Many Waters” (mayîm rabbîm = tĕhôm “Great Deep”) is the source of all rivers, seas, and lakes, another tack uses EGYPTIAN itrw, ir(w) “Nile, river” (Coptic ior, iaar, eiero, etc.; Akkadian Of interest also is Akkadian jarru, ia-ar-ru, “pond, pool” (CAD 7:326, “I and J”). Note the double -rr-. HEBREW Yĕʾōr “Nile”(Genesis 41:1-3, Exodus 2:3,5, 4:9), Erman & Grapow, Wb I:146,10ff.; Crum, Coptic Dictionary 82; Erman ZDMG 46:108; Lambdin JAOS 73:151, all cited in Y. Muchiki, Egyptian Proper Names and Loanwords in North-West Semitic, SBL Dissertation Series 173 (Atlanta: SBL, 1999), 247-248. which H. Nibley long ago suggested may be part of the direct source of IRREANTUM. Nibley, Since Cumorah (Deseret 1967), lesson 6 end (p. 196) = Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, VII:171-172, citing M. Copisarow, VT 12 (1962), 1-13; Iaru “Red Sea” in J. Towers, JNES, 18 (1959), 150-153; E. Zyhlarz, “Die Namen des roten Meeres im Spätägyptischen,” Archiv für ägyptische Archaeologie, 1 (1938):111-116. Is this related to Late EGYPTIAN irt “water”? Pianchi 102, in Erman & Grapow, Wb I,106,3. (RFS) Probably not, because the otherwise unattested word irt appearing in the Piye stele appears to be scribal error for itrw. See N.-C. Grimal, La stèle triomphale de Pi(ankh)y au Musée du Caire (Cairo: Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale), 130-31. (JG)
  29. Siegfried Schott, Urkunden mythologischen Inhalts (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1929), 67.
  30. Alan H. Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957), 456.
  31. Higher numbers must be expressed by combinations of lesser numbers. It is interesting to note that in the NEPHITE sections of the Book of Mormon, the highest numbers expressed are in thousands. Only in the JAREDITE section does the number “million” appear.
  32. Henri Gauthier, Dictionnaire des noms géographiques contenus dans les textes hiéroglyphiques (Cairo: Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1925), 1:158; Altmann, Die Kultfrevel des Seth, 123.
  33. Schott, Urkunden mythologischen Inhalts, 123; Altmann, Die Kultfrevel des Seth, 123.
  34. Hugh W. Nibley, Since Cumorah (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1969), 196 = Hugh W. Nibley, Since Cumorah, 2nd ed., Collected Works of Hugh Nibley 6 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988), 171-72, citing J. R. Towers, "The Red Sea," JNES 18 (1959): 150-53.
  35. R. O. Faulkner, Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian, 9.
  36. Rolf Krauss, Astronomische Konzepte und Jenseitsvorstellungen in den Pyramidentexten (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1997).


Paul Y. Hoskisson, with Brian Hauglid and John Gee, “Irreantum,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 11,1 (2002): 90-93.

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