🔼The name Ulai: Summary
- Unclear but perhaps Muddy Water or Clear Water
- Well-Olived, Well-Oiled
- Protruder, Front Runner, Foolish
- From resembling Farsi or Arabic terms.
- From the Greek noun ελαια (elaia), olive (tree), or ευελαια (euelaia), well-olived (rich in olive oil or trees).
- From the Hebrew verb אלל ('alal), to stick out.
🔼The name Ulai in the Bible
The name Ulai belongs to a river close to Susa in Persia, near which Daniel saw his famous vision of the two-horned ram and the male goat (Daniel 8:2 and 8:16). This river was originally called u-la-a in an Elamite inscription of the 12th century BCE, became Ulaya in Akkadian, Ευλαιως (Eulaios) in Greek and Eulaeu in Latin.
Iranian-speakers gave this river an alternative name, namely Huvaspa, which turned to Ξοασπης (Choaspes) in Greek (or so concludes Daniel T. Potts in Elamite Ula, Akkadian Ulaya and Greek Choaspes: A solution to the Eulaios problem, 1999). This single river both called Eulaios and Choaspes joined the Diz or Coprates, which in turn joined the Karun or Pasitigris and ultimately emptied into the Persian Gulf.
Shortly before Daniel wrote, the Assyrian kings Sennacherib and Assurbanipal campaigned against the Chaldeans and Elamites and their chroniclers mentioned the Ulai as the signature river of Susa ("whose bank was good," according to the annals of Sennacherib). According to Herodotus' Histories (1.188; 5th century BCE) the kings of Persia could only drink from the Choaspes, and once on a campaign, the great Xerxes ran out of stock and was reduced to helping himself to a flask of putrid souvenir water. After Daniel, Alexander the Great dwelled in Susa and his biographers too mentioned the Ulai.
In the Bible rivers invariably refer to the culture they supported (from Egypt's Nile to Babylon's Euphrates and Israel's Jordan) and the Ulai is firmly connected to the Persian government from whence sprang the Pharisaic tradition, the rabbis and thus modern Judaism and Christianity.
Very few members of the original audience of Daniel would have missed the fact that the river Ulai is also mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh: "May the sacred river u-la-a mourn you [Endiku], along whose banks we walked in our vigor" (VIII-11-12).
🔼Etymology of the name Ulai
What the original name u-la-a may have meant to the original speakers is no longer clear, although in the 18th century Samuel Wahl confidently derived it from the Farsi av halaeh, meaning "clear, pure water." Johannes Simonis equally confident derived it in that same century from an Arabic term meaning "muddy water."
Whether the original meaning of the name Ulai was clear to the purveyors of the great literary traditions that utilized it is also not clear. The Hebrew scribes who wrote about Babylon and Assyria took considerable liberties in their translations of foreign names and it appears that both they and their Greek counterparts had a field day with our name Ulai.
The Greek name Ευλαιως (Eulaios) obviously resembles the noun ελαια (elaia), meaning olive (tree), or the adjective ευελαια (euelaia), which means rich in olive trees:
The noun ελαια (elaia) means olive and refers to both the fruit and the whole tree. It may be akin the verb ελαυνω (elauno), to impel or urge on, and ultimately to the Latin word elate, from which we get our adjective "elated."
The Hebrew name אולי (Ulai) clearly relates to the noun אול ('ul), belly or front runner, from the verb אלל ('alal), to stick out (both positively and negatively):
The root אלל ('alal) predominantly describes a protruding or sticking out. This may be positive (when one leads a collective), neutral (when one is a tree), or negative (when one fails convention). The latter sense in particular describes foolishness, or at least a failure to live up to cognitive standards or common codes of conduct.
Nouns אלון ('allon), אלה ('alla) and אלה ('elah) refer to oaks or terebinths but note the similarities with the demonstrative pronoun אלה ('elleh), "these," and אלה ('eloah) meaning god or God.
Nouns אליל ('elil) and אלול ('elul) mean worthlessness or a worthless thing (a thing that sticks out of the economy of useful things). Adjectives אויל ('ewil) and אולי ('ewili) mean foolish, and noun אולת ('iwwelet) means foolishness or folly. Noun אול ('ul) may mean belly or leading man.
Nouns אולם ('ulam) and אילם ('elam) mean porch. The former is identical to an adverb that means "however" or "but." Another adverb אולי ('ulay) means "perhaps."
Noun איל ('ayil), "protruder," refers in the Bible to a ram, a pillar, a chief and, yet again, a terebinth. Noun איל ('ayyal) means stag or deer — hence the panting deer of Psalm 42 also describes an ignoramus longing for instruction — and its feminine counterpart אילה ('ayyala) means doe.
The verb יאל (ya'al) means to be foolish, gullible or even simply compliant and pleased to go along in no particularly negative way.
The letter י (yod) upon which our name ends, creates an adjective.
It's no longer clear what the name Ulai may have meant to the original name givers but to the Greeks it referred to a wealth in olives and olive oil (and thus light), which in turn would have reminded Greek-speaking people with a Hebrew background of their anointed kings (the word for "anointed one" is Christ in Greek and Messiah in Hebrew).
To a Hebrew speaking audience, however, our name Ulai would have reminded of earlier times or earlier and failed attempts to enlightenment, and their exile to the east was like a return to primitivity (see our article on the noun קדם, qedem, which both means east and past).