The University of Helsinki has made Saana Svärd’s dissertation titled Power and Women in the Neo-Assyrian Palaces available for free download. It is quite fascinating and uses cutting edge gender theory in order to provide a new interpretive framework for understanding and interpreting Neo-Assyrian texts. Here is the abstract:

In this dissertation, I analyze theories of power in order to study the Neo-Assyrian (934-610 BC) women of the palaces. This study subscribes to that sociological understanding of power which stipulates that power exists in all relationships between people. This is why the main research question of this dissertation is not whether women had power or not, but instead, the question is: What kind of power did women have in Neo-Assyrian palaces?

Neo-Assyrian women have not been much discussed in earlier research. In addition to presenting the textual evidence relating to them, this dissertation hopes to offer new theoretical perspectives for Assyriology and the study of ancient Near East. The aim of this study is not to present a mere catalogue of powerful women, listing occupations and texts. Instead, the aim is to go further than that and show that by using theories of power, one can get new viewpoints additional to those procured by the traditional philological methodology.

The structure of the dissertation is dictated by the research questions. After the introduction in Chapter 1, the second chapter evaluates sociological discussions regarding the concept of power from the viewpoint of women s studies and Assyriology. However, to discuss women’s power in the Neo-Assyrian palaces, it is necessary to consider what power meant for the Assyrians themselves. Although not an easy question to tackle, Chapter 3 discusses this problem from a semantic and lexicographical perspective. I discuss those words which imply power in the texts relating to the women of the palace. At the end of Chapter 3, these lexicographical results are compared with the sociological concepts of power presented in Chapter 2.

The theoretical framework built on these two chapters understands power as a hierarchical phenomenon. What positions did women have in the palace hierarchy? What did they do in the palaces, and what kind of authority did they possess? This is the topic of Chapter 4, where the textual evidence relating to the palace women is presented.

Power in general and women s power especially has been understood mostly in a hierarchical way in earlier research concerning Mesopotamian women. Hierarchical power structures were important in Mesopotamia, but other theoretical approaches can help one gain new perspectives into the ancient material. One of these approaches consists of concentrating on heterarchical, negotiable and lateral power relations in which the women were engaged. In Chapter 5, the concept of heterarchical power is introduced and the text material is approached from a heterarchical perspective. Heterarchical power relations include hierarchical power relations, but also incorporate other kinds of power relations, such as reciprocal power, resistance and persuasion. Although earlier research has certainly been aware of women s influence in the palaces, this dissertation makes explicit the power concepts employed in previous research and expands them further using the concept of heterarchy. By utilizing the concept of power as a theoretical tool, my approach opened up new avenues for interpreting the texts.

A little more than a month ago (which is a virtual eternity in blogotime) I wrote a post in which I tried to calibrate the reading expectations that we bring to the Bible particularly as they relate to cosmology. Since then I’ve been reading Marilynne Robinson’s new book When I Was a Child I Read Books. She makes several points that are directly relevant to this topic so I thought I’d revisit it.

Robinson highlights a profound difference between the way ancients portrayed the world they lived in and the ways that are typical for moderns:

Yet in many instances ancient people seem to have obscured highly available real-world accounts of things. A sculptor would take an oath that the gods had made an idol, after he himself had made it. The gods were credited with walls and ziggurats, when cities themselves built them. Structures of enormous shaped stones went up in broad daylight in ancient cities, the walls built around the Temple by Herod in Roman-occupied Jerusalem being one example. The ancients knew, though we don’t know, how this was done, obviously. But they left no account of it. This very remarkable evasion of the law of gravity was seemingly not of great interest to them. It was the gods themselves who walled in Troy…My point here is simply that pagan myth, which the Bible in various ways acknowledges as analogous to biblical narrative despite grave defects, is not a naive attempt at science. (Kindle location 280-342).

The first example that Robinson references is a ritual that would be performed after an artisan made an idol. The sculptor’s hands would be severed, whether this was done in symbol or in fact we don’t know, and the tools bound in a skin and thrown into a river in order to bolster the claim that the idol was of divine origin. Yet, everyone who performed and witnessed the ritual knew that the artisan made it and, in a way, the act of cutting off the hands underscores this. In this act they held together two truths simultaneously–the idol was “born in heaven but made on earth” to use the title that Michael Dick gave to the best book on this topic.

Her second example illustrates the same idea. Some accounts, such as the “Hymn to Enlil,”  picture Enlil as planning and even building the sacred city of Nippur.1 Yet, everyone saw human builders schlepping bricks.

There are more illustrations of this that specifically regard cosmology that I discuss in another post but what does all this have to do with how we read the Bible and the expectations that we bring to it? I think it suggests that to a large degree ancients thought about things, particularly cosmology, in ways that we typically don’t. On one hand, they looked at things that everyone saw, whether they were constructed like an idol or a city wall or if they were natural features such as the sky or sun, and created accounts that situated them in the moral and religious universe not merely in the natural order of things. Religious rites focused almost exclusively upon an idol’s divine origin yet all the while people knew the artisan who made it. This tension didn’t bother them because they did not view and interpret the world one dimensionally.

But contemporary religious people don’t interpret the world one dimensionally either. McGuire Gibson has an extremely valuable reflection upon Mesopotamian medical practices and their relation to contemporary responses:

Perhaps the Mesopotamians dealt with illness as many people do today. They went to the doctor for a cure. If that didn’t work, they tried alternative medicine-a faith healer or a folk healer. Maybe at the same time, they went to the temple to leave a figurine or obtain a figurine and say a prayer.

In their attitude toward medicine, as in other things, I would suggest that the ancient people of Nippur and of Mesopotamia in general, rather than having “mythopoeic minds” [Frankfort 1946], were only a little less complex than we are and probably just as sensible.

It is within this kind of environment that the Bible was originally read and interpreted and, in fact, it is similar to many of our worlds as well. Yet it seems that many have forgotten this.

Humans are complicated creatures and in many times and places they cared more about about understanding the world on a religious and moral dimension than they did about describing its structural composition. This does not mean that they were never interested in the sorts of things that are the concerns of modern science, they were. Yet, we have to know what kind of text we are dealing with and how it approaches a particular topic. I think most ancient cosmologies are operating in other ways and have different concerns than contemporary cosmological quests. And we will only discover what the biblical authors were trying to communicate with these accounts if we reexamine and reorient our expectations.

If we dismiss biblical cosmologies as fundamentally flawed and inaccurate then we will miss out on the unique messages they contain that center on some of the deepest questions of the human experience. The same will happen if we turn our eyes away from textual clues and facts of nature in order to preserve a literalist reading of them. Instead, we should patiently and repeatedly listen to what they have to say keeping in mind their cultural setting and complex approaches to some of life’s most fundamental questions.

Robinson concludes her essay with a warning that those of us with religious inclination should deeply consider:

To recognize our bias toward error should teach us modesty and reflection, and to forgive it should help us avoid the inhumanity of thinking we ourselves are not as fallible as those who, in any instance, seem most at fault. Science can give us knowledge, but it cannot give us wisdom. Nor can religion, until it puts aside nonsense and distraction and becomes itself again (Kindle location 342).

What do you think?

Bonus: Here is an interview with Robinson that touches on some of these points as well as theological writing in general.

  1. Thorkild Jacobsen, The Harps that Once…, 101-111. [back]

I’m taking a short break from my vacation to mention that the book, Akkadian Prayers and Hymns: A Reader, is now available for download–for free–at the ANE Monographs section of the SBL website. Alan Lenzi did an incredible job putting this project together and I am very happy to be a part of it. I contributed two prayers to this book–”An Ershahunga to Any God” and “Girra 2″–we provide cuneiform, transcription, normalization, translation, grammatical and literary notes, introduction, and biblical comparative suggestions for each text. If you are interested in Akkadian or studying some hymns and prayers that are cognate to biblical ones then I think you will find this book helpful.

I’d like to say a quick thank you to Alan for inviting me to join the project and vastly improving my contributions through his thorough critiques, Jay Crisostomo for looking my prayers over and correcting some of my errors, and the other contributors for producing such fine work.

Here is the second video in the series that I am producing to coincide with the publication of the forthcoming monograph, Reading Akkadian Prayers in the SBL ANE Monographs series. I edited two prayers for this volume; the “Prayer to Any God” is one of them (for a translation of this prayer and the introductory video click here). This video briefly–it is under 2 minutes–explores the role of rituals within religions and the “Prayer to Any God” in particular.  Enjoy and let me know what you think.

Prayer to Any God Rituals from Charles Halton on Vimeo.

In anticipation of the publication of the prayers that I contributed to the forthcoming Reading Akkadian Prayers volume coming out in the SBL Ancient Near East Monographs series I am going to release a series of short videos, each under a minute and a half, that introduce or discuss certain aspects of these prayers.

The first prayer is quite well known both within Assyriology and Old Testament studies, “A Prayer to Any God.”  The prayer was included in ANET under the title, “Prayer to Every God,” but this was a misnomer since the prayer is not directed at every god, but rather, to the particular deity that the petitioner offended.

Here is the video–let me know what you think of it.

Prayer to Any God Intro from Charles Halton on Vimeo.

Here is a pre-publication draft of my translation of the prayer:

1. May the anger of the lord’s heart relent.
2. May the god who I do not know relent.
3. May the goddess who I do not know relent.
4. May whichever god relent.
5. May whichever goddess relent.
6. May the heart of my god relent.
7. May the heart of my goddess relent.
8. May (both) god and goddess relent.
9. May the god who is angry with me relent.
10. May the goddess who is angry with me relent.
Lines 11–16 are poorly preserved.
17. The food that I would find I did not eat by myself.
18. The water that I would find I did not drink by myself.
19. I broke my god’s taboo in ignorance.
20. I crossed my goddess’s bounds in ignorance.
21. O lord, my wrongs are many, great are my sins.
22. O my god, my wrongs are many, great are my sins.
23. O my goddess, my wrongs are many, great are my sins.
24. O whichever god, my wrongs are many, great are my sins.
25. O whichever goddess, my wrongs are many, great are my sins.
26. The wrong which I did, I do not know.
27. The sin which I committed, I do not know.
28. The taboo which I broke, I do not know.
29. The bounds I crossed, I do not know.
30. A lord glowered at me in the rage of his heart.
31. A god has made me confront the anger of his heart.
32. A goddess has become angry with me and has made me sick.
33. Whichever god has caused me to burn.
34. Whichever goddess has set down affliction (upon me).
35. I would constantly seek (for help) but no one would help me.
36. I cried but they (i.e., no one) did not approach me.
37. I would give a lament but no one would hear me.
38. I am distressed; I am alone; I cannot see.
39. I search constantly for my merciful god (and) I utter a petition.
40. I kiss the feet of my goddess, I keep crawling before you.
41. To whichever god, return to me, I implore you (lit., I speak a petition)!
42. To whichever goddess, return to me, I implore you!
43. O lord, return to me, I implore you!
44. O goddess, look at me, I implore you!
45. Whichever god, return to me, I implore you!
46. Whichever goddess, return to me, I implore you!
47. How long, my god,until your…heart…
48. How long, my goddess, until your . . . mood will rest?
49. How long, whichever god, until your . . . anger subsides?
50. How long, whichever goddess, until your estranged heart relents?
51. Humanity is deaf and does not know anything.
52. Humanity—by whatever name—what do they know?
53. Whether (a person) does wrong or good they are ignorant.
54. Lord, do not turn away your servant.
55. They are (lit. he is) lying in swamp water—help them (lit. him)!
56. The sin that I committed turn into good.
57. The wrong (that) I did let the wind carry away.
58. My many sins strip away like a garment.

Writing, Law, and Kingship in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia

Writing, Law, and Kingship in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia

by Dominique Charpin
Translated by Jane Marie Todd
University of Chicago Press, 2010
182 pages, English
Cloth with Dustjacket
ISBN: 9780226101583
List Price: $55.00
Your Price: $52.25

Chapter one of Dominique Charpin’s new book deals with literacy within Mesopotamia, in particular, during the Old Babylonian Period.  Charpin concludes that literacy was more wide spread than some have previously thought.  He thinks that students underwent both divinatory and scribal training–not just one track or the other.  Furthermore, he demonstrates (persuasively, in my opinion) that generals, kings, advisors, diviners, etc. were often at least functionally literate.  That is, many high officials were able to read and even to write in a rudimentary manner.  If you are interested in the topic of ancient literacy you really should read this chapter–it is an updated and translated version of his article: «Lire et écrire en Mésopotamie: une affaire de spécialistes?», Comptes rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, 2004, p. 481-508 (paru en 2006) which you can download for free here.

One of the most significant factors in Charpin’s conclusion is a text that Simo Parpola re-collated in which a general writes a letter asking for a scribe to be sent to him: ’The man without a scribe and the question of literacy in the Assyrian empire’, in B. Pongratz-Leisten et al. (eds.),Ana šadî Labnani lu allik: Festschrift für Wolfgang Röllig (Alter Orient und Altes Testament 247), Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1997, pp. 315-324.
Download PDF version of article

Another article that contributes a great deal to this discussion (and which Charpin does not cite) is Alisdair Livingstone’s “Ashurbanipal: Literate or Not?,” Zeitschrift für Assyrologie und vorderasiatische Archäologie. Volume 97, Issue 1, Pages 98–118.  In this article Livingstone argues that Ashurbanipal and other officials within the royal court were literate.

As we consider the question of literacy, we must back up and reflect upon what we mean and Rick Hess does just this in his essay, “Some Views on Literacy.”

The last resource that I will mention is Christopher Rollston’s new book in which he considers the question of literacy within ancient Israel:
Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel

Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel
Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age
Archaeology and Biblical Studies – ABS
by Christopher Rollston
Society of Biblical Literature -SBL, 2010
171 pages, English
ISBN: 9781589831070
List Price: $21.95
Your Price: $20.85

I think one of the best ways to let ancient texts and cultures speak to us is to interpret them within their ancient contexts.  That is, in order to understand the unique contributions of a writer it is important to analyze his or her work within the environment in which that work arose.  Of course, each reader brings aspects of him or herself to the reading event; this is unavoidable and it is not even desirable to do away with this entirely.  However, we will grossly misread ancient texts if we merely read them in light of our own cultures and worldviews.

While I am a very strong proponent of studying ancient texts within their original setting, there are many times in which the distance to the ancient past is actually shorter than we might think.  A little while ago I wrote about medieval maps and their representations of the world and applied this study to the necessity of interpreting biblical texts in light of their proper genre.  But, we don’t need to go back to the medieval period to realize that often times maps, or descriptions of the world, are not meant to be interpreted literally.  In fact, there are many instances of symbolic presentations of the universe that derive from the modern period.

For instance, the Stockholm city hall, completed in 1923, contains a map of the world.

In this representation the lady in the center of the mosaic signifies the city of Stockholm and the figures on the left and right–which include the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, and elephants–represent the western and eastern nations giving homage to Stockholm, which is at the center of the world.  This modern, European mosaic is strikingly similar to one of the first maps ever discovered–the map of the world from Mesopotamia that is housed in the British Museum.

Like the Stockholm mosaic, the Mesopotamian map places Babylon at the center of the world.  Now, if you went to the city officials of Stockholm who commissioned the mosaic and asked them: “Do you really think that Stockholm is geographically the center of the world and that the city is literally a woman sitting on a throne?” they would promptly put you in a straight jacket and deposit you in a rubber room.  Rather, the point of the map is to show–from the perspective of the residents of Stockholm–that their city is incredibly fantastic and more beautiful, sophisticated, and important than all the other cities of the world.  It was never intended to be a literalistic telling of geography.  So, why would we think that the people who made the Mesopotamian map were doing anything different?

Furthermore, I think this same concept is also in play when we get to ancient cosmologies.  For instance, did ancient Egyptians really believe that the naked goddess Nut was splayed above the earth and that the sun-god was pulled across the sky in a boat as depicted here (for more on Egyptian cosmology see Leonard Lesko’s essay in Religion in Ancient Egypt starting on page 88 which you can view in Google Books)?:

I don’t think they did.  It seems to me that we would have to assume that ancient Egyptians were quite stupid to think that they viewed this depiction literalistically.  After all, you could easily look up to the sky and see that there was not a naked body up there and that the sun wasn’t sitting in boat.  However, we should not discount the fact that there probably were some ancient fundamentalists who claimed that in order to be true Egyptian religionists one had to accept these counterfactual claims.  However, I think that most people likely interpreted this Egyptian cosmological representation in the same manner as Swedes who visit the city hall of their capital and view the mosaic in the Golden Hall.

So, in like manner, when we get to biblical cosmologies I think that the ancient writers of these accounts would regard literalistic interpretations as profound misunderstandings.  So, depictions such as Michael Paukner‘s are interesting, beautiful, and represent the symbolic descriptions found in the Bible but I don’t think that most Israelites really, truly believed that this was how the earth was literally structured.

I don’t think that any of these cultures believed that they produced a scientifically accurate description of the universe.  This idea should be tautologically obvious since it is anachronistic to think that ancient cultures would view the world like modern people who take things like the Hubble telescope and quantum mechanics for granted.  How else would ancient people have approached a topic that was so beyond their technological capacities to understand?  Symbolic representations were the only things available to them.

We should respect this fact as as we read ancient texts and not force them into some hyper-scientific grid.  Instead, read them as they were intended and likely understood by the vast majority of ancient peoples themselves: as beautiful and accurate–in their own right–symbolic representations of the world from the perspectives of particular cultures.  It seems to me that if you interpret them otherwise you are admitting that the ancients were idiots.