Mesopotamian Mondays: Multiple Creation Myths

Creation myths in ancient Mesopotamia explain why things exist in the way that they exist. This is also known as a cosmogony. For example, in a text by Plato, “a divine demiurge (craftsman)… transforms a preexistent chaos into an ordered cosmos in imitation of an eternal model” [1]. Likewise, some Rabbinic Jewish texts are devoted to establishing ties between the Jewish calendar and creation itself [2]. Through reading each of these traditions, modern readers can get a sense of how these respective people-groups made sense of the world. In doing so, the important principles within the respective cultures become more apparent. So, the Rabbinic Jewish text demonstrates how the Jewish calendar was central to Jewish culture, which is therefore explained within a cosmogony, or creation myth. Likewise, the Plato text demonstrates the cultural importance of the eternal model.

And within a single culture, multiple, competing cosmogonies can exist simultaneously, each focusing on a different aspect of the culture [3]. This is true with Mesopotamian myths [4]. So, in this blog post, I will briefly discuss how one particular creation myth centers around the renovation of a temple.

The creation myth itself is commonly called “The First Brick.” Rather than being a pure literary text, though, it is framed as an Akkadian incantation, presumably recited during temple-renovation rites. Incorporation of creation myths into rituals and incantations is not uncommon in Mesopotamian literature. As with most creation myths, it is framed with language akin to “in the beginning”: “When Anu had created the heaven” [5]. Subsequently, Ea is described as taking clay from the Apsu, typically understood as “primeval waters,” and creating a variety of deities (ln. 26). This is followed by a list those created by Ea, including deities and humanity (lines 27-39). The second half of the text describes the various activities to be performed by those who Ea had created. Of paramount importance, each created subject is built to perform a particular deed as it concerns the renovation of a temple. Activities range from providing food-offerings to performing particular rites.

What is evident as the central aspect of this creation myth, then, is the temple renovation. Each character within the narrative sequence has the expressed purpose of somehow contributing to a temple renovation. By contrast, “The Theogony of Dunnu” focuses on the descent of gods and their subsequent deposition [6]. Moreover, “The River Incantation” focuses on the role of the River as both creator and a means by which ritual impurity and sin are carried away [7]. In other words, while each creation myth may include some aspects of temples in creation and cosmogony, the temple renovation is a central concern of the creation myth “The First Brick,” unique to this particular text.

[1] Encyclopedia of Ancient Mediterranean Religions, 213.

[2] Encyclopedia of Ancient Mediterranean Religions, 215.

[3] In the Hebrew Bible, we see the two creation accounts: Genesis 1:1-2:4a, commonly designated as the Priestly Source; and Genesis 2:4b-3:24, commonly designated as the Elohistic Source. Most relevant to this post, though, is that each cosmogony has a distinct focus.

[4] W.G. Lambert, Babylonian Creation Myths (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2013),

[5] Lambert (2013), “The First Brick,” ln. 24, p. 381. This is analogous to the language in Genesis 1:1.

[6] Lambert (2013), “The Theogony of Dunnu,” 387-395.

[7] Lambert (2013), “The River Incantation,” 396-398.

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Mesopotamian Mondays: Deities Who Forget

In the ancient world, deities were perceived as sometimes forgetting about humans, their servant subjects. Such is true for ancient Judean religion(s) (i.e. the Hebrew Bible) and Mesopotamian religion(s). So, in what follows, I will briefly explore one method by which Assurbanipal reminded deities to pay attention. This is followed by a couple of examples demonstrating how certain actions and moments in the Hebrew Bible are means by which the Israelites reminded the deity to pay attention.

During the reign of Assurbanipal (c.  668-627 BCE), the Assyrian king collected a massive amount of Akkadian (cuneiform) texts from across Mesopotamia. He then compiled these texts into a single location, which is the modern archaeological site of Kouyunjik, ancient Nineveh. Many of these cuneiform tablets are explicitly noted as being compiled for the palace of Assurbanipal. In other words, Assurbanipal of Assyria was responsible for creating a treasure trove of literary, magical, ritual, and other types of cuneiform texts.

His gathering of these texts served to point to Assurbanipal’s wisdom. In doing so, he hoped that this would also cause deities to look favorably upon his rule, life, kingship, and well-being. In fact, most of these texts contain statements at the end of the tablets about the scribe and writing process. This is more commonly called a colophon. In a few of these colophon’s, the speaker of the text is Assurbanipal himself! So, at the end of a medical texts, the colophon begins with: “I, Assurbanipal, king of the universe, king of Assyria, on whom Nabu and Tashmetu have bestowed vast intelligence… I wrote down on tablets Nabu’s wisdom, the impressing of each and every cuneiform sign, and I checked and collated them” [1]. Assurbanipal goes on to plead for well-being in the present and future.

In this prayer-colophon, the tablet serves as a reminder to the deity: “When this work is deposited in your house and placed in your presence, look upon it and remember me with favor!” [2].  Essentially, the material on which Assurbanipal claims to have written serves as a physical reminder to the deity to pay attention! Thus, by amassing a massive number of texts, many of which explicitly reference being in the Palace of Assurbanipal, his accumulation of texts is practical on two planes. First, it highlights his role as a sage par excellence. Second, the accumulation physically serves as a reminder to the deities, especially the writing deity Nabu, to pay attention to Assurbanipal.

A similar sentiment is expressed in the Hebrew Bible. Throughout the Pentateuch, more commonly referred to as the Torah, people do certain actions which remind Yahweh to pay attention to them. Likewise, Yahweh requires Israelites to perform certain actions so that he doesn’t forget things. For example, Jeremy Schipper and Jeffrey Stackert illustrate how circumcision functions as a reminder to Yahweh: “by prescribing a physical “blemish” for all Israelite males, God turns an irritant into an effective reminder for himself so that he might always bless his people with fertility” [3].

Additionally, Yahweh remembers his covenant with the Patriarchs only after he hears the groans of the Israel: “And Yahweh hear their groanings, such that God remember his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God saw the sons of Israel and God took notice” (Exodus 2:24-25; my translation). In other words, Yahweh is not portrayed as having divine omnipotence, knowing and remember everything happening in the world; rather, he is portrayed as being a forgetful deity, inasmuch as he forgets about the Israelites and his covenant. It is only sound, a loud cry, which reminds Yahweh of his covenant. In short, this demonstrates how the notion of needing deities to pay attention is a common problem in the ancient Near East; however, different time periods, scribes, and cultures deal with the issue in different ways [4].

 

[1] Benjamin Foster, Before the Muses (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), 831.

[2] Before the Muses, 831.

[3] Jeremy Schipper and Jeffrey Stackert, “Blemishes, Camouflage, and Sanctuary Service: The Priestly Deity and His Attendants,” in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel 4 Vol. 2 (2013), 477-478.

[4] To be clear, I am not claiming that these are the same or that one influenced the other. Rather, I am suggesting that this is simply part of the broader ancient theological environment.

Review: “The Anti-Witchcraft Ritual Maqlû: The Cuneiform Sources of a Magic Ceremony from Ancient Mesopotamia” by Daniel Schwemer

Schwemer2017Tzvi Abusch and Daniel Schwemer are two of the most prolific writers with regard to Maqlû¸ the well-known Mesopotamian anti-witchcraft ritual. Already in 2016, Tzvi Abusch published the long-awaited critical edition of Maqlû, a remarkable editorial achievement [1]. This volume, then, serves as a supplement to the critical edition of Maqlû. Instead of focusing on translations and transliterations like Abusch’s critical edition, this volume focuses on the epigraphy and history of transmission of Maqlû.

Chapter One introduces Maqlû. First, he briefly describes the matter of witches, withcraft, and anti-witchcraft rituals in the ancient Near East, a particularly succinct summary which provides (a) scholarship history and (b) a summary of Maqlû. Subsequently, he describes the role which the Maqlû-ceremony played culturally, describing the prestige of Maqlû in Mesopotamian tradition and how it was incorporated into other rituals and texts. Shifting to textual transmission and dates, he suggests that the exact composition date is unknown; however, on the basis of linguistic forms, development of Babylonian literature, and extant MSS, it was likely composed between the 13th and 11th centuries BCE, with a fixed length of eight tablets, followed by the Ritual Tablet. Even so, evidence from rituals like Bīt Rimki and SpTU 4, 128 point towards “the plurality of maqlû rites used in the ritual practice of āšipūtu” (4). At last, Schwemer provides a thorough synopsis of the maqlû-ceremony.

Whereas Chapter One provides an overview, Chapter Two discusses the MSS of Maqlû. This discussion of MSS also includes, of course, a helpful discussion of the history of scholarship. Figures in this include Fracois Lenormant (1875), George Smith (1875), Theophilus G. Pinches (1891), James A. Craig (1895), and, most importantly Knut Tallqvist (1890s). It was Tallqvist who first reconstructed tablets I and II, some of Tablet III-VII, and a “Tablet VIII,” which he had not yet identified as the Ritual Tablet. After exploration of the Kuyunjik Collection and subsequent work, Meier identified that the maqlû-series was composed of 8 incantation tablets and one ritual tablet. Meier’s work, Schwemer comments, “reflects, on the whole, an understanding of the Akkadian text that is still valid today” (24).

Of those fragments discovered at Nineveh, only 46/221 were known by Meier. Wilfred Lambert and Rykle Borger, though, helped to identify many of these fragments. The fragments were eventually joined together and ordered in Abusch’s critical edition. Subsequently, Schwemer describes the various locations from which other fragments were recovered, such as at Sultantepe, Uruk, Kish, and Nimrud. Other fragments, such as two NB MSS from Nippur, were identified; however, they remain unstudied. Finally, he lays out the distribution of canonical MSS, based on tablet.

Next, he considers source typology, for which he distinguishes between the Maqlû-text and parallel sources. Parallel sources “include text portions or passage that are identical or similar to passages in Maqlû. Those portions, however, are not presented as part of Maqlû, but are embedded in a different literary and ritual context” (26). As for sources who wrote Maqlû proper, he divided these into two categories: full-text tablets and excerpt tablets. The latter includes school texts and commentaries, for which we have 17 school tablets, two commentaries, and a LB explanatory text, demonstrating an understanding of Maqlû as “authoritative textual tradition that could be used as a witness in theological arguments” (27). The former, namely full-text tablets, include the vast majority of MSS. On the basis of the spread of these tablets, Schwemer suggests that they were not complete sets; rather, they were “individual assignments by advanced students of cuneiform” (28). Finally, he provides a chart organizing the MSS by Tablet, Siglum, Museum number and bibliography, Provenance, and Plate number.

Chapter Three attempts to group the various fragments on the basis of palaeography, tablet formatting, physical properties, colophon, and findspot/museum collection context. These categories enable to him to propose 5 plausible full-sets of Maqlû from Kuyunjik. He then proposes some smaller text groups for MSS from Ashur, Sultantepe, Nimrud, and those of unknown provenance, or in some cases no group. He does the same with MSS from Babylonian libraries at Babylon and Borsippa, Sippar, Kish, Nippur, Ur, and Uruk.

Chapter Four describes the variants and versions of Maqlû. In doing so, he distinguishes between the multiple levels of variation: section level, line level, word level, and morphological variation. For variations at each of these levels, he further distinguishes between legitimate variants, inferior variants, and scribal errors. Moreover, on the basis of the “comparatively homogeneous group of manuscripts with a low incidence of scribal errors,” Schwemer views the Kuyunjik Maqlû sources as the textual standard. In laying out the information as such, he effectively demonstrates the variation in Maqlû MSS through time and space. Perhaps more importantly, his analysis uncovers important morpho-syntactic patterns and peculiarities from Maqlû MSS, patterns which may help to make sense of morpho-syntax in other Assyrian and Babylonian texts.  

Chapter Five, forms a brief supplement to the critical edition by Abusch. Schwemer offers readings of cuneiform signs different from those of Abusch on the basis of hand copies in this volume. This is followed by hand copies of 126 Maqlû MSS.

Overall, Schwemer’s presentation of Maqlû MSS and variation within them is extremely valuable. His organizing MSS into tablet groups and subsequent tracking of variants between Maqlû MSS offers a helpful reconstruction of how texts were received and copy in Mesopotamia. Furthermore, his analysis of the variants by group has much potential for strengthening our understanding of various Akkadian dialects. For example, he notes that “The attestations for the nominative in -a­ found in the Maqlû manuscripts would suggest that scribes were prone to use them in intransitive clauses or in semantic contexts with low transitivity, but future studies based on a more comprehensive dataset of pre-Late Babylonian manuscripts of Standard Babylonians texts may invalidate this observation” (70). In other words, the spelling conventions and linguistics variations may be helpful data in elucidating how Akkadian developed in space and time.

I only noted a single typo on pg. 66. In the left column, the paragraph beginning with “The addition of ina before ŠU.[SI in RT 66′” does not include a final ] bracket after SI.

 

 

[1] Tzvi Abush, The Magical Ceremony Maqlû. A Critical Edition (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2016).

Mesopotamian Monday: Counsels of a Pessimist, Death, and Immortality

Life and death was, is, and will always be a reality for humanity. Throughout time and space, different cultures and individuals have dealt with it in different ways. In the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible, one of the most well-known passages is the time speech in Chapter 3: a time to be born, a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot; a time to smash and a time to build, etc. Professor Simeon Chavel at the University of Chicago convincingly argues, though, this “poetry… is a sham; life prosaically keeps one off-balance” [1]. In other words, the poetry about time mocks traditional wisdom, wisdom seeking to explain, amongst many other things, death.

Similarly, Greeks and Persians viewed the human soul as immortal, originating in the celestial realm. Therefore, upon death, souls would either return to the celestial realm or underworld for a period of cleansing. Christian tradition understands that the righteous will be granted immortality upon dying [2]. These examples demonstrate how different cultures understand life, death, and humanity. Here, then, I want to look into how a particular Mesopotamian text explores life, death, humanity, and immortality.

In the text Counsels of a Pessimist, a speaker initially expresses how life itself is temporary (lines 1-10). Lines 9-10 come to the following conclusion: “[Whatever] men do does not last forever, / Mankind and their achievements alike come to an end” [3]. The subsequent line, though, makes a sudden shift. The poem places the word “you” at the beginning of line 11, functioning emphatically in the text: “[As for] you to the gods, offer prayers” [4]. The subsequent lines continue by describing aspects and ways for the audience to provide prayers and offerings to the deity, along with the potential consequences of doing such. Finally, the speaker encourages the audience to banish misery and suffering, as they produce bad dreams, dreams which themselves contain portents and ominous signs (lines 16-22).

What the scribe of Counsels of a Pessimist has accomplished more broadly, then, is to create a contrast between the temporality of mankind, on the one hand, and the more important goal of serving and interacting with deities for success within such temporality [5]. After all, the gods hold immortality, whereas humanity does not. This is more explicitly explored in literature like The Epic of Gilgamesh. In the epic, Gilgamesh seeks immortality from Utnapishtim and a plant of rejuvenation; however, upon failure he ultimately “overcomes death” through building enduring structures [6]. I have to wonder, though, if this is exactly what Counsels of a Pessimist pushes against.

In the section describing the temporality of mankind, the end of a line reads “fire burns it.” Most commonly, the verb used here describes burning during warfare, namely the destruction of cities and people [7]. Unfortunately, that is the only readable part of the line. Although highly speculative, I wonder if cities and destruction by warfare is somehow related to the referent of the phrase “fire burns it.” If the line is referencing a city or a building, it means that the Counsel of a Pessimist is actually in disagreement with Gilgamesh’s view of attaining immortality! For whereas Gilgamesh attains immortality through building enduring structures, the Counsel of a Pessimist may be expressing the opposite, pessimistic worldview: even the “enduring structures” ultimately burn. Therefore, “Mankind and their achievements alike come to an end.”

[1] Simeon Chavel, “The Utility and Futility of Poetry in Qohelet,” in Biblical Poetry and the Art of Close Reading, eds. J. Blake Couey and Elaine T. James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 110.

[2] Daniel A. Smith, “Heaven,” in The Routledge Encyclopedia of Ancient Mediterranean Religions, eds. Eric Orlin et. al. (New York: Routledge, 2016), 399-400.

[3] W.G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960), 109.

[4] Lambert (1960), 108-109, transliterates [at-]ta, a 2MS pronoun. Moreover, line 11b, transliterated as šu-taq-rib can be normalized as šutaqrib, an Št 2MS Imperative. Because an imperative is present, the 2MS Pronoun is not necessary. Instead, it serves the morpho-syntactic purposes of emphasizing the subject. Additionally, the emphatic nature of the phrase atta ana illimma is evident in the use of a -ma because the subsequent lines 12-19, do not use a -ma. So, the –ma appears to be a non-coordinating -ma functioning to emphasize the initial part of the phrase, namely atta ana ilimma. See John Huehnergard, A Grammar of Akkadian 3rd edition (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2011), 325 (§29.2). So, whereas lines 1-10 focus on what mankind does to endure, line 11 has a strongly marked shift to how the audience interacts with deities. At base, it seems that this form of caus pendens, or front dislocation, of the phrase atta ana ilimma serves to create suspense. By fronting the phrase, the text itself uses Front Dislocation as a means to “amplifies referent enhancement and nonreferent suppression. Front Dislocation is not only an attention-getting device, but also an attention-creating and attention-directing device.” See Paul Korchin, “Suspense and Authority amid Biblical Hebrew Front Dislocation,” in JHS Vol. 15, Article 1 (2015), 14.

[5] This is potentially problematic because lines 23-31 are not transliterated, as they are unclear. So, I am taking the dream section in lines 17-22 as having to do with “interacting with the deities.” I have some preliminary notions on how this relates; however, it is an undeveloped idea. Therefore, even if the dream section does fit into the contrast between serving deities as opposed to the temporality of mankind, that contrast still is present.

[6] Jeffrey H. Tigay, The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic, Reprint of 1982 edition from University of Pennsylvania Press (Wauconda: Bolchaz-Carducci Publishers, 2002), 7.

[7] CAD Q, qamû.

Mesopotamian Monday: Prayer to Ishtar by Assurbanipal

Through examining hymns of exultation, we can attain a sense of how an individual perceives him or herself. So, by looking at one of Assurbanipal’s prayer to Ishtar of Nineveh and Arbela, we can get a sense of how Assurbanipal perceived himself, or at least how he wants others to perceive him.

The prayer may be summarized as follows: First, the speaker extols Ishtar of Nineveh and Ishtar of Arbela, who are to be understood as two distinct deities (lines 1-7). Subsequently, the speaker identifies himself as Assurbanipal and describes how the goddesses supported and currently support him, from birth to his current success as king of Assyria (lines 8-44).

Ishtar

Now, this hymn contains a plethora of rich imagery which could help us to understand how Assurbanipal perceives himself. I will focus on one aspect, though. In particular, I want to focus on how Assurbanipal represents himself as having been raised by a divine goddess. I suggest that this self-representation is conceptually related to how Marduk, a mighty warrior deity, is represented in the myth titled The Babylonian Creation Epic (Akk. Enūma eliš). First, I will discuss the relevant sections of each text independently. Second, I will point to the particular similarities in terms of the motifs and imagery employed.

In Assurbanipal’s hymn, Assurbanipal represents himself as having been raised by the goddesses:

I (am) Assurbanipal, their hearts’ desire,
Great seed of Baltil, [bo]rn at Nineveh,
Formed in the [Emashmash], and the Egashankalamma,
Whose kingship they [sum]moned(?) from the [crown prince’s] palace
They have [ordered] with their holy command that my throne long endure.
I knew neither human father nor mother, I grew up on my goddesses’ knees,
The great gods have guides me like an infant…
They made my physique splendid, they made mighty my strength,
They exalted my name over any other ruler’s. [1]

What stands out in these lines is how the goddesses themselves summoned Assurbanipal, ordering his kingship. Then, in describing his upbringing, he likens himself to an individual without human parents, an extraordinary experience for a human being. Subsequently, these gods are attributed with having made his strength mighty and physique splendid. In other words, he perceives himself as having been made into the ideal human and king, both caused by the goddesses.

Another text, commonly called The Babylonian Creation Epic, contains a similar description of a Marduk, a central deity in Mesopotamia who was known for defeating the mythological dragon of Chaos named Tiamat. Importantly, The Babylonian Creation Epic is a mythological narrative about Marduk’s ascent to primacy within the divine pantheon. So, the beginning of the narrative takes great care to represent Marduk as a mighty, fearsome deity. When Marduk is born, the narrative describes how he was raised:

He sucked the breasts of goddesses,
A nurse reared him and filled him with terror.
His figure was well developed, the glance of his eyes was dazzling,
His growth was manly, he was mighty from the beginning. [2]

Here, Marduk is represented as having been raised by goddesses. Unlike Assurbanipal, though, the goddesses are not attributed with making Marduk mighty; rather, he just was so from the beginning. Instead, Anu, father of Marduk, is attributed with rendering Marduk perfect (lines 91-92).

When placed side-by-side, an important theme emerges: the mighty-warrior-to-be who was raised by goddesses. Although framed in distinct ways, both Marduk and Assurbanipal are represented as being raised by goddesses. And while I don’t have evidence to suggest that Assurbanipal expressed himself as he did in order to compare himself to Marduk, it is plausible that Assurbanipal used the theme with full awareness that this was how mighty divinities were sometimes represented within other texts [3].

Thus, we return to the initial question: how did Assurbanipal want others to perceive him? On the basis of the previous discussion, I suggest that Assurbanipal wanted to be perceived as one who was intimately connected to the divine realm. By representing himself as having been raised by goddesses, he successfully integrates himself into the divine realm. Additionally, by emphasizing his perfect physique and might as originating from the goddesses, he is represented as an extraordinary human. He is, to a certain degree, representing himself as a superhuman, being part man and part divine.

 

[1] Benjamin Foster, Before the Muses (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), p. 820.

[2] W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Creation Myths (Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2013), p. 55, lines 85-88.

[3] This gains support from the fact that The Babylonian Creation Myth was so well-known during the 7th century BCE, itself being part of a cult ritual. For other references to the role of two goddesses in raising Assurbanipal, see Barbara Nevling Porter, “Ishtar of Nineveh and Her Collaborator, Ishtar of Arbela, in the Reign of Assurbanipal,” in Iraq vol. 66, Papers of the 49th Recontre Assyriologique Internationale, Part One (2004), pp. 41-44.  She notes two texts aside from the text we are examining. In both texts, goddesses are attributed to having suckled the royal baby Assurbanipal. Moreover, a commentator on Enūma eliš suggests that the “nurse who raised Marduk” was actually Ishtar of Nineveh, one of the two Ishtar-figures referenced at the beginning of the hymn. Although this isn’t proof for interpreting The Babylonian Creation Myth, it does support the general thinking that Assurbanipal’s being raised by Ishtar of Nineveh is conceptually similar to Marduk’s being nursed by goddesses. See Eckart Frahm and Enrique Jimenez, “Myth, Ritual, and Interpretation: The Commentary on Enūma eliš I–VII and a Commentary on Elamite Month Names,” in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel 3, Vol. 4 (2015), p. 301.

Mesopotamian Monday: A Prayer by Assurbanipal to Assur

Within religious traditions, a primary aim and orientation is sometimes to secure a blessed life for descendants. In Catholic and Christian traditions, this can occur through infant baptism. In Deuteronomy 11:19 and 6:7, teaching children Torah is emphasized. And in any case, depending on social status, the performance and language which are perceived to have efficacy for blessing descendants can vary.

Naturally, Mesopotamian prayers by kings were also aimed at securing blessings for descendants. So, how did Mesopotamian’s performance rituals in order to attain and secure a blessed life for descendants? One way to think about this question is by looking at a prayer by the Assyrian king Assurbanipal [1].

For the majority of the prayer, Assurbanipal praises Assur [2]. For example, the speaker exalts Assur as the creator:

[Let me exalt] the sovereignty of [Assur] forever.
[Cap]able one, profound of wisdom, sage of the gods, princely one,
[Father], creator of what is in the heavens and earth, who formed the mountains,
[Assur], creator of the gods, begetter of goddess(es),
[Whose heart] is inscrutable, whose mind is ingenious,
Lofty [hero] whose name is feared… [3]

Evidently, the speaker attributes creation itself to Assur, views Assur as a warrior, and consider Assur to be the wisest of all beings (i.e. “sage of the gods”).

In the second half of the hymn, we read of a focus on the descendants of Assurbanipal:

Among descendants, in far-off days,
For future reigns, years without number,
May th(is) praise of Assure be not forgotten, may it keep one mindful of Esharra, a temple in Assur.
Let it be in (every) mouth, may it never cease to enlarge understanding,
So that, as to me, Assur will deliver into your hands sovereignty of land and people [4].

Essentially, the speaker Assurbanipal prays for the perpetual reign of his offspring on the basis of his prayers and role in supporting the temple at Assur. Note, though, that Assurbanipal explicitly says “your hands,” with reference to his descendant. Although it is unclear whether he used a 2nd person form because his descendant is present where the hymn is performed or he imagines his descendant as being present, it is clear that the prayer is explicitly focused on his particular offspring, not the general concept of “descendants.”

Based on Assurbanipal’s father, though, this is no surprise. In a famous text typically called Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty, a covenant stipulates that all people within the Assyrian empire ruled by Esarhaddon commit to serving his son, Assurbanipal, as king when Esarhaddon dies [5]. Thus, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. For just as Esarhaddon attempted to ensure that Assurbanipal maintain reign and sovereignty, so Assurbanipal attempted to ensure that his descendant maintain reign and sovereignty [6].

 Therefore, Assurbanipal’s prayer to Assur uses religious language, imagery, and activities as a perceived means of securing political sovereignty for his offspring. This echoes how Esarhaddon ensured that Assurbanipal maintain sovereignty. At base, it demonstrates how a particular social class, namely that of the royal family, attempts to secure a blessed life for descendants.

 ________________

[1] As noted previously, individuals and groups with different social statuses will have different rituals and performances to attain blessed life for descendants. Now, the prayer which I am analyzing here was written for Assurbanipal. So, at most the text represents the ways in which a very small and wealthy social class sought to attain blessings for descendants. Therefore, we should be careful not to apply the paradigm and rituals represented within this hymn to every social group in ancient Mesopotamia, even if they do overlap is some places.

[2] In particular, he praises Assur as a primeval deity called Anshar. See Benjamin Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), pp. 817n1.

[3] Translation by Foster (2005), pg. 817.

[4] Translation by Foster (2005), pg. 818. Italics added for clarity in the text.

[5] For an example available on academia.edu, see Jacob Lauinger, “Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty at Tell Tayinat: Text and Commentary,” in Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. 65 (2012), pp. 87-123.

[6] Interestingly, perhaps Assurbanipal also looks backwards to his father, Esarhaddon in The Underworld Vision of an Assyrian Prince (SAA 03 032 r. 26). See Ramond C. van Leeuwen, “Cosmos, Temple, House: Building and Wisdom in Ancient Mesopotamia and Israel,” in From the Foundations of the Crenellations: Essays on Temple Building in the Ancient Near East and Hebrew Bible, eds. Mark J. Boda and Jamie Novotny (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2010), pg. 414.  

 

 

Chapter I in “Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar”

The subtitle of Chapter I is “Elementary Principles or the Sounds and Characters”. To no surprise, it is very dense. Nonetheless, the density of data is counterbalanced by very thorough and technical discussions of the descriptions. For example, in the discussion of the ayin and aleph, Gesenius (6e) points to the various ways in which the LXX transliterated gutterals, along with Arabic pronunciation. In doing so, he effectively demonstrates how he, along with other scholars, determine the strength of vowels, how the Hebrew alphabet works, and other similar things. In other words, Gesenius deals with information in a manner which doesn’t merely present “facts”; rather, he attempts to provide multiple examples for any grammatical, phonological, or syntactical claim.

Moreoever, his discussion of vowels, especially that of the waw and yod with their respective phonological shifts (such as au to a o with and ai to e), is laid out very clearly. As far as I am aware, professors do not typically assign Gesenius as a grammar. And while I surely don’t think an entire class should use Gesenius as a first year grammar, providing excerpts of some of his explanations may help some students. I, for example, don’t do well with memorizing raw data; however, once I understand how something functions and why it functions as such, I tend to hold onto the information much better. Explaining how something functions and why something functions as such is precisely what Gesenius, along with subsequent editors, do. Therefore, Gesenius can be a helpful tool for teaching, at least when used judiciously.

Furthermore, one particular point by Gesenius  makes me want the more conscious of the letters used at the beginning of lines in poetry. In section 5h, Gesenius notes that “The sequence of the three softest labial, palatial, and dental sounds… and of the three liquids… indicates an attempt at classification.” Although I am not necessarily convinced by this statement, or any of the evidence referenced, it would be productive to consider the phonological value of consonants and how they functions within the Hebrew Bible, especially within poetic texts. Though I don’t know what sort of results this may yield, it would be an interesting feature to investigate when present. It could be aided by the basic divisions between gutterals, palatals, denials, labials, sibilants, and sonants (section 6o).

In conclusion, if you are a 2nd year Hebrew student or later, just go and read Gesenius’ Hebrew grammar right now. If you don’t want to, at least consult it to find clarification on particularly confusing phonological matters.