Review of “The Early Mediterranean World, 1200-600 BC” edited by Anne-Maria Wittke

BNP.jpgBrill’s New Pauly: The Early Mediterranean World, 1200-600 BC was originally published by J.B. Metzler Verlag as Der Neue Pauly Supplemente 10: Frühgeschichte der Mittelmeerkulturen in 2015. This volume is the translation of the original 2015 volume. Focusing on the cultural epoch of the ‘early Mediterranean world,’ about 70 scholars contributed to the volume. It covers a wide range of issues: broad theoretical and methodological problems, the history of various regions throughout the entire Mediterranean, and, most importantly, various aspects of cultural contact (i.e. trade and economy, ancient warfare, religion, etc.). The prospect alone of editing and putting together a volume involving such a wide variety of specialists throughout the Mediterranean is, of course a Herculean task. Yet, Anne-Maria Wittke was able to accomplish the task. So, in what follows, I will offer a broad summary of Brill’s New Pauly: The Early Mediterranean World, 1200-600 BCE (henceforth BNP 9). Following the summary, I will highlight some particularly valuable aspects of BNP 9, along with some (potentially) problematic aspects.

The volume is divided into three major sections. The first section is titled “The Mediterranean region, ca. 1200-600 BC.” This covers a wide range of important methodological issues concerning perspectives on the ancient Mediterranean region. To approach the region, the volume is framed with the cultural studies notion of landscape: “Landscapes are created by people – through their experience and engagement with the world around them. They may be close-grained, worked upon, lived0in places, or they may be distant and half-fantasised” (21). By employing this perspective, it becomes more evident that “objective” description of landscapes often involves “a minefield of clichés, colonial preconceptions and racist imputations,” things which should be held in check and require constant self-critical awareness when studying ancient Mediterranean history (22). As such, the impression of the Mediterranean as a whole entity is, at base, a modern construct. This is best highlighted through considering the diversity of relationship between people and the sea, the climate, geological resources, and hinterlands. And, so, one should speak of landscapes rather than a single, ancient Mediterranean landscape.

Having addressed landscapes, the problem of chronology is subsequently addressed. First, the problem of chronology as a construct is addressed: “it is necessary to work with notional dates, that is, dates that are the ‘results’ of chronological constructions or else based on hypothetical synchronisms” (26). Such constructs are usually based on archaeology, and sometimes texts, involving phase divisions, value judgements, and periodization. Moreover, the problems of relative vs. absolute chronology are addressed, along with the importance of dendrochronology and 14C dating and their particular limitations in context of the Mediterranean and early historical period. Second, the volume considers ancient models of time. It focuses are three aspects: the cyclical chronological model, time and action (i.e. calendars, inscriptions, and administrative records), and time and monuments (i.e. monuments which offer “a visible and tangible marker of space and time” (33), an expression of permanence).

Next, the problem of culture and culture contact is addressed. Though referencing the normative, evolutionist views developed by Johann Gottfried Herder, the volume takes the stance of Edward Tylor: “culture is a construct by means of which present and historic conditions are tentatively ordered and related to one another, both by members ‘of a culture’ and by external analysts” (36). Later scholars who clarified this notion are briefly discussed. Moreover, the material, cultural value of things and cultural subjects is addressed. Having defined culture, things, and cultural subjects from a theoretical standpoint, the subsequent discussion briefly engages with the problem of cultural contact. Pushing against the essentialist view of culture, which tends to assert cultural hierarchy, the volume prefers a more heterarchic relationship between cultures, wherein the cultures are analyzed as recipients, free and rational actors who “decide whether to accept cultural products and how they are incorporated into their lives” (38). This sort of approach is called ‘glocal,’ which denotes “the intermeshing of local conditions and external influences acting on them and the processes involved,” an approach which “must be put in its historical context so that its unique character may be recognized” (39).

Most central and problematic for understanding landscapes, constructed chronology, and describing culture and cultural contact, though, is sources. So, the first section concludes with a discussion of the various sources available to scholars throughout the Mediterranean. This is addressed in terms of (a) literary sources (including oral sources) and (b) material sources and archaeology. These overviews, particularly that of literary sources, is a splendid introduction to those who are seeking a basic understanding of how and why scholars know what they know about history. This portion is concluded with a helpful overview of the history of scholarship as it relates to the relationship between Mediterranean history and archaeology, the concept of objectivity, and research and discoveries from the 19th and 20th centuries (i.e. methodologically, textual transmission, excavations, and particular cultural zones).

The second major section, entitled “Regions of the Mediterranean world,” provides an overview of 8 areas: the Iberian Peninsula and islands; Southern France and Central Europe; Italy, including Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia; Continental Southern Europe; Greece, including Crete and other Greek territories; Asia Minor; the Levant, northern Arabia, northern Egypt, and Cyprus; and North African territories from Cyrenaica western, along with other Phoenician and western Phoenician territories. Description of these regions constitutes the bulk of the volume (pp. 65-391).

The third and final major section is entitled “Aspects of cultural contact.” Generally, each subsection in the final section describes a particular aspect of cultural contact between societies of the ancient Mediterranean. These discussions synthesize the data presented throughout the second major section by focusing on a range of issues: settlement and mobility; society and authority; religion in the Central, Eastern, and Western Mediterranean, along with a thorough discussion of religion as it concerns sacral spaces and cultural contacts; war and warfare; economy and raw materials; history of law in the Eastern Mediterranean world; and cultural technologies and knowledge, which includes discussion of language and scripts, and various forms of early science in the ancient Near East, Egypt, and Greece. Notably, each section deals with theoretical and methodological issues related to the subject matter.

The appendix contains three helpful charts. These charts describe the various chronological systems of the Mediterranean world from 1200-600. Additionally, the end of the volume includes 11 detailed regional maps. These maps are particular helpful because they include the general cultural regions (i.e. Catalan Urnfield Culture, Latial culture, Southeast Hallstatt Zone, etc.). Moreover, a few helpful references maps are included throughout the volume: deposits zones and major centres of primary metal extraction from 1200-600 BCE; Mediterranean settlements and trading contacts with probably sea routes, land routes, caravan routes, and contact zones; a map of Mediterranean landscapes; and a map of currents, wind patterns, and sights of land in the Mediterranean.  Finally, the volume includes a helpful chart of languages, describing the language/branch/dialect, script, evidence, periods of attestation, and region(s).

Overall, BNP 9 is arguably one of the more important publications of 2018. Its enormous breadth of methodological, theoretical, archaeological, and historical presentations with regard to regions throughout the ancient Mediterranean is unparalleled. In particular, BNP 9 should be addressed for any scholars specializing in the history of a micro-region around the Mediterranean. I recommend this for a few reasons. First, each entry in BNP 9 in particularly sensitive to the problem of theory and method. As such, BNP 9 provides superb discussion of theory-method issues as well as a superb bibliography for each section. For instance, scholars of religion interested in the role of sacral spaces can either (a) draw from the basic conclusions presented by Beat Schweizer or (b) identify various bibliographic references fundamental to the study of sacral spaces in order to further develop her or his own definition or understanding of sacral spaces for their particular region. In other words, BNP 9 is thorough enough to use for identifying and defining key methodological-theoretical terms; however, it is also a compendium of up-to-date, bibliographic information which can be used to further research.

Second, in an academic world where interdisciplinary dialogue is becoming more important, BNP 9 provides a path for scholars to expand from their own micro-regions to the broader networks of the ancient Mediterranean, or to at least be more attuned to the broader networks of the ancient Mediterranean.

Third, the wide variety of entries concerning methodology, theory, particular regions, and synthesis of ancient Mediterranean networks are helpful introductions to the material. They would be most helpful for upper-level undergraduate courses or graduate courses. One section in particular stood out to me. In 3.1C, Beat Schweizer and Frerich Schön discuss aspects of cultural contact as they relate to the settlement and mobility of Phoenicians. It illustrates the history of scholarship concerning the Westward expansion of Phoenician colonies, clearly outlining the problems related to categorizing the settlements as “colonization,” the history of ideas surrounding the cause of Westward expansion, the current state of scholarship, and the problem of distinguishing between “colonists” and the “indigenous groups.” Moreover, it is a helpful demonstration not just of the historical content and history of scholarship, but also of how method and theory significantly impact the ways in which historians reconstruct history. As such, the entries in the volume have the potential to be introductory material for students which is exemplary and pedagogically valuable.

My criticisms of BNP 9 are few and far between. First, some experts in their field will undoubtedly find certain analyses, claims, and presentations problematic. As concerns my field, there was nothing which I found to be particularly problematic. Second, while the maps are extremely detailed and helpful, it can sometimes be extremely difficult to identify cities on maps. This is especially true with the map of Italy.

In conclusion, BNP 9 is a superb volume. With its detailed coverage of the entire ancient Mediterranean, attentiveness to methodological and theoretical concerns, and syntheses of ancient Mediterranean networks from various perspectives, BNP 9 is indispensable for scholars researching any regions addressed in this volume. Moreover, many of the articles in BNP 9 would be helpful introductory material for advanced courses. In short, though many individuals may not purchase this volume, any research university should have this volume on their shelves or online.



The Pharaoh’s Treasure: The Origin of Paper and the Rise of Western Civilization by John Gaudet

John Gaudet, The Pharaoh’s Treasure: The Origin of Paper and the Rise of Western Civilization (New York: Pegasus Books, 2018).

The following review is the longer form of a review which will be posted on Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Having completed his Ph.D. in Botany at the University of California at Berkeley, John Gaudet primarily worked as an ecologist throughout his career. His early work focused on studying papyrus in Africa, working as an Africa Region Environmental Advisor in the US Agency for International Development, and, most recently, working as a writer and ecology consultant. So, in The Pharaoh’s Treasure, Gaudet attempts to leverage his technical knowledge of botany and ecology for the purpose of writing a history of papyrus. In what follows, I will summarize the book and offer critical reflections on the content of the book.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section is titled “Guardian of Immortality.” It attempts to highlight on how ancient Egyptian paper and books were discovered, along with their cultural significance. The second section is titled “Egypt, Papermaker to the World.” It attempts to highlight the earliest forms of paper, its manufacturing, and how it came to be a central medium for communication in the ancient world. The final section is called “Enemy of Oblivion” and explores a variety of disparate topics.

Throughout the book, many interesting aspects concerning the nature of papyrus, what people thought of papyrus, and how papyrus faded as a central means of communication are revealed to the reader. Nonetheless, I have three primary criticisms concerning the book: the disjunctive character of the narrative; the general poor quality of writing; and the misrepresentation of history, scholarship, and sources.

First, the narrative of the book is, at best, characterized as disjunctive. In Chapter 18, Gaudet discusses Roman libraries. He starts off by addressing a library built in 217 AD. This is followed by discussion of libraries built in the 1st century BCE, 1st century AD, 2nd century AD, and ends in the 4th century AD, noting that “there were twenty-nine public libraries in Rome” (195). After having moved forward chronologically, Gaudet abruptly moves back to discussing libraries from the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE. This is disjunctive inasmuch as there is not clear chronological or logical trajectory. Instead, Gaudet seems to write all over the place, inattentive to any particular logical trajectory. This is also true with how each chapter links to the previous and proceeding chapter. And, unfortunately, this is only one example of the many disjunctive stories and narratives awkwardly woven together into an uneven, distorted tapestry. Such unevenness makes it difficult to follow the majority of what Gaudet is trying to communicate to the reader(s).

Second, the writing is generally poor in quality. This concerns both the narrative aspects and the structural aspects. Concerning the narrative, a prime example is in his discussion of how a particular manuscript was transported to Rome. He writes, “As he stepped forward, we can only imagine his feelings, as with the greatest of trepidations, he snapped open the sealed latches on the container to reveal the contents” (275-276; italics added for emphasis). In trying to construct the narrative, Gaudet’s comment “we can only imagine his feelings” awkwardly instructs the reader to understand the story in a particular manner. A better, more engaging narrative would exclude the sentence all-together. In other words, he regularly tells his readers what they should experience, instead of allow them to experience it for themselves.

Finally, the book is replete with poor history, scholarship, and sources. For example, he comments that the various Semitic alphabets became the Latin alphabet (63). Though true, his source material for this is Wikipedia! He also cites Wikipedia as an authoritative source in Chapter 9 endnote 13, 15 endnote 9, and 24 endnote 9. Frankly, Wikipedia is the proper source for a research book. Although it may reflect common agreements among academics and within scholarship, proper representation should be sought after in books and articles written by scholars who specialize in the field. Such uses of Wikipedia is a rookie mistake.

Moreover, he lacks an understanding of history. In the following list are a few places demonstrating that his analysis regularly misrepresents history:

– “In this case, a papyrus scroll has trumped many of the previous carved or painted monumental artifacts” (29). Gaudet makes this comment to conclude that papyrus is a better means of communicating than stone or paper. This is, though, a gross misrepresentation of history. Certain mediums were used for communication based on their goals. So, monumental inscriptions on stone sometimes sought to influence the average passerby. Papyrus could never fulfill this function. So even if papyrus “trumped” in helping to preserve certain historical data, it could never trump how stone monuments functioned within history itself.

– “By comparison, another classic document of the seventeenth century B.C. that should have been a best seller, as it had wide importance and application, was Hammurabi’s Code of Law” (44). Gaudet’s comment is silly. It has been well established within scholarship that Hammurabi’s Code of Law was not intended to be legislation in the modern sense. Rather, it was more of a literary creation than anything else. Therefore, to claim that it had wide application is simply poor reading of an ancient text and demonstrates lack of understanding concerning scholarship and history about the text.

– Concerning the popularity of papyrus during the Roman period, Gaudet suggests that the writing on scrolls and subsequent storage of scrolls “began recorded history and the organization of knowledge” (150). This is false or, at best, a misrepresentation of history. Prior to the emergence of the Roman empire, we have thousands of cuneiform sources, many of which come from family archives. Such archives were preserved for thousands of years. Likewise, the famous library of Assurbanipal contained many magical-medical documents, letters, myths, and other types of texts. These were organized within the library. Such organization of texts suggests that the notion of Roman papyrus storage being the “beginning” of history is silly. Moreover, a brief look at cuneiform texts from the 2nd millennium further demonstrates that such a claim is utterly false.

– Gaudet cites Isaiah 19:4-7, which describes paper reeds as withering away and being no more. He subsequently comments that he was “amazed to read this prophecy in the Bible. Athough the timeframe referred to by Isaiah dealth with that part of the Old Testament that took place in the eigth century B.C.,… he seemed also to be predicting what would happen in a relatively modern age… if his prophecy were fulfilled in later times, as it was, there would never be any doubt that he was referring to a plant so important that before its demise, it had influenced the economic and aesthetic well-being of the Western world” (265). My concern here is that he seems to be expressing that, perhaps, the prophetic literature, namely the book of Isaiah, actually prophesied the demise of papyrus. Frankly, this is not history. Such a claim, or even suggestion, has no place in a book purporting to tell a history of papyrus. His comment seems mainly theologically and ideologically motivated.

–  Through the book, Gaudet presses the claims that papyrus gave rise to Western civilization. Consider, for example, his statement: “Luckily for the written word, papyrus paper arrived in about 3000 B.C. just in time to help kick-start Western civilization and literature as we know it. From then on, as cuneiform clay tablets faded into the background, the world could breathe easier as words became as transmittable and as easy to spread as the scrolls they were written on” (12). This claim is simply a wrong representation of history. First, he argues that papyrus kicked started the start of Western civilization; however, Gaudet never makes a cogent or coherent argument for the claim. That is to say, papyrus may have played an important role in the origins of Western civilization; however, he provides no reasoning as to why it, in particular, kick started Western civilization. Second, Gaudet claims that clay tablets faded into the background. Simply put, this is wrong. In fact, some of the most extensive, though relatively not well researched, period for cuneiform tablets is the Neo-Babylonian period (6th century BCE). Taken together, this example illustrate how Gaudet pairs poor argumentation for a claim with a flawed understanding of history and historical sources.

– Discussing Moses, Gaudet notes that portable records would be appreciated by Moses, a “point that Moses would come to appreciate when we was commanded to appears in 12000 B.C. at God’s bidding atop Mount Sinai” (21). Such a claim is problematic as Moses’ reality is not demonstrable anywhere outside of the Hebrew Bible. In other words, the narrative about Moses is not history – it is tradition. He continues: “Since the Torah also recounts the creation of the world and the origin of the people of Israel, their descent into Egypt, and the drafting of the Torah on Mount Sinai, it is in part or whole a significant undertaking, composed of many pages. If Moses had turned to a chisel and hammer, it may never have happened. Instead, he must have searched for a scroll of papyrus paper… We know that at a later date, among the Gnostic documents,” namely early Christian documents, “there is reference to God as having a pen of gold. Whether Moses was so equipped, we don’t know, or whether God loaned him His pen we are ignorant, but according to the story when he came down the mountain carrying tow tablets in his arms he must have had a copy of the Torah written out on a paper scroll sequestered someplace in the folds of his robe” (21). The problem of Moses’ historical reality aside, the claim that Moses must have written the Torah on papyrus is incredibly problematic. First, there is nothing in the book of Exodus suggesting that Moses wrote anything on papyrus. Second, it methodological wrong to use documents written from early Christianity in order to illuminate what happened historically. Though he would be justified in claim that the early Gnostic documents demonstrate how pervasive and important papyrus was within early Christianity as a medium for communication, his claim goes too far. One cannot use early Christian literature in order to insert ideas into texts written and composed at least 800 years prior.

Although this review is lengthy, it is because I hope to demonstrate how Gaudet’s work is full of problems, ranging from representation of history to writing quality. And though no book is perfect, I may still recommend them. In the case of The Pharaoh’s Treasure, I do not recommend anybody read this volume. The only helpful and interesting chapter simply described the papyrus plant, where it is from, and how it is produced. In other words, the only chapter worth reading is the chapter which discusses Gaudet’s expertise. History, though, is by no means Gaudet’s expertise.

In fact, a review of his first book entitled Papyrus expresses the same problem: “the plant’s history is not especially well-conveyed in the book’s scattershot opening chapters, which confusingly mix a history of papyrus use and mythology in ancient Egypt with tales of 19th- and 20th-century European explorers in Africa, plus such present-day swamp-dwellers as Louisiana’s Cajuns” (Kirkus Reviews). It seems, then, that all Gaudet has accomplished in his newer book, The Pharaoh’s Treasure, is expand the scattershot, confusing mix of history with modern tales of explorers into a full length book with a scattershot of confusing history and modern European tales.


The Ethics of Office Hours — The Craft of Teaching in the Academic Study of Religion

By Jonathan E. Soyars A few weeks into my first full-time teaching a position, a student asked me a seemingly straightforward question shortly before I began my lecture: “Can I meet with you after class?” “Sure,” I responded, “let’s head upstairs to my office.” Then they said, “Thanks, something big has come up.” After I […]

via The Ethics of Office Hours — The Craft of Teaching in the Academic Study of Religion

Article on pesaḥ by Mira Balberg and Simeon Chavel

Although it is quite long, I recommend reading the article titled “The Polymorphous Pesach.” Here is a summary of the article:

Despite points of critical clarity in the scholarly tradition, the biblical account of Exodus 12 continues to be treated as a sufficiently coherent story of origins that relates how the Passover festival and the pesaḥ ritual were established and what makes all subsequent performances reenactments. This article surveys ancient literature presenting or invoking the pesaḥ, from its very first representation in biblical literature up to the debates about it in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, to show that the pesaḥ is an instance of “repetition without origin” and one that problematizes the very notion of reenactment. The article demonstrates that successive authors and editors do not provide any clear sense of how the pesaḥ was done in their time or what the general tradition was as to its origins; the original version was itself already fragmentary and unworkable; subsequent work to recast and re-present it is always interpretive and re-interpretive in nature, is conditioned by the argument of the larger literary work, and advances contradictory views. Because the early sources construct the pesaḥ in so many opposing ways, subsequent readers had unusual liberty to interpret and retold this important practice in whatever shape best suited their needs and understanding. The survey illustrates how completely the pesaḥ foils the attempt to write its history both as a practice and as a literary tradition, but also how it generated a long and rich history of creative thought around itself.

Mira Balberg and Simeon Chavel, “The Polymorphous Pesah: Ritual Between Origins and Reenactment,” in Journal of Ancient Judaism 8 (2017), 292-343.

The article is available via Simeon Chavel’s Academia page.

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.

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).