“Being a Man: Negotiating Ancient Constructs of Masculinity” edited by Ilona Zsolnay

As the title state, this volume explores constructs of masculinity from a variety of regions and time periods in the ancient world. In light of the notion of evolving ideal masculine paradigms, an attempt is made to negotiate the “various ancient attitudes towards, and guidelines for, being a man” (5). It covers a wide range of materials, including, though not limited to, Sumerian literature, Indian literature, and 19th century Gothic imagination. Proceeding, I will offer a succinct summary of each chapter. Then, I will offer my criticism of the particular chapter.

In Chapter One, Ilona Zsolnay and Joan Goodnick Westenholz investigate Sumerian texts in order to survey the basic categories of males (assigned roles). A through analysis illustrates how “Sumerian constructions of masculinity are rooted in class distinctions and societally understood age parameters” (30). They also shed important light on the lexemes nita, Lu{2}, and sag. Thus, this article offers a valuable framework for future studies engaging in the topic of masculinity, or gender more broadly, in the ancient world. In the coming years, I look forward to seeing how people engage with this article and more thoroughly develop the categorization of men and masculinity in Sumer.

Julian Assante identifies overtones of sexuality in Assyrian iconography. She argues that “By looking at pictures that glorified the Assyrian male body and degrated the non-Assyrian body, that ranked and genderdered masculinities and that around and sublimated homosexual desire, all men of whatever rank participated in the maintainance of hierarchical tensiona nd the paradigm of penetrator and penetrated on which the imperial state was built” (74). Notably, it is clear that sexuality was important to Assyrians. Likewise, the question of penetrator vs. penetrated is important to consider. However, Assante’s conclusions quite speculative and not well substantiated. For example, she says at one point that “although we know virtually nothing concrete about the sexual tastes and habits of Assyrian kings… it might be said with some certainty that a king could “take” a eunuch if he wanted to without compromising his reputation for superlative manhood” (68). She bases this on the fact that eunuchs often worked with the harem of women. Yet, this is nothing more than speculation, and should be presented as such. Likewise, she seems to disregard time itself: “Given the eunuch’s dualistic attributes of warriro bedmate from Islamic period, it is left to the imagination what sexual roles eunuchs actually played in Assyrian campaigns” (73). The amount of time between the Islamic period and Assyrian campaigns is far too much to even “imagine.” And the call to compare eunuch’s during an Assyrian campaign with those during the Islamic period is simply sloppy. In short, the ideas in this contribution have potential; however, it is requires more thorough and reasonable arguments.

Mary R. Bachvarova explores Hittite constructions of masculinity for kings in the Late Bronze Age. Her analysis of various documents point to three major characteristics for a good, Hittite man: “”sexual restraint; curbing greed… and mutual care and loyalty across generations” (102).  Overall, her arguments are well-laid out and offer valuable insight into Hittite constructions of masculinity. One place, though, deserves mentions. While discussing Kumarbi’s response to looking at cliffs, and consequently sleeping with them, She notes that the rock is usually treated as female. Iconography, though, depicts the rock as male. The claim, though, should be expanded upon as regards the relationship between iconography and text. For, iconography and text are entirely different mediums. They must be treated as such, even when using one or the other to explain another. Nonetheless, the contribution is a wonderful example of how ancient societies constructed masculinity.

J.S. Cooper examines moments where masculinity is called into question, with particular focus on the deity Ishtar. In particular, he engages with the idealized masculinity, as opposed to “valorized modes of male behaviour” (112). Through his analysis, Cooper locates a rubric of mature vs. immature. With this rubric drawn from the texts, he concludes that ideal masculinity is to be a competent warrior. For this reason, Ishtar was not problematic for ancient Near Eastern religion(s) and culture. Like other contributions, Cooper’s article will be helpful for moving forward in attempting to understand masculinity in Near Eastern society.

Simon Brodbeck, a well known scholar of Indian literature, maps masculinities within the Ramayana and Mahabharata. First, he discusses how the Ramayana and Mahabharata are sometimes explicitly concerned with constructions of masculinity. Through both texts, the audience/reader is invited into the narrative as it navigates masculinities. Second, Brodbeck discusses the masculine construction of the Ksatriya. This model, though, is often times subverted by other problems and characters. Finally, he suggests that the texts sometimes merge the Brahmin and ksatriya masculinities into a new category of masculinity. Regarding this contribution, the most I can say is that it was interesting. As I study nothing related to Brodbeck’s field, I can’t offer any comments.

Ann Guinan and Peter Morris use Queer Theory interpretative strategies to “connect the dots… between the seemingly isolated but charged Mesopotamian texts” (151). Most notably, they attempt to offer insight into the structure of MAL 19-20. They do so in order to uncover the logic progression from one to the next. They further compare Omen 13 with Gilgamesh. Eventually, they conclude “an inexorable, almost geometric logic governs Mesopotamian imaginings of sex between male social equals” (168). While this may be argued, the texts from which they draw from are too few to make such a broad claim. The idea is great; however, it need substantial development in terms of evidence and tying together the various texts.

Through narrative of 2 Samuel 10:1-5 and the notion of hegemonic masculinities, Hilary Lipka outlines some relative, subordinate, and marginalized masculinities within biblical texts. This piece is important because it offers a model for other biblical scholars who focus on issues and questions of masculinities in the Hebrew Bible.

Marc Brettler first examines the words pairs ‘ish and ‘ishshah, zakar and neqebah. For Brettler, the former is gender and the latter is sex. In other words, biblical Israel saw, to a certain extent, a distinction between sex and gender, though it did not see many options between the two. While this is an interesting thought, I would appreciate further discussion of the passages throughout the Hebrew Bible. For the context in various places may impact how we understand the functions of ish/ishshah and zakar/neqebah. In light of this, Brettler argues that David Cline’s previous study of gender in the Psalms does not provide sufficient evidence to claim that Psalms is a male book. Further, Clines does not distinguish between sex and gender. So, Brettler complicates and nuances our understanding of Psalms and gender by exploring a variety of Psalms individual. He concludes that Psalms may be composed by one gender and used by another, and gendered language may have been accentuated or deemphasized as individual psalms were reworked. His consideration of gender leads to the suggestion that earlier Psalms are more focused on the “male” or “man”, while later Psalms bring in women from the periphery.

By far, this is one of the best contributions to the volume.

Martti Nissinen explores varying constructs of masculinity through the concept of relative masculinities. He argues that different finds of masculinity are appreciated in different ways in a variety of texts. Viewing masculinity as relational and constructed from ideal masculinities, he considers the spectrum from four perspectives: sexuality, body, empire, and religion. In terms of sexuality, namely physical sexual activity or lack thereof, Nissinen offers three examples in which masculinities are relative to the particular literary and historical context: prohibition of male-to-male penetration in a cult context (Leviticus 20:10-26), male-to male intimacy in a kingship ideology (David and Jonathan), and Jeremiah in a prophetic context. In terms of body, namely the physical appearance of a man, Nissinen selects eunuchs as a case study. He offers four varieties of eunuchs “as queering figures who challenge stable gender identities and transgress fixed gender categories” (228). Each example illustrates how eunuchs challenge gender identity in different ways. Third, Nissinen compares the Mesopotamian sha reshi to saris in the HB. He does so in order to show that eunuchs may have maintained authority and power within an empire context. Finally, Nissinen considers the possible relative masculinity of the qedeshim. Acknowledging that the qedeshim are represented in Deuteronomistic texts as male practitioners with of homoeroticism, he offers this as a possible example of a relative masculinity with the margins of ancient Judaen cultural memory. In short, Nissinen’s analysis is valuable in that it recognizes the diversity of how the Hebrew Bible represents marginalized and relative masculinities. Such considerations are essential, as we often times get stuck in viewing the HB as a single book rather than a compilation of various ancient texts and traditions.

Steven W. Holloway traces the reception of Gen. 6:1-4. He does so by examining its reception through four poets and artistic representation. He explores how the aforementioned attempt to engage with the performance of masculinity. While I found the contribution intriguing, it was far too much out of my zone of research to be able to offer any comments.

In summary, this volume is a mix bag. A few of the contributions are priceless. These may very well impact approaches to Near Eastern literature and Hebrew Bible (Brettler, Nissinen, Westenholz, etc.). Some contributions, though, contained good ideas without enough substance or support (Morris, Assante). The volume is a great addition for a library; however, I would not recommend it in ones person library. The material has such a disciplinary and historical range that it will only be helpful to a certain extent. For instance, while Brodbeck’s contribution on the Mahabharata was interesting, it is worlds away from Sumerology, Assyriology, and Biblical Studies. Likewise, I found Holloways contribution intriguing, but reception of biblical texts into the modern period is a very different ballgame than the rest of the contributions.

In short, I appreciated a few of the contributions; however, there was far too much range of material within the volume. It would be more helpful if the range of material were a little bit more focused.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion.



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