Mesopotamian Monday: Oracles to Esarhaddon

In any political situation, political figures look towards a variety of social figures, events, and things in order to find justification for their words and actions. For example, Fox News can serve as a means by which the words and actions of Donald Trump are justified and legitimatized to himself. Similarly, a survey can serve as the means by which the words of any political figure justifies his or her actions and words. In both cases, Fox News and surveys are both perceived as truthful and legitimate. Thus, political figures can employ them as a way to justify actions and words.

Yet, what is perceived as truthful or legitimate is often dependent on an individual’s social, political, cultural, and historical context. So, whereas Donald Trump perceives Fox News a legitimate source to justify himself, other would argue that Fox News is not a legitimate source. Therefore, by looking to Fox News, some would claim that Donald Trump does not justify or legitimize his actions.

Now, I am interested in exploring this issue in the ancient world. So, what did ancient Near Eastern kings perceive as truthful and legitimate sources? Moreover, what sort of evidence do we have which demonstrates their understanding?

Of all the Neo-Assyrian kings, Esarhaddon (680-669 BCE) stands out as a king who is understood as particularly superstitious [1]. His characterization as being superstitious is derived largely from records of cuneiform oracles written to Esarhaddon [2]. These oracles are, essentially, divine responses to Esarhaddon. More broadly, they are a form of divination with which Esarhaddon engaged. As will become more apparent when I discuss a particular oracle to Esarhaddon, it appears that divination and oracles were perceived by Esarhaddon to be truthful and legitimate sources. As such, they served to justify his words and actions.

In a particular oracle, Ishtar of Arbela communicates with Esarhaddon concerning his legitimacy. From the text, a few significant themes emerge. First, Ishtar is attributed with always supporting Esarhaddon, commenting “I have made firm your throne for long days and eternal years under the great heavens.” Second, Ishtar is attributed with ultimately killing the enemies of Esarhaddon. So, she says, “O Esarhaddon, rightful heir of Mullissu, with a raging dagger in my hands I will finish off your enemies” [3]. Third, and similar to the first two points, Ishtar claims she will protect Esarhaddon, being aware of his situation as king: “I will be your good shield. O Esarhaddon…. I am mindful of you.”

Of utmost importance, though, is that the speaker at the beginning of the text is Ishtar: “I am Ishtar of Arbela.” As an oracle, this phrase suggests that the words within it are those of Ishtar. Therefore, the text portrays Ishtar herself as claiming to communicate the words and, subsequently, to communicate her eternal support of Esarhaddon.

Practically, this text would have functioned on one level to legitimize the political rule of Esarhaddon. Importantly, oracles and divination as a tool of legitimizing political authority should not be understood as a means rooted is “irrational” thought, something often attributed to magic. Rather, Esarhaddon’s use of oracles and divination should be understood as a form of ancient science, albeit one which used magic [4]. This ancient science was, subsequently, employed for the purposes of state actions and legitimacy [5].

Notably, the use of divination is not unique to ancient Mesopotamia, although the particular texts and rituals which it employs are unique. Rather, the use of divination for political and bureaucratic purposes is common throughout societies in the ancient world and modern [6].

Moreover, this has implications for how we understand the 21st century: how do religious and political leader use religious texts as a means justifying actions and word? Although I wouldn’t say that the oracles employed by Esarhaddon are the same as the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, I do suggest that they are analogous [7]. Just as the oracles employed by Esarhaddon served to legitimize his political rule, the Hebrew Bible and New Testament sometimes serve to legitimize the words and actions of certain political figures.

In summary, all political figures employ authoritative ‘things’ to legitimize actions and words. The particular things employed are perceived to be legitimate and truthful by his- or herself. The ‘thing’ may not be perceived as legitimate by another individual or group, though. Therefore, by suspending our own notions of what constitutes truthful and legitimate things by which to justify oneself, we can begin to understand the logic of how other people think in different social groups across time and space.


[1] Although this is suggested by Benjamin Foster, Before the Muses (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), 814, consider also a perspective more recently perpetuated by Andrew Knapp, Royal Apologetic in the Ancient Near East (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015), pg. 325n61: “Esarhaddon… likely had no shortage of enemies. Similarly, Esarhaddon’s notoriety for religious fanaticism may be overblown in recent scholarship; I adhere to Frame’s more cautious approach (“Esarhaddon should not necessarily be considered abnormally superstitious” [1992, 91]); see also Leichty 1995, 957.”

[2] Foster (2005), 814, notes that about fifty oracles are known. A selection of those oracles is available in English in SAA 9 (link).

[3] Foster (2005), 814n2, suggests that this may mean “that Esarhaddon is ineffective as a warrior without Ishtar’s assistance.”

[4] See Francesca Rochberg, “Empiricism in Babylonian Omen Texts and the Classification of Mesopotamian Divination as Science,” in JAOS Vol. 119, No. 4 (1999), pp. 559-569; David Brown, “Astral Divination in the Context of Mesopotamian Divination, Medicine, Religion, Magic, Society, and Scholarship,” in East Asian Sciences, Technology, and Medicine No. 25 (2006), pp. 69-126. U. Jeyes, “Divination as a Science in Ancient Mesopotamia”, Jaarbericht Ex Oriente Lux, vol. 32 (1991), pp. 23-41. For a similar perspective concerning southern Africa, see Wim Van Binsbergen, “Four-Tablet Divination as Trans-Regional Medical Technology in Southern Africa,” in Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 25, Fasc. 2 (1995), pp. 114-140.

[5] See the various contributions to Alan Lenzi and Jonathan Stokl (eds.), Divination, Politics, and Ancient Near Eastern Empires (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2014).

[6] See, for example, Adam Smith and Jefferey Leon, “Divination and Sovereignty: The Late Bronze Age Shrines at Gegharot, Armenia,” in American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 118, No. 4 (2014), pp. 549-563; Carol J. King, “Plutarch, Alexander, and Dream Divination,” in Illinois Classical Studies, No. 38 (2013), pp. 81-111; Rowan K. Flad, “Divination and Power: A Multiregional View of the Development of Oracle Bone Divination in Early China,” in Current Anthropology, Vol. 49, No. 3 (2008), pp. 403-437.

[7] Although much work has been done on how the Bible was later used as a magical text, see the following examples: Joseph Angel, “The Use of the Hebrew Bible in Early Jewish Magic,” in Religion Compass 3/5 (2009), pp. 785-798 and this link for a view article on ancient amulets. Now, although beyond the scope of this post, I tentatively suggest that, in some cases, the Bible is used as a form of divination. This discussion, though, will have to wait for another day.


















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