“Literature As Performance, Fiction, and Art” by Barbara Smith

Chapter One of Barbara Smith’s On the Margins of Discourse: The Relation of Literature to Language (1978) is titled “Literature As Performance, Fiction, and Art.” In what follows, I will provide a brief summary of this chapter, along with some of my own thoughts.

As the title suggests, Smith suggests three elements are present in literature: performance, fiction, and art. First, performance is present inasmuch as something must serve as the instrument of performance in order “to translate the inscription of that lyric into an instance of work” (6). So, in she sees two theoretically distinct activities, namely the performer and the audience, which can occur separately or together. A good example is silent reading: when one reads silently, the individual both performs the text through interpretation and reading and also acts as the audience to the performance. For this reason, literature is a performance, a simulation of natural discourse.

Second, literature is art because “literary artworks may be conceived as depiction of representations, rather than instances, of natural discourse” (8). That is, the artwork is constructed in such a way that simulates natural discourse, a fictive construction, albeit one attempting to represent nature and natural discourse. Art is not actually natural discourse, that is discourse which occurs in a particular time and space as an event in history. As such, she sees a distinction between nature and art because  nature wasn’t designed to engage us as an audience, whereas art is. This point, though, is interesting in terms of philosophy and theology. Undoubtedly, many theologians would push against this claim, suggesting that God’s creating the universe (whatever that means) was actually a work of art. Therefore, nature is art and we should not distinguish between nature and art.

At base, her fundamental claim is that “the speech of men in history and nature is distinct from the language of art” (13). That is, whereas the speech of men in history and nature is historically determinate and considered natural discourse, the language of art is constructed as a representation of the natural discourse. It is not, though, natural discourse in and of itself.

The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship by Bakhtin and Medvedev

The following is a short summary of the book The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics by M. M. Bakhtin and P. N. Medvedev. It is primarily for my own records.

The primary aim of Bakhtin is to describe and critique Russian formalism from a Marxist perspective. Though addressing many aspects of Russian formalism and being generous in his description of it, his is especially attentive to sociological poetics. That is, Bakhtin is concerned with the relation between life and literature. Literature holds refractions of mediated life, reality “reflected through the prism of the ideological environment” (17). As such, literature reflects it ideological horizon. The Marxist, sociological approach of Bakhtin points to several problematic aspects of Russian formalism in this regard. These include, though are not limited to, Russian formalism’s use of subjective psychology, ignorance for the role of materials as ideological, and suppression of meaning.

Instead, Bakhtin positively criticizes Russian formalism. The main thrust of his argument is that every artistic construction is connected to a broader ideological horizon and is in an act of social intercourse when read: “To understand an utterance means to understand it in its contemporary context and our own, if they do not coincide” (121-122). Though not the focus, Bakhtin’s approach is essentially one of dialogism: “Definite forms of social intercourse are constituent to the meaning of the works of art themselves” (11), namely between the art and the ideological horizon. Between these poles, within an ongoing dialect, readers find meaning.

Though I won’t quote specifics, he has a few comment on topics relevant to my own work. He talks about the issue of genre as being clarified through awareness of who the imagined or perceived audience is (13). He also addresses issues relevant to intertextuality, namely his discussion of transposition (22) and the boundaries of text groups (77). Finally, he has a relatively lengthy discussion about genre (129-141.

Reflections on 1 Samuel

A few days ago, I finished reading all of 1 Samuel in Hebrew. As such, I have a few comments based on my reading.

First, there is a strong distinction between the narrator’s voice and the speech. In terms of syntax, the narrator’s voice tends to be significantly less complex. Speech by various characters, though, contains syntax which is significantly more complicated. In other words, there is a shift in the linguistic register from narrator to speech. Although this is not a novel discovery in the field of scholarship, it is notable for myself. In English translations of the Hebrew Bible, the change is linguistic register between narration and speech is difficult to notice, whereas in Hebrew it exceedingly noticeable.

In light of the clear distinction between speech and narration evident in Hebrew but not English translation, what can we learn about how one should translate Hebrew texts? Distinction between speech and narrative is an aspect of what gives 1 Samuel its literary character and genre. When translating into English without noticing the change in linguistic register, a substantial aspect of 1 Samuel’s literary character becomes invisible. Thus, it is my contention that all translations of Hebrew should translate more than the semantics and morpho-syntax. Translations should be attentive to linguistic register and explore the ways in which English can be commensurable to Hebrew with regard to linguistic registers of the narrator and various characters.

That said, I may check out Robert Altar’s translation in order to consider how he deals with the issue of linguistic register in narrative texts for his translation.

Second, thinking in terms of some of my recent readings, I was intrigued by David and his men’s meandering through Judah. Though I am skeptical about the historical precision of 1 Samuel, it contains refractions of 10th and 9th century BCE ways of expressing leadership throughout the Levant. In a recent article, Mahri Leonard-Fleckman argues that “House of David” language is reflective of the broader Neo-Assyrian and Aramaic ideas, wherein “House of X” language is more about a particular population and leader, as opposed to a particular geographic designation and central town [1]. So, though I by no means think that 1 Samuel is a perfect representation of history, it parallels the ways in which other groups of people were represented in the 10th and 9th century BCE.

Third, 1 Samuel is complex. The literary structure of 1 Samuel is not self-evident; the major themes are not exactly clear; Saul’s interactions with cult matters are complex, as are David’s. That is to say, 1 Samuel requires regular, close reading in order to begin to develop a sense of what are the major aspects of 1 Samuel.

[1] Mahri Leonard-Fleckman, “The bīt X Formula in Assyrian Documentation and Aramaean Social Structure,” in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel Vol. 7 No. 2, Epigraphy, Theory, and the Hebrew Bible (2018), 170.

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.


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.

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.



Mesopotamian Monday: Coronation Prayer of Assurbanipal (2/2)

Part 2: When the Scripts are Enacted

*This week, Mesopotamian Monday is divided into two parts. In order to fully understand Part 2, click here to first read Part 1

When scripts are embodied and performed on stage, certain physical aspects, not present before, become apparent. In this case, what does it mean for the officiant to “make a blessing toward the ‘Censer Gate’, that is, toward Shamash”?

First, we must identify the location of these documents. Then, based on the location of the text, we can infer the location where the ritual was enacted. Finally, by looking at the architecture of the Shamash temple, we may be able to identify ways in which the physical space makes the Coronation Prayer more understandable.

The Coronation Prayer of Assurbanipal was discovered in Assur at the house of an incantation priest, just 300 meters south of the great Ziggurat [5]. In proximity of the Ziggurat were a variety of temples dedicated to other deities, Shamash’s temple being among them [6]. This suggests that the giving of a blessing towards Shamash, towards the ‘Censer Gate’, may have occurred within Shamash’s temple.

Now that we have identified the location in which this ritual may have been enacted, how can the ritual space can help us to get a better sense of the performance of the Coronation Prayer? For this, two points should be addressed. First, it is difficult to identify what the ‘Censer Gate’ exactly was. For sure, we know that it marked a particular gate within the temple [7]. Second, whereas the temple entrance during the Old Assyrian and Middle Assyrian periods was on the northwestern front, the cult direction during the Neo-Assyrian period is re-oriented towards the East [8].

This shift in the direction is notable because the sun rises in the East. Seeing that the sun rises in the East, this means the sun would have had maximum access to the temple. Moreover, recall that the officiant turns towards Shamash. Thus, on the basis of the (a) eastern oriented Shamash temple and (b) the officiant of the Coronation Prayer turning towards Shamash, I would like to suggest that the Coronation Prayer would have been accomplished in the morning, when the temple would have received maximum sunlight.

Receiving maximum sunlight is extremely significant. Throughout Mesopotamian literature and history, reference is made to prayers, rituals, and judgment occurring at sunrise [9]. So, Mary Shepperson suggests that “these temple gateways where judgements were given and oaths taken may be connected to solar phenomena. If the presence of light is understood as the presence of the god of justice, then it seems desirable that judgement should be performed in sunlight” [10].

Therefore, performance of the Coronation Prayer was not a simply a religious prayer. Instead, the Coronation Prayer should be understood as a ritual performed in a physical space, one which was performed before Shamash. This reading is important because it suggests that the Coronation Prayer has legal overtones [11]. The ritual moves an individual from one legal status to another social status by means of religious language and actions. And, as I have demonstrated, this can be observed by considering the special and ritual aspects of the text [12].

At base, then, this should challenge our understandings of the relationship between “legal” and “religion.” Especially in the 21st century, people enjoy speaking about the separation between Church and state, often times viewing them entirely distinct entities. I propose, though, that this distinction did not exist in ancient Mesopotamia. Instead, the king’s new legal, social and religious status was invoked through rituals employing religious language and legal symbolism.

So, is this really a ‘Coronation Prayer’ or is it a ‘Coronation Prayer Employed in a Legal Ritual’? I suggest the latter.

[5] Weidner (1939-1941), pg. 210. Moreover, Weidner (1939-1941), pg. 210n30, notes that temple documents were often stored this house during the late period of the Assyrian empire. So, see also Ernst F. Weidner, „Neue Bruchstücke des Berichtes über Sargons achten Feldyug“, in Archiv für Orientforschung Bd. 12 (1937-1939), pp. 144-148.

[6] http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/nimrud/ancientkalhu/thepeople/ashur/index.html

[7] CAD B Babu A, 1C 2´.

[8] Adrndt Haller and Walter Andrae, Dei Heiligtumer des Gottes Assur und der Sin-Shamash-Tempel in Assur (Berlin: Verlag Gebr, 1955), 82.

[9] Mary Shepperson, “The Ray of Shamash: Light in Mesopotamian Architecture and Legal Practice”, in Iraq Vol. 74 (2012), pp. 51-64.

[10] Shepperson (2012), pg. 58. She continues by noting that, when temples were oriented Southeast, they would maximize the duration of the morning sun. Perhaps this is why the Sin-Shamash temple is not exactly East; rather, it is oriented between 73 and 103 degrees. Furthermore, though Shepperson is focused on the Ur III period, the same principle appears to be at place in later Mesopotamian history and literature, as is evident by her citations of NB texts. For a more broad overview of the influence of the sun on ancient architecture, see Ezequiel Uson Guardiola, Joan Lluis Fumado Alsina, and Josep Vives Rego, “The Influence of Religious and Cosmological Beliefs on the Solar Architecture of the Ancient World”, in International Journal of Architectural Engineering Technology no. 1 (2014), pp. 3-11.

[11] Martin Arneth, „“Möge Shamash dich das Hirtenamt über die vier Weltgegenden einsetyen” Der „Krönungshymnus Assurbanipals“ (SAA III, 11) und die Solarisierung des neuassyrischen Königtums”, in  Zeitschrift für altorientalische und biblische Rechtsgeschichte no. 4-5 (1998-99), pp. 28-53, provides an excellent form-critical analysis of o. 1 – r. 2, along with some fascinating work showing how the form matches on king rituals from the MA period and before. This work highlights the centrality of Shamash. However, Arneth does not deal with the stage instructions found in r. 3. My analysis, then, contributes to Arneth’s argument for the centrality of Shamash and the prayer as being legal in nature.

[12] Mapping out the way that a text imagines itself to be enacted in a physical space, and how that changes our reading of the text, was inspired by Jeremy Smoak, “Inscribing Temple Space: The Ekron Dedication as Monumental Text,” in JNES 76 no. 2 (2017), pp. 319-336.

Magic in the Anti-Witchcraft Rituals

One the topics I am exploring extensively right now is the topic of magic. It is a hotly debated topic, with a wealth of data to draw from an develop our understanding of it. So, I am currently reading one of the most well known “magic” texts from the ancient world, namely the anti-witchcraft ritual. It is more commonly referred to as Maqlu.

What I find interesting, though, is the way that language is employed in the text. Near the beginning of the text, we read the following:

I have made an image of my witch and my warlock

Of the one who made my image and the one who performs (witchcraft) against me.

(Tablet 1, Lines 15-16)

What I find interesting in these lines is the parallelism at play. In line 15, a G Preterite 1CS form describes the patients as “making” an image of the witch and warlock. Here, the verb epēšu is used in relation to the creating an image of the respective witches.

In line 16, the verbal form switchs from a preterite to two participial forms from the root epēšu. On each form is a 1CS possessive suffix. What is not identified is an object concerning what is epēšu-ed in line 16. Because line 15 uses a finite form of the verb in relation to creating a image, this notion appears to carry over from line 15 into line 16.

Moreover, in line 16, the participial forms function as substantivized participles, denoting an agent noun (cf. Huehnergard 20.1). So, the implication is that the participles communicate “the one made my image,” albeit without explicitly stating “image.”

Now, what is particularly interesting about this is that the patient performs the same basic activity which is performed by the witch and warlock. This is evident because of the parallelism in the lines. What this points towards, then, is something well-developed in scholarship: “magic” is problematic category for describing certain phenomenon because it historically carries an negative connotation. In reality, when we look at texts like Maqlu, the afflicted patient appears to be performing rituals similar to that of the “witches” themselves, or at least employing the same material means for rituals.

Therefore, while “magic” is a necessary category for interpreting texts, people, events, and things in history, we must always be conscious of what we mean by “magic.” Do we assume certain things about magic, which ultimately causes us to misrepresent the texts or cultures on hand? So, by being attentive to what we mean when we say “magic,” we can have (a) a better appreciation for other cultures and societies and (b) a more precise and accurate understanding of other cultures and societies.

“Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar: Introduction”

One of the fundamental grammars for Biblical Hebrew is Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar. Right now, I am reading it. As I work through it, I’ll be posting some observations about the grammar which I find intriguing.

First, as one of the fundamental grammars to Biblical Hebrew, it contains references going back to the 17th century. Because the 2nd edition of the English edition I am reading was published in 1910, this is not too surprising. Nonetheless, it is fascinating to see references to the scholarship which paved the way for modern biblical scholarship.

Second, in terms of chronology, it assumes quite a bit. For example, in describing the origins of Biblical Hebrew, GKC comments that it began “as early as the time of Moses” (2n). A similar sentiment is expressed concerning the age of Akkadian: “As regards the relative age of the Semitic languages, the oldest literary remains of them are to be found in the Assyrio-Babylonian (cuneiform) inscriptions, with which are to be classed the earliest Hebrew fragments occurring in the old Testament” (1m; bold-font added for emphasis). In both cases, GCK assumes the history reality of characters like Moses and Genesis 1-11. Most current scholarship would not use these chronological markers for explaining the history of biblical scholarship.

Third, GCK briefly introduces poetry, pointing to a metrical scheme for biblical poetry. In my training, though, it is accepted metrical schemes do not play a role in biblical poetry; rather, one of the basic building blocks in parallelism. This is a good reminder that much of what I take for granted as “how things are” in scholarship may not be so 50-100 years from now!

Fourth, concerning grammar and on a similar note to the previous, GKC discusses what makes the grammatical structure of the Semitic family unique, pointing towards how “the verb is restricted to two tense-forms” (1f). Although some still use “tense” to describe the language of Biblical Hebrew, I am convinced that Biblical Hebrew is primarily an aspectual language, tense being secondary.

Ancient Religion, Creative Writing, and Comic Books

As teaching becomes increasingly important in universities, it becomes increasingly necessary for graduate students to seek out creative, new ways of effective teaching practices. In the last few days, an article on the role of creative writing in the classroom was published. Then, on August 16th, a short piece on Mesopotamian figures in marvel comics was published. When taken together, these articles provide a potential example of how to address religion in the ancient world.

First, Sara Ronis included a creative writing assignment in her course “Home, Exile, and Diaspora in the Hebrew Bible” (original article here). The assignment was described as follows:

The Creative Lamentation assignment asked students to write their own “biblical” lamentation (in English) about an event that occurred in the last hundred or so years. To prepare for the assignment, we read excerpts from Sumerian city and cultic laments, the biblical book of Lamentations, and a modern Lamentation about the Holocaust. Together we generated a list of features common to the genre: repetition, personification, specific forms of imagery, self-reflection, rhetorical questions, and the use of multiple voices. With our list in mind, students chose a modern event and went off to do research so that their Lamentation could include rich contextual detail. Then students wrote their own Lamentation about the event, in an alphabetical acrostic, and composed a separate reflection on why they made the artistic choices that they did. They could write their reflection either as a standalone paragraph or as a series of comments in the margins of the Word Document (a la Rap Genius).

This approach enabled students to demystify the Hebrew Bible, engage with it critically and thoughtfully, and identify the rhetorical strategies of laments. Needless to say, incorporating creative writing assignments into coursework could be very productive.

I wonder, though, if this could be expanded beyond creative writing. In an article by Louise Prkye, she points out that Mesopotamian literary figures like Gilgamesh and Inanna appears in a few Captain America and Conan the Barbarian comic books (original article here).

So while students can create modern laments as a means of understanding rhetorical strategies of laments and demystification of the Hebrew Bible, I wonder if it would be possible to incorporate a comic book creation project as means of understanding certain elements of characters in ancient Near Eastern myth and the Hebrew Bible.

For example, a course could focus on how certain “Biblical heroes” or “Mesopotamian heroes” function within their respective literary and social contexts. Next, we would read through the representation of ancient figures in these comic books. Then, just as Ronis did, we would work as a class to develop features common to the genre and these types of figures. Subsequently, students could create a particular hero, employ the types of figures and the genre as found in ancient texts and comics, and create a short comic book reflective of contemporary concerns. It would be framed, though, in the style of these ancient heroes.

Of course, this would only work for the more artistically minded students. Nonetheless, it would be a good opportunity for students to critically and thoughtfully engage with the representation of Mesopotamian myths and their relevance. They would do so by creating a modern hero based on the motifs, themes, and genres of ancient heroes.

In the midst of doing so, students would have to engage with the relationship between heroes and religion. Though I don’t know exactly how this would pan out, it would be an interesting, and potentially fruitful, experiment.