Mesopotamian Monday: Coronation Prayer of Assurbanipal (1/2)

Part 1: Reading Mesopotamian Texts as Scripts

*This week, Mesopotamian Monday is divided into two Parts. Part 1 can be read independently; however, Part 2 expands and builds on Part 1.  

Most students in the USA have read play scripts as literature during their K-12 education. Many of these play scripts have stage direction embedded within the lines themselves. These stage directions weren’t intended to be spoken; rather, the stage directions were intended to be performed. As such, it suggests that plays are not primarily literature to be read. Instead, the plays were meant to be performed, scripts only capturing a snapshot of performance, sometimes providing stage directions to aid in performance.

This raises a serious problem, then: how much do we lose when we read plays as “literature” rather than as a key to performance? This same problem, I suggest, is also present in Mesopotamian literature. So, I will discuss one text in particular, the Coronation Prayer of Assurbanipal. The text itself is relatively straight forward: the speaker requests blessings on the kings, economic prosperity for Assyria, and long life and military success for Assurbanipal. In the second section, the speaker describes the deity as having given symbols of power and authority to Assurbanipal [1], wishes that any who oppose the king would lose life and social status. This is summarized in a short section at the end of the text.

Notably, Foster includes a footnote between the first half and second half of the text. In the footnote, Foster notes a stage direction inserted within the text: “As soon as he has made the blessing, he turns around and makes a blessing toward the ‘Censer Gate’, that is, toward Shamash” [2]. Importantly, this stage direction is not an extra addition or commentary; rather, it is included within the flow of the text itself [3]. What Foster has done, then, is exclude the ‘stage direction’ from flow of the text.

It appears that Foster is attempting to present the coronation prayer primarily as a piece of literature. So, just as one would read a poem by Robert Frost, so one would read the Coronation Prayer of Assurbanipal. In my opinion, this misrepresents the text. When a text provides stage directions, whether it be a modern play or a Coronation Prayer, it is essential that we listeners pay attention! To a certain degree, it is a text’s way of saying, “Hey, I know that I’m meant to be performed in a physical space. So, I’ve provided stage instructions so that my words can be enacted and physicalized within a real environment.”

In this case, the Coronation Prayer is pointing towards its awareness that it is meant to be performed within the physical space of the Shamash Temple at Ashur [4]. In other words, without performance, the text is not entirely complete.

(Click here to read Part 2)

[1] Ernst F. Weidner, „Salz aus Bariku“, in Archiv für Orientforschung Bd. 13 (1939-1941), pp. 324-325.

[2] Foster (2005), pg. 816n1.

[3] Ernst F. Weidner, „Assurbanipal in Assur“, in Archiv für Orientforschung Bd. 13 (1939-1941), pp. 204-218.

[4] For a helpful methodology as it concerns monuments, see Jeremy D. Smoak, “Inscribing Temple Space: The Ekron Dedication as Monumental Text,” in JNES Vol. 76, no. 2 (2017), pp. 319-336.