Presentations (Communicative Events)

Religion in Early Cuneiform

Englund, Robert K.

Presentation for the University Seminar: Religion and Writing, March 22, 2016. Seminar abstract: The Babylonian pantheon has been the focus of numerous studies that have accompanied the progress of the field of Assyriology since its beginnings in the mid-19th century. Indeed, the discovery, by the British Museum’s “Senior Assistant” George Smith, of the flood story in the 11th tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic occasioned a fairly rapturous debate over the various borrowings of intellectual content from Mesopotamian narratives by composers of the Old Testament. His portrayal of the Gilgamesh tale at a meeting of the Society of Biblical Archaeology on 3 December 1872, among others attended by Prime Minister Gladstone, may credibly be cited as the second major breakthrough of our small field of cuneiformists as partners in discussions of the history of knowledge in the ancient Middle East, of course following the famous cuneiform decipherment contest held in 1857. Four years after his death in 1876, Smith’s translation of the Babylonian Creation Myth and its praise of the hero-god Marduk was published. These were the heady days of the great British plunder of Nineveh and its Kuyunjik library of Assurbanipal, recently catalogued and made available online by a Mellon-funded cooperation between the British Museum and the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative at UCLA. The 1st millennium BC records of Babylonian religious thought, while well removed in time from the earliest cuneiform documentation of gods and goddesses, of death and afterlife, still reflect much of a strand of theology throughout Mesopotamian history, even in the visual representation of the pantheon found in our inscriptions. The present seminar will focus, in an informal setting and without expectation of any expert knowledge of what is, after all, a pretty arcane subject matter, on the iconography of cult and religion in the literate south of the 3rd and 4th millennia BC. We will see that a number of cuneiform signs and sign combinations represent often pictographically straightforward designations of forces of nature, the observed heavens, and the divine players, for instance the sun rising over the eastern mountains for the sun-god Šamaš = Sumerian Utu, or the “pig-lady” Nin-šubur, but we could stumble trying to identify the referents of less obvious characters such as that of the goddess of war and peace Inanna/Ištar, whose name is thought to stand for “Lady of heaven,” alternatively “Lady of ladies,” or of the moon-god Nanna, where a simple lunar crescent might seem more appropriate to us. These latter, pictographically obscure designations will be described as representations of standards that stood before cult centers in archaic Babylonia, as well as, possibly, in ancient Iran. Just when they lost their pictographic significance and became wholly abstract characters is not clear, but likely not earlier than the end of the 3rd millennium, when many believe the great counterclockwise tilt of cuneiform writing occurred, resulting in horizontal depictions of what otherwise would have been understood to be decorated posts or flagpoles standing tall.

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Academic Units
University Seminars
Published Here
April 19, 2016