I have been rather quiet here for a few days, though busy on Twitter. That’s because I have been in Oxford for a conference on Assyriology. I got to catch up with some of the great people I met in Barcelona, and made a bunch of new friends. I also got to hear some really great academic papers. Here are some highlights.
One of the strangest things I learned about was the Assyrian practice of appointing a “substitute king” when astronomical omens predicted the real king was in danger. Basically this meant that during an eclipse the king would retire to a safe place and a disposable person would be appointed to “rule” in his place. Then, if any magical attack happened, it would be the substitute who suffered.
Being a substitute king was no fun. All of the power still lay with the real king, who for the purposes of the interregnum was known as “The Farmer”. You got to live in the palace and eat nice food for 100 days, but after that you were killed so that the real king could have his throne back. You also got a wife, and she would be killed at the end of your reign too. This was not a nice custom.
Some of us got to chatting about the fictional possibilities, because this would make a great novel. The title even writes itself: The Substitute King. I’d set it during the reign of Esarhaddaon, partly because he was chronically ill for much of this reign, which adds plot possibilities, and partly because I could then have Taharqa and the Nubian Dynasty of Egypt in the story. Sadly I do not have the time to write this, but thanks to Adam Howe for a great paper.
Talking of Esarhaddon, this is his rather better known son, Ashurbanipal, in one of his most famous reliefs. It was a subject of a paper by my new pal, Sophie Walker. (No, not that Sophie Walker; and yes, this will do my head in.) The relief shows a banquet in the royal gardens at Nineveh. If Stephanie Dalley is correct, then these were the famous Hanging Gardens, built by Ashurbanipal’s grandfather, Sennacherib. (By the way, Stephanie was at the conference.) The banquet was held to celebrate Ashurbanipal’s victory over the Elamites. However, the focus of Sophie’s paper was not the reclining king, but the seated person to his left.
That figure is believed to represent Liballi-Sharrat, Ashurbanipal’s queen. Analysis of her outfit suggests that she has deliberately adopted an Elamite style of dress. Sophie’s paper was all about why she might have done such a thing. This appears to have been a deliberate act of cultural appropriation by the Assyrian court. Exactly why they would have done so is unclear, but it is very obvious that a message is being sent to someone in this scene.
Given that the conference did not have a gender focus, I didn’t expect there would be much relevant to my own research. Little did I know that the most important paper for me would be the one by Alexandra Llado on the subject of bears in Sumer. (Despite that double-l, Alexandra is not Welsh, she’s Spanish.)
It turns out that bears were a big thing in ancient Ur. Bears are not native to the Tigris-Euphrates valley, but the Sumerian empire stretched north to more mountainous areas where bears could be found. Given the time of year most bears were shipped to the city, and the language used to describe them, it is pretty clear that bear cubs were being captured and sent to Ur for training. There was even an official job title, Aluzinnu, for someone in charge of bears. (Interestingly some Assyriologists translate this word as “jester”, presumably on the basis of context.)
It seems highly likely that the bears were being brought in for entertainment, not as fighting animals as might have been the case in Rome. This is supported by the fact that, in some of the records we have, the Aluzinnu seem to have reported to the chief Gala, a person called Dada. Those of you who have seen my presentations will know that the Gala were singers and musicians. You’ll be hearing more about Dada from me in just over a week. For now I just want to thank Alexandra for saving me from a potentially embarrassing situation.
Mention of the Gala brings me to Michael Moore (no, not that Michael Moore) who had come all the way from UCLA to present. His paper was about the Hittites, who lived in Anatolia (Turkey) and were a very different ethnic group to the inhabitants of Mesopotamia. As far as I knew, they had their own religion (though one quite important to me because their homeland was the region later known as Phrygia, whence Rome claimed to have acquired Cybele). I was therefore astonished to hear Michael talk about court ceremonies in which musicians used “Inanna-instruments”.
Naturally I asked him about this. It turns out that the Hittites were using cuneiform and the scribes had chosen to use the Sumerian word for Inanna to represent something in their own language. Probably it would have been a local goddess. But equally the word might have been chosen because pictorial evidence suggests that the instruments in question may have been Sumerian in origin. Specifically, things like this:
All of which goes to show that it is really hard to interpret ancient texts, even when the words they use are familiar to us.
There were lots of other really interesting papers. Many of them were, of course, deeply technical. Others, while brilliant, were not that dramatic. But I want to end with my favorite paper of the event which came from my Danish friend, Sophus Helle. It was a literary paper focusing on Babylonian attitudes to death, and it strongly featured the Babylonian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The section that Sophus quoted is from the passage where Gilgamesh, grief-stricken after the death of his friend and lover, Enkidu, encounters an old man called Ut-napishti. Those of you familiar with the Epic will know that Ut-napishti is the character on whom the Biblical Noah is based. In Mesopotamian mythology he is chosen by the gods to survive the flood in an ark, and is rewarded with immortality. Naturally Gilgamesh questions him about death. The old man explains that death is something that sneaks up on mortals, unseen, and snaps off their lives as if they were reeds in the river. The passages below are from the A.R. George translation. Words in square brackets indicate unreadable signs whose meaning as been guessed from context. Ut-napishti says:
No one sees death,
No one sees the face of [death],
No one [hears] the voice of death –
Yet furious death snaps mankind!
He then goes on to illustrate this point in the next two verses.
At some point, we build a house
At some point, we make a nest,
At some point, brothers divide it,
At some point, hate between [sons] occurs.
At some point, the river rose, brought high water
A mayfly drifting on the river.
Its face looked on the face of the sun,
But in that very moment, nothing was there.
Between lines 2 and 3 of the first verse the man who built the house must have died, because his sons inherit it. Equally between lines 3 and 4 of the second verse the mayfly dies. The Babylonian poet has shown death without showing it: silent and invisible just as Ut-napishti described it. It’s beautiful.
My thanks to Monica, Lynn, Adam and Parsa for running a great event, and to everyone there for making me so welcome. I hope to see many of you again soon.