ikhet_sekhmet: (ankh-mi-re)
Egyptian hieroglyphs at Mnamon: Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean: A critical guide to electronic resources

Ancient Egypt for kids - Egyptian Crowns and Headdresses of Gods

A Very Remote Period Indeed: A blog reviewing recent archaeological publications having to do with Paleolithic archaeology, paleoanthropology, lithic technology, hunter-gatherers and archaeological theory.

Untangling an Accounting Tool and an Ancient Incan Mystery (NYT, 2 January 2016)

Diodorus Siculus describes the Assyrian king Sardanapallus (perhaps Ashurbanipal) as a transvestite / transgender bisexual and blames him for the destruction of the Assyrian Empire - although the Greek historian's account mostly sounds like a pretty ordinary war.

Ancient Egyptian herbal wines (Patrick E. McGovern, PNAS 106(18), 5 May 2009) | Archaeological team prepares 4,000-year-old Hittite meals (Slate, 8 September 2016)

Ancient 'Mad Libs' Papyri Contain Evil Spells of Sex and Subjugation (LiveScience, 20 May 2016)

Scientist debunks nomadic Aboriginal 'myth' (GA, 9 October 2007) | Waking our sleeping Indigenous languages: 'we're in the midst of a resurgence' (GA, 31 August 2016) | Indigenous Australians most ancient civilisation on Earth, DNA study confirms (GA, 21 September 2016) | World-first genome study reveals rich history of Aboriginal Australians (ABC, 22 September 2016) | Indigenous Australians know we're the oldest living culture – it's in our Dreamtime (GA, 22 September 2016)

A Lost European Culture, Pulled From Obscurity (NYT, 30 November 2009). Review of the exhibition The Lost World of Old Europe: the Danube Valley, 5000-3500 B.C.

How human sacrifice helped to enforce social inequality (Aeon, 8 June 2016)

The Exotic Animal Traffickers of Ancient Rome (The Atlantic, 30 March 2016)

Female King Ruled in Canaan, Carving Suggests (National Geographic, 10 April 2009)

Scientists use 'virtual unwrapping' to read ancient biblical scroll reduced to 'lump of charcoal' (GA, 21 September 2016)

Unearthing the origins of East Africa's lost civilization (CNN, 19 October 2015)


Jul. 8th, 2016 08:59 pm
ikhet_sekhmet: (ankh-mi-re)
You learn something new every day. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse (Revelation 6) are typically named as Death, War, Famine, and Pestilence. However, it turns out that only Death is specifically named in the chapter. War is fairly clearly identified, but Famine and Pestilence are both guesses. The horseman I'm used to seeing called Pestilence is described thusly (KJV):
And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.
What struck me at once (so to speak) is that if this is Pestilence, then it's a Pestilence armed with bow and arrow - just as Sekhmet's messengers, the demons that deliver disease at her behest, are her "arrows".

Whether there's any connection between these two things is another matter entirely!

And this is how I found this out. *creeps away shamefully*
ikhet_sekhmet: (ankh-mi-re)
When I saw the spectacular conjunction between Venus and Jupiter currently in our skies, my first thought was, "She's probably threatening to beat him up." I was thinking of Anat's threat to El ("I will make your beard run with blood") in the stories of the hero Aqhat and of Baal's palace, and the parallels between that bloodthirsty Ugaritic goddess, the Mesopotamian Ishtar, and the Greek Aphrodite. But perhaps Athena is a closer analogue for Anat, as Bruce Louden argues in The Iliad: Structure, Myth, and Meaning.

Although Athena is often "calm and thoughtful", she also has angry and martial episodes. "Many of Athena's more striking features in Homeric epic - her use of deception against mortals, resentment of Zeus, bloodthirstiness... - all have close equivalents in earlier depictions of Anat." (p 285) As well as the similarity in their names, both wield spears, both "have certain masculine tendencies, are closely involved with their fathers, and have no relation to their mothers." (p 247) Both confront their fathers to get their own way, Anat with a direct threat, Athena while gripped by "savage anger"; and both are summoned to their fathers by divine messengers. (p 249-250) Louden also draws parallels with Anat and Baal and Athena and Ares (p 252-7).

Anat and Athena both punish arrogant heroes who foolishly offend them (something they have in common with Ishtar). In Anat's case, it's Aqhat, whose bow she covets; he rejects her offer of riches or immortality, telling her that bows are not for girls and even describing to the goddess of war what materials are needed to make one. In Athena's case, Hektor, Paris, and Pandaros all fall victim to the cheeked goddess' wrath. In both instances, the goddess enlists the help of another warrior (Yatipan, Achilles, and Diomedes) to get her revenge.

Louden compares the linking of feasting and slaughter in the Odyssey (the gory massacre of the suitors, in which Athena is instrumental), and Anat's "bloodbath":

"She arranges chairs for the soldiery,
Arranges tables for the hosts,
Footstools for the heroes...
Knee-deep she gleans in warrior-blood,
Neck-deep in the gore of soldiers,
Until she is sated with fighting in the house,
With battling between the tables."

(This is the most straightforward explanation of that passage I've ever read: Anat isn't fighting actual furniture, nor turning tables and chairs into soldiers, but hosting a feast and then killing the participants!)

Though there's no mention of Anat's worship in the OT, she is mentioned in personal and place names; but Louden also argues that the depiction of Yahweh himself was influenced by her imagery and mythology. He remarks that "divine bloodthirstiness is a typical aspect of deity for the period", as are deception and cruelty; he gives some striking and disturbing Biblical examples, including images of sacrifice and cannibalism (which tie back in to the combination of feasting and killing). He also compares the herem of Yahweh - the mass killing of a city's whole population, with the implication of human sacrifice - with a word of the same root used in one text to describe Anat's warfare.

Louden, Bruce. The Iliad: structure, myth, and meaning. Baltimore, Md, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
ikhet_sekhmet: (ankh-mi-re)
What a helpful and enlightening little book! Not just for comparisons with other Ancient Near Eastern cultures, but because everyone bangs on about the Bible these days, with varying levels of informedness.

A few observations from its pages:

"Artistically... ancient Israel was a cultural backwater... Yet one artifact from ancient Israel has survived: its literature, commonly if somewhat controversially called the Old Testament. Prohibited according to an ancient law from making graven images, the Israelites channeled their creative energy into literary activity." (p 1)

References to other books, now lost, show that there was literature beyond what's now collected as the OT, including poetry (eg The Book of the Wars of the Lord) and royal records (eg The Book of the Acts of Solomon).

"... in antiquity a book was not necessarily a single product of a single author but was often more like a hypertext, which several, even many writers might expand, edit, and otherwise modify [over generations]... For its final editors... preserving different sources was more important than superficial consistency. Even before the Torah became sacred scripture, then, its constituent parts had already achieved something like canonical status." (p 20) Hence different versions of the Ten Commandments were all included (p 61-2) (I'd like to compare some other ancient examples. Maybe the Gilgamesh epic?)

Similarly, "Almost every biblical text is composite in the sense that unlike modern works it was not written once and then considered complete; rather, a text was subject to constant modification, variation, commentary, elaboration, expansion, and other types of addition and editing as writers from later generations continued to add their insights." (p 52) So for example "laws, rituals, institutions" are linked to the story of Exodus because of its importance. (I suppose in a way the responses of neo-Pagans to ancient texts are a version of this - the texts are not dead and set, but alive and changing - although we hardly form a single, coherent community or culture.)

The Mesha stela, which has correspondences with the book of Kings, mentions the gods Chemosh and Ashtar-Chemosh, whom I must remember to look up. (p 27) Other gods mentioned in the OT: Amun, Marduk (aka Bel, Nebo), Nergal, Dagon, Baal, Resheph, Mot, Asherah, Astarte, Milcom of Ammon, Hadad of Aram, Tammuz, the sun, the queen of heaven, Azazel, and Lilith. Yahweh presided over a royal court of deities, the "sons of God" aka the "holy ones", who included his army or "host"; in later, more strictly monothestic times, this was not understood literally. (p 40-42) Similarly, Yahweh is described as battling the sea and proves his superiority to the Egyptian deities. (p 50) He himself has lots of the attributes of the local storm gods (eg p 53). (On a side note, recently I was puzzling how one might debunk the urban legend that the English word "amen" ultimately derives from "Amun", when I came across someone who pointed out that they don't actually start with the same letter. :)

"in biblical law an orphan is technically a child without a male parent." (p 58)

"Testament" means "Covenant". (p 59)

"the sacred, personal name of Yahweh is not to be used in magic, sorcery, or other unlawful ways, for Yahweh is not a deity who can be localized or controlled." (p 62) (Contrast with Egyptian magic spells in which the sorcerer threatens cosmic destruction if the gods don't do his or her bidding!)
ikhet_sekhmet: (Default)
Ooh what a stimulatin' book this is. I've only had time to skim-read, alas. The point to which scholar Athalya Brenner repeatedly returns is the Hebrew aversion to "admixtures". Things need to be kept tidily in their categories, especially similar things which might be confused (1).

Brenner suggests that sexual laws in the Hebrew Bible are a version of this avoidance of crossing boundaries. For example, Deuteronomy 22.5, which forbids cross-dressing. "This short passage betrays a concern, perhaps an anxiety, about visible differences between the clothed male and female bodies; they should be clear cut." (2) She adds (citing Mary Douglas, whom I've not yet read): "The insistence on easily recognisable boundaries often signifies uncertainty about those boundaries." Could the law against male anal intercourse be explained by the idea that men do the penetrating, so a man who is penetrated has violated the gender boundary? (p 140)

Another of Brenner's points, which shook up the contents of my skull, is that archaeologists have tended to accept what men in ancient societies have said about women, pregnancy, and children, ie, that ancient women eagerly desired lots of kids. Reviewing what we know about ancient contraception and abortion, she suggests that this might not have always been the case. Further blogging my mind, she points out that many of the aromatic substances mentioned in the Song of Songs were also the ingredients of birth control preparations, such as pomegranates, honey, and myrrh, and wonders if these mentions were meant to reassure the female character to whom the seductive language is addressed.

Brenner also ponders whether the "prostitutes" of the Bible may have actually been women not under the economic control of men (which echoes a lot of recent scholarly writing about Mesopotamia and the harimtu - I have a mountain of material on this topic to blog about one of these days :). She points out that the Hebrew word translated as "harlot/ry" refers to any kind of illicit sex, including sex work, fornication, and adultery; and that it's not clear whether some of the women called "prostitute" actually engaged in sex work. Some were economically independent: Rahab, and the women who sought Solomon's judgement, owned their own houses. (p 149-150)

(1) Brenner points out that Leviticus 19:19 presumably forbids the crossing of horses and donkeys, but that puzzlingly, there are plenty of mentions of mules. I wonder if the Hebrews saw the horse and the donkey as essentially the same sort of animal? Or did they just import mules? (Note to self: other admixture laws appear in Deuteronomy 22:9 and 22:11.)

(2) Brenner points out (citing Susan Griffin, who I haven't read yet either) that clothing is what separates culture from nature - explicitly, in the case of Genesis 3.7. But naked male and female bodies don't have the same meaning in the Bible: the female body is "relatively public", while the male body and especially the penis is fastidiously protected, whether by underwear or by language - a "textual spiritualisation", suggests Brenner, turning penis into invisible phallus. (p 38) Women's genitals, by contrast, are exposed as part of a shaming punishment. (p 42)

Athalya Brenner. The Intercourse of Knowledge: on Gendering Desire and "Sexuality" in the Hebrew Bible. Brill, Leiden/New York/Köln, 1997
ikhet_sekhmet: (Butterfly hair)
A large number of recorded public lectures given at the California Museum of Ancient Art are available on CD. I hugely enjoyed a 1987 talk by Dr William Fulco titled "The Love Goddess in Western Semitic Tradition" - here are a few notes from that.

As an example of cultural exchange between Hurrian and Vedic culture, Fulco compares the depiction of Kali with a description of a victorious Anat, who wears a necklace of heads and a girdle of hands. (ETA: A comparison also made by Marvin H. Pope.)

Fascinatingly, Fulco suggests that goddesses such as Anat and Athirat may be the active versions of the things their corresponding gods represent; for example, where Baal is the war, Anat is the actual fighting. (I think there's got to be a comparison here with the Hindu idea of Shakti.) He connects the ambiguous sexuality which crops up throughout ANE religion. Later in the talk, discussing the significance of names, he remarks that Anat and other goddesses are sometimes called the "Name of Baal" - that is, "an external manifestation of [Baal's] personality"; "that reality visible and manifested to the outside - that you can interrelate with". Fulco also relates this to the feminine spirit of God in the Bible.

Regarding the question of whether Asherah was the consort of Yahweh, Fulco suggests that she was seen that way in popular rather than "normative" worship (and hence all the condemnations of the practice in the Bible, which "give you a picture of what's actually going on"!)

Regarding the relationship ANE religions and Christianity, Fulco rather wonderfully says: "If I may put it in a faith context, if the Incarnation means anything, it means coming in the language people understand... Near Eastern mythology, mythological language, forms of worship and so on were things people understood, and I think that's what the Incarnation means, it means to use those, change those... I feel quite comfortable with it. It gives me a sense of historical context."

Pope, Marvin H. "The Goddesses Anat and Kali," summary, Vol. II, 51, in
Proceedings of the 26th International Congress of Orientalists. New Delhi, 1968.


Aug. 27th, 2009 05:39 pm
ikhet_sekhmet: (Default)
ikhet_sekhmet: (Default)
Anne Draffkorn Kilmer argued in a 1971 paper that the reason Erishkigal was forced to hand over the slain Inanna/Ishtar to her rescuers is that the oath She makes just beforehand obliges Her to them as host to guest. Perhaps so - although as so often happens it's other, incidental stuff in the article that piqued my interest!

Kilmer discusses Ishtar's motive in visiting the Netherworld. She notes that in the Sumerian version, Inanna claims She's there for the funeral of Ereshkigal's husband; but Kilmer argues that, in all Her finery, Inanna is "inappropriately dressed for funereal rites" as well as "haughty and demanding" - and hence is stripped and humbled.

Kilmer also deals with the rescuers, whose ambiguous sexuality is often interpreted as the key to their free entrance of the Underworld. In the Sumerian story, there are the kurgarra and kalaturra, often interpreted as "sexless creatures"; Kilmer suggests they are instead "some kind of transvestites, or male prostitutes, or even 'hermaphrodites', but who were entertainers by profession, perhaps female impersonators." In the Akkadian story, there's just one rescuer: Asušu-namir, often interpreted as a eunuch, "but whose name implies 'His face is pretty'" - so Kilmer suggests he might be the same as the Sumerian rescuers. He's cursed by Ereshkigal in a similar way to the curse against the female prostitute in the Epic of Gilgamesh. I'm intrigued by these liminal figures and hope to learn more about them.

Finally, in a footnote, Kilmer refers to the story of Philemon and Baucis from Ovid's Metamorphoses: "because they alone of all their countrymen gave hospitality to two divine visitors, were the only persons spared from the all-destructive flood that was brought as punishment for that inhospitability." Is there any link between this and the story of the inhospitable Sodom? In an effort to show that the Mesopotamians must have had a hospitality code, despite a lack of textual evidence for it, Kilmer refers to the codes of the Hebrews and Bedouin.

Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn. How was Queen Ereshkigal tricked? A new interpretation of the Descent of Ishtar. Ugarit-Forschungen 3 1971, pp 299-309.
ikhet_sekhmet: (Default)
Continuing to rummage randomly through my collection of downloads, photocopies, and far too many books :-), I came across a journal article about abominations in Sumerian literature. The English word "abomination" is so intense, meaning hateful, repulsive, obscene; and yet the ancient words it's used to translate seem so mild by comparison.

One of the few places the word is used seriously these days is in opposition to gay rights, based on Leviticus 18:22 (KJV: "Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is abomination"). Apparently there's no agreement on whether this was a serious moral violation, like murder or adultery, or a kind of ritual impurity or uncleanliness, like having sex with a menstruating woman. Other Biblical "abominations" include everything from child sacrifice to fiddling the scales. The Sumerian "abominations" are a similar mixture of moral or ethical violations ("A judge who perverts justice... it is an abomination of Utu."), ritual incorrectness ("Wheat flour is forbidden as an offering to gods.") and general ickiness ("To banquet without washing the hands, to spit without stamping (on the spittle)... these are abominations of Utu.") There are similar admonishments in Akkadian and in Egyptian wisdom literature. In fact, the author argues that the words used in Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hebrew for these forbidden actions have basically the same meaning.

I'm partial to the theory that what Leviticus 18:22 is condemning is ritual anal sex between men - that it's an example of the foreign religious practices forbidden to the Israelites, along with making idols, cross-dressing, and divination. In Deuteronomy, the article argues, the "abominations" are cultic, "and chief among these are precisely those practices most sacred to foreign deities". It was for these practices that Yahweh kicked the other tribes out, and He warns His people against imitating them. If this interpretation is correct, then perhaps "abomination" is too strong a word - it's more like a taboo.*

Hallo, William W. Biblical Abominations and Sumerian Taboos. Jewish Quarterly Review (new series) 76(1) July 1985 pp 21-40.

* A serious one, of course, since it was one of many activities which could get you the death penalty, at least according to the letter of the law - although I suspect that, as with the Code of Hammurabi, the maximum penalty was not always the actual one.
ikhet_sekhmet: (Default)
I stumbled across a journal article about the creation of humanity in Sumerian and Biblical stories. The main Sumerian image that we have, and the only one in the Bible, has humans being created from clay. There's a second Sumerian tradition, though, in which human beings grow from the ground like grass. The author suggests this imagery, of human beings as plants, has survived in the Bible. She gives about a billion examples - trees, vines, you name it; the Tanakh is rich with agricultural metaphors for humanity and Israel. (Many of these tie in with my favourite image of Yahweh: the gardener, rather than the harsh "man of war".)

Here's a lovely example from the 103rd Psalm:

Man, his days are like grass,
his flowering that of a wildflower.
For a wind passes over it, and it is no more,
and one cannot find its place.

(To my ear, that sounds like Aztec poetry about the brevity and fragility of life.)

The author also points out the difference between creation stories in which humanity is deliberately created by the gods, and stories in which we just pop up as a result of spontaneous processes - "autochthonous" origins. It struck me as I was reading this that, considered as an origin story, evolution is one of these autochthonous processes - unplanned and automatic.

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. The Planting of Man: a Study in Biblical Imagery. In Marks, John H. and Robert M. Good (eds). Love and Death in the Ancient Near East: essays in honor of Marvin H. Pope. Guilford, Conn, Four Quarters, 1987.
ikhet_sekhmet: (Default)
I recently read a couple of scholarly essays on the book of Genesis in a collection called The World of Genesis: Persons, Places, Perspectives. People who know their Bibles may find all this very ho-hum, but to me it's all new and exciting! As usual, what follows are notes on whatever happened to interest me: I'm especially interested in finding parallels between Hebrew and Mesopotamian religious writings.

The first of the two essays is by Dutch theologian Ellen van Wolde:

Facing the Earth: Primaeval History in a New Perspective )

More to come.

Davies, Philip R. and David J.A. Clines (eds). The World of Genesis: Persons, Places, Perspectives (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 257). Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield, 1998.
ikhet_sekhmet: (Default)
From the King James Version:

Psalms 74: 12-13
[12] For God is my King of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth.
[13] Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength: thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters.

Psalms 89:9-10
[9] Thou rulest the raging of the sea: when the waves thereof arise, thou stillest them.
[10] Thou hast broken Rahab in pieces, as one that is slain; thou hast scattered thine enemies with thy strong arm.

Isaiah 27:1
[1] In that day the LORD with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.

Isaiah 51:9-10
[9] Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in the ancient days, in the generations of old. Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon?
[10] Art thou not it which hath dried the sea, the waters of the great deep; that hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over?

ETA: I was prompted to look these up by a terrific short article in the magazine The Christian Century, which describes Psalm 148: "In this beautiful hymn, sea monsters lead a parade of chaos agents that have been subdued to glorify God--deeps, fire, hail, frost and storm... these mythical serpents represented a universe unrestrained and unredeemed by God's loving intervention." More... )


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