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Ancient Mesopotamian Literate Culture

Stephen J. Tinney

University of Pennsylvania

From the first stirrings of writing in the late fourth millennium BCE to the latest dated cuneiform texts in the 1stcentury CE, the phenomenon of cuneiform culture raises an array of questions which touch on all aspects of literature, beginning with the definition of “literary.” Assyriologists generally approach this strategically, separating quotidian administrative and legal texts from the long traditions of word lists (“lexical texts”), “royal inscriptions”,  of the corpora of religious experts which might be termed “scientific and technical”, and the relatively small group of texts such as Gilgamesh which might traditionally be termed literary in nature.

Because the data are not evenly spread over time and space, we cannot offer a comprehensive account of Mesopotamian literate culture, but we can sketch an episodic history to provide a sense of its trajectory across the millennia.

The earliest arguably literary tablets (ca. 3200 BCE) introduce a millennium punctuated by isolated corpora of word lists and mostly ill-understood literary texts.  The word lists transcend practical concerns and evidence the early development of shared scholarly traditions.  At the same time, royal literature begins from simple formulae to reach a peak in the Gudea Cylinder inscriptions (ca. 2150 BCE) which contain some of the earliest allusions to specialist forms of knowledge required for successfully interacting with the gods.

Moving to the second millennium BCE, practically the entire corpus of what we think of as Sumerian literature comes from the eighteenth century BCE, primarily from the site of Nippur, and primarily from the education of scribes in private houses.   A century or so later scholars at Sippar constituted an important node in the translation of Sumerian literature into Akkadian and the formation of the Akkadian literary traditions of Gilgamesh, Atrahasis and other myths.

The principal focus of this paper, however, will be first millennium Assyria because it provides the best evidence for comprehensive library-building, scholarly life, and interactions and beliefs. 

The libraries of King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (ca. 650 BCE) contrast sharply in size and scope with the series of smaller and less exhaustive tablet collections belonging to priests and exorcists which are attested intermittently from the 18thto the 2ndcenturies BCE.  The archaeological remains—up to 30,000 tablets and fragments—are supplemented by archival texts giving insight into accessioned materials which have not survived, particularly writing boards, and official inscriptions as well as letters provide further information on collecting practices and goals. A qualitative and quantitative assessment of Ashurbanipal’s libraries, which encompass all of the varieties of literature outlined above, will provide the basis for comparative discussions.

In addition, scholars in the service of the king sent hundreds of letters to the court with reports and advice on all manner of omens and ritual practices, including disagreements with their peers and observations on the proper analysis of relevant passages from the key technical series.  In collecting what was intended to be perhaps the only exhaustive library ever assembled in ancient Mesopotamia, some compositions are described as ahu, “other”, variously taken as a neutral alternative version of the text or as a loaded “non-canonical” version.  Scribal practices in copying as well as information from colophons sheds further light on the nuances of the preservation or manipulation of tradition.  Precious fragments of rarely copied texts yield insights into the nature of authorship and authority, and establish a native Mesopotamian basis for Berossus’ account of the fish-man Oannes who brought knowledge to humanity.

Finally, some consideration will be given to the various outbound dimensions of cuneiform culture: geographical outcroppings in Anatolia, the eastern Mediterranean, and Egypt; the difficulties of assessing the impact of the literature beyond the elite literate core of society; the forms of post-Assyrian literate culture in the latter half of the first millennium BCE; and possible mechanisms for the transmission of some elements of Mesopotamian literature and mythology westwards, ultimately to Greece.

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Ancient Mediterranean Literatures

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