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date: 06 June 2020

(p. 113) Individuals and Communities

This section begins and ends with a challenge to the assumption that two key aspects of modern Western culture—individuality and liberty—were lacking in the ancient Near East. In Chapter 6, Ben Foster demonstrates that cuneiform literatures contain ample sources for the notions of person, of self, and of the individual, while in Chapter 10, Eva Von Dassow shows how ideas of rights and liberty formed part of the conceptual architecture of ancient Near Eastern communities. She employs the term ‘community’ in a broad political sense, arguing that its autonomy and the liberty of its individual members are, as values protected by divine sanction, deeply engrained in Ancient Near Eastern culture.

Foster's focus lies on the individual and, for him, the body is the essential person. The key to surviving beyond death was provided by the individual's name. First and foremost, the family were obliged to provide for their dead ancestors by regularly invoking their names as part of their death rites (Radner 2005: 74–88). A genealogical text serving as an aide-memoire for one such remembrance ceremony in honour of ancestors serves as key piece of evidence in Chapter 7. Here Frans van Koppen explores the family background of young Ipiq-Aya, from a prominent family in Old Babylonian Sippar, who wrote out a copy of Atram-hasis, the Babylonian Flood Story, as part of his scribal training. This extended family of scribes, merchants, and judges was united by their worship of Ea, god of wisdom and the benefactor of the survivors of the Flood in (p. 114) Atram-hasis. Van Koppen's chapter provides a rare insight not only into what cuneiform literature could mean to one individual but also into how the members of a kinship group communicated and demonstrated their shared identity. Cylinder seals, those ubiquitous tools and emblems of Mesopotamian urban life, played a key role. Van Koppen's reconstruction of Ipiq-Aya's circle also uncovers a personal and educational link with Ur-Utu, the lamentation singer whose fortunes Michel Tanret traces in Chapter 13, highlighting the web of relationships which connects Sippar's leading families and shapes the community's identity. Ur-Utu also kept mementos of his ancestors.

While the family was central to the commemoration of the individual, those who had the means tried to ensure that not just their own family but the entire community would remember their name. The public banquets held in memory of a wealthy landowner and local dignitary, as discussed by Hagan Brunke in Chapter 8, were one way to achieve this: the whole community came together to feast in honour and remembrance of the dead. Recent anthropological and archaeological literature has focused on the use of food to negotiate status, a strategy found in all human societies (Schiefenhövel and Wiessner 1996), and its role in the shaping and maintaining of social hierarchies (Bray 2003). Communal feasts play a prominent role in this: not only is food received according to rank but the human body itself is an instrument of status differentiation during such feasts. That is, by occupying a certain space in a certain position and attitude one signifies a particular social status (Keating 2000: 308). Much of this burgeoning literature implicitly engages with issues of memory (Holtzman 2006), and the link between feasting and remembrance emerges clearly also from Brunke's chapter. Collective feasting as an important and regular feature of the life of the community is particularly well attested in the Ur III period, and Brunke's chapter demonstrates and applies the methods needed to make terse administrative records speak about a wide range of subjects, from cultic practice and social stratification to cooking recipes and diet.

Cross-cultural comparisons may provide fruitful impulses for the direction of future research. For example, feasting practice in early Chinese society, surviving until today in the shape of the Qingming festival, suggests that forming and maintaining alliances with the dead, who were considered active participants of the cult community, was just as important as the interaction between the living participants, if not more so (Nelson 2003). The Mesopotamian dead, too, partook in the feasts held in their remembrance and their ‘happiness’ was of interest to the entire community. For, if neglected through a failure to provide offerings and invoke their names, their spirits were thought to turn into phantoms without identity who would leave the netherworld to haunt the living (Radner 2005: 19–21). These angry ghosts were held responsible for all sorts of misfortune, to the individual and the community. In Chapter 20, Daniel Schwemer discusses strategies to pacify and dispose of them.

Cultic communities are also the topic of Chapter 9, in which Michael Jursa studies the priestly, or ‘prebendary’, families who jointly controlled the Babylonian temples and earned their livings by that means. Again, food played a crucial role, as most of their income from the temple was payment in kind (misinterpreted as food rations in earlier (p. 115) scholarship) and because many of the priestly offices were responsible, as bakers, brewers, and butchers, for the preparation of the food offered to the gods as part of the regular temple cult (Waerzeggers 2011: 153–271). Bound inextricably by tradition to cuneiform culture, these communities, whose focal point was—socially, economically, and culturally—the temple, were responsible for the majority of textual sources surviving from the Neo-Babylonian and subsequent periods. Philippe Clancier, in Chapter 35, surveys the same milieu, but with a focus on the Hellenistic period. The temples were subject to royal authority; Caroline Waerzeggers' Chapter 34 on royal participation in cult and worship thus provides a different view on these same communities.

The locus of the individuals and communities studied by Brunke, van Koppen, Jursa, and Von Dassow is the city, and Foster also stresses the urbanism of Mesopotamian civilization, calling its cities ‘the salient, soaring features of the level, productive Mesopotamian landscape’. While Heather Baker's Chapter 25 on the architectural fabric of the city adds another dimension to the focus on urban Mesopotamia, Frans Wiggermann's Chapter 31 on ‘agriculture as civilization’ provides a fitting companion and counterweight to the contributions in this section.

Further reading

The Mesopotamian city, and urban life, is the topic of Van de Mieroop (1999), who attempts to integrate it with Max Weber's ideal type of the ‘ancient city’. The chapters on ‘city and countryside’ and ‘household and family’ in Postgate (1994) survey the principal institutions of Mesopotamian communities. Van der Toorn (1996) is the classic study on family religion, while the installation of a new high priestess for the storm-god at Emar provides a particularly good example of an entire community's participation in a religious festival (Fleming 1992).


Bray, T.L. (ed.) 2003. The Archaeology and Politics of Food and Feasting in Early States and Empires. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.Find this resource:

(p. 116) Fleming, D.E. 1992. The Installation of Baal's High Priestess at Emar: a Window on Ancient Syrian Religion (Harvard Semitic Studies 42). Atlanta: Scholars Press.Find this resource:

Holtzman, J.D. 2006. ‘Food and memory’, Annual Review of Anthropology 35: 361–78.Find this resource:

Keating, E. 2000. ‘Moments of hierarchy: constructing social stratification by means of language, food, space, and the body in Pohnpei, Micronesia’, American Anthropologist 102: 303–20.Find this resource:

Mieroop, M. van de. 1999. The Ancient Mesopotamian City. 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Nelson, S.M. 2003. ‘Feasting the ancestors in early China’ in T.L. Bray (ed.), The Archaeology and Politics of Food and Feasting in Early States and Empires. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum, pp. 65–89.Find this resource:

Postgate, J.N. 1994. Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. 2nd edn. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Radner, K. 2005. Die Macht des Namens: altorientalische Strategien zur Selbsterhaltung (Santag 8). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.Find this resource:

Schiefenhövel, W. and P. Wiessner (eds.) 1996. Food and the Status Quest: an Interdisciplinary Perspective. Providence: Berghahn.Find this resource:

Toorn, K. van der 1996. Family Religion in Babylonia, Syria, and Israel: Continuity and Changes in the Forms of Religious Life (Studies in the History and Culture of the Ancient Near East 7). Leiden: Brill.Find this resource:

Waerzeggers, C. 2011. The Ezida Temple of Borsippa: Priesthood, Cult, Archives (Achaemenid History 15). Leiden: Nederlands Instituut vor het Nabije Oosten.Find this resource: