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date: 10 July 2020

(p. 443) Interpretations

The world is a messy, complicated place in which dangerous things happen at unexpected times and places, in uncontrollable ways. There are a myriad ways in which people construct meaning from their experiences, whether through myth, metaphor, or other models. This is as true of Assyriologists trying to interpret the evidence of the ancient past as it of the ancients themselves trying to make sense of what they saw, read, and felt. Henri Frankfort, for instance, famously argued that ancient Near Eastern thought was ‘mythopoeic’, characterized by a preference for the literal and allegorical over the logical and theoretical (Frankfort 1946). That stance has had its sympathizers, even in recent times (e.g. Wengrow 1999: 604–605), but more recent works have seriously undermined it. On the one hand, the whole idea of ancient mentalities has been called into question—‘collectivities do not think, only individuals do’ (Lloyd 1990: 5; cf., e.g., Simms 1999)—along with the notion of ancient Greek ‘science’ as the miraculous harbinger of modernity. On the other hand, there has been a highly influential movement in cognitive linguistics, though not without its critics, which argues that the human brain is hard-wired to think and express itself metaphorically (Lakoff and Johnson 1980; 1999; cf., e.g., Sowa 1999; Steen 2000). Finally, close analysis of the mass of scholarly writings published since Frankfort's day has shown indubitable examples of metaphorical, abstract, and theoretical reasoning (e.g. Rochberg 1996; Veldhuis 2006).

The ability to organize, systematize, and manage data from the world, and to interpret it in context-appropriate ways, is the common theme of Ulla Koch's and John Steele's Chapters 21 and 22. Steele looks at the shift from Mesopotamian calendars constructed on simple mathematical models of the ideal year to one based on detailed celestial observation in the first millennium bc. He discusses its effects on the relationship between political power and scholarly expertise, as the decision to intercalate—to add ‘leap months’ to keep the lunar and solar cycles aligned—was taken out of royal hands and became routinized. Calendars were one means of interpreting the movements of the (p. 444) heavenly bodies; another was divination. Koch compares astrology and extispicy—divination from the entrails of sacrificial animals—as systems of interpreting divine messages about the future. As both Koch and Steele hint, and as Eckart Frahm demonstrates explicitly in Chapter 24, kings often chose to be centrally involved in scholarly interpretations of the world, either as patron of others' endeavours or even as a direct participant in such activities.

Koch and Frahm both review modern Assyriological interpretations of their topics, as do Fabienne Huber Vulliet and Heather Baker. In Chapter 23 Huber Vulliet presents a new interpretation of the so-called Royal Correspondence of Ur, whose contents are often treated as key witnesses to the collapse of the Ur III dynasty at the end of the third millennium. By comparing their structures and formularies with those of archival letters, she argues that they were treated not as ‘historiographical’ documents in cuneiform culture but as models of elegant epistolography. In a similarly iconoclastic vein, Baker argues in Chapter 25 that to view the Babylonian city, even Babylon itself, purely as an architectural stage for expessions of political power is to ignore its fundamental role as an inhabited space. Integrating archaeological and textual evidence, she explores how the ancient inhabitants of Babylon experienced it not just as a series of domestic environments but also as a collection of communities and settings for religious practices.

Elsewhere in the volume, Francesca Rochberg compares astrology and extispicy from another perspective in Chapter 29, while Silvie Zamazalová and Karen Radner discuss different aspects of royal involvement in scholarship in Chapters 15 and 17 respectively. Literary images of kingship, including those in literary letters, are reinterpreted by Nicole Brisch in Chapter 33, and in Chapter 26 Eleanor Robson re-examines the role of creativity and innovation in cuneiform culture.

Further reading

Brown (2000; 2003) presents a controversial thesis that the interpretation of heavenly phenomena underwent a ‘scientific revolution’ in the 7th century bc (cf. e.g. Steele 2001; Verderame 2001). Rochberg (2004) takes a more gradualist view, set within a heavyweight discussion of the changing historiography of cuneiform ‘science’ in the 20th century. A briefer overview of similar issues in Babylonian mathematics is given by Høyrup (1996). Van de Mieroop (1999) considers in turn a variety of different interpretations of Mesopamian history, excluding intellectual culture but nevertheless useful.


Brown, D.R. 2000. Mesopotamian Planetary Astronomy–Astrology, Cuneiform Monographs 18. Groningen: Styx.Find this resource:

——— 2003. ‘The scientific revolution of 700 bc’ in A.A. McDonald, M.W. Twomey, and G.J. Reinink (eds.), Learned Antiquity: Scholarship and Society in the Near East, the Greco-Roman World, and the Early Medieval West. Leuven: Peeters, pp. 1–12.Find this resource:

(p. 445) Frankfort, H. 1946. ‘Myth and reality’ in H. Frankfort, H.A. Frankfort, J.A. Wilson, Th. Jacobsen, and W.A. Irwin, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: an Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Reissued in the UK as Before Philosophy: the Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1949, and many reprints.Find this resource:

Høyrup, J. 1996. ‘Changing trends in the historiography of Mesopotamian mathematics: an insider's view’, History of Science 34: 1–32.Find this resource:

Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. 1980. Metaphors we Live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

—— 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.Find this resource:

Lloyd, G.E.R. 1990. Demystifying Mentalities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Rochberg, F. 1996. ‘Personifications and metaphors in Babylonian celestial omina’, Journal of the American Oriental Society 116: 475–85.Find this resource:

—— 2004. The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Simms, N. 1999. ‘Essay review: Demystifying Mentalities by G.E.R. Lloyd’, History of Psychiatry 10: 127–38.Find this resource:

Sowa, J.F. 1999. Review of Lakoff and Johnson 1999, Computational Linguistics 25: 631–4.Find this resource:

Steele, J. 2001. Review of Brown 2000, Journal of the History of Astronomy 32: 356–62.Find this resource:

Steen, F.F. 2000. ‘Grasping philosophy by the roots’, Philosophy and Literature 24: 197–203.Find this resource:

Van de Mieroop, M. 1999. Cuneiform Texts and the Writing of History. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Veldhuis, N. 2006. ‘Divination: theory and use’ in A.K. Guinan, M. deJ. Ellis, A.J. Ferrara, S.M. Freedman, M.T. Rutz, L. Sassmannshausen, S. Tinney, and M.W. Waters (eds.), If a Man Builds a Joyful House: Assyriological Studies in Honor of Erle Verdun Leichty, Cuneiform Monographs 31. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 487–98.Find this resource:

Verderame, L. 2001. Review of Brown 2000, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 64: 268.Find this resource:

Wengrow, D. 1999. ‘The intellectual adventure of Henri Frankfort: a missing chapter in the history of archaeological thought’, American Journal of Archaeology 103: 597–613.Find this resource: