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date: 04 July 2022

(p. 658) (p. 659) Shaping tradition

Half a century ago, A. Leo Oppenheim (1960: 410–411; 1977: 13) coined the felicitous phrase ‘the stream of tradition’ for ‘what can for convenience be called the corpus of literary works of various types that was maintained, controlled, and carefully kept alive by a tradition served by successive generations of learned and well-trained scribes’. Assyriologists were quick to adopt this elegant term to describe the apparent consistency of cuneiform scholarship across time and space, particularly in the first millennium bc. Reiner (1967: 177) already calls it ‘accepted’ and, for good reason, it is still in common currency today (e.g. Halton 2009; Ambos 2010: 17).

Yet Eric Hobsbawm and colleagues have convincingly argued that ‘tradition’ is not as simple it first appears, at least in the modern world: ‘“traditions” which appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented’ (Hobsbawm 1992: 1) or—especially in colonial contexts—‘imagined’ (Ranger 1993; cf., e.g., Scheid 2006; Otto 2007). Hobsbawm contrasts ‘tradition’, which ‘imposes fixed (normally formalized) practices, such as repetition’ with ‘custom’, which ‘does not preclude innovation and change up to a point’ but which ‘must appear compatible or even identical with precedent’ (Hobsbawm 1992: 2). Finally, there is ‘convention or routine, which has no significant ritual or symbolic function as such, though it may acquire it incidentally’ and which is ‘designed to facilitate readily definable practical operations, and [is] readily modified or abandoned to meet changing practical needs, always allowing for the inertia which any practice acquires with time and the emotional resistance to any innovation by people who have become attached to it’ (Hobsbawm 1992: 3).

In Assyriology, too, there is increasing interest in the idea that there was more to cuneiform culture than effortless continuity, and that literate and elite communities (p. 660) forged complex relationships with the past that they remade periodically to suit new political, social, and intellectual contexts. In Chapter 33, for instance, Nicole Brisch explores the complicated and often contradictory strands in Sumerian literary fashions of the early second millennium bc, which encompassed both nostalgia for the ideal kings of the past and a distancing from them. In a much broader chronological sweep, in Chapter 31 Frans Wiggermann charts the gradual demise of agriculture in scholarly thought as cuneiform culture became ever more urbanized. By contrast, in Chapter 32 Barbara Böck argues for a relatively conservative tradition in Mesopotamian medicine, whereby new compilations of recipes and plant lists came into being but the underlying therapeutic methods and ingredients stayed essentially the same.

The final two chapters of the volume present detailed studies of communities in relation to their pasts at a particular point in time. In Chapter 34, Caroline Waerzeggers untangles the complex web of power relationships between royalty, divinity, and tradition in the mid‐first millennium bc, whereby each corner of the triangle gained legitimacy through the support of the others. And in Chapter 35, Philippe Clancier surveys the end of the cuneiform tradition in Hellenistic Uruk, and its efforts to accommodate and resist Greek majority culture.

Chapters in other parts of the book also touch on these themes. Most obviously, all the chapters of Part VI deal with the obverse side of tradition, custom, and convention. In Chapter 4 Niek Veldhuis considers the uses of the past in Old Babylonian scribal education, while in Chapter 24 Eckart Frahm surveys first‐millennium scholars' ideas about their predecessors. In Chapter 21 Ulla Koch traces the twin traditions of astrology and extispicy. The chief lamenter Ur‐Utu's relationship with his family's past is explored by Michel Tanret in Chapter 13, while Yoram Cohen and Sivan Kedar show how fast cuneiform traditions could change, in Chapter 11.

Further reading

Veldhuis (2004) presents Old Babylonian scribal schooling as an invented tradition, the ‘creation of a Sumerian heritage’. A series of articles by Beaulieu (1992; 1994; 2003) explores elite antiquarianism in the Neo‐ and Late Babylonian periods. Beyond Assyriology, Lloyd (2009) looks at the origins of a variety of disclipinary traditions in the ancient world, especially Greece and China, while Finkelberg and Stroumsa (2003) collect a series of essays on ancient canons and literary traditions.


Ambos, C. 2010. ‘Ritual healing and the investiture of the Babylonian king’ in W.S. Sax, J. Quack, and J. Weinhold (eds.), The Problem of Ritual Efficacy. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 17–44.Find this resource:

(p. 661) Beaulieu, P.‐A. 1992. ‘Antiquarian theology in Seleucid Uruk’, Acta Sumerologica 14: 47–75.Find this resource:

—— 1994. ‘Antiquarianism and the concern for the past in the Neo‐Babylonian period’, Bulletin of the Canadian Society for Mesopotamian Studies 28: 37–42.Find this resource:

—— 2003. ‘Nabopolassar and the antiquity of Babylon’, Eretz‐Israel 27: 1–9.Find this resource:

Finkelberg, M. and Stroumsa, G.G. (eds.), 2003. Homer, the Bible, and Beyond: Literary and Religious Canons in the Ancient World, Jerusalem Studies in Religion and Culture 2. Leiden and Boston: Brill.Find this resource:

Halton, C. 2009. ‘Allusions to the stream of tradition in Neo‐Assyrian oracles’, Ancient Near Eastern Studies 46: 50–61.Find this resource:

Hobsbawm, E.J. 1992. ‘Introduction: inventing traditions’ in E.J. Hobsbawm and T.O. Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition, 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1–14.Find this resource:

Lloyd, G.E.R. 2009. Disciplines in the Making. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Oppenheim, A.L. 1960. ‘Assyriology: why and how?’, Current Anthropology 1: 409–23.Find this resource:

—— 1977. Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization, rev. E. Reiner. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Otto, T. 2007. ‘Rethinking tradition: invention, cultural continuity, and cultural agency’ in J. Wassmann and K. Stockhaus (eds.), Experiencing New Worlds. New York and Oxford: Berghahn, pp. 36–57.Find this resource:

Ranger, T.O. 1993. ‘The invention of tradition revisited: the case of Colonial Africa’ in T.O. Ranger and O. Vaughan (eds.), Legitimacy and the State in Twentieth Century Africa: Essays in Honour of A.H.M. Kirk‐Greene, London: Macmillan, pp. 62–111.Find this resource:

Reiner, E. 1967. ‘Another volume of Sultantepe tablets’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 26: 177–211.Find this resource:

Scheid, V. 2006. ‘Chinese medicine and the problem of tradition’, Asian Medicine 2: 59–71.Find this resource:

Veldhuis, N. 2004. Religion, Literature, and Scholarship: The Sumerian Composition ‘Nanše and the Birds’, with a Catalogue of Sumerian Bird Names, Cuneiform Monographs 24. Leiden and Boston: Brill.Find this resource: