A New Scholarly Society and A Few Iconic Thoughts

A group of scholars, largely, but far from totally, associated with Syracuse University, have launched a new research society, The Society for Comparative Research on Iconic and Performative Texts (SCRIPT). Like all good scholarly societies, they’ve issued a call for papers to be presented at an upcoming conference, in this case an upcoming American Academy of Religion conference at Syracuse University. And they have a goal.

Our goal is to foster academic discourse about the social functions of books and texts that exceed their semantic meaning and interpretation, such as their display as cultural artifacts, their ritual use in religious and political ceremonies, their performance by recitation and theater, and their depiction in art.

All this is interesting. The question of how a text becomes iconic by displaying as a cultural artifact is abnormally interesting. While I can’t make this conference and will not be a submitting a paper proposal, that doesn’t prevent iconic thoughts.
For example, was the Akkadian prayer that Mayer, 503-510, calls Shamash 1 on its way to becoming iconic in this sense? Shamash 1 is a Šuilla-prayer to Shamash. It might be better to think of it as a group of very closely related Šuilla-prayers to Shamash. There are over ten separate witnesses to the text of Shamash 1 and three other tablets reference its incipit, its title. All members of the group share large portions of common material but among the witnesses, there are two major subgroups. While the invocation of all the witnesses is basically the same, one subgroup has a self-introduction clause and a lament. The other subgroup doesn’t have either. All the witnesses conclude with more or less the same lengthy plea and a conditional closing call for praise.
But the effect of these differences is rather startling. The longer versions are quite specific as to supplicant and his or her, mostly his, concern. Several bad omens have come his way and he is “afraid, anxious, and constantly in fear.” This is a common enough expression in Akkadian prayers. The shorter versions are extremely general. Sure, the supplicant asks for good omens but this request lacks a specific context.
The self-identification clauses in the longer versions vary in form and content from “I (am) Aplutu, son of his god, whose god is Sin, whose goddess is Nikkal” to naming Shamash-shum-ukin, king of Babylon c. 650 BCE as the supplicant to using the generic, “I am so-and-so, son of so-and-so.” Aplutu is otherwise known from uzirina (modern Sultantepe), the place where archaeologists found the witness to the prayer with his name in the self-identification clause.
The ritual contexts of these closely related prayers also show considerable diversity. According to Ambos 45–53 and 280–289, Mayer’s witness A, one of the longer versions of the text, appears to have been recited as part of a Bīt salāʾ, “Water-sprinkling house,” ritual, the same may be true of at least one other witness. But Mayer’s manuscript β is a medical text that cites the incipit of Shamash 1. There is no way to tell exactly what version this tablet intended. And, while there are several complexities, Mayer’s manuscript γ also sites the incipit of this prayer. This tablet contains ritual texts of mixed genre but identified by the scribe as namburbi. There are certainly namburbi like elements in the longer versions particularly.
So here, we have a collection of very closely related prayers, witnessed to by a relatively large number of tablets, with two significant versions and used in at least two and likely three differing ritual contexts. It seems to me that Shamash 1 is well was well on its way to being iconic.

Ambos, Claus, Der König im Gefängnis und das Neujahrsfest imHerbst; Mechanismen der Legitimation des babylonischen Herrschers im 1. Jahrtausend v. Chr. und ihre Geschichte(forthcoming).
Mayer, Werner, Untersuchungen zur Formensprache der Babylonischen „Gebetsbeschwörungen”, Studia Poul: Series Maior, 5; Rome: Biblical Institure Press, 1976
Smith, Duane, “Shamash 1: A Shuilla Incantation,” Reading Akkadian Prayers, ed. Alan Lenzi; SBL, in preparation.

Via The Iconic Books Blog