Category Archives: Akkadian

The Gods Rich in Praise

I’ve been reading and, I confess, occasionally skimming Christopher Metcalf’s The Gods Rich in Praise: Early Greek and Mesopotamian Religious Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). This publication is a revised version of Metcalf’s Balliol College (Oxford) PhD dissertation. I found it abnormally interesting. So much so that I’m now going back to look more carefully at what I skimmed.

Metcalf focuses tightly on the possible influence of Mesopotamian literature, primarily hymns of praise, on early Greek poetry. He primarily considers Sumerian and Old Babylonian hymns with considerable discussion of the relevant Hittite material. One might quibble about a few details but his three conclusions are well supported.

  1. “. . . on the basis of the material presented here, the case for pervasive Near Eastern influence is likely to have been over stated.” (226-7)
  2. “. . . if the arguments that have been made here are accepted, the Near Eastern material can help to achieve a more accurate understanding of certain passages in early Greek poetry, especially where enough sources are available to exploit the advantages of the cuneiform documentation as fully as possible.” (227)
  3. “Third, a more balanced appreciation of the relationship between early Greek and ancient Near Eastern poetry should eventually enable us to perceive elements that were never taken over in the first place because they were rooted in Greece. . . “(227)

Except for possible increased influence that may be the result of direct contact, one could say almost the same three things about studies, including mine, concerning the relationship between Mesopotamian literature and the Hebrew Bible.

Oh yeah, Metcalf cites my 2013 paper on the Mesopotamian origin of Homeric bird-divination, page 206, note 1. Only a “see also” citation but I am grateful!

Tablets as Archaeological Objects

Like Jim Davila, I missed the publication of a new, large, fragment of Tablet V of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgameš when it came out last year. Al-Rawi and George’s publication (“Back to the Cedar Forest: The beginning and end of Tablet V of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgameš,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 66 [2014], 69-90) of the fragment is abnormally interesting for a number of reasons. Among these is their discussion of the role of the physical examination of tablets in the scholarly history of how to order the material in tablet V. In the course of this discussion they take a shot at much recent work.

Understanding cuneiform tablets as archaeological objects is a practice that had few exponents for much of the twentieth century, when Assyriologists too often gave all their attention to the inscribed text as a self-contained intellectual resource disembodied from the medium on which it was written. (71)

Al-Rawi and George are talking about the shape and other physical properties of the surface of tablets but the same can be said of the details of the provenance of tablets. In the case of their fragment the provenance is unknown. Even where we know the excavation site we often don’t know the exact find spot. This is particularly true of older excavations. I once asked an Assyriologist about the find spot of a tablet from Kuyunjik. He told me to just be happy that we are relatively sure it is from Nineveh!


Still, I think it is important to treat tablets as archaeological objects, as artifacts, whenever we can. Back in March I gave a paper at the SBL Pacific Coast Regional Meeting outlining some evidence for professional literacy at Ugarit. Much of that paper was based on features of tablet utilization, the curvature of the tablet surfaces, sign morphology and find spot. As I said in that paper,

My evidence for professional literacy at Ugarit depends on the study of tablets with alphabetic cuneiform writing as artifacts in their totality and not just as media for texts in the Ugaritic language.

Some of you know that I have toyed with the possibility that the later kings of Ugarit were literate in the local vernacular. Much of my thought process on is driven by the archaeological context of certain Ugaritic tablets as much as by what is on those tablets. More on this later – – maybe.

Shumma Alu Volume 3

This is somewhat old news but Sally Freedman has published volume 3 of Shumma Alu. This volume covers tablets 41 to 53 which contain omens relating to cattle, equid omens, wild animals, cats and dogs, pigs, fire. But this time the volume is only available online. Of this she says in her introductory remarks,

It is uncertain whether further volumes will appear in a conventional book format. However, I am posting text editions of the reconstructed Tablets on, so that the work I’ve done on the remaining Alu Tablets will be available for anyone who is interested. Images of almost all the original texts are online, either on the British Museum website or in the database CDLI (Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative).

Freedman’s publication of these tablets is a welcome addition to her previous two volumes on this important Akkadian omen series: only 67 tablets to go. Actually not all 67 remain tablets are extant but Freeman will not lack for work over the coming years.


How a Footnote Stopped a Note

I’ve been writing a note on how an Ugaritic meteorological term (ģrpl) can be a trope for snake venom (ḥmt) in KTU 1.107 (RS 24.251+). I thought I discovered something. Enuma Elish V:49-52 mentions that Marduk reserved for himself wind, kaṣāṣa-rain, and fog, “spreading her (Tiamat’s) venom (Akkadian imtiša).” And then I found this in a footnote in Pardee’s 1988 edition of the Ugaritic text.

De Moor (OTS 24 [1986], p. 10) a cité comme parallèle littéraire pour les nuages porteurs de venin l’association de la brume et du poison dans l’Enuma Elish babylonien (V 51); dans le texte babylonien c’est Mardouk qui agit mais dans ce même contexte (ligne 45) il s’agit de l’établissement de la divinité solaire, Šapaš.

And so ended my hope for fame and fortune.

The Color of Plaster – Oh My

It’s been a long time since I posted so I thought I’d post something abnormal if not abnormally interesting. Here are five omens from Šumma ālu tablet 6:28-32
DIŠ É si-ir-šu BABBAR UKÚ-in
If a house’s plaster is white – he will become poor.
DIŠ É si-ir-šu GI6(MI) NU DÙG-ub ŠÀ-bi
If a house’s plaster is black – unhappiness of heart.
DIŠ É si-ir-šu SI.A(SU5) EN É BI i-šar-ri
If a house’s plaster is red, the owner of that house will become rich.
DIŠ É si-ir-šu SIG7 [. . .] ir-x-x
If a house its plaster is green . . . .
DIŠ É si-ir-šu BABBAR GI6(MI) SI.A(SU5) SIG7 la mit-gur-tu4 EN É BI INIM É-GAL UŠ-di
If a house’s plaster is white, black, red, and green – discord; the palace will make a claim on the owner of that house.
Based on a near duplicate (K 45+ [CT 40 1-4] rev.:9), the portent of the forth omen, the green one, may be something like niziqtu, “grief.”
I’ve been looking at colors in omens for a couple of weeks and I’m not sure exactly where all this is going. For now I will simply observe that white does not portend good fortune in all these kinds of omens. The first on above for example. I read somewhere that it did. I know where I read it – more than one place in fact. I just don’t want to fully document all this now. There’ll be plenty of time for that later. Yes I know that I should have said “red-brown” instead of “red” and “green-yellow” instead of “green” but I’m not trying to be all that technical for now. I may have more to say on this as I study it more. You’ll have to excuse me now; I’m off to make sure the folks plastering my house red are doing a good job. I sure don’t want any others colors showing through.

I’m A Footnote

Alice Mouton and Ian Rutherford mentioned my paper “Portentous Birds Flying West” in their article “Luwian Religion, A Research Project: The Case of ‘Hittite’ Augury” Here’s what they said, “Smith forthcoming will argue that such bird oracles have close parallels to some of the Sumerian Šumma Ālu series of omens (337, n 61).” Of course, they also list my paper in their bibliography. I sure hope I didn’t say that Šumma Ālu was a Sumerian omen series. It may have had Sumerian precursors but as far as I know all the Šumma Ālu tablets are in Akkadian. Also, my paper is no longer “forthcoming.” It has come forth.
In the body of the paper they note “On the face of it, augury as depicted in Homer has little on common with Anatolian augury of the 2nd millennium as we know it from Hittite texts” and suggest that apparent differences between Hittite and Homeric bird divination might be due to the “medium of poetry.” I used this same argument to gloss over differences between Akkadian and Homeric bird divination. I don’t have access just now to the whole of Mouton and Rutherford’s paper, but I’m not sure from what I have seen via Google Books that they argue against me.

Mouton, Alice and Ian Rutherford, “Luwian Religion, A Research Project: The Case of “Hittite” Augury” in Luwian Identities: Culture, Language and Religion Between Anatolia and the Aegean (eds. Alice Mouton, Ian Rutherford and Ilya Yakubovich; Cultire and History of the Ancient Near East, 64; Leiden: Brill, 2013), 329-344
Smith, Duane E., “Portentous Birds Flying West: On the Mesopotamian Origin of Homeric Bird-Divination,” JANER, 13 (2013), 49-85

This Paper Is For The Birds

My paper “Portentous Birds Flying West: On the Mesopotamian Origin of Homeric Bird-Divination,” (JANER 13:1 [2013], 49-85) is now out. It’s available if you’d like to see it.
Considering how long it has taken for this paper to see the light of day, I’m grateful that some life altering event like tenure did not depend on its timeliness. Still, it is great to see it out.
Here is the paper’s abstract,

Drawing on the Akkadian omen series Šumma Ālu and its predecessors, this essay argue for a Mesopotamian origin of Homeric bird-divination. Against the suggestion of Högemann and Oettinger that Greek bird-divination has its closest parallels with Hittite bird-divination, I argue that both in its function as a tool for divination and in its specific content, Homeric bird divination, if not all such ancient Greek divination, finds much closer parallels in Mesopotamian divination traditions than it does in Anatolian traditions. I suggest that the late 8th century B.C.E. and the decades before and after 1200 B.C.E. represent two periods when conditions were particularly ripe for the introduction of Mesopotamian bird-divination into the Aegean and that itinerant diviners, perhaps in the employment of armies, were the most likely conveyors of this particular form of divination.

Those abnormal readers who see the ancient world largely from the perspective of the Hebrew Bible may wonder what this has to do with our shared corner of that world. On the one hand, despite the fact that I cite the story of Noah releasing birds in a footnote, this paper has little to do with the Hebrew Bible. On the other hand, in the context of the larger issue of cultural diffusion in the Ancient Near East and the eastern Mediterranean in the Iron Age (or is it in this case perhaps the Bronze Age?), I think this paper has a lot to say. If I am correct, a tradition of divination traveled from its Mesopotamian home across Syria or perhaps southern Anatolia arriving in Ionia no later than 7th century BCE and likely earlier. It is not at all difficult to image that this or similar traditions were available to the Biblical authors. But that question must wait for my paper on the snake in Genesis 3 to appear. I am in the process of consulting snakes and birds to determine just how long that will take.

Fighting Eagles

The Duluth News Tribute reports,

Two adult bald eagles made an unplanned landing on the tarmac at the Duluth International Airport on Sunday.
The two birds had locked talons in mid-air and couldn’t get separated before they crashed to the concrete, said Randy Hanzal, a conservation officer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

In Odyssey 2:146-54 two eagles tear into each other above the assembled suitors.

[Zeus] sent forth two eagles, flying from on high, from a mountain peak. For a time they flew swift as the blasts of the wind side by side with wings outspread; but when they reached the middle of the many-voiced assembly, then they wheeled about, flapping their wings rapidly, and down on the heads of all they looked, and death was in their glare. Then they tore with their talons one another’s cheeks and necks on either side, and darted away to the right across the houses and the city of the men.

Despite its lacunose nature, an Old Babylonian tablet from Ur published by Weisberg may reflect a similar motif.
šum-ma ši-[na] e-ru-ú
a-[x]-ma a-na pa-ni [ṣa-bi-im]
[x x]-lu-ma an-a [x x]
[ṣa-bu]-um a-šar il-li-ku
If two eagles [. . .] before the [army . . .] advance against(?), [. . .] the ar[my] will return safely whence it marched. (ii 36-41)
Based on other omens, Weisberg’s 90, 97, reconstruction of [ṣa-bi-im], “army,” is all but certain; less certain is the verb [it-]te-eš-ru from ešēru(?), “to make towards”; other lacunae totally resist reconstruction.
The Homeric two eagle omen has a positive portent while the Old Babylonian omen has a negative one. I suppose the Duluth airport omen turns out to be positive – both birds survived.
Via The Huffington Post.

Smith, D. E. “Portentous Birds Flying West: On the Mesopotamian Origin of Homeric Bird-Divination,” JANER, 13:1 (2013), 49-85 (forthcoming – soon!).
Weisberg, D. B., 1969. “An Old Babylonian Forerunner of Šumma Alu,” HUCA, 40-41 (1969-70), 87-104.

The Scribal Art As Axis Mundi?

My underlying question in this post is how much of the context supporting one portion of a word’s semantic range is normally carried over into another context where the word has a somewhat different meaning. Note I am talking about one context of meaning being imposed, however slightly, on another context. If I say “Joe plays the piano” to what extent am also raising of the possibility that Joe might play football? When I use the word “play” to what extend am I drawing some relationship between making music and contact sports. Many punning jokes work by imposing of one linguistic context on another by way of a single word shared word.
Now for my real problem: In lines 12Sum and 12Akk of the bilingual treatise which Sjöberg called “In Praise of the Scribal Art” we read in Sumerian (12Sum) nam-dub-sar-ra dur-da-gan-KA-[x x] x nun me [x x x] which is rendered in Akkadian (12Akk) ṭupšarrūtu markas kulla[t x x] x i me [x x], “The scribal art is the bond of all of (markas kullat) [. . .].” It would be nice to know what was in the lacunae at the end of the lines. It is possible but only barely possible that the ME in both lines should be read “heaven,” šamê in Akkadian (see MLS 14 91:71:7; CAD Š1, 339). But the fuller Sumerian nun me is more likely part (or all) of some kind of professional designation. Perhaps here it stands for a sage, a priest or an exorcist, an apkallu, but several other options cannot be ruled out. Neither the traces of the Sumerian or the Akkadian lines reasonably support reading an-ki / šamê u erṣetim, “universe / heavens and earth,” in the lacunae, by the way, a reading I would very much like. Even so, Akkadian markasu (mundanely “rope”) often signifies a link, an axis mundi, between the heaven and the underworld or between heaven and earth (CAD M1 283, K 505). While the lacunose ends of both lines 12Sum and 12Akk cannot be reconstructed in this way, the learned author of “In Praise of the Scribal Art” was certainly conscious at some level of the full semantic range of markasu.
My guess is that line 12 of “In Praise of the Scribal Art” should be understood as saying that the scribal art is the bond, the markasu, that binds together all the other professions. But who knows?

Hurowitz, V. A., “Literary Observations on ‘In Praise of the Scribal Art’,” JANES, 27 (2000), 49-56.
Sjöberg, Å W., “In Praise of the Scribal Art,” JCS, 24 (1972), 126-131.

Help With Hurrian!

Does anyone have access to Emmanuel Laroche, Glossaire de la langue hourrite, (Études et commentaires, 93 ; Paris: Klincksieck, 1980) or Revue hittite et asianique, 34 and 35? They amount to the same thing. Supposedly, the nearest library with this best seller is UCLA’s Charles E. Young Research Library. The reason I say “supposedly” is that according to their catalog it’s missing! They have been searching for it almost as long as Hurrian has been an extinct language. My guess is that people who need to look up Hurrian words are, as a class, petty thieves but I could be wrong.
I’m looking for zabuškume or abuškume or both.
I know what Laroche said in “Documents en langue hourrite provenant de Ras Shamra, ” in Ugaritica V (Mission de Ras Shamra, XVI, Paris: P. Geuthner, 1968), 448-544, here 461. Not much. But I wonder if he had more to say in later.
Don’t feel too guilty if you can’t help me with this one. I’m trying several other ways to get at it.