Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia is an exceptional resource to anyone interested in the religion and culture of ancient Mesopotamia. ItGods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia is an exceptional resource to anyone interested in the religion and culture of ancient Mesopotamia. It is a thoroughly cross-referenced dictionary full of entries on everything from individual gods and goddesses like "Enki" or "Ishtar", to broad topics like "afterlife" or "divination". A brief but informative introduction lays out the broad periods of Mesopotamian culture, what is even meant by the geographical and cultural term "Mesopotamia", and which people constituted Mesopotamians at a given time. Most terms and names are rendered in Sumerian and Akkadian.
I've added it to my "perpetually reading" shelf because, as a reference work, I can see myself consulting it again and again as I read other historical or archaeological works about ancient Mesopotamia. I found this slender volume in the overstuffed shelves of Brattle Book Shop (a fabulous used bookstore in downtown Boston) and consider it a gem of a find. Even though it is a dictionary with discrete, alphabetically ordered entries, I read it cover to cover and was sorry to finish it....more
I read this book for the ladies, so I am shelving it as (among other things) unfinished. I cannot speak to the life of Abbot John of Cantimpre, whichI read this book for the ladies, so I am shelving it as (among other things) unfinished. I cannot speak to the life of Abbot John of Cantimpre, which I did not read.
The other three lives are fascinating for a variety of reasons. Thomas of Cantimpre personally knew Lutgard of Aywieres, and spoke with living people who had known Christina and Margaret. Each of these three women lived in the same region in what is now Belgium and were part of a new female mysticism that became prominent in the 12th and 13th centuries, in part through the attention paid to them by clerics like Thomas, who found their apostolic and frankly sensual expressions of piety extremely compelling. Thomas may not have chosen a word like "sensual" to describe the religious behavior and belief of these three saints but he did, for instance, write Lutgard's life as an echo of the Song of Songs, a famously erotic canonical text, so I am still comfortable making this assertion.
I also generally enjoy reading saints lives because it interests me to consider what kind of separation between real life and fictive/religious tropes are on display (a separation, I should add, that I doubt Thomas or his contemporaries understood in the way we do). Christina's feats, for example, mirror then-current descriptions of the torments of Purgatory...did Thomas add some of these feats retroactively to make his narrative comport more obviously with these descriptions? Or did Christina purposefully choose the torments she underwent so that they resonated with extant traditions concerning Purgatory?
And, of course, there is always the question of just what really happened with these folks. Did Christina really lactate magically to feed herself? Did Lutgard truly dispense a magical wet willy that restored a deaf person's hearing? And if not, what did happen? It's not historically important or answerable to ask this kind of question, but I think it's inescapable to a modern person's sense of curiosity about such otherworldly activities portrayed so matter-of-factly.
I picked this book up originally to educate myself about Christina, whom I depicted in a painting. I am grateful to the wonderful editors, translators and annotators of this volume that I could find her life together with these others, which I may never otherwise have explored. ...more
A lovely fable set among 19th-century New York immigrant communities. Wecker blends genres and cultural lore to tell a moving story of two legendary cA lovely fable set among 19th-century New York immigrant communities. Wecker blends genres and cultural lore to tell a moving story of two legendary creatures, stuck in their own ways, living among humans. I just loved this story....more
Albert Lord published The Singer of Tales in 1960 to explain and continue the work of his mentor, Milman Parry, who died in 1935. Working primarily inAlbert Lord published The Singer of Tales in 1960 to explain and continue the work of his mentor, Milman Parry, who died in 1935. Working primarily in Serbia and Bosnia over decades, the two recorded hundreds of epic song performances, applied extensive linguistic and rhetorical analyses to these songs and recordings, and developed a thesis regarding oral-formulaic composition, which has come to be known as the Parry/Lord thesis.
Parry and Lord were actually classicists interested in the Homeric epics. They focused on then-Yugoslavia because, during the early-mid 20th century, it still possessed a tradition of sung epic storytelling, which was largely composed orally at the moment of performance by non-literate bards. This is to be differentiated from singers who memorize a song by rote and sing it in precisely the same words each time. Oral composition is the act of composing a song each time it is sung, based on a well-known story, varying the length and elaboration of the story with each singing in response to audience interest, available time, etc. The song is never sung in precisely the same words twice, but does tell the same story (i.e., basic plot).
Parry and Lord’s work helped determine, unequivocally, that The Iliad and The Odyssey were composed orally, and provided compelling evidence that they were composed by an individual bard (as opposed to representing some form of composite text). Their work also had further application to other texts supposed to have been composed orally by establishing the hallmarks of oral composition in the prominent use of formulas, where a “formula” is, according to Parry, “an expression that is regularly used under the same metrical conditions, to express a particular essential idea.” The theory has been applied to Old English poetry and even parts of the Quran to help explain their structures. The utility of the Parry/Lord thesis for considering communication of traditional material over millennia is exciting and really unprecedented.
Actually reading Lord’s line-by-line analyses of Slavic folk songs and Homer is a little interminable, especially for a non-linguist. However, it not only provides a clarity to thinking about Homeric and other potentially oral compositions, it prompts one to reconsider the ramifications of literacy, its limits and uses. According to Lord, oral composition as a practice requires that the composer/singer is non-literate. Once literacy is learned, a fundamental shift occurs with regard to how the singer/composer views a text and its mutability. Not only is a story’s content to be preserved, but the precise words of a text become sacrosanct and the idea of an “original” is born; an original against which all iterations must be compared.
In literate societies we customarily view literacy and the written word as not only useful, but practically a given in terms of its necessity. Parry and Lord’s work provides a reminder that becoming literate is not merely acquiring a useful skill. It means changing the way one thinks about and values words, story, communication, composition, and information itself. Literacy has given us much, but it has also limited us in certain key ways that our ancestors took for granted for tens of thousands of years. When we lost oral traditions, they did not simply morph into literate, written traditions. They disappeared, only to be preserved in disparate recordings of individual performances, like The Iliad, never to occupy again the position they held with respect to the long march of oral tradition and human history.
Final thoughts? To propose that a literate person could not possible compose orally is to ignore creative practices like freestyle rap, which naturally post-dates Parry and Lord’s work by decades, so they can be forgiven for omitting it. But the dimensions of freestyle in terms of length, may point towards both the limits to oral composition by a literate person, as well as the limits of modern audiences’ attention spans. Nevertheless, I wish one of them could be around to consider their theory in light of freestyle, or that some other scholar would tackle this. ...more
Jealous Gods and Chosen People is an anthropological look at the religions spawned in the Middle East beginning thousands of years ago. Leeming tracesJealous Gods and Chosen People is an anthropological look at the religions spawned in the Middle East beginning thousands of years ago. Leeming traces the Bronze Age mythologies of the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Hittites and Western Semites (whose descendents would spawn first Judaism and later Christianity and Islam), and ends with brief treatments of the mythological (as opposed to historical) aspects of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Throughout, Leeming highlights what these varied mythological traditions share, how they have interacted and borrowed from each other over the millennia. He provides a very compelling picture of modern monotheistic religions as inheriting and interpolating the ancient pagan religions of the Mesopotamians, et al. He demonstrates quite clearly how Judaism, Christianity and Islam share far more than they do not and laments the state of contention among these religions that has reigned in the area for centuries down to today. Moreover, he ties these land conflicts to the fact that modern people insist on reasserting ancient claims based on even older mythologies and tend to do so in violent ways that contrast sharply with the kernels of peace and mercy that ultimately live at the heart of all three major monotheistic religions. This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking work. ...more
Snorri Sturluson wrote his Edda, also known as the "Prose Edda", around 1220. Sturluson's work contains his versions of numerous Norse/Icelandic mythsSnorri Sturluson wrote his Edda, also known as the "Prose Edda", around 1220. Sturluson's work contains his versions of numerous Norse/Icelandic myths as well as a fair catalogue of tropes, motifs and "kennings" of skaldic poetry. This work derives from a really fascinating liminal period in European history between pagan and Christian culture and oral and written culture. It is a written work that seeks to preserve an oral tradition. Additionally, it was written by a Christian author about the not-so-distant pagan past of his people. These tensions between the written and the oral and the Christian and the pagan wind their way throughout the book. I find particularly interesting Sturluson's relatively sympathetic treatment of the pagan beliefs of his own culture. Medieval Christianity has scarcely been noted for its patient toleration of diverse beliefs, but Sturluson strikes an expository tone that is without condescension. In fact, he practically offers an apology and asks indulgence for the Norse people's pagan past by portraying these beliefs as rather misinterpreted versions of true Christian (and latinized) beliefs. For instance, he equates the Aesir (the stock of the Norse pantheon) with the inhabitants of ancient Troy and hypothesizes that these migrating kings from Asia simply, if mistakenly, came to be revered as gods by the Norse people. Sturluson's entire work ranges from interesting to extremely entertaining, but the sleight of hand he continually exercises in blending Norse pagan myth with latinized Christian tradition is what really stood out to me about this book. Having read a good many primary sources from the Middle Ages, I found Sturluson's Edda particularly sensitive and clever. The latter portions of the book, which focus so exclusively on skaldic poetry and its language are, perhaps, of greatest interest to specialists who wouldn't be reading the Edda in translation anyway. However, I still found delightful kernels of myth and story interlaced into these more didactic chapters. The entire thing is really worth a read and especially for those, like myself, who delight in the historian's sensibility wherever it is found. Sturlson may have been explicating poetry, but he did so with the attention and perspective of an historian. And, of course, only fairly recently have these two disciplines been separated from each other as though unrelated. Sturluson's Edda provides a beautiful example of poetry as history and history as poetry. ...more
The age of this book and the fact that a white woman collected these stories combine to periodically subject the reader to some pretty bald racism. ThThe age of this book and the fact that a white woman collected these stories combine to periodically subject the reader to some pretty bald racism. That aside, this book offers aboriginal folktales that rate with the world's more frequently told myths and folklore, like the Grimm's Tales of western Europe and the panoply and Native American creation stories - like these other bodies of lore, they can be funny, disturbing, moralizing and weirdly amoral; they feature people who become animals, animals who become people and anthropomorphized animals. For any lover of folktales, I would unreservedly recommend this book. ...more
This is an enthralling exploration of mythmaking and how pre-literate human minds made sense of their world. As an avid history nerd, I have had innumThis is an enthralling exploration of mythmaking and how pre-literate human minds made sense of their world. As an avid history nerd, I have had innumerable occasions to lament the way present day lack of understanding consistently maligns past cultures and eras. We are so beguiled by our own cleverness, by the gadgets we've created, by our modern conveniences we now cannot imagine living without, that we consider humans of past times (when we even bother to consider them) as primitive, fairly stupid versions of ourselves. We impose some imagined progress, a general getting-better, on the march through time so that we don't have to cope with the disturbing and distinct possibility that we are not the end and goal of all creation and perhaps, just perhaps, we have lost knowledge (or at best rediscovered things) that peoples in past periods understood quite well. Because we no longer speak the same language as they - and I mean conceptual as well as literal language - we misunderstand them and attribute our misunderstandings to their ignorance, not our own. This prejudice against past times grows all the more pronounced when it comes to preliterate societies. Though humans (with our same mental and creative capabilities) have lived far longer as non-literate creatures than as literate ones, we commonly ignore those millennia of non-literate human history largely because it is difficult to study. Pre-literate people left behind material detritus, but obviously no writing, and in relying on the spoken word, developed epistemological frameworks that bore little or no resemblance to ours, we who rely so completely on the written word. How are we to make sense of the stories they told? Are they just stories or do they contain some truths? If they ever contained truths, would they not have been erased by time and innumerable retellings?
The Barbers go a long way in restoring the integrity to these "stories", the myths we so often dismiss as flat fictions. Through what must have been years and years of research, these two scholars have assembled an extensive set of "rules" or patterns of behavior to which myths from a multitude of cultures (Native American, Greek, Norse, Indic, etc.) conform and through which we can often guess at the original events that inspired them. The basic principle of this study is that oral cultures are not written ones and their myths cannot be treated as immediately legible to us moderns who privilege the written. When all you have is the spoken word to convey information down generations, you (a) choose only certain very important types of information to convey; (b) tend to imbue the entire world around you - rocks, trees, volcanoes, and so forth - with will; and (c) necessarily cannot spend too much time noting cause and effect in any sort of way we would deem "scientific" because you cannot accumulate detailed knowledge over generations and you assume the cause of any given event is that it was willed by a sentient entity (i.e., the volcano erupted because it was angry, that is, because it wanted to).
The Barbers spend a great deal of time dissecting volcano-related myths (volcanic eruptions comprise events worthy of being recorded in a people's myths and also leave evidence of their eruptions that we can still study today). The other body of information that gave most to oral mythmaking, and an area in which we moderns are profoundly ignorant, is astronomy and the Barbers devote an entire chapter exclusively to the complex movements in the heavens which ancient peoples noted and passed down for generations. In fact, ancient societies had such sophisticated knowledge of the movements of the cosmos, including precession, an cycle that takes 26,000 years to complete, that the Barbers conclude these cultures had been watching the skies and accumulating data which they successfully passed on for millennia. Not so primitive after all.