Borrowings to Create Anew: Intertextuality in the Babylonian Poem of "Creation" (Enuma Elis)

Article excerpt

Assyriologists engaged in the study of literature have identified the existence of quotations borrowed from other texts since the early days of the discipline, although back then they did not refer to those citations as "intertextuality" because this neologism appeared only in the late 1960s. In her book on poetry from Babylonia and Assyria, Erica Reiner (1985: 33) was one of the first to have employed the term in connection with literal quotes present in Akkadian literary texts. According to her:

Such verbatim quotes (...) play the same role in Babylonian poetry as the quotes and allusions that punctuate modern poetry; they constitute intertextual relationships, and enable the well-read modern Assyriologist to make the same linkages across the ancient poems as the ancient reader was expected to make.

Although succinct, Reiner's explanation implies that the purpose of quotations and allusions is to trigger associations that make it possible to contextualize a literary work within a constellation of other compositions and genres. Her interpretation also suggests the possibility of various layers of meaning depending on the reader's (or listener's) level of instruction and familiarity with other texts and traditions. In this essay I explore intertextuality and its uses in Eniima elis. in an attempt to understand the poem's architecture. (1)


Julia Kristeva coined and first explained the concept of "intertextuality" in her book published in 1969. Since then intertextuality has experienced multiple redefinitions to the point of becoming an elusive category. Intertextual analyses are usually applied to medieval and modern fictional narratives, although in recent years they have become relatively common also in the study of ancient literary texts. (2) In works on ancient Near Eastern literature, however, intertextuality is frequently circumscribed to the search for and identification of phrases or sentences copied from one text into another. (3) But intertextuality as conceived by Kristeva and by other scholars entails a much more complex and manifold understanding of literary practices. In the words of Rabau (2002: 15), an intertextual perspective allows us to "envisage la litterature comme un espace ou un reseau, une bibliotheque si l'on veut, chaque texte transforme les autres qui le modifient en retour."

Kristeva (1969: 146) drew a number of insights from the works of Mikhail Bakhtin, and it is often pointed out that his concept of dialogue has played a fundamental role in the development of the idea of intertextuality. Kristeva mentioned, for instance, that with his understandings of dialogue and ambivalence Bakhtin first introduced into the domain of literary theory the idea that "tout texte se construit comme mosaique de citation, tout texte est absorption et transformation d'un autre texte." Although the text is construed as a mosaic of citations, this image should not overshadow the importance that Kristeva assigned to the process of absorption and transformation. This is apparent from her interpretation of a text as a "permutation de textes, une intertextualite: dans l'espace d'un texte plusieurs enoncds, pris a d' autres textes, se croisent et se neutralisent" (Kristeva 1969: 113).

A few years later, Kristeva (1974: 59) stressed her view that intertextuality does not suppose simply an imitation or a reproduction but a transposition, and she expanded her original notion by stating that "[1]e terme d' inter-te.xtualite designe cette transposition d'un (ou plus-ieurs) systeme(s) de signes en un autre (...)." As a later commentator has put it, for Kristeva a text is intertextual not because it contains mimicked or deformed borrowings but because, while creating a new composition, the writer redistributes, deconstructs, and disseminates earlier texts (Pidgay-Gros 1996: 12). Intertextuality then includes not only allusions, parodies, or pastiches, but also forms of reminiscences and rewritings between the text and the language in which it is written. …