Ancestor of the West. Writing, Reasoning, and Religion in Mesopotamia, Elam, and Greece

Article excerpt

Abstract

This small, elegantly written book, offers three distinct perspectives on civilization as it emerged in the more familiar ancient Greek tradition from antecedents in the Ancient Near East. Bott6ro's "Religion and Reasoning in Mesopotamia" (Part 1:3-66) outline themes that arose as the cuneiform tradition evolved in the hands of Sumerian and Akkadian scribes, while Herrenschmidt's "Writing between Visible and Invisible Worlds in Iran, Israel, and Greece: (11:69-146) characterizes conceptual changes in the transi tion from the cuneiform script based on a mixture of phonetic (syllabic) and non-phonetic (determinatives, logograms) signs to the phonetic alphabet on which Greek was based. In "Writing and Civil Religion in Greece" (111:149-175), Jean-Pierre Vernant

compares the Indo-European-speaking heritage of the Greeks and with traits that emerged as Greek culture made uniquely Greek contributions in contact with the non-- Indo-European cultures of the Ancient Near East.

With a Foreword by Francois Zabbal, Teresa Lavender Fagan, translator. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. 194 pages, Illustrated, Hardbound, $25.00, ISBN 0-226-06715-7

These essays are intended to dispel the notion that a "western" tradition sprang fully clothed from the head of Zeus not long before fifth century BC Athens. Fagan's translation makes this book easily accessible to the nonspecialist, and Zabbal's forward (vii-xii) situates it in time (beginning in the fourth millennium BC) and space (Mesopotamia peopled by Sumerians, Akkadians, a culturally changing Iran and Greece) raising questions about whether thinking can really be characterized as "(middle) eastern" or "western," as is often done. Bibliographical references are confined to brief footnotes (177-178) and a very selective "Bibliography" (179-181) with an index of names and concepts (183-192).

* I.

Bottero, the Assyriologist, emphasizes the cultural continuum that comes with the spread of written traditions, the first of which was the cuneiform conflation of Sumerian and (Semitic) Akkadian culture. Four succinct chapters (1: "The Birth of xCivilization" 3-18; 2: "The First Writing" 19-33; 3: "The Intelligence of the World", 34-50; and 4: "The Gods: A Reasonable Religion," 51-66) develop themes related to writing and reasoning as they arose from the everyday lives and institutions of Mesopotamian, Sumerian and Akkadian speakers.

Fundamental is the coalescence of two distinct groups, Sumerians and the Semitic-speaking Akkadians. By the time Sumerians and Akkadians had independently arrived in the lower valley of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the places from which they came were buried in prehistory. From their interaction between the two rivers (in "Meso-potamia" based on Greek meso- 'middle' and potamos 'river'), loan words from one language to the other reflect cultural borrowings. The writing and gardening Sumerians gave Akkadians their word for 'tablet' (Sumerian dub, Akkadian tuppu) and 'garden' (Sumerian nu.kiri, Akkadian mukaribbu) while the herding, warlike and highly religious Semites gave Sumerians their words for 'herdsman, shepherd' (Akkadian niquidu, Sumerian na.gada), combat (Akkadian tamharu, Sumerian dam.hara), and a pantheon with transcendent deities such as Akkadian Shamash (sun-god), Adad (storm-god) and Ishtar (goddess of war). Building on the initial creativity of the Sumerians and their role as teachers for the Semitic-speaking Amorites from the north and west, Bottero emphasizes the Akkadian genius that maintained the culture and allowed it to spread over three millennia. The clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform signs preserved texts as diverse as prayers, omens, letters, economic transactions, royal deeds, poetry and school boy's lessons, and their Akkadian and Sumerian originals were translated into languages as diverse as non-Indo-European Hurrian and Indo-European Hittite. Often copying and translating Sumerian epics such as the Gilgamesh epic, scribes across the Ancient Near East made it their own. …