ANEE on the road: Johannes Bach in Broadening Horizons 6

13.11.2019
In June 2019 I visited the "Broadening Horizons" conference at the Freie Universität Berlin. The event was the sixth installment of a multidisciplinary conference series organized mainly for and by junior researchers. My talk "Similes as a means of narrative identity construction in Middle Assyrian royal narrative texts" was given within a panel on figurative language organized by Marta Pallavidini and Ludovico Portuese (both FU Berlin).

Since roughly Adad-nārārī I (1305-1274 BCE), the composers of Assyrian royal narrative texts continuously developed new means to sharpen the narrative identity of their stories' main protagonist. The ancient scholars employed a broad variety of techniques of narrative positioning and framing. Amongst these, the usage of similes, mainly to describe in- and out-groups, to ascribe specific qualities to persons or people, or to communicate the hierarchical differences in the positions of protagonist and antagonists stands out. Similes should be discerned from metaphors. While a metaphor presents one thing for another, similes keep the semantic tension between the so-called vehicle, the spender of a literary image (for example, "a lion"), on the one hand and the so-called tenor, the receiver of a literary image (for example, "the king"), in visible suspense. Similes do so by employing both a particle of comparison (for example, kīma "like") and a tertium comparationis, a "third of comparison" (for example, "to fight"). In contrast to metaphors, similes are very concrete in their targeting: they highlight a specific aspect of both the vehicle and the tenor by claiming that these are alike, but they do not present one thing as being another thing.

Generally, the Middle Assyrian scholars used similes either to describe the in-group – that is the Assyrian king and his loyal subjects – favorably, or to paint the out-group – the various enemies of Assyria – in an inferior light. By analyzing both structure and diachronic development of Middle Assyrian similes, we can learn about how narrative identities were created and fostered by following an unfolding program of contrasts. Thus, studying the relations between a simile's tenors and the corresponding vehicles enables us to draw conclusions on the ideological basis of Middle Assyrian kingship. The main protagonist of the texts, the Assyrian king, takes a superior position of absolute agency. Both his subjects and his antagonists are relationally inscribed into somewhat similar, yet considerably inferior positions. The main difference is that the in-group benefits from their narrative framing, while the various out-groups suffer severely from theirs. Bluntly put, when it comes to the portrayal of enemies, similes often have a dehumanizing function. Studying the Middle Assyrian material thus also contributes to our understanding of authoritarian speech patterns and mindset in general.

A few examples:

The Assyrian king is a shepherd who takes care for his people:

I (= Tukultī-Ninurta I) set my foot upon the neck of the lands (and shepherded the extensive black-headed people like cattle. (RIMA 1, A.0.78.1, i 29-31)

I (= Tukuli-Ninurta I) am the attentive prince, the king (who is) the choice of the god Enlil, the one who shepherded his land with the benevolence of his šibirru-staff as if on a green pasture. (RIMA 1, A.0.78.23, 4-7)

In contrast, members of the out-groups are regularly killed "like sheep":

The troops of the Hittites and Aḫlameans (…) I (Shalmaneser I) slaughtered like zerqu-sheep. (RIMA 1, A.0.77.1, 78-80)

(Shalmaneser I is the the king) who laid low (…) the vast army of the Quteans like šûbu-sheep (RIMA 1, A.0.77. 4, 11-13)

The application of positively connoted similes is not restricted to the ruling monarch, but can also extend to the Assyrian army. As illustrated by the following example, the Assyrian warriors are often portrayed as being alike powerful animals:

The hero-warriors of (the god) Aššur h[url themselves] like a serpent at the army of the king of the Kassites. (Epic of Tukultī-Ninurta I, iv [= Ms. A rev.] 42')

An extreme case of narrative dehumanization of the enemy is the description of the Babylonian army of Kaštiliaš IV in the epic of Tukutlī-Ninurta I:

He (= Kaštiliaš IV) dispatched his army, (but the god) Gira detained it as though (it were) an itching skin-disease and an anal fissure. (Epic of Tukultī-Ninurta I, iv [= Ms. A rev.] 36')