What does it mean to ‘be a man’ during the Neo-Assyrian period?

14.10.2020
Ellie Bennett is researching masculinities during the Neo-Assyrian period, and is using innovative computational linguistics developed within ANEE to do so. Here she gives an introduction to the research she has conducted thus far.

I have been using the computational linguistic techniques developed by ANEE to explore masculinities in Akkadian texts from the Neo-Assyrian period (roughly 934 to 612 BC, an empire centred in modern Iraq). The method is a combination of using a probabilistic measure and visualisation software to figure out patterns of semantics (the meanings of words) based on the contexts of words. I have been focussing on words which relate to masculinities - both what it meant to be an ideal man, and what it meant for everyone else who did not fit this category.

The study of women and their gender is now well-established within studies of the Ancient Near East, but it is often not acknowledged that men have a gender. Men perform masculinity and masculine roles in the same way as women - and in fact some women and non-binary people perform masculine roles as well.

So far the study of masculinities during the Neo-Assyrian period has focussed on those who are most visible in the source material: the kings (and the idea of what a king should be), and the palace eunuchs. The use of computational linguistics can identify traits which were not seen as the ideal for being a man, and can identify forms of masculinities which do not fit these previous categories. 

This method will also help to identify trends over time. Treating the Neo-Assyrian period as a single block where nothing changed is unrealistic - it was a period which spanned over 300 years. So treating masculinities as unchanging during this time is also unrealistic. Tracking changes of what was seen as the ideal for men to achieve will help to produce a more nuanced view of gender during this time period.

Initial results are promising, and have demonstrated a concrete relationship between archery equipment (bows, arrows, and quivers) to two themes of masculinity: martial prowess, and a link to the divine world. More interestingly, this approach identified an interesting theme which points to how not to be a man (or at least be bad at it): incompetence on the battlefield.

As time goes on it will be interesting to see how masculinities changed depending on other aspects of an individual's identity, such as age, ethnicity, gender (women can perform masculinity too), and status.It will be interesting to see if any of this is visible in the textual material. My hope is that this computational method will continue to deliver interesting results, and we can start to build a more nuanced view of men and masculinity during the Neo-Assyrian period.