New Special Issue of die Welt des Orients Discusses Identity in the Ancient World

Everyone knows that women existed in the ancient world. Everyone knows that poor people existed in the ancient world. We also know through textual and archaeological evidence that minorities of all kinds existed in the ancient world. But how do we reach them? And how can we find out what they thought of themselves?

Members of Ancient Near Eastern Empires Center of Excellence have been involved in the creation of a special issue of the journal Die Welt des Orients, edited by Dr. Joanna Töyräänvuori. This special issue, The Construction of Identity in the Ancient World, deliberates the construction and intersecting of identities in the ancient Near East with contributions from the fields of Biblical Studies and Assyriology. The articles in the issue were originally presented at a very successful international meeting held at the University of Helsinki in the August of 2017, the Summer Symposium on the Construction of Identity in the Ancient Near East. The meeting was organised by Dr. Töyräänvuori and Assoc. Prof. Saana Svärd, the director of ANEE, for the Academy of Finland project “Construction of gender in Mesopotamia from 934 to 330 BCE”. The symposium was a cross-disciplinary gathering which inspired many interesting conversations in addition to the papers presented, so it was decided by the participants to offer contributions to a peer-reviewed journal like WdO rather than to publish them in the usual conference volume.

While all the articles in the special issue use distinct datapoints and different methodologies, the common factor shared by all of them is the quest to reach ancient identities and to discuss the contingent factors that may have gone into the construction of identities in the pre-modern world. The contributions offer a cross-section of important viewpoints into ancient identities as they related to ethnicity, gender, social stratification, age, ability, etc., hopefully serving as a springboard for future elaborations on the topic. Especially significant are the questions raised by many of the contributions on the nature of identity and the difference between modern discourse and ancient conceptions.

The contributions of the special issue, while all discussing topics in the ancient world, can be roughly divided into Biblical Studies and Assyriology, and have further been ordered loosely based on chronology and geographic distribution of the evidence.

In the first paper, Jezebel as Voiced by Others in 1 and 2 Kings Prof. Dr. Kristin Joachimsen of the MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society examines the complexity of the figure of Jezebel in the Biblical books of 1 and 2 Kings. She argues that in these texts, Empire is voiced by the colonized, that ideological complexities of accommodation and resistance towards Empire are conveyed in the texts in the figure of Jezebel, whose hybrid identity expresses ambivalence. She concludes that the texts are not historical depictions of unique events, but narratives containing strategies of survival.

In the second article, The Apparel Oft Proclaims the Man:” Clothing and Identity in Ezekiel 23 Dr. Rosanne Liebermann of Washington University in St Louis discusses the unique window into Babylonian and Assyrian collective identities offered by the detailed description of clothing and adornment practices in the Book of Ezekiel, contrasting the Assyrians and Babylonians with the Judean community in exile. She concludes that the text evokes specific aspects of the ethnic identity of Assyrians and Babylonians as perceived by Judeans, in addition to their imperial power, wealth, and foreign religious practices, differentiating them from the forced migrant Judeans. Maintaining this distinction illustrates an ideology of Judeans in Babylon as a distinct religious and ethnic group.

In the third article, Too good to be true? The Creation of the People of Israel Prof. Dr. Niels Peter Lemche of the University of Copenhagen discusses the expressions of identity in the Old Testament in their ancient Near Eastern context. He posits that the historical narrative of the Old Testament is not historically motivated but was instead providing a selected religious group with a new identity by the invocation of a collective memory combining both tradition and history of becoming Israel.

In the fourth article “King” Kudur-Mabuk: A Study on the Identity of a Mesopotamian Ruler Without a Crown Dr. Baptiste Fiette of Collège de France discusses the figure of Kudur-Mabuk found in the victory stele from Nippur in the context of his ethnic and political identity. He concludes that it is only the political crises in the kingdom of Larsa in the early second millennium that allowed a man of Elamite extraction to seize power by portraying himself as a father-figure to Emutbal and the Amorite people, which allowed for his placement among kings by later Mesopotamian rulers.

In the fifth article, Questions of Identity in Nuzi: Another Look at Tulpun-naya’s Archive (Nuzi, XIVth Century BCE) Prof. Dr. Brigitte Lion of Université Paris Nanterre discusses various forms of identity that can appear in ancient personal archives, using the archive of Tulpun-naya, a wealthy woman from ancient Nuzi, as a case-example. The documents in the archive records her connections with men and women, rich and poor, freemen and slaves, adults and children, natives and foreigners, and others, displaying a microcosm of the ancient kingdom of Arraphe. She concludes that ancient documents display different criteria that were used in the construction of personal identity in the kingdom of Arraphe, the ancients having multiple and complex identities that are revealed in the documents in partial but interesting ways.

In the sixth article, Royal literary identity under the Sargonids and the Epic of Gilgameš Dr. Johannes Bach of ANEE discusses the literary representation of the Assyrian king fluctuating between periods of poetic stagnation and innovation, while retaining a rigid architextual framework guiding royal scribes in producing new inscriptions. He concludes that the borders of narrative traditions could be expanded when new formulations were needed for the legitimacy of kingship, which in the reign of Sargon II yielded a new way of propagating the royal identity that was remodeled after the literary figure of Gilgameš. This was later used by Esarhaddon who intertextually connected his kingship with Gilgameš.

In the seventh article, Sweet Girls and Strong Men: Onomastics and Personality Traits in First-Millennium Sources Dr. Laura Cousin of Université Paris Nanterre discusses the use of Babylonian names in the investigation of Mesopotamian mentalities, as most of the personal names had precise signification in administrative and daily documentation. Personal names can be studied in relation to ancient physical characteristics, social statuses, and gendered characteristics in addition to personality traits. She concludes that the study of the choice of names in Babylonian sources aids in establishing the history of mentalities and representations in the ancient world.

And in the final article, My Men have Become Women, and My Women Men: Gender, Identity, and Cursing in Mesopotamia by Dr. Gina Konstantopoulos of ANEE and the University of Tsukuba discusses the fluidity of the ideas of gender in the ancient world. She argues that the landscape of shifting gender – and even its weaponization – was commonplace, especially in contexts where the removal of autonomy and power was coupled with the loss of martial and masculine abilities. She argues that the removal of such attributes required a supernatural vector, but the acquisition of the same appears only as the product of circumstance and the confluence of unlikely events.

Issue 50/2 of die Welt des Orients can be accessed through the Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht online store.