Summary of the ‘Animals of the Ancient World’ AMME Seminar

The third AMME seminar of the spring season was held on the 2nd of April 2024. The talks considered the relationship of humans and animals in ancient Mesopotamia and Ottoman Turkey.

The first talk given by Dr. Peeter Espak explored the question of how animals were viewed in ancient Mesopotamia. How can we know what they thought about animals? And if humans and animals are different, what is the difference between them?

Dr. Peeter Espak begins by examining the so-called Uruk-vase, dating to the Uruk Period circa 3000 BCE. The Uruk-vase exemplifies the order of the world as it was seen back then in four registers. On the bottom there is water and water plants. Separated but connected animals follow. On the third register there are humans carrying harvested goods. The highest section is of course the gods. It features humans in a procession, presenting harvested goods to a deity, very likely Inanna. 

This is how the world was structured. Life-giving water is at the bottom. Water has a special place in Sumerian mythology, and it was seen as the basis of all life. Then animals closely follow and after them humans and finally gods. This is of course the hierarchy that is to be followed. Humans have authority over animals and are in turn subservient to the gods.

In ancient Mesopotamian mythological stories, spanning from the Early Dynastic period to the Neo-Assyrian period, the difference seen between humans and animals was their intelligence. While being very similar to humans, animals did not possess the same kind of intelligence as humans. Humans could brew beer and make bread, unlike animals. In many stories agriculture was given for humans to do in order to relieve the gods from this tedious task. 

Being animal-like could also be a negative thing. In a text called The Curse of Agade from late Akkadian or early Ur III period the Gutian people with whom Mesopotamians were often warring with were described as terrible people. They were almost human with human feelings and human thoughts but had the instincts of a dog and the body shape of a monkey. Here being animalistic carries very much a negative connotation.

Last, Dr. Peeter Espak draws a comparison between ancient Mesopotamian mythology and the Old Testament. A text dating to the Neo-Assyrian period but drawing from older sources describes how the first two humans, Ullegarra and Annegarra, were created from the blood of gods. They were then tasked to be the custodians of the plants and animals. This bears a striking resemblance to the creation of life in the Old Testament. The same ideas about the place of man in the world already existed in much earlier times and still persist in our modern world.


The second talk was given by Prof. Alan Mikhail was about a story in a book by 17th century Ottoman writer Evliya Çelebi called Book of Travel. His presentation analyzes a seemingly fantastical account of a young woman who gave birth to an elephant in the Ottoman Empire in the 1640s.

Evliya Çelebi travelled throughout the Ottoman Empire and in the lands neighbouring and recorded his experiences in a 10-volume book called the Book of Travel. In this book a story from Central Anatolia is recorded, in which woman suffers sexual violation by an elephant and becomes pregnant. The woman later gives birth to an elephant son, who is killed a month later by the order of the state. The story ends with the woman demanding justice for her son.

Prof. Alan Mikhail connects this story with the ecological, political and economic environment of 17th century Ottoman Turkey. In the story the woman’s pregnancy lasts three years, from 1646 to 1649, which were also some of the worst years of the Little Ice Age in the Ottoman Empire, and Central Anatolia lost 60-90% of its population. The Ottoman Empire made censuses of the number of bachelor men for the purposes of conscription. In fact, many men were conscripted to the army to fight in wars, leaving rural areas inhabited mostly by women.

During this time scarcity in the land lead to the forming of bandit groups that ravaged the countryside, making life unsafe for its inhabitants. This in turn lead to more people fleeing the countryside, leaving fewer people to do agricultural labour, making food even more scarce.

Prof. Alan Mikhail reads this story then, against this backdrop. In his opinion, the miraculous birth of the elephant child from a human mother embodies these tumultuous times: Nature out of balance, dangerous life and a world without men. The people of the town saw the crisis outside of them, but also quite literally inside them. 

Balance was restored, however, by the killing of the child by a midwife on the order of the prefect. The woman’s elephant son delivered his message not through his life, but through his birth.


We would like to thank both speakers, as well as the attendants. Please join us in the final AMME seminar of the spring on Thursday 23 May (16:15-18:00 EEST/Helsinki time) on the theme of Land Management Practices: Migration and Empire.