Dissertation Thoughts/Notes…

November 29, 2006 at 10:24 am (Dissertation)

A possible title: Diplomacy with the Dead: A Survey of Communication and Transit Between the World of the Living and the World of the Dead in the Ancient Near East. We’ll see how it works out…

The reluctance among scholars both in Assyriology and, to a lesser extent, in Classics to accept the possibility that much of Greco-Roman art and culture was inspired by or influenced by preexisting Near Eastern developments seems to be based in the argument that, if we don’t have absolute proof of transmission, than we have nothing more than idle speculation. However, this argument runs counter to standard scientific logic: If, for example, a disease which was common in China (and nowhere else) were to appear in America, and there was regular traffic between the two countries, an epidemiologist would start on the assumption that the most likely source of the American outbreak was along the Chinese vectors. If this was proven false by further testing, then so be it. If, however, the testing was inconclusive, the assumption that China was the most likely source would still stand, based on the logical necessity of a source for the disease, wouldn’t it? Well, scholars such as Burkert and others have spent the last 20 years demonstrating and documenting the extensive trade networks that existed between Mesopotamia and the Levantine coast, and between the coast and the rest of the Mediterrean, during the latter half of the second and the bulk of the first millennia B.C. We know for a fact that goods and individuals traveled along those routes, and it would be counterintuitive to assume that they would not bring literary and cultural ideas along with them. Look at the way that modern families eagerly await news of a trip taken by one of their members; why do we assume that it was any different during the past? (I realize that drawing parallels with modern human behavior is a mortal sin to many scholars, but I believe that some behaviors are so innate or common that we can use them as models.) It seems to me that the assumption must be that the literatures are connected, that the literatures of the Ancient Near East were known in some form or another across the Mediterranean, and that the burden of proof lies with the opposite argument.

I realize that a counter to this argument is, “What about human creativity? Are you arguing that Greek authors weren’t creative enough to develop the complex portrait of humanity and loss presented in the Iliad?” Frankly, I’m not sure that the Mesopotamians were creative enough to develop it on their own. One of the problems with the study of ancient literature is that we lack the antecedents, specifically the oral literature, which certainly would have informed the authors and poets of ancient society.

Part of the problem is that many fo the “links in the chain,” will, for material reasons, most likely never be found. The oral literature that we assume must have existed among all levels of ancient society has, to a very great extent, been lost (unless I can show that early literary documents, such as the first temple hymn which only provided the beginning of each line, assumed that the literature was primarily oral; however, this doesn’t help if the literary canon was rewritten under Shulgi; or does it matter?) Second, the expansion of papyrus and similar technologies (parchment, vellum, leather) beyond Egypt, that is, beyond an environment in which those materials would most likely be preserved, ensured the destruction and ultimate loss of virtually all of the literary works of important intermediary cultures, such as the Phonecians. Nonetheless, in this absence of evidence, we do not throw up our hands in futility, we make the best assumptions that we can from the evidence.

Perhaps most interesting for me, in terms of the relevance of oral literature and culture, is the argument that references to a particular cultural phenomenon that appear in literature imply a changing of the culture, not a change in the culture’s literary sensibilities. Scholars will often say, “We know that such-and-such existed by at least the sixth century,” which is a perfectly accurate statement. However, in their analysis, they will then say, “Sometime during the sixth century, such-and-such developed in the culture.” This, of course, relates to a pet belief that I have that much of human culture, especially those cultural features that all humans seem to have in common, originated not from any human propensity to it, but from the earliest human culture, created and passed down orally for a hundred thousand years until the development of writing. Coming of age rituals, belief in the afterlife, etc. I believe that these go waaaaay back, back beyond proof, and that they can never be proven.

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