University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > Textual transmission and hypertextuality in ancient Mesopotamia: the example of the divinatory series šumma ālu and šumma izbu (second to first millennia BC)

Textual transmission and hypertextuality in ancient Mesopotamia: the example of the divinatory series šumma ālu and šumma izbu (second to first millennia BC)

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In the middle of the second millennium, an Akkadian literature began to develop around the observation of omens. Omens were grouped into collections according to their topics. Each omen was structured as a conditional sentence: the first clause, the protasis, describes an ominous occurrence; the second clause, the apodosis, its significance. The omen series known by its first line, šumma ālu ina mēlê šakin (if a city is located on a height), is a compendium of terrestrial omens (‘black cat’ type omens), which covered all aspects of urban and domestic life. For instance: ‘If a pig is carrying a reed bundle and roams around in the street: there will be trade.’ The series šumma izbu (if an anomaly) is the Mesopotamian teratomancy, and is concerned with live-births, still-births, and miscarriages, both for human beings and animals. Both series were often intermingled and, like most Mesopotamian literature, have been copied down by generations of scribes, throughout second and first millennia BC.

In Ancient Near Eastern studies, it has long been assumed that textual transmission was limited to a simple process of ‘canonisation’ or ‘standardisation’. Yet, a thorough study of the so-called ‘canonised’ Mesopotamian manuscripts indicates that such a view is too reductive. Many sources, especially the ones dealing with knowledge and meaning, such as the divinatory series, proved to be intractable to such a process. They thus form a corpus of ‘literature in the second degree’, closely related to each other through a relationship of hypertextuality (according to G. Genette’s definition of the term). In this way, the textual traditions are indeed the cultural memory of the society, but also conform to the new cultural realities. I shall concentrate here on the history of the series šumma ālu and šumma izbu, and determine their transtextual relationships and their transformation through, amongst other methods, the study of linguistic repertoires.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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