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Arzl has not had a king or a Caesar for a long time, but it is still Keith Hopkins’ World Full of Gods. And like unto the Esangila, this house has been covered with scaffolding for a long time due to a little dispute over who should pay the bills for restoring it.

I don’t talk enough about the gods and their cult because its not a subject I feel like I can say anything useful about. I grew up in a place where religion is a private matter (which anyone in the ancient world would think is insane) and I am a lot more comfortable talking about solid things like types of swords or what the third line of the tenth chapter of that book actually says. But religion in the ancient Near East had some peculiar qualities which can be easy for us to take for granted if we grew up in post-Christian, Christian, Moslem, or Jewish societies and don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the cult of the gods and the praising of kings.

Perhaps capitalizing on the ethical imperative of protecting the poor, petitioners— and Gimil-Ninurta and Khunanup (hero of the Egyptian folktale “The Eloquent Peasant”) may be literary examples here— tend to present themselves as being poor, describing themselves using diminutive terms and overstating their poverty in an effort to win favor. One particular petitioner, the spurned exorcist Urad-Gula may have actually drawn subtle parallels between his circumstances and the poverty of Gimil-Ninurta in an effort to win the favor of Assurbanipal, a move that underscores PMN’s popularity. Interestingly, petitions such as these followed the same pattern as prayers, reminding us of the idea that poverty was often understood as divine punishment: gods made people poor and the king could intercede on their behalf, a nuance that will be important to remember in reading PMN and EP.

Daniel Shalom Fisher, “Representations of the Poor in The Poor Man of Nippur and the Eloquent Peasant” (MA thesis, Vanderbilt University, 2008) p. 5 https://etd.library.vanderbilt.edu/available/etd-07012008-205634/

In Sumerian, a temple and a palace are both a Big House (E2.GAL). They are both places where powerful and distant beings sit, and demand to be placated with obedience and generous gifts, but are also places of splendour (the White House at Sippar) whose occupants can make your dreams come true (the House of All Joys at Harran). There are people who think that the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible took shape under some of the last kings of independent Judah who wanted to center both the cult of the gods and the rule of the kingdom in Jerusalem. I think it might be helpful for some of us to think about how our pictures of gods are modelled on kings, and how our culture’s expectations of a leader are modelled on a father-god.

There is a performance of the Poor Man of Nippur (in English with cuneiform subtitles!) on YouTube

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