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Article

Benjamin Fortson

Cuneiform denotes any of at least three writing systems of ancient Mesopotamia and the surrounding areas. It is characterized in its classical form by signs consisting of one or more wedge-shaped strokes (cf. Latin cuneus, “wedge”). The first such script to emerge, and the one most widely used, was Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform, which developed in what is now southern Iraq in the late 4th millennium bce. Its antecedents were more primitive methods of mercantile record-keeping using pictograms and tally marks. The earliest stages of the script contained patently pictographic signs drawn in clay with a pointed stylus. A later shift to the use of a reed with the end cut at an oblique angle produced the classic wedge-shaped impressions. The breaking-up of images into sets of wedges together with a gradual reduction in the number of strokes plus a ninety-degree rotation of the signs increased their abstractness and elevated the wedges (initially just an accidental byproduct of the writing technology) to an important design element. It became aesthetically prized in its own right and was carried over onto other media such as stone. The wedges were also imitated in the two other unrelated scripts that are also called cuneiform: Old Persian and Ugaritic.

Article

Jason M. Schlude

Founded and ruled by the Arsacid royal family, the Parthian empire (c. 250 bce–227 ce) was the native Iranian empire that filled the power vacuum in the Middle East in the midst of Seleucid decline. Arsacid interaction with the Roman empire began in the mid-90s bce, eventually established the Euphrates river as a shared border, and was peaceful in nature till 54 bce. In that year, the first of four cycles of Parthian-Roman wars began. Since the Romans carried out the initial large-scale mobilization of troops that introduced most of these wars, it is appropriate to associate these four cycles with the various Romans who coordinated the Roman military efforts: (a) Crassus to Antony (54–30 bce); (b) Nero (57–63 ce); (c) Trajan (114–117 ce); and (d) Lucius Verus to Macrinus (161–217 ce). The fundamental causes for these conflicts were Roman imperialism, which was well ingrained by the 1st century bce, and Parthian imperialism, which accelerated in the 2nd century bce, probably accompanied by the Arsacids’ attempts to present themselves as successors to the Achaemenid dynasty.

Article

Concepts of religion and humanity form an integral component of Mesopotamian narrative literature, and these ideas are evidenced in the frequent exploration of themes involving mortality and immortality, power and authority, and creation and destruction. Through the use of plot, characterization, literary themes and techniques, and also structure, Mesopotamian myths and epics transmit religious ideas and beliefs, as well as informing on cultural identity and meaning. In both oral and written transmission, storytelling is a powerful medium for exploring ancient theology. Religious ideas are expressed in a wide array of Mesopotamian literary works, and while some features, such as the polytheistic view of the divine hierarchy, remain generally constant, different texts and “genres” show changes in focus and in the perception of the divine and the human. While deities and supernatural creatures have a prominent role in literature, Mesopotamian myth is not only concerned with theistic matters, but also with what it means to be human. It is often observed in modern scholarly works that humans, in the Babylonian Flood narrative of Atrahasis, and the creation myth of Enuma Elish, were born to serve the gods and perform their menial tasks. This is undoubtedly an important observation for the analysis of humanity and religion, yet the presentation of human/divine relations as one of simple subjection gives a misleading and superficial impression of the interaction between the mortal and divine spheres, one that is at odds with the subject’s complexity, variety, and subtlety. Myths and epics provide a multifaceted picture of a number of different types of relationships between gods and humans: even in the narrative of Atrahasis, individual deities interact with humans in different ways; there is no “one size fits all” divine connection in Mesopotamian literature. Despite a rigid hierarchy in favor of the divine, these relationships are frequently close, involving strong emotional bonds. The human/divine connection is not solely beneficial to either party, but reciprocal and often mutually rewarding. At the same time, the relations between humans and deities can be destructive and damaging—with the harm most often depicted to occur on the human side, possibly because of the vulnerability offered by mortality and the lack of supernatural abilities. Humanity is reflected in the anthropomorphic representations of deities and also the sociomorphism of their family-oriented community structure. For heroes of epic literature, the divine connection can be perilous, but also rewarding. The success of heroes in accessing divine support is frequently (but not exclusively) linked to the morality of their actions. Religion and humanity in literature concern not only deities’ interactions with humans, but also how the authors of literature conceptualized and gave meaning to the human condition. It is clear from Mesopotamian literature that close, positive relationships with the divine were important for survival and success during the human lifespan (and even beyond), yet at the same time, the answer to questions of finding meaning in mortal existence is at times presented in very human terms. Love, alongside shared human achievements and experiences, is presented in several literary sources as essential for giving meaning to the human condition.

Article

In ancient Mesopotamia, all five planets visible to the naked eye were known and studied, along with the Moon, the Sun, the stars, and other celestial phenomena. In all Mesopotamian sources concerning the Moon and the planets, be they textual or iconographical, the astronomical, astrological, and religious aspects are intertwined. The term “astral science” covers all forms of Mesopotamian scholarly engagement with celestial entities, including celestial divination and astrology. Modern research on Mesopotamian astral science began in the 19th century. Much research remains to be done, because important sources remain unpublished and new questions have been posed to published sources. From ca. 3000 bce onward, Mesopotamians used a calendar with months and years, which indicates that the Moon was studied at that early age. In cuneiform writing, the Sumerian and Akkadian names of the Moongod, Nanna/Sin, are attested since ca. 2500 bce. The most common Akkadian names of the five planets, Šiḫṭu (Mercury), Dilbat (Venus), Ṣalbatānu (Mars), White Star (Jupiter), and Kayyāmānu (Saturn), are attested first in 1800–1000 bce. The Moon, the Sun, and the planets were viewed as gods or manifestations of gods. From ca. 1800 bce onward, the phenomena of the Moon, the Sun, and the planets were studied as signs that were produced by the gods to communicate with humankind. Between ca. 600 bce and 100 ce, Babylonian scholars reported lunar and planetary phenomena in astronomical diaries and related texts. Their purpose was to enable predictions of the reported phenomena with period-based, so-called Goal-Year methods. After the end of the 5th century bce Babylonian astronomers introduced the zodiac and developed new methods for predicting lunar and planetary phenomena known as mathematical astronomy At about the same time they developed horoscopy and other forms of astrology that use the zodiac, the Moon, the Sun, and the planets to predict events on Earth.