Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.02.33 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.02.33

Spencer Allen, The Splintered Divine: A Study of Ištar, Baal, and Yahweh Divine Names and Divine Multiplicity in the Ancient Near East. Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Records 5.   Berlin; Boston; Munich:  De Gruyter, 2015.  Pp. xxi, 457.  ISBN 9781614512936.  $154.00.  

Reviewed by Gina Konstantopoulos, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University (


A revision of the author's doctoral dissertation, Spencer Allen's The Splintered Divine: A Study of Ištar, Baal, and Yahweh Divine Names and Divine Multiplicity in the Ancient Near East, is an ambitious undertaking in both its conceptual breath and the many sources with which the author engages on the way to his conclusions. Allen investigates the phenomenon by which a divine figure may be named with different, often geographically associated titles, when invoked in hymns, treaties, and other, often dedicatory, texts. Allen's work aims from the outset to be comparative, and he thus focuses his attentions on three divine figures that manifest this multiplicity: Ishtar, Baal, and Yahweh. Any one of these figures is complex enough that it could easily serve as the sole basis of a dedicated study, instead of occupying a single chapter within this work. The author first concerns himself with the question of divine multiplicity itself, a survey of the field as it were, and then proceeds to devote a chapter to broader comparative insights and exploration, before proceeding with his case studies and overall conclusions. The work closes with a long listing of the various god lists, excerpted from treaties and other, mostly political, texts, that serve as one of the major bases for Allen's analysis and his own attempts to create a grand unifying god list for the respective periods under review.

Allen's first chapter, an overview of much of the previous scholarship relevant to the study, focuses initially on Barbara Porter's work on Ištar of Arbela and Ištar of Nineveh, though Allen considers scholarship from as far back as the late 1800's. The author engages with texts that both support and disagree with his arguments of divine multiplicity. He also, most critically, elaborates on his naming conventions for the multiple deities, and his intention of treat a name such as Ištar-of-Nineveh as a construction of a first name (Ištar) and geographic "last name" (of-Nineveh). Such a classification scheme creates problems, however, by suggesting a closer relationship between deities that share a geographic element (or "last name") than between those who are only connected through a common "first name," which does not inherently imply any sort of relationship.

Chapter two, "Comparative Insights," centers on two major bodies of comparative evidence: the first deals with the Hittite pantheon and its own potential divine multiplicity; the second, an analysis of the far later worship of the Madonna in Italy, whereby the Virgin Mary may be reverenced in individual cities in Italy as nearly separate goddesses. The Hittite evidence centers on the parallel provided by the Hittite tutelary figures of both Adad/Iškur and the lamma figure that is found dedicated to many individual cities and locations. Allen takes this as a parallel, but he neglects to fully address the fact that these figures, as tutelary deities, were by definition dedicated to a particular location, and thus this local dedication is a very function of their nature, one that makes them a poor parallel to geographically-localized deities.

Chapter three, "The Divine Hierarchy and Embedded God Lists (EGLs)," establishes much of the framework that governs the overall study. It is here that Allen outlines his process of creating what he refers to as composite god lists: lists comprised of and compiled from the different divine figures that appeared in the witness or oath sections, the "embedded god lists" of various historical texts. Allen proposes to circumvent conundrums concerning divine hierarchy by adopting "a theocentric—rather than political—view of Neo-Assyrian treaties, royal inscriptions, administrative documents, and court correspondences" (110). While Allen's aim and intent in creating a broader view of the divine hierarchy in the Neo-Assyrian period is admirable, these embedded god lists are found within texts that are inherently rooted in specific political and historical contexts, and thus influenced and intrinsically tied to that same context in turn. Allen's angle of attack in this regard is interesting, but its reasons and full implications for these texts are not fully justified within the full sweep of the work. Similarly, the author's initial and continued assertion that the god lists are organized in a hierarchy from greatest to least significance within the pantheon requires more support and a fuller argument, as well as more direct engagement with scholarship that present alternative methods of arrangement. While these are specific concerns with the author's methodology, as they form supporting structures for the arguments of the work as a whole, they remain of note.

The next three chapters cover Allen's question of divine multiplicity as it concerns Ištar in the Neo-Assyrian context, Baal and his geographic epithets in the west (principally at Ugarit), and the potential multiplicity of Yahweh as connected to Kuntille 'Ajrud and other sites, respectively. In the first, Allen anchors his analyses on the argument that the primary distinction between the various Ištar goddesses is their location—the "last name," in his terms—although this and later analysis rests upon his statement that the "unspecified Ištar…had a relatively low rank for a major god in the ninth century" (153), introduced in the previous chapter. Ultimately, Allen synthesizes an enormous amount of research and data on the goddess Ištar at Arbela and at Nineveh, before discussing the goddess Mullissu, and her various syncretisms with or independent identifications from the Ištar figures. Allen closes with the assertion that the various geographically identified Ištar goddesses were both individual and low in rank, both of which again rest upon his hierarchical classification of the divine lists found in texts.

Allen proves adept at both looking critically at a single period, as in the case of Ištar, and at widening that scholarly gaze to other areas, as evidenced by his similarly exhaustive treatment of Baal and Yahweh. The former analysis rests upon the discussion of particular texts that present, for example, separate offerings for the Baal of Ugarit and of Aleppo (208), among other deities, and upon tackling the issue of the presence (or absence) or geographically unspecified Baal figures. Allen then stresses the importance of the geographic element, describing it as the predominant element in determining a deity's identity. There are interesting potential political ramifications inherent in this statement, and one wishes the author would devote more time to his own interpretations of them. The last of the major chapters, focused on Yahweh, is similarly anchored in a close interpretation of texts, initially centered on whether the singular or multiple identity of Yahweh can be reconciled directly with the texts, before moving to an analysis of geographic elements. The final chapter does serve as the close of the overall arc of the work itself.

The catalogue of divine lists and attestations that comprise the appendix of Allen's work speak to the depth and breath of his research. His organization of the deities via colors (blue for certain deities, green for others, orange for astral bodies, etc.) is a novel approach that unfortunately creates at times conflicting categorizations. My questioning of Allen's somewhat heteronormative assignation of the color pink to Ištar and other goddesses aside, Allen classifies the Sebettu as an astral body—and thus orange—throughout the catalogue, undoubtedly in light of their representation as the Pleiades. The Seven were deities—and occasionally demons—in their own right, however, and they do not exclusively occupy either category. Similarly, although the planets such as Venus and Jupiter are attested in these lists, many (Venus in particular) were the astral representations of divine figures, a connection that these categorizations efface—something the author suggests briefly in chapter one. Regardless, the appendix is a commendably useful resource and, overall, well presented.

The book is unfortunately marred by typographical errors. By and large these are intermittent within the work and not primary concerns. However, there are several sections where the typographical mistakes, most often deletions, interfere with the reader understanding the work itself. This is first and most notably present in section 3.4 on witness-list traditions, where the author's initial arguments on the multiplicity of Ištar are considered. Over the course of several sections that are critical for establishing the author's argument, key words are omitted from the text, or single letters are substituted for what, I assume, were the terms themselves: "This top-to-bottom ranking…is exactly what Frame says should be expected in a , and it is an order than is found in non-s as well," (121) and "…research on the stability of human s suggest that the divine s reflect an accurate and official representation of the divine hierarchy in the Neo-Assyrian period" (122). These deletions, which are sometimes critical to the understanding of the author's argument, continue to appear, though far less frequently, throughout the work following this section.

The above typographical errors aside, Allen's work is notable for the enormous amount of data that the author has sifted through in search of his own conclusions. Moreover, the author does not shy away from presenting larger and decisively issued statements in these conclusions themselves, and in this regard the work possesses a commendable scope and scale. However, a consequence of such a large, overarching, and often explicitly directed analysis, is that Allen at times loses the thread of his own work. While smaller points of analysis and argument are well supported, the suspended micro-arguments, when taken separately, do not always fit the overall conclusions of each chapter. The three comparative chapters of the book act as sections within a narrative that, as one reads, becomes increasingly clear is one the author had settled on from the very outset of his project. Thus, its largest flaw is perhaps the author's own overarching and predetermined narrative both influencing and interfering with the more nuanced smaller-scale analysis found within each chapter. With that in mind, Allen's work stands as an example of a meticulously researched approach to comparative analysis that will be of use to scholars from each of three fields.

[For a response to this review by Spencer Allen, please see BMCR 2016.02.43.]

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010