BMCR 2000.09.22

Ancestor of the West : writing, reasoning, and religion in Mesopotamia, Elam, and Greece

Jean Bottéro, Clarisse Herrenschmidt, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Ancestor of the West : writing, reasoning, and religion in Mesopotamia, Elam, and Greece. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. xiii, 192 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0226067157 $25.00/£17.50.

This oddly titled volume, aimed at a general readership, is the translation of a French work published in 1996.1 Jean Bottéro and Jean-Pierre Vernant are éminences grises, well known in Assyriological and Classical circles respectively, while Clarisse Herrenschmidt is a researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. The book is advertized in the blurb as a “highly accessible introduction to the ancient world,” from which “we learn” that underpinning Greek civilization and the Bible (which we may fondly have supposed to be freestanding) there were logical and religious structures developed much earlier in Mesopotamia. In fact each of the three authors has his or her own agenda, and none of them seems very conscious of contributing to an “introduction to the ancient world,” or indeed to any work governed by a coherent aim or plan.

Bottéro’s stated goal is nothing less than to explain the birth and growth of Western civilization, in which he includes the Arab world. He pursues it in the spirit of S.N. Kramer’s History Begins at Sumer (which he once translated into French), finding the beginnings of culture in Mesopotamia and in the interaction there of Sumerians and Akkadian Semites. Semites in general, he believes, were characterized by passionate religiosity and extraordinary lyrical imagination, but in the Akkadians these traits were tempered by Sumerian education, which imbued them rather with the urge to analyse and classify. Equipped with the tool of writing, they were able to accumulate a vast body of observations and reflections about the world around them. In an endless development of the thinking process, they used mythological imagination to answer many deep questions. This included filling the world with gods, something that Bottéro seems to treat as a Mesopotamian innovation. The view thus attained of the world and of the human condition “was at least rational — it was logically deduced using a great deal of intelligence, if not poetry … I have therefore not been wrong to suggest an intelligent image of the world as the distant source of our own” (43).

Mesopotamian culture did of course make a vital contribution to ours, mainly through Israel and Greece. But Bottéro goes astray, in my opinion, in urging the reasoning faculty as the essential legacy. He might have been able to make a better case for it if he had discussed Babylonian mathematics. Instead he takes divination as his capital example. Babylonian omen literature, he claims, is “perfectly logical”, even if we cannot always follow the logic, or see (for instance) “what authorized the diviner to conclude from a fixed eye in a flushed face that the person concerned, when in a city different from his own, would be devoured by dogs there.” They must, he assumes, have observed over the centuries that such sequences of events had occurred on several occasions. “Only this connecting of phenomena could have resulted in the discovery [sic] of the divinatory process I have presented” (47). On this fragile foundation “the ancient Mesopotamians built something solid and definitive, the essential part of which has continued to the present time” (49). They did not achieve syllogistic logic or scientific rigour, but they took “the first step towards all that” (50). Their religion too was “reasonable,” with its notions of sin and evil, punishment, expiatory ritual and prayer, and a dismal post mortem existence, making it appear a “distant rough draft” (65) of the Christian vision.

One may or may not warm to a writer who begins “In my youth — so many years ago! — I spent a lot of time with old Aristotle.” But as an introduction to the intellectual world of Babylonia and Assyria Bottéro’s essay cannot be recommended over, say, A. Leo Oppenheim’s classic Ancient Mesopotamia or Georges Roux’s Ancient Iraq. It is unbalanced in its emphasis. It contains some questionable statements, such as that the Mesopotamians conceived of a spherical cosmos (37),2 that they could not imagine gods being subject to death (38),3 or that they had no notion of people having differentiated fates in the other world according to what they had done in this one (43, 63).4 It is written in lengthy periods that can be rather taxing; on pp. 14-15, for example, we navigate successive sentences of 7, 7, 11, 10, 5, 8, 4, 7, and 6 lines. But my chief complaint is that there is too much general statement and not enough detail. Specific texts are rarely cited; when they are, they are generally not named, and the reader is left with no means of following things up. The development of cuneiform from pictograms is described without any drawings. Instead of explaining the use of determinatives in an informative way, Bottéro withholds the technical term and speaks of “a collection of ingenious devices that would be unnecessary and too lengthy to list here” (25; contrast Herrenschmidt, 88).

When I turned to Herrenschmidt, my immediate impression was of a more sharply focused mind. She is concerned with writing systems outside Mesopotamia, in particular in Elam, Achaemenid Persia, and the West. Here are plenty of hard facts, and pictures to illustrate them; the 31 endnotes (as against Bottéro’s three) give some guidance on where to go for further information.

Reading further, we begin to encounter some striking ideas to chew on together with the factual information. As logograms gave way to syllabic spelling, “the bodies of humans no longer vanished between things and their names” (86). In other words, the impersonal, intrinsic identity of a thing and its name was dissolved now that a human intermediary was needed to analyse the name into syllables and reconstruct it. From here onwards a sort of poetic metaphysics starts to encroach on the exposition. “The ancients believed that writing partook of the invisible” (89). Oh? Which of them mentions this? “Consonant alphabets meant significant progress in humans’ appropriation of language, but they did not inscribe the sounds in the body of the speaker, but halfway between his body and his speech” (96). Pardon?

Nothing arouses our philosopher so much as occlusive consonants, which sound forth only when released from detention by a following vowel. “Thus certain signs of the complete alphabet note not sounds but the positions of the sound-making organs. These signs refer to the body of the reader” — bodies again — “and evoke the mute, interior, and private speech” (100). “In their universality, occlusives state that language … is intention and construction based upon intention: wanting to say is a leap into the unknown, a break with the instant when one wanted nothing at all, a risk placing the speaker in a perilous situation, between the silence he no longer wants and the impossible control of time going by…What characterizes the complete alphabet, from the Greek alphabet to our own, remains a tension between the rational and the irrational, the impossible graphic trapping of the intention of speech and the endless current behind the passing of time” (106). Eat your hearts out, parodists.

There are two more whole chapters from which I could continue to enchant you, had we but world enough and time, with quotations illustrating Herrenschmidt’s peculiar combination of genuine expertise in the subject matter with extravagant flights of the intellect. I regret that we cannot tarry over the eleven pages (135-46) she devotes to the reform of Eukleides in 403 BC, with their conclusion that “Archinus, Thrasybulus, the oligarchs, and the moderate democrats were in agreement about eliminating the aspirated h from writing … they thus prohibited the privatization of breath through writing, because speech was for everyone, and that included the gods.” No, we must move on to the two briefer chapters by Vernant, yoked under the heading ‘Writing and Civil Religion in Greece.’

The first, ‘Myths and Reasonings,’ a sketch of Greek history and thought from the Bronze Age to the Presocratics, is, frankly, a contemptible offering: a tissue of banalities and half-truths, written, it seems, without consulting any books, yet not drawing on any personal mastery of any one of the topics covered. There are no original insights, and much vagueness and inaccuracy. What appeared in the eighth century was “a true civilization…that was extraordinarily rich and powerful, that demonstrated a refinement in the manufacturing of certain objects, such as those that have been found in tombs” (152). What objects, what tombs? The destruction of Mycenaean palaces is dated to the end of the twelfth century (150, 152), and the impression is given that colonization exploded in the ninth (153). In the space of a single page (156) we are informed that Heraclitus wrote in verse, that Greek law was not written down until the Hellenistic era, and that on an eighth-century decorated vase from Pithekousai the potter “not only put his name but also cited a verse of Homer relating to the scene that is described.” To edify the French public, apparently, it is sufficient for an Emeritus of the Collège de France to stitch together half-remembered fragments of his own education. Lesser men check their facts.

And finally ‘The Polis: Shared Power.’ Oh, the polis, the polis. Here “we learn” about the rise of democracy, introduced as an expedient for neutralizing the violent despotism of kings. The superficiality of the historical narrative is dismaying. “Solon brought with him a sort of inspired seer, Epimenides, who publicly recited his poems to calm people’s minds” (168). Solon’s alignment of power with law is rightly emphasized and illustrated from his poetry, though it is odd that quotations from fragments in three different metres are all cited with the reference “30, 31,”5 and that the poem in which Solon recalled at length what he had done (36 West) is cited as one in which he “declared that he was going to act.” I have yet to discover the place where he said that “like a boar he will push back the two packs” (169, 175). Vernant finds no difference between Solon’s politics and the cosmic justice of Anaximander. But they have little in common except the principle that injustice will not go unpunished, and that is simply a statement that a just régime is in place. There are strange remarks on the meanings of words: “there was a cratos that meant ‘hard, difficult'” (166); “the word agora means both ‘assembly’ and ‘game,’ because the people were assembled round it.” (172; is the professor thinking of ἀγών ?)

A curious tricolour: the amiable Bottéro with his simplistic notions about the rise of religion and reason; Herrenschmidt, with her powerful but overheating brain, giddy with metaphonetics; Vernant on autopilot, with nothing new to say and no very firm grasp of the tales that many have told before. The Raw, the Cooked, and the Half-baked.

The sparse references to ancient sources in the notes to the volume are keyed to what the translator supposes to be the “standard” English versions. Thus we are referred to “The Epic of Gilgamesh, p. 102” (this turns out to be the antiquated Penguin translation by N. K. Sandars, an archaeologist who, knowing no Akkadian, established the meaning of the text through comparison of other people’s versions); “Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, p. 115” (sc. Robert Fitzgerald); “Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, p. 145” (the Penguin again).

Classicists need not put this book high on their reading-lists.


1. L’Orient ancien et nous: L’écriture, la raison, les dieux. Éditions Albin Michel S.A. The translator is Teresa Lavender Fagan. Jean Bottéro is revisiting regions explored in an earlier work (J. Bottéro, Mésopotamie: L’écriture, la raison, les dieux, Paris, 1987).

2. I find no warrant for this in Wayne Horowitz’s comprehensive study, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography, Winona Lake 1998; see especially pp. 264 f.

3. Certain gods are killed in Enuma elish, and theology recognized a category of ‘dead gods’ or ‘bound gods’ whose power in the world has been terminated.

4. See Tablet XII of Gilgamesh, and its Sumerian original, Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether World.

5. The numbering is that of the translated fragments in Kathleen Freeman, The Work and Life of Solon, Cardiff-London 1926(!).