BMCR 2005.01.24

Myth and Politics in Ancient Near Eastern Historiography. Edited and Introduced by Zainab Bahrani and Marc Van De Mieroop

, , , Myth and politics in ancient Near Eastern historiography. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004. xi, 214 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 0801443334. $75.00.

In his Archaic Roman Religion, Georges Dumézil emphasized the idea that the foundation stories of the Roman state and society, such as those found in the account of Livy, were mythical rather than truly historical, and that such sagas were “early examples of the historicization of myths, of the transposition of fables to events; this process was frequently used by the annalists or their predecessors…”1 Dumézil hence drew attention to the thought that what the Romans did was, in a way, express myth as if it were history, or in a “historical” guise. In accounting for this Roman ethos in comparison to India, Dumézil suggested that the “Romans think historically, while the Indians think fabulously… The Romans think practically and the Indians think philosophically… The Romans think politically, the Indians morally.”2 Our focus here is not Rome, but the ancient Near East; and not Livy, but Mario Liverani, Professor of History of the Ancient Near East at the University of Rome “La Sapienza.” Dumézil’s observations on archaic Roman “history” do resonate, however, with aspects of what Liverani has to say in a number of essays, originally published in Italian from the early 1970s until the 1980s, all with the unifying theme of “historiography,” presented for the first time in English for a wider audience, translated by Liverani himself, under the title Myth and Politics in Ancient Near Eastern Historiography. Liverani’s translations are edited and introduced by Zainab Bahrani and Marc Van De Mieroop, who signal in their Introduction that the texts under scrutiny “are always historical reconstructions in themselves and that they do not have a ‘pure historical aim.’ Instead, their aim is political, moral, theological, and so on.” Most of the texts examined by Liverani do in fact take their cues from actual historical figures and situations, but all of them also do something more with them in terms of casting the events or situations described in patterns of myths or fairy tales. Liverani analyzes these texts almost geometrically, at times with charts and graphs, in terms of diction, structure, and semantics, “a deconstructive approach in order to read against the grain of the narrative as it is constructed in the texts,” according to the editors. The editors also note some of the intellectual trends with which these essays are in dialogue, such as structuralist anthropology, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, and gender theory. Overall, Liverani’s essays are important not only regarding the implicit “semiotic” of ancient texts, but also regarding the “international” dimensions of this phenomenon.

The book is organized in four main parts, each dealing with a different cultural or geographic area within the greater Near East, “Mesopotamia,” “Hittite Anatolia,” “Syria,” and “Hebrew Bible.” These four parts further comprise chapters, each of which is a separate and rather dense essay. Each essay is also preceded by a helpful brief introduction by the editors of the volume, summarizing the specific story dealt with, at times commenting on Liverani’s take on the matters at hand, with information on other relevant scholarly literature as well. Despite the overarching methodological unity, the book is no easy read, as with each chapter the reader is required to embark on a new “wavelength” and a new concentrated problem-solving process. “Hittite Anatolia” comprises two, “Syria” three, and “Hebrew Bible” again two essays, with “Mesopotamia” as the shortest part, consisting of only one essay, which is the opening chapter of the book, “Adapa, guest of the gods.”

Of all the essays contained in the book, the one on Adapa is probably the only one which is distinctively mythological, and in this respect, one wonders if it truly qualifies as “historiography,” unless of course one also visualizes a mythical “history” or “proto-history.” Be that as it may, the chapter is methodologically quite at home among the rest of the essays, and in fact, with a theme based on a perennial paradox, constitutes an apt opening to this book of complexities. Its focus is the Babylonian myth of Adapa, an antediluvian sage, and son of the god of wisdom and cunning, Ea. In the myth, while Adapa is fishing in the open sea, he is caught in a storm generated by the South Wind. In anger, he curses the wind, breaking its wings, and hence committing a crime that “disturbs the natural order.” He is summoned to the presence of the supreme god Anu. In order to protect Adapa from imminent punishment, Ea advises him to appear at Anu’s gate in clothes of mourning, so that he would seem to be mourning over the disappearance from the earth of Tammuz and Gizzida, gods connected with the cycle of vegetation, and not to partake of the “food of death” and “water of death” to be offered to him, but to accept the clothing and the oil for anointing. Adapa is admitted to Anu’s presence on account of his ostensible reverence toward Tammuz and Gizzida, now guardians at the gate of heaven. Anu, who interrogates him, impressed by his wisdom, decides to offer him the “food and water of life” instead. Adapa, certain that the offerings are the victuals of death, refuses them, and loses his chance to gain eternal life. In his analysis of the myth, Liverani takes issue with the common notion that the myth is one that explains human mortality. Cautioning against analyzing the myth “as if it were a realistic novel,” Liverani advocates an analysis that is attuned to the “rules of mythical narratives.”

The author’s first proposed key to the specific problem in the Adapa myth is a consideration of the clothing and oil as parameters in the codification of the narrative just as important as the food and water. Demonstrating with examples how oil and clothing, along with food and water, constituted a formulaic set in a rhetoric of livelihood in the ancient Near East, Liverani argues that Adapa’s accepting the oil and clothing, “external gifts,” goes together with his admission to the presence of Anu, a success; and his declining the food and water, “internal gifts,” goes together with his expulsion from the company of the gods, a failure. Liverani’s second proposed key to the meaning system of the myth is an anthropological understanding of “hospitality” by which the guest is assimilated to the host environment. From this standpoint, Adapa’s rejecting a portion of the gifts presented to him is understood as a violation of rules of mutual hospitality, resulting in the loss of a chance of full assimilation to the divine. The author’s treatment of both of these lines of analysis is remarkably strong and logical, and yet the crux of the problem remains. In particular, the emphasis on “hospitality” does not fully loosen the knot, since, in a way, such myths are predestined to result negatively. In other words, had Adapa, in full harmony with decorum and hospitality, accepted the food and water, the latter would have automatically or magically turned into the food and water of death. What truly does help explain a great deal, however, is Liverani’s emphasis on how Adapa’s lost opportunity, like that of Gilgamesh, is not one of general immortality, but one that pertains to a specific condition, which Liverani understands as that of “priesthood,” and not of humankind in general. The author sees the admissibility of Adapa to the presence of Anu as analogous to the restricted access of ancient priests to gods’ houses. One wonders, nevertheless, if rather than an aetiology for the clergy in general, this specific condition instead refers to a more fundamental state of “initiation,” a concept which Liverani does take up later on in the book. As if to consolidate the questionable “historiographic” dimension of this essay, Liverani concludes: “This development took place ‘a long time ago,’ and the audience should not be surprised to find from the beginning of the story a description of the prototypical priest, who has already reached the final stage.”

It is after the “initiation” provided by the Adapa myth that Liverani’s essays start meeting more closely the title’s promise of “politics” and “historiography.” In the first of the two essays belonging to “Hittite Anatolia,” “Telipinu, or: on solidarity,” the author’s focus is a Hittite edict known as the Telipinu Edict, which, up to the time Liverani’s essay was published (1977), had been taken as a reliable document to understand the little-known Hittite “Old Kingdom” history. The introduction of this document surveys the history of the Hittite state from a king called Labarna, an archetypal founder king, to the time of Telipinu, the sponsor of the edict. Giving examples from how modern historians took this survey at face value in reconstructing “Old Kingdom” Hittite history, Liverani proposes an alternative reading at the “deep level,” and draws attention to a formulaic pattern in the text, one “often found in political addresses of an apologetic or propagandistic nature,” that starts with an optimal or ideal phase, represented in the edict by Labarna’s reign, followed by a disturbance of that state of perfection, and culminating in a “reform” that results in a restoration of goodness. In the edict, the phase of disturbance is depicted as a complicated sequence of murders for royal succession, to which Telipinu puts an end, seemingly initiating a new “norm,” but in fact simply legitimizing his own offensive accession to the throne, since he had murdered his brother-in-law Huzziya, his predecessor, to this end. The new “norm” in essence allows the husband of the first royal princess to be king in case there are no male princes, which, if truly valid, would have been “suicidal” for the safety of Telipinu’s own royal tenure. Liverani thus points out that the reform is more “fictional” than real, making Telipinu appear “not as the last in a negative sequence, but as the first in a new, positive, one.” The author further stresses how in this way “Telipinu as a king acted in order to save Telipinu as a person under accusation.” What is not clear in Liverani’s analysis is just how issuing an edict could save Telipinu if he was seriously in trouble, were this the main purpose of the text. Would the accusers, no less than a delegation of public representatives, have been so naïve as to be lulled by this stratagem? Liverani’s observation of and emphasis on the presence in this edict of the fundamental pattern that consists of concord followed by disintegration followed by renewed concord remain a more powerful aspect of this essay than his attempt to explicate what the text achieved in practical terms.

From the “solidarity” Telipinu tried to implement in his court by means of his new edict, we move on to the second essay of “Hittite Anatolia,” “Shunashura, or: on reciprocity.” In this essay as well, Liverani traces the political manipulation of a formulaic textual type, a parity treaty, in outlining the change in the relationship between the Hittites and a southeastern Anatolian state, Kizzuwatna, from one of equality or parity to one characterized by the submission of the king of Kizzuwatna, Shunashura, to the Hittites. The author lays out how even though the text on the surface seems to conform to the rhetoric of parity treaties, in which both sides are depicted as fully equal, it in fact introduces subtle modifications that clearly would have asserted to Kizzuwatna the new relation between the two states based on the superiority of the Hittites. Liverani analyzes how the usual symmetry of a parity treaty is disturbed especially by the inclusion of a third parameter, the Hurri, the great rival of the Hittites in the second half of the second millennium, presented as a negative foil for the Hittites, in legitimizing Kizzuwatna’s loyalty to the Hittites as opposed to the Hurri. The text states how the Hurri would have treated Kizzuwatna as servants, whereas the Hittites will treat them as their “peer.” The symmetry is further manipulated by the involvement of a fourth party, Ishuwa, equal in rank with Kizzuwatna as a vassal state, and subordinate to both the Hittites and the Hurri as the opposing peers of the new political structure. Liverani shows, with charts, how the text pretends to maintain the formulaic symmetry by creating an equal pair out of the Hittites and the Hurri on the one hand, and one out of Kizzuwatna and Ishuwa on the other, with the latter pair inferior to the former. In addition to this constructed symmetry, the text also utilizes chiasmos by indicating how at first Kizzuwatna was a vassal of the Hittites, and Ishuwa one of the Hurri, and how in a second stage Kizzuwatna shifted to the Hurri and Ishuwa to the Hittites, and how now in the final “restoration” “the oxen [Kizzuwatna] recognised their stable,” and returned to the Hittites. Liverani in the meantime also draws attention to the same fundamental tri-partite structure that presents the first phase of a “historical” development as “the original and therefore perfect condition of the world,” which by nature contained “the situation that is to be proved right.” This the text further achieves by omitting “as irrelevant an entire phase of autonomy, the period when the Kizzuwatna kings used the title ‘Great King,'” and were hence truly the peers of the Hittite kings. Liverani concludes by suggesting that the message system of this text may also have been directed to the Hurri in formalizing “a change in the political situation that was to the detriment of Hurri.” Overall, as Liverani demonstrates, the geometry of this text is so powerful that one wonders if it may have greater autonomy as a “subtext,” a word never used by Liverani throughout the book, in addition to its subservience to Hittite political ambitions.

The third part of the book, “Syria,” comprises three essays. The first, “Leaving by chariot for the desert,” is focused on the inscription of Idrimi, ruler of Alalah, which “provides a justification for Idrimi’s rule over a city with which he had no previous connections, and was manufactured in order to make the king look especially qualified for the task.” According to the text, Idrimi, chased out of Aleppo with his family, crosses the desert, reaches Emar on the Euphrates where he joins bands of warriors, ultimately conquering the city of Alalah whose king he becomes. Liverani recognizes in the structure of this text certain patterns and narrative modes similar to those found in fairy tales, in which the protagonist leaves behind what is familiar to him, his home and family; makes an excursion to the hostile environment outside, depicted as the desert in the Near Eastern setting, which, Liverani suggests, “is the equivalent of the ‘forest’ into which the hero ventures in European fairy tales;” encounters on his way helpers or tools of a supernatural nature; and ultimately attains a favorable status. It is in the structure of this text that Liverani explicitly sees features of “initiation” which entails a detachment from what is familiar, a challenge to be overcome, and the fulfillment of a final telos. The author argues that it is again on account of the irregular way in which Idrimi ascended the throne that he resorted to such a “story of his life along these lines of a fairy tale,” since he had to appease a public that was troubled by this situation. In conclusion, Liverani observes how “most protagonists of ‘fairy tale’ stories in the ancient Near East are usurpers: Idrimi, Sargon of Akkad, Hattushili III, David, Darius, and so on.” Even though the connection with usurpation is clear, one wonders if accounting for this narrative structure solely in terms of facing the opinion of a troubled public does full justice to the intrinsic quality of the fairy tale mode so potently pinpointed by Liverani. Why, for instance, may it not have been the case that a usurper also provided a scribal milieu with good raw material for the kind of “initiatic” subtext that the fairy tale mode was able to convey?

The second essay of the part “Syria,” “Rib-Adda, righteous sufferer,” focuses on a number of letters written by the king of Byblos, Rib-Adda, to the Egyptian pharaohs of the early fourteenth century, who then controlled the Syro-Palestinian area. The letters constitute “by far the most extensive corpus of Amarna letters,” with the common theme of complaint on the part of Rib-Adda about the world’s hostility, his isolation, and the absence of a remedy or a “savior,” which he visualizes as the very “coming out” of the pharaoh to save him in person. The essay is at times rather repetitious, and Liverani’s point is clear in that rather than a “historical” situation, the letters again reveal a fundamental pattern familiar from ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature, in which a “golden age” or a “paradisiacal state,” now lost, is lamented and longed for. In fact, Liverani goes so far as referring to Rib-Adda’s aspirations to convince the pharaoh to come in person and save him from the hostilities surrounding him as “eschatological” and “messianic.” Liverani does juxtapose, however, the nature of these letters with that of proper wisdom literature, in that the former lack a “true conclusion,” “a resolution of the kind usually found in wisdom literature,” in which the “righteous one … through suffering becomes wiser, more conscious, and better to acknowledge the inscrutability of god.” According to Liverani, even though the affinity of Rib-Adda’s letters to Mesopotamian wisdom literature in Akkadian is clear, this affinity is more on account of the shared “psychological” and “existential” conditions between Rib-Adda and the Akkadian scribal milieu rather than direct influence. It is somewhat puzzling that the author, after laying out so effectively the fundamental pattern that permeates these letters and transcends their historical content, resorts to an explanation focused on “psychosis” and “existentialism” for their common threads rather than a greater emphasis on the likelihood that the letters themselves were also the product of a scribal milieu, though of a different kind from formal wisdom literature, and perhaps not the direct personal output of Rib-Adda. Liverani’s conclusion stresses an almost spectral element in this unrequited correspondence: “sometimes we get the impression that the king of Byblos was writing more to vent his frustrations than to obtain an answer, just for the sake of writing rather than in order to be read.”

The final essay of “Syria,” “Aziru, servant of two masters,” strikes a similar chord with the previous one in terms of both the genre of the letter and attempts toward “psychoanalysis.” This time, the situation found in the previous essay is somewhat reversed, and the protagonist, Aziru, leader of the Amurru, the very bane of Rib-Adda, crafts letters that are meant to avoid an overdue visit to the pharaoh, who is concerned as to the loyalty and reliability of his vassal, whom he constantly summons to explain himself, within the milieu of the political rivalry between Egypt and the Hittites. Liverani’s main argument is that Aziru’s letters indefatigably postpone such a visit on the grounds that the Hittites might anytime take action and invade Amurru from the North, with the implicit message that if this indeed happens, rather than resisting, the Amurru will change sides and become a Hittite vassal. Analyzing the verbs of “motion” or “stasis” in the letters of Aziru, Liverani suggests that the letters may already have been encoded with the information, if not the message, that the Amurru might anytime change position and “move” to the other side. What again seems to undermine the strength of Liverani’s analysis is a tendency to see an unconscious element in this codified diction of “motion,” perhaps betraying the author’s own uncertainty as to its presence: “The worries and the unstated goals of Aziru come to light in his speech, in the form of almost obsessive insistences — notably in the ‘code of movement’ — and of lexical usages that are ideologically reversed. Unwillingly, Aziru lets us perceive just what he would have liked to conceal completely, and gives us the ‘signals’ of his bad conscience. Since we know the end of the story, we easily notice these ‘signals’ of Aziru’s hidden purposes. Did Pharaoh also notice them?” All in all, the essay also differs from the rest of the “historical” texts analyzed by Liverani in its lack of a “mythical” or “fairy tale” element, but the author’s by now distinctive mode of textual analysis easily blends it into the overall fabric of the book.

The first chapter of the part “Hebrew Bible,” “The story of Joash,” comes back to the theme of a marginalized hero’s ascent to the throne from a fresh angle. The focus of the essay is 2 Kings 11 and 12: “King Ahaz had died as the result of the wounds he suffered in battle, while his son, Joash, was an infant. Athaliah, the mother of Ahaz, became regent and massacred the rest of the royal family, but Joash was saved by an aunt, who hid him in the temple of Yahweh. Seven years later the high priest, Jehoiada, recognised Joash as the true king, installed him on the throne, and killed Athaliah.” Liverani this time draws attention to how such narratives are characterized by “a first usurpation in which the protagonist is the victim, and a second one through which the protagonist attains power.” The author also touches on the themes of disguise and recognition that are also typical elements of such stories, found in the Odyssey as well. The gist of Liverani’s argument is again that such a mise-en-scène has the purpose of persuading a doubtful public of the questionable legitimacy of a political leader, and hence one of “propaganda.” In the case of the story of Joash, Liverani especially emphasizes how the “common people,” the “lowest level,” also needed to be convinced. As already indicated in relation to Idrimi, it is somewhat unclear in Liverani’s treatment of these texts to what extent the archetypal story per se takes the upper hand and becomes autonomous and to what extent it remains subservient to a distinct political aim. For instance, the story of Joash perfectly parallels that of Moses, and how would one then comment on the Moses story along these lines? What are our criteria that help tell the “prototype” from the “derivative?” If, on the other hand, legitimation was a veneer for the fundamental story, the intellectual agencies in charge of the production of such texts were certainly as tireless and insistent as Rib-Adda’s letters to Pharaoh in telling and re-telling the same old story.

The final essay of the part “Hebrew Bible,” and of the book, “Messages, women, and hospitality: inter-tribal communication in Judges 19-21,” deals with two stories at the end of the biblical book of Judges. The first is the harrowing account of how men belonging to the tribe of Benjamin want to have sexual intercourse with a passer-by Levite from Ephraim, who is on his way home with his recently recovered concubine, and how, to avoid the disgrace, the Levite offers these men as substitute his concubine, who is ravished the whole night and is dead by morning. “The Levite takes her home and cuts the body up into twelve pieces, sending one to each of the tribes of Israel to summon them.” A war ensues between Benjamin and the rest of the tribes, resulting in a massacre of Benjaminite men and an oath on the part of the rest of the tribes never to give brides to the remaining Benjaminites. The second story is concerned with the problem of survival of Benjamin without women, and the solution is for the Benjaminite men to abduct “girls at the annual festival of Shiloh and thus obtain brides.” As if to second the analogy to archaic Roman “history,” mentioned at the beginning of this review, these stories are illogically reminiscent of the Rape of Lucretia and that of the Sabines. This essay is the most dense and convoluted by far of all Liverani’s chapters, and the extent of analytical dissection exercised by the author is not only challenging, but at times tiring. The editors of the volume remark in their brief introduction that the chapter “was originally published in 1979, long before a feminist approach became fashionable in biblical studies.” In the essay, Liverani devotes a great deal to the “communicative” dimension of the female protagonist of the first story, the concubine, drawing attention to how her passivity, speechlessness throughout the narrative, use as substitute, and ultimate victimization are parts of a semiotic that refers to the male-dominated sociocultural milieu of the period in question. The author’s analysis of these stories has an anthropological emphasis, again addressing concepts of hospitality, “conventions of marriage,” the “male dialectics between giving and receiving,” kinship, and “inter-tribal relations.” This is perhaps the only essay in the book in which Liverani’s commitment to avoid reading texts as if they were realistic novels somewhat falters. The formulaic dimensions of substitution, victimization, dismemberment, wars caused by violation or abduction of women, and even the twelve tribes receive much less attention than the socio-cultural and socio-economic. Liverani, however, does address the difficulty of understanding the stories from a “historical” and “chronological” standpoint, inevitably drawing attention to their “foundational” nature: “This repertoire by its very nature cannot be ‘dated’; it cannot be pinned down too closely in time. It has a fluidity that must be taken into account. Above all, it has no necessary relationship — either chronological or factual — with the specific cases to which it is applied. It does not ‘date’ and it is not ‘dated’… we have to acknowledge that it is the reconstruction of a dream, a short dream playing a precise political function at the moment when the Davidic state was constructed.” This note in a way also brings the book full circle, since unlike the Adapa myth, this story is clearly difficult to treat as both pure myth and as “dated” history, sharing perhaps more with the ambiguity of Livy’s early “history” than with the post-Adapa texts examined in Liverani’s book.

Each of Liverani’s essays begins almost with suspense, but one cannot help feeling that some also end with an anti-climax. It is as if in most of the essays a further or final step, especially one toward the main promise of the title, “myth,” were not taken and that there were something more the author could say, an absence with which he almost tantalizes the reader. In this regard, Liverani’s essays are like flashes of lightning in the dark. Despite their “agedness,” these essays ironically reveal a lingering gap in the field of ancient Near Eastern studies, in that we need more of such perspectives, not just in historical and literary studies, but also in the history of ancient Near Eastern art. The availability of these essays now in English is a truly invaluable service to the wider scholarly audience of the ancient Near East.


1. Georges Dumézil, Archaic Roman Religion, Philip Krapp trans., vol. 1, (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1966/70), 75.

2. Ibid., 116-7.