BMCR 2017.08.44

Les Chants du monde: le paysage sonore de l’ancienne Mésopotamie. Tempus 55

, , Les Chants du monde: le paysage sonore de l'ancienne Mésopotamie. Tempus 55. Toulouse: Presses universitaires du Midi, 2016. 276. ISBN 9782810703753. €24.00.

Anne-Caroline Rendu Loisel offers an analysis of sounds and their perception in ancient Mesopotamia. The study is aimed at a wide audience of amateurs and students in history of religion, affective sciences and Assyriology. It is structured so as to introduce thematically the sounds and their perception in the daily life of ancient Mesopotamian culture. In an appendix, Ariane Thomas, curator at the Louvre, rounds up this research with an analysis of sounds implicit in the iconography of Mesopotamia.

The relatively recent interest in acoustic manifestations in different periods of history may be related to the research that has been made on the phenomena of orality. Many historians have tried to reconstruct the sound landscape of the remote past.1 They have especially inquired after the modalities of humans’ perception of sounds which appear in different places and different moments of history, and the social significance of sounds.

Following the same approach, Rendu Loisel defines her study as essentially anthropological: sounds reflect humans’ appraisal and knowledge of their environment and the way they interpret it. The sources are of course second-hand, and most of them in the Akkadian language. A large part is devoted to divination, medical texts, incantations and literary texts (mostly Gilgameš and Enūma Eliš). The book is divided into 8 chapters.

Rendu Loisel starts her study by explaining the Akkadian vocabulary of sounds, noises and voices, and verbs that describe the intonation, rhythm and volume of sounds. Her intention is to perform a kind of “archaeology of sensations”, that is the analysis of all the aspects of sound found in cuneiform texts. Methodologically it is indeed the only possible way to catch details of past reality. The corpus of divinatory texts (especially Šumma ālu and Enūma Anu Enlil) offers the most enlightening insight into sounds and perception, that is to the “phonosphere” of Ancient Mesopotamia. In these divinatory texts sounds are interpreted as a divine message: the word egirrû for example describe an ominous sound heard by accident, one that needs to be interpreted by a diviner.

The noises of nature particularly fascinated people in antiquity: thunder and birdcalls occupy a prominent place. Thunder is interpreted as the voice of the storm god Adad, and birdcalls are seen as sounds of sorrow and lamentations. Most of these are designated by an onomatopoeic verb like huqqu“to hiccough”, ramāmu“to thunder” or damāmu“to cry a lament” with mediae geminatae roots, which are based on a reduplication of the last consonant of the root.

In Chapter 3, the author shows how the same noise can be associated with antithetical emotions. Thunder, the voice of the storm god Adad, can be experienced as his utmost rage but also as an expression of his joyous mood, because it brings rain and abundance for the people. Another example are the birds whose calls can evoke love but more often deep sadness. A remarkable aspect of sound’s vocabulary is that it tries to reproduce what is heard through alliterations like kīma summāti damāmu (“to cry like a dove”) with the m sound expressing sadness and lament.

Even if personal and spontaneous, cries are elements of a discourse referring to norms of social expression of emotions. Rendu Loisel proceeds in Chapter 4 to survey different examples of communal sound expressions in heterogeneous contexts: songs of field works, pleasure sighs, screams of childbirth, cries of mourning etc. These socially admitted sounds have a unifying function: they allow individuals to feel that they are members of a community. This aspect is especially well perceived in rituals, as explained by Alain Corbin, a French scholar specializing in the history of emotions, and by Nicolas Offenstadt, an historian of the Middle Ages.2 Communal sounds have an equalizing aspect. Everybody listens and shouts at the same time, for example in field work or in rituals. It creates a symbolic unity and establishes stability between individuals.

As explained in Chapter 5, sounds and emotion are fundamentally linked to one another in Sumerian and Akkadian mythology, either because sound is at the origin of an emotion, for example when the noise of mankind prevents Enlil from sleeping and provokes his anger in Atram-Hasīs, or because sounds are manifestations of an affective state: one cries out for joy, shouts in fury or moans in sadness. More than a simple noise, sound is an emotion made audible. The sound landscape is never neutral: it determines affective states, states of consciousness, lifestyles and communication systems. It is charged with very diverse significations. For Rendu Loisel, noise belongs to the very core of human nature and experience: it is an expression of human activity and stands in opposition to the lethargic world of the gods before the creation.

Still in Chapter 5, Rendu Loisel explained that anger, as a reaction to an injury, an attack or frustration, is an affirmation of the person seeking to preserve his bodily and moral integrity. Anger permeated Akkadian literary texts. In battle, anger is the force that supports the king in fighting his enemies and in restoring peace and well- being in his country. A similar fury, violent but equally justified and necessary, animates the king when the divine powers are unleashed in his environment. In this pivotal chapter, the description of war is a key element allowing Rendu Loisel to introduce different aspects, perceptions and emotions around the concept of sound. The furious person is described as a person whose face and body darken ( adāru), a verb also used to describe the physiological state characteristic of fear and anxiety.3 By contrast, joy is reflected by the brightness of the face. In magic texts anger appears as an evil that need to be driven off. The description of physiological changes provoked by anger, typical of those texts, appears to be the most impressive of all. The angry person is described as repulsive and monstrous. The vocabulary is here no longer used to represent reality but is employed metaphorically: the verb nabāḫu“to bark” is used in royal literature as a sign of displeasure and hostility. The verb na’āru“to roar” does not only illustrate a sound but also visual phenomena; the corresponding Sumerian word is ka du8-hu literally “to open the mouth”, the picture of a lion with open mouth being represented abundantly on Assyrian reliefs.

Noises of war are found especially often in Assyrian royal inscriptions. Wars are compared to mythological struggles against chaos. The entire world rages beside the Assyrian king, who is assisted by the gods in his battle to put or keep order in the world. Rendu Loisel changes the focus of her research: she does not investigate words for sound, but studies how each Assyrian king connects himself to noises in his inscriptions (pages 139-145 especially). The king himself is identified with Ninurta, the god of weapons, and Adad, the storm god. His shouts go beyond the borders of his empire and reach the enemies. The noises of the approaching armies are a source of deep terror.

The last three chapters are concerned with the noises of evil spirits, and the reactive noises of the priests specialized in chasing them away. These chapters are more detailed, because the area has been more studied in Assyriology in the last decade ; Rendu Loisel herself has written two articles on the subject. These chapters are also more interpretative and less descriptive than the preceding ones, with greater discussion of the religious signification of sound and noise.

Chapter 6 is entitled “When evil is heard, noises and screams of evil spirits”: it begins with a subchapter introducing the different names of demons and their functions (bad or good). Any distorted, unexpected or inappropriate noise can be interpreted as a sign of a demonic presence. The evil spirit is a nomadic entity ; it loves places of passage, such as roads, streets and crossroads, but also more strategic areas such as sills, doors and windows. These spaces both open to the outside and lead to the heart of the house. The word ikkillu, for example, refers to a strong cry of deep pain, a clamor, which can be collective, produced in contexts of mourning and lamentations. In the omens of Šumma ālu, this cry is often heard at the door and testify to the presence of the demon- ikkillu, demon named after its cry, bringing with him evil and death.

A priest is needed to fight these evil spirits. He uses the noises of different musical instruments in order to terrify them and chase them away. A flute and a drum appear often in exorcism rituals. In Chapter 7, Rendu Loisel make a detailed analysis of three incantations of Utukkū lemnūtu VII 1-97 (see pages 181-195). She describes the different parts of the ritual: first, smell and light that dispel the death sentence; second, Mighty Copper (urudu-nig2-kala-ga) that acts as if an active and living agent allied to the priest. Several identifications have been proposed for this instrument made of copper, from the timbal to the gong. But according to recent epigraphic and archeological evidences, it seems more pertinent to see in it a kind of bell. This instrument has a voice and it appears as an active and positive demonic entity sent by the god An. Entities belonging to divine sphere are not necessarily represented by anthropomorphic features. Musical instruments such as drums could be considered divine (they have a divine determinative and a melammu, “divine aura”) and received offerings.

But a copper instrument does not have a human voice. In the last chapter, the analysis focuses on the different register of the voice of the priest, between roar and whisper. The study of the Sumerian word mu 7 -mu 7 and its wordplay with ummu“mother” in Enūma eliš, the great Babylonian story of the creation of the universe, was written some 30 years ago by Michalowski.4 Much has been said on this subject since Michalowski’s article but the contributions are widespread in different books and reviews. Rendu Loisel summarizes this research and adds the study of the Proto-Diri list concerning the semantic field of mummu. Developing her ideas in each chapter, Rendu Loisel suggests a different way of reading sensory manifestations. It appears that in Mesopotamian texts sounds are linked to all other senses, such as visions and smells. Noise is only one aspect of a “polysensory experience”.

Thanks to her good knowledge of the Sumerian and Akkadian languages, the author presents an interesting way to analyze Mesopotamian sources. The topic of polysensory experience allows her to emphasize the poetical aspect of the texts. Rendu Loisel’s study follows a systematic order: beginning with real sounds (thunder and birdcalls), she proceeds with human interjections in individual (cries of joy or moans of sorrow) and collective frames (rage and sounds of war, rituals), and finally offers a lexical synthesis.

To sum up, with its intrinsic diversity, Rendu Loisel’s study of sounds constitutes a welcome addition to a field that is still largely unexplored. I agree with her diagnosis of why this is so: “”Entendre, percevoir, ressentir, c’est pénétrer au cœur même de la culture mésopotamienne et tenter de la comprendre par des voies encore peu pratiquées” (p.27). In this scenario, then, there is no doubt that approaching sounds and their perception as a research topic may help us to assess (or re-assess) some of our current views on the sensory world and connected emotions.

Table of Contents (summary)

Introduction : Pour une anthropologie des sons dans les textes cunéiformes
Chapitre 1 : Entendre et interpréter les sons. Le paysage sonore de l’ancienne Mésopotamie
Chapitre 2 : Les chants de la nature. Tonnerre et cris d’oiseaux
Chapitre 3 : Du grondement de fureur au chant de lamentation
Chapitre 4 : Cris de joie, cris de deuil. Lorsque l’émotion intime se fait cri communautaire
Chapitre 5 : Rugissement, grincement, hurlement : entre colère et fureur guerrière
Chapitre 6 : Lorsque le mal se fait sonore. Bruits et hurlements démoniaques
Chapitre 7 : Cuivre puissant et exorcismes sonores
Chapitre 8 : Du grondement au murmure : les pouvoirs de la voix humaine dans les rituels
Conclusion : S’initier aux correspondances sensorielles
Appendice : Les sons dans l’iconographie mésopotamienne, Ariane Thomas


1. Raymond Murray Schafer, Jean-Marie Fritz, Christopher Lucken or Alain Corbin, to quote only a few recent scholars.

2. Nicolas Offenstadt, « Cris et cloches. L’expression sonore dans les rituels de paix à la fin du Moyen Âge » Hypothèses 1997/1, pp. 51-58.

3. Margaret Jaques, Le Vocabulaire des sentiments dans les textes sumériens, Alter Orient und Altes Testament 332, Ugarit-Verlag, 2006, pp. 181-184.

4. Piotr Michalowski, « Presence at the Creation », in Tzvi Abush, John Huehnergard & Piotr Steinkeller (ed.), Lingering over Words, Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Literature in Honor of William L. Moran, Harvard Semitic Studies, Scholar Press, Atlanta, 1990, pp. 381-396.