BMCR 2021.09.23

Flesh and bones: the individual and his body in the ancient Mediterranean basin

, Flesh and bones: the individual and his body in the ancient Mediterranean basin. Semitica et Classica: Supplementa (SUPSEC), 2. Turnhout: Brepols, 2020. Pp. 240. ISBN 9782503590387. €65,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This edited volume is a collection of papers presented at a monthly interdisciplinary research seminar (September 2016 – December 2018) entitled “The Individual and His Body in the Ancient Mediterranean Basin” in Ivry-sur-Seine and via video-conferencing. A total of 22 papers are listed, but of those only 12 appear in this book, plus an additional introduction and final reflection paper, providing 14 chapters in all. The authors and titles of the published papers are listed at the end of the review.

The volume editor, Alice Mouton, begins with an introductory chapter explaining the rationale for the topic and cohesion of the collection of papers. There are four main overarching themes or points of commonality between the papers. These include: (i) the human body and language, (ii) the body, perceptions, and society, (iii) the body as a symbol of social belonging, (iv) the body as a medium for religious experience. These issues are discussed from various perspectives and disciplines across the Ancient Mediterranean and Near East. It should be noted, however, that the papers are not organised under those four themes, nor do they neatly fit under a specific one. As one might expect, those key issues overlap significantly, and that is evident in the content presented. Readers should be aware that since the aim of this book is to present many of the research seminar papers, the authors here do not interact with one another, so each essay is self-contained. With this in mind, a general summary and evaluative comments will be offered.

In the introductory chapter, Mouton offers the rationale as to why the topic is chosen as the focus, largely pointing to the need for further research on the body, corporeality, and perceptions of the self in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean studies. This collection of essays certainly demonstrates a range of specific studies within current scholarship that seeks to understand the intricacies and nuances of how the body was represented, perceived, discussed, and treated in the ancient Mediterranean region.

There are four essays that focus on ancient Egypt. Collectively, they address issues related to the bodies of deities, royalty, and non-royal Egyptians. The approaches range from the study of language, use of metaphor, conceptual issues, and textual and non-textual evidence of perceptions and treatment of the body. Youri Volokhine’s paper explores the philology of the usage of the word “face” (ḥr) in ancient Egyptian texts and connects this with the Daily Ritual and description of the “face of a god.” The chapter by Julie Masquelier Loorius deals with royal iconography and the physical posturing of the pharaoh as part of confirming the legitimacy of the king. These two essays address varying aspects of physical features or positioning of the body and the conveyed meaning. Clémentine Audouit’s essay demonstrates how, conceptually, the body was a microcosm of the world and nature, in particular the activity of bodily fluids and activity of the flow of the Nile. When harnessed correctly, liquids were seen as positives and yet when perceived to be out of control, the result was danger and chaos. This naturally related to magico-medical and healing texts, although no such paper pertaining to Egypt is represented here. The last chapter on ancient Egypt concerns the tattooed women from Egypt and Nubia, by Luc Renaut. Specific archaeological evidence is examined for the purpose of more accurately understanding the social identities of the three tattooed women buried in Deir el-Bahari and the significance of their tattoos.

Next, there are four essays which engage with Hittite texts and one with Akkadian. Among these, essays include discussion on the vocabulary of body parts, body senses, concepts of the body in medical texts, the involvement of the body in witchcraft and rituals. Anne-Caroline Rendu Loisel examines human senses in Akkadian texts, offering a strong argument as to why evidence suggests that there were seven senses. The vocabulary of body parts in Hittite texts is examined by Sylvie Vanséveren, and she provides charts with Indo-European cognates, demonstrating semantic range and usage.

Valeria Zubieta Lupo’s chapter explores how illness and disease are depicted as forms or effects of evil in Hittite medical texts. When stricken ill, the body is depicted as enslaved and subjugated by evils, whereas the prescription and prognosis describe regaining control and healing (with CTH 461 being a clear example). Somewhat similarly, Laura Puértolas Rubio’s essay outlines how the body of the bewitched person is frequently described in anti-witchcraft texts as “seized,” “tied,” or “nailed down” (CTH390A). To combat this, one text describes the “Old Woman” (ritual specialist) who digs a hole, fills it with ritual objects, covers the hole, then nails down pegs as she recites an incantation to remove the bewitchment. The remedy (anti-witchcraft ritual) also is very centred around freeing, purifying, and healing the body.

An important contribution in the area of the body and ritual is by Alice Mouton, examining three different texts: CTH 406 (ritual text), CTH 404.1 (ritual text), and CTH 633 (cultic festival text). Especially noteworthy, as Mouton states, previously there has not been an in-depth treatment of CTH 406 Paškuwatti’s ritual against sexual impotence. Mouton demonstrates how the body and clothing of the patient, plus the contact with various objects are all depicted as necessary components for efficacy of the ritual in CTH 406. The use of water, physical purification, the placement of bread and drinks in the mouth of the patient, and dream incubation are all part of the ritual under the instruction of a specialist. The other two texts (CTH 404.1 and CTH 633) are equally fascinating in the use of the body’s posturing, movement, and gesturing as prompted by the ritual specialist work alongside the incantations and use of ritual objects, such as figurines, to bring about healing or remedy to the patient (or installation of a king in the case of the Haššumaš Festival in CTH 633). Together these three texts provide evidence and examples of how the human body played a vital role in ritual and ceremony contexts.

Two essays cover topics related to the Hebrew Bible, and two pertain to Greco-Roman antiquity.

Stéphanie Anthonioz discusses how the Hebrew word for “face” (pnh) is used in Isaiah and the meaning and conceptual associations in three main categories: the hidden face, the divine presence, and the divine absence. The author argues that the development of how this phrasing changes from referring to YHWH’s material representation in the temple to a cosmic presence far beyond the confines of one space. There is no interaction between this essay and Volokhine’s on the Egyptian usage of the word for “face,” but readers will naturally be drawn to this comparison since both essays are featured in this volume.

In the next chapter, Leviticus 12-15 is examined by Johanna Erzberger as literature that both builds on but also undermines older purity tradition and regulations. She examines the practices of cultic purity (which largely pertain to the body) and its significant as it became literature.

The final two essays deal with issues of the body in Greco-Roman antiquity. Yannick Muller surveys Greek texts which describe bodily mutilation predominantly as a non-Greek practice, (except for when it was practiced among Greeks in Archaic times). In doing so, perceptions about the ideal body, beauty, and social norms are brought to light. Not only was the complete, healthy, and young body considered beautiful (in contrast with a mutilated one), but some texts indicate that a priest must have all parts of a healthy body to be considered for this office.

The last essay is a brief reflection and cursory conclusions about disability in antiquity, contributed by Christian Laes (although this title is not listed in the forward). The author offers three separate tales describing characters coping with bodily deformity. These are used as a means of discussing some issues pertaining to disability in antiquity and demonstrating the need for further research from multiple disciplines. However, this is not a concluding chapter based on the essays in the book.

A strength of this book is the collection of fairly specialised essays on the body in the ancient world. For those whose research interests fall under this category, there is a wealth of information about specific vocabulary, texts, and ritual practices that involve the body. This naturally intersects with studies on social perceptions, societal roles, and religious experiences and the body and the essays here make a valuable contribution in shedding light on these areas. The contributors of this volume have presented their ongoing research and at the same time show where further studies would be beneficial. This book is situated well amongst other works which examine various aspects of body in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean.[1] As this continues to be a growing area in scholarship, this edited volume is a welcomed contribution.

There are a few areas where this book could have been strengthened. While the title clearly designates the region of interest as “the ancient Mediterranean Basin,” there is one essay which focuses on Akkadian texts and several papers on Mesopotamia which were listed from the seminars but were not published. Such coverage is largely what was missing from this collection. With many magico-medical and ritual texts from Mesopotamia, it seems that a few chapters focusing on this region would have enriched the diverse contents of this book.

With such a wide time-period and area covered, it would have been helpful to have a concluding chapter drawing together the overall significance of insights brought to light in these fascinating, diverse papers. Final comments on the development, continuity, or discontinuity regarding the treatment of the body from various regions of the Mediterranean region would have been valuable at the end. The absence of a final, synthesis chapter is noticeable for readers who intend on reading every paper in the collection.

Overall, this is a welcome contribution to an important area of scholarship that continues to draw interest. Many of the essays are specialised and bring to light texts which have not received prior in-depth study (i.e., Mouton’s chapter) or advance study on specific preserved, buried bodies (i.e, Renaut’s chapter). There are a few chapters that are more general and seem to summarise a topic rather than to advance the scholarly discussion. Altogether, this edited volume allows those of us who did not participate in the research seminars to reap the fruit of the contributors’ individual research and collectively to see new areas of research emerging on the body in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Authors and titles

1. “Introduction,” Alice Mouton
2. “The Human Face and Its Relation to Identity in Ancient Egypt: An Overview,” Youri Volokhine
3. “The Posture of the King’s Body in Ancient Egyptian Religious Iconography,” Julie Masquelier Loorius
4. “Bodily Fluids in Ancient Egypt: Vital Waters but Dangerous Flows. Concerning an Ongoing Research Project,” Clémentine Audouit
5. “Tattooed Women from Nubia and Egypt: A Reappraisal,” Luc Renaut
6. “Beyond the Five Senses: Human Senses According to Akkadian Cuneiform Texts (2nd – 1st millennium BCE),” Anne-Caroline Rendu Loisel
7. “Concepts of the Human Body in the Hittite Medical Prescriptions (CTH 461): The Diseased Body,” Valeria Zubieta Lupo
8. “The Involvement of the Individual’s Body in the Ritual Process in Hittite Anatolia,” Alice Mouton.
9. “The Body in Hittite Witchcraft,” Laura Puértolas Rubio
10. “The Vocabulary of the Body Parts in Hittite in the Perspective of Indo-European Comparison,” Sylvie Vanséveren
11. “The Divine Face in the Book of Isaiah: Religious Contexts and Challenges,” Stéphanie Anthonioz
12. “When Purity Rules Become Literature: Cultic Purity in the Text and Behind the Text of the Hebrew Bible,” Johanna Erzberger
13. “Mutilating the Body in Ancient Greece: Perception, Vocabulary, and Practices,” Yannick Muller
14. “How Does Graeco-Roman Antiquity Fit in the Long History of the Body and Disabilities in the Western World?” Christian Laes


[1] To name just a few examples, Maria Wyke (ed.), Gender and the Body in the Ancient Mediterranean, (Blackwell, 1998); S. Tamar Kamionkowski and Wonil Kim (eds.), Bodies, Embodiment, and Theology of the Hebrew Bible, (T&T Clark, 2010); and a new contribution (not published at the time of these seminars) by Laura Quick, Dress Adornment, and the Body in the Hebrew Bible, (OUP, 2021).