BMCR 2024.05.08

Language and cosmos in Greece and Mesopotamia

, Language and cosmos in Greece and Mesopotamia. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2023. Pp. 228. ISBN 9781009289924.



In Language and Cosmos in Greece and Mesopotamia, Jacobo Myerston explores the evolution and transformation of a concept in Babylonian and early Greek thought: the idea that a god’s manifold names reflect the multifaceted essence of a single divinity.[1] This in turn leads the book into ancient theories of language and meaning.

The introduction addresses the historical interactions between these two cultures, recognizing such intercultural exchanges as significant but pointing out they are challenging to reconstruct with precision. Four chapters follow, each focusing on the language theories as they can be reconstructed from specific textual corpora from ancient Mesopotamia and early Greek culture. I will first summarise each of the chapters, and then provide some critical insights.

The first chapter, “Babylonian Theories of Language,” delves into the relatively uncharted territory of Babylonian language theory. It uncovers the diverse interpretations of language within Babylonian scribal culture and highlights the two predominant viewpoints emerging from Babylonian erudite texts: omen texts, which delineate the diviner’s domain, and incantations, which represent the exorcist’s perspective. Myerston argues that, in omen texts, language is perceived as divine, with gods embedding their messages in the fabric of the world for diviners to interpret. Conversely, he suggests that incantations depict language as having transformative power, enabling exorcists to alter reality with their spells. As Myerston points out, this duality demonstrates the complexity of Mesopotamian views on language, including texts that exhibit a sceptical point of view. Towards the end of the chapter, the discussion shifts to examining these texts, especially through narratives such as Ludlul Bēl Nēmeqi. These narratives question the ability of humans to fully comprehend and conform to divine will, whether through omen interpretation or magical rituals. By exploring this skepticism, the chapter demonstrates how Mesopotamian views on language exhibit a nuanced attitude, revering its capabilities while also recognizing its limitations.

Chapter Two, “Language and Cosmos in the Epic of Creation,” explores the development and transformation of language as depicted in Enuma Elish. Myerston argues that in the epic, language and names appear spontaneously alongside the gods in the early stages of the universe’s existence, and that it is only with Marduk’s ascendancy that the act of naming becomes an intentional act of creation. The author offers a particularly insightful observation: the nuanced use of etymology for divine names within the poem underscores this cosmic evolution. He points out that Tiamtu’s name, emblematic of the universe’s chaotic state before Marduk, is not etymologized but rather linked through wordplay to her characteristics and role in the Enuma Elish narrative. According to Myerston, this is in stark contrast to the fifty appellations of Marduk, which are etymologically explained in the final Tablet of the poem. He argues that this deliberate approach to naming and etymology signifies a shift in the function of language, allowing for a systematic exposition of divine names that reflects Marduk’s order.

Myerston further argues that the cosmogonic narrative of Marduk’s ascent to power culminates with the enumeration of Marduk’s fifty names – an episode signalling Marduk’s rise as a polyonymous deity. He notes that this act of naming not only symbolizes the accumulation of divine qualities within Marduk’s person but also positions many of the god’s names as facets of Marduk himself. According to him, this narrative element introduces the notion of what the author calls “semantic monism”, positing a singular divine being manifested through various gods’ names.

Chapter Three, “Hesiod, Language, and the Names of Ishtar,” explores the role of language in Hesiod’s Theogony. Here, argues Myerston, language primarily functions as a representational medium to document and immortalize the gods’ deeds rather than a creative force as it is in Enuma Elish. The author makes a critical distinction in the use of language to interpret divine names, identifying two main techniques: etymology, which elucidates a name’s meaning, and wordplay, suggesting associations without explicit explanation. His analysis reveals a predominance of wordplay over etymology in the Theogony, and he notes that etymological exploration is primarily confined to the poem’s beginning and to deities predating Zeus’s order, such as the Cyclopes and, notably, Aphrodite. According to Myerston, Hesiod selectively engages with the Mesopotamian etymological tradition, primarily applying it to figures outside of or before Zeus’s cosmic regime. Myerston argues that the names of the Olympian gods, in contrast, are treated with a reverence that precludes any linguistic explanations. He notes that this approach is consistent across the Homeric hymns and the Homeric epics, and it starkly contrasts with the detailed etymological analysis of Marduk’s names found in Enuma Elish.

Though not explicitly stated by the author, this different use of etymology aligns with language’s role in the Theogony as outlined at the beginning of the chapter. Given language’s function as an imperfect medium for conveying divine actions to humanity, it logically follows that divine names transcend straightforward linguistic interpretation.

Chapter Four, “Orpheus’ Cosmic Names,” examines the use of Mesopotamian hermeneutical techniques in the Derveni papyrus. The chapter begins by examining the historical context of the papyrus, which dates roughly to the time of Alexander the Great, although Myerston notes that the text it preserves was likely composed earlier, presumably towards the end of the fifth century B.C. This text includes a commentary on an Orphic poem which, Myerston suggests, may be of an even earlier date – perhaps, the sixth century B.C. As Myerston points out, the Orphic theogony referenced in the Derveni text is difficult to reconstruct due to the papyrus’ fragmentary nature; nevertheless, a central principle emerges as the foundation of the cosmos: the divine principle Air-Nous. Myerston argues that the “monistic” view of divinity presented in the Orphic composition leads to a re-interpretation of several gods as expressions of this singular divine principle and suggests that such reinterpretation is achieved using hermeneutical strategies that find parallels in Mesopotamian tradition. In this respect, the author discusses an incantation to Marduk, a prayer to Ninurta, and the god list known as the Marduk Theology, which collectively illustrate the method of interpreting various theonyms as different facets of a singular divinity. Similarly, he maintains, the Derveni papyrus adopts an analogous hermeneutic stance by treating names such as Kronos, Ouranos, and Zeus as interconnected and alluding to the omnipresent divine principle Air-Nous that governs everything.

According to Myerston, this use of Babylonian hermeneutical techniques to interpret divine names in the Derveni papyrus may signify a deliberate integration of foreign elements. He interprets the text’s characterization as “alien” by its author to indicate that the Derveni text was tailored for a specialized audience – specifically, an initiated circle at the margin of fifth-century Greek culture, well-versed in Orphic teachings. Additionally, Myerston suggests that this “alien” label also implies that the hermeneutical methods employed were inspired by foreign, notably Babylonian, traditions.

The four chapters of the book summarized above provide valuable insights into the language theories across the texts examined. However, I have some critiques concerning the arguments presented in Chapters 1 and 4.

In chapter 1, the book introduces an innovative and compelling approach to exploring language theories within Babylonian omen texts and incantations. However, the author’s depiction of the ‘divinatory’ and ‘incantatory’ perspectives as inherently contrastive did not entirely persuade me – I see these elements as interconnected rather than oppositional. Diviners do interpret divine messages embedded in the world’s fabric, but such messages are not immutable; they can be modified through magical rituals and incantations.[2] This illustrates the complex interplay between divination and magic, showcasing a collaborative, rather than oppositional, relationship between these disciplines.

Moreover, Myerston’s interpretation suggests that Mesopotamian exorcists could alter reality through their mastery of transformative speech. However, this view overlooks the frequent explicit attributions of incantation efficacy to divine origins rather than human skill. Legitimation formulas such as ina qibīt DN, “at the command of DN,” and šiptu ul yuttun šipat DN, “the incantation is not mine; it is an incantation of DN,” underscore that the true transformative power of language always lies with the gods rather than on the exorcist’s skill.[3]

I have another critique, on Myerston’s argument at the end of chapter 4. While acknowledging parallels with Babylonian hermeneutics in the Derveni papyrus, I am not entirely convinced this implies a direct borrowing from that tradition. Despite its unique aspects, the Derveni papyrus’s portrayal of language as a human construct aligns more closely with Greek perspectives, such as those seen in Hesiod’s Theogony, reinforcing its place within Greek intellectual and cultural traditions rather than its Babylonian inspiration. Moreover, the quest for a unifying principle in the Derveni papyrus echoes the pre-Socratic Greek tradition rather than Mesopotamian cosmological narratives.

I have a final observation about how the author defines the cuneiform sources chosen as touchstones in chapter 4. The subheading after the introduction is “The Derveni Papyrus and the Akkadian Commentary Tradition,” which is slightly misleading as the Mesopotamian texts chosen for comparison (Enuma Elish, hymns, and god lists) are all texts that do not strictly qualify as commentaries, a genre with numerous examples in the cuneiform record.[4]

Yet, these points are minor in the context of the otherwise compelling and insightful analysis carried out by this book, which concludes by tracing the concept of a polyonymous divinity from Babylonia to Greece and highlighting the central theme of transcultural intellectual exchange. It illustrates how such interactions not only facilitated the adoption and adaptation of ideas but also enriched the intellectual landscape of the ancient Eastern Mediterranean with a dynamic fusion of reception, innovation, and diversity.

I hold this book in high regard for its innovative approach. It ventures beyond the territory of Babylonian-Greek cultural exchanges to chart the journey of a singular idea across these two civilizations. This approach not only uncovers shared interests and similar ways of engaging with these interests across cultural variations but also illuminates the often-neglected field of language theory in Assyriology. This exploration is enlightening and engaging, suggesting that applying similar methodologies to other concepts and theories could reveal further commonalities between ancient cultures.



Lambert, W. G. 1960. “A Catalogue of Texts and Authors”, Journal of Cuneiform Studies 16, 59–109.

Lenzi, A. 2010. “Šiptu ul yuttum. Some Reflections on a Closing Formula in Akkadian Incantations”, in Jeffrey Stackert, Barbara N. Porter, and David P. Wright (eds), Gazing on the Deep. Ancient Near Eastern and Other Studies in Honor of Tzvi Abusch. Bethesda: CDL Press, 131–166.

Rochberg, F. 2016. Before Nature: Cuneiform Knowledge and the History of Science. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press.

Zisa, G. 2021. The Loss of Male Sexual Desire in Ancient Mesopotamia. Berlin: De Gruyter.



[1] This review results from research conducted under the auspices of the project REPAC “Repetition, Parallelism and Creativity: an Inquiry into the Construction of Meaning in Ancient Mesopotamian Literature and Erudition” (2019-2024, University of Vienna) that has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement no. 803060).

[2] Perhaps the most renowned example of such a ritual designed to counteract an evil omen is the ‘substitute king ritual’, enacted within the Neo-Assyrian court and aimed to avert the calamity foreshadowed by an eclipse, which signified the king’s death; for a recent discussion of this ritual, see Rochberg 2016: 221-222.

[3] See Lenzi 2010: 131-166, for a detailed discussion of the closing formula šiptu ul yuttun and its legitimizing function in Akkadian incantations. As argued by him (Lenzi 2010: 141-142), and previously by Lambert (1960: 73), these formulas reveal that the efficacy of the exorcist’s rituals hinges on divine legitimization rather than mere mastery of magical discourse. See also Zisa 2021: 135-137, which discusses in detail these legitimation formulas in the nīš libbi incantations’ corpus, highlighting how such phrases demonstrate that the true source of an incantation’s power relies on its divine origin.

[4] For the history of cuneiform commentary genres, descriptions of common hermeneutical techniques, and an updated catalogue of cuneiform commentaries, see the Introduction and the Catalogue sections of the Cuneiform Commentary Project database (accessed April 15, 2024):;