the reading project: Babylonian wisdom literature

So, here’s the thing. I set myself a reading project for the year (and some future years), of starting at the beginning of what we humans have written, and to work my way through relatively chronologically until I get to the point of deciding on a different reading project.

I began naively with the Ancient Literature page from Wikipedia and a trip to the University of Southampton library. There, I found Babylonian Wisdom Literature by W G Lambert, first published in 1960, which I have now read.

It was an interesting read, and not only because of the form and structure of the stories. Trees talking to trees and animals conversing in fables, and the occasional distant earlier echo of familiar stories.

This brings lots of questions to my mind, beyond the questions of how to translate the idioms of a dead language. This latter point did come up in the commentary and the translation notes, where Lambert notes from time to time that it is not possible to provide a translation, because essentially we don’t know enough.

There is the problem of the damage that time has wrought to the clay tablets, and we find ourselves lost in the ruined hallways of the Library of Ashurbanipal, where some of these tablets lay until discovered.

My initial view that the history of human writing would be something like a narrow highway, at least at its far distant beginning, was very quickly shattered. And yes, I should have much earlier realized not only the fact of my mistake but also the extent of my mistake.

We have been telling stories for a long time, as long perhaps as we have been human, and we have been recording our stories for as long as we have been able to.

I wonder at times whether by recording our stories, writing them down or filming them, we are doing them some damage. After all, the act of recording introduces a permanence to the recorded version of the story, when perhaps stories are naturally more fluid and changeable.

What might it be like, to be a story, to have a structure, a skeleton that persists over time, with different flesh and skin depending on the needs and knowledge of the teller and their audience. What must it have been like to be a bard, to carry these skeletons from one fire to another, from one village to another, bringing them to life for an evening, for each audience in turn.

And then, by making some marks in clay or drawing symbols in ink on paper, that fluidity disappears. That version of the story becomes the canonical version, or one canonical version among a small group. The canon becomes shackles, preventing the story from roaming.

But now, I find myself with a choice. I can immerse myself in the Sumerians and the Akkadians, or I can be more strictly chronological and venture to Egypt. I think I shall stick with the Sumerians and their kin. I will do some reading around and discover what we know about our distant cousins, and leave the vastness of Egypt for later.

~ by Jim Anderson on 9 November 2019.

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