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Ancestor of the West: Writing, Reasoning, and Religion in Mesopotamia, Elam, and Greece

Ancestor of the West: Writing, Reasoning, and Religion in Mesopotamia, Elam, and Greece. By JEAN BOTTERO, CLARISSE HERRENSCHMIDT. and JEAN-PIERRE VERNANT Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan. Chicago: UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS, 2000. Pp. xiii + 192, illustrations. $25.

The title of this volume of extended essays by three French scholars led this reader to expect a demonstration of the descent of at least several of the core elements of Western culture from forerunners in the ancient Near East, but, in fact, a claim to such a lineage is made here only for the technology of writing (Bottero and Herrenschmidt) and for the mode of reasoning we call "logic" (Bottero). The authors, however, should not be held responsible for this mislabeling; the original French edition was entitled L'Orient ancien et nous: L'ecriture, la raison, les dieus, [1] which implies only that the relationship of our way of life to that of the early Near East--whatever the extent of that relationship--will be explored.

Bottero's contribution (pp. 1-66) sketches the development of Mesopotamian intellectual culture from its beginnings around 3200 B.C. through its maturity in the first half of the first millennium. His text has a curiously dated feel, with its racialist and essentialist attribution of basic mental characteristics to ethnic (or perhaps better, linguistic) groups. Thus the Sumerians are said to have been "intelligent, active, ingenious, resourceful" (p. 10), while the Akkadians are held to have shared "one of the essential cultural traits unique to [2] Semites in general: a very intense religiosity as well as a sense of the extreme superiority and 'transcendence' of the gods" (p. 11), valuing "the mind, intelligence, clarity above all else in their contact with the world, rather than heart, passion, or spirit" (p. 14). [3] I have the greatest respect for Professor Bottero's knowledge of the literature of ancient Mesopotamia, but I feel that sweeping generalizations such as these ought no longer to be propagated . Were Sargon of Akkad and his family more pious than the entourage of Gudea of Lagash? How could we possibly know?

More interesting is Bottero's claim that the roots of rational discourse are to be sought in Mesopotamian divination, which predicted the future through the interpretation of various phenomena. [4] The collection and exegesis of happenings both in the natural world and in human society indeed implies a systematic manner of thinking, an empiricism (p. 47), but is this really a precursor of rationality? It is certainly not the case that omens ostensibly based on historical events are "often" encountered (p. 47); rather, they are most exceptional among the divinatory material. [5]

Herrenschmidt, an authority on Old Persian, presents the reader with a tour-de-force on the development of writing and its religious significance (pp. 69-146). Unfortunately, this essay was composed in total disregard of two centuries of research into the principles that underlie the structure of writing systems. [6] Herrenschmidt confuses the physiological/phonological aspect of language with its phonemic and semiotic functions, producing such extravagant claims as that alphabets "express in writing a sound from the point of view of the person who is speaking" (p. 90), while logographic and syllabic systems refer to external sounds. [7] Of the reader of an unpointed Hebrew text, she writes: "Adding vowels and breath to the text, he appeared to become the one who gave God his sound-making organs and in whom the divine presence was renewed" (p. 131). [8] This discourse owes more to Derrida than to Saussure, more to the Cabala than to linguistics. It is certainly not suitable as an introduction to the history of scripts in the ancient Near East.

The third section of this collection (pp. 147-75), by classicist Vernant, ponders the role of writing and speech in Mycenacan and later Greek society. Since the writer discounts the influence of the ancient Near East on the intellectual world of the Hellenes, [9] one wonders why this (admittedly very interesting) piece was included in the volume.

The translation of Ancestor of the West is adequate, but never so smooth as to allow one to forget that he is reading a translation. Gallicisms such as "single and same" (pp. 4, 39), "supple Amorites" (for "flexible," p. 17), "cultual" (for "cultic," p. 45), "implosive" (for "plosive," p. 81), "plume" (for "pen," p. 91), or "anguish" (for "anxiety," p. 120) are fairly frequent, and on one or two occasions the sense of the original has been distorted. [10]

In sum, I cannot join the writer of the dust-jacket of this volume in recommending it as "a highly accessible introduction to the ancient world," but its contents might well be of interest to specialists with the background not to be misled by its shortcomings.

(1.) Paris: Bibliotheque Albin Michel, 1996. The book was published under the auspices of the Institut du Monde Arabe, whose director, Francois Zabbal, has provided a short introduction.

(2.) The translator has doubled the scope of this assertion by rendering thus the phrase "propres aux Semites" of p. 27 of the French edition. So Bottero is actually claiming only that Semites are characteristically deeply religious, and not necessarily denying this quality in others. On the translation, see further below.

(3.) They are also said to have been "Semitic in their language and thus in their temperament, heart, and spirit" (p. 15).

(4.) His ideas are set forth at greater length--and in a better English translation--in Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods, tr. Zainab Bahrani and Marc Van De Mieroop (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992), 105-37.

(5.) See E. Reiner, "New Light on Some Historical Omens," in Anatolian Studies Presented to Hans Gustav Guterbock on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday, ed. K. Bittel et al. (Istanbul: Nederlands Historisch-archaeologisch Instituut, 1974), 257-61.

(6.) For a corrective, see J. DeFrancis, Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems (Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaii Press, 1989).

(7.) Cf. also p. 95: "Whereas the phonetic sign of the Mesopotamian cuneiform referred to the syllable that was heard, that of consonant alphabets refers to the syllable as it is produced by the speaker."

(8.) Alas, the Masoretes destroyed this mystical aspect of the text (p. 133).

(9.) I can hardly agree with Vernant's opinion that there is no greater resemblance between Greek myths and those of Hatti and Babylonia than exists between the former and the tales of pre-Columbian America (p. 153). Sec M. L. West, The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).

(10.) For example, the misconstruing of a comma on p. 9 of the French edition has led to the inclusion of the Hittites among the conquerors of Elam on p. viii of the translation.
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Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2001
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