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Court, Poetry and Literary Miscellanea.

The Assyrians borrowed so extensively from Babylonia in literature, religion, and art that, it is sometimes argued, they never succeeded in creating a truly Assyrian culture. In this volume Alasdair Livingstone undertakes to demonstrate that Neo-Assyrian writers sometimes broke free of their Babylonian heritage, creating works of literature which, although derivative, were nevertheless distinctively Assyrian in language or cultural viewpoint. The volume consists of new editions of fifty-one texts and fragmentary texts prepared by Livingstone, as well as a new edition of the historically important "Sin of Sargon" text prepared by Hayim Tadmor and Simo Parpola. The texts are presented in transliteration and in intelligent translations, perhaps more accurate than beautiful. They are separated by Livingstone into eight categories: hymns to gods, temples, cities, and kings; elegaic and other poetry; epical poetry praising Assyrian kings; literary letters; royal propaganda; mystical and cultic explanatory works; letters from gods; and assorted texts, ranging from childbirth incantations to verbal attacks. Twenty-six can be linked to specific kings, from Shalmaneser III (858-824 B.C.) to Assurbanipal (669-627 B.C.). Livingstone's proposal that the texts represent literature written "at or for the Sargonid court" (p. xxi) is appealing; confirming this hypothesis and identifying more precisely the authors, audience, institutional origin and function of each text will require extended study - brief notes on the physical appearance and findspot of each text, where known, would have been helpful here. An extensive glossary and index make the texts readily accessible for philological and historical research. The volume is enriched by illustrations of Neo-Assyrian art selected by Julian Reade as a counterpoint to the verbal imagery of the accompanying texts; his captions, as usual, are cogent and provocative. Altogether it is an intriguing and important collection of documents, representing, Livingstone asserts, the Neo-Assyrian contribution to literature - different and distinct from the Babylonian literature which shaped it.

Selecting texts for the volume raised questions which Livingstone addresses in his introduction. The first problem was to separate distinctively Assyrian texts from others written in Assyria but essentially Babylonian in character. The principal criterion he chose was language, giving priority to Assyrians' efforts to explore the literary and aesthetic potential of their own native dialect, Neo-Assyrian, rather than Standard Babylonian, the more common formal written dialect in Assyria. The core of the book is thus eight poetic texts written in Neo-Assyrian. To these Livingstone adds texts written in Standard Babylonian marked by extensive Assyrianisms in grammar and vocabulary, suggesting Assyrian originals rather than copies of Babylonian texts. He completes the collection with texts in Standard Babylonian that he finds to be closely related to texts already included and to "specifically represent the Assyrian as opposed to the Babylonian cultural view-point" (p. xvii).

Livingstone's second problem was to decide which documents should be termed "literature" - a troublesome undertaking, as he ruefully admits, since it is not clear that the concept of what we now call "literature" (difficult enough to define) ever existed in Mesopotamia. The working definition he proposes - "compositions exemplifying and expressing a creative effort, but not including functional genres such as rituals, incantations, or royal inscriptions ... nor the day to day religious literature" (p. xvi) - is not entirely satisfactory. Having suggested that he is eliminating functional genres, for example, he promptly labels one group "royal propaganda," a convincing (but functional) classification. But one need not accept his definition of literature to find the book a valuable source of evidence for the political, religious and aesthetic outlook of imperial Assyria.

In several cases, the new editions presented here will prompt historical reinterpretation of texts crucial to understanding the Neo-Assyrian period. The new edition of the "Ordeal of Marduk" texts, for example, includes numerous plausible emendations and restorations - including one in 1.18 (Assur version) that has the effect of eliminating the god Assur's role as instigator of the sufferings Marduk is said to endure in the text. Since the colophon of the text asks Marduk and Assur to collaborate in protecting the document, it now seems possible to see the text less as an attack on Marduk (whose sufferings are presented sympathetically) than as an attack on those responsible for his denigration - if not Assur, perhaps the Babylonians themselves, who are probably the rebels mentioned in 1.23. The text may thus represent, not an Assyrian attack on Marduk (as von Soden argued), nor a glorification of Marduk's eventual triumph (of which there is little evidence here, despite Frymer-Kensky's arguments), but rather part of Esarhaddon's effort to argue that Babylon's destruction by Assyrians represented Marduk's punishment of his own sinful city. The new edition of the "Sin of Sargon" similarly represents a major reshaping of that text whose historical implications Tadmor and Parpola now discuss in SAAB 3 (1989): 3-51.

Livingstone's book makes available a wide range of Neo-Assyrian texts in clear and up-to-date translations which should prove important for Assyrian philologists and historians, for students, and for scholars of the ancient world.
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Author:Porter, Barbara Nevling
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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