Wednesday, August 21, 2019

"Nippur, the lead goat of the land": home to many Aramaic incantation bowls

I'm reading an article about metaphors in the Sumerian language in The Ancient Near East Today, published by ASOR (American Schools of Oriental Research), using the metaphor theory of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. 

One of the metaphors that is frequently used in Sumerian is the word "goat"(maš[2]) for leadership. From this concept is derived the "conceptual metaphor" that "CITES ARE ANIMALS," which is found in an inscription about the city of Nippur: "Nippur: the lead goat of the Land.” Why was it the "lead goat of the land"? I will answer this question, but first must make an excursus into the Aramaic incantation bowls found in Nippur.

This summer I wrote a paper on Babylonian incantation bowls, many of which were found in the ancient city of Nippur when archaeological excavations began there in the late 19th century.



This bowl was published by James Montgomery in his Aramaic Incantation Texts (1913), which includes 41 bowls written in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, Syriac, and Mandaic (three different dialects of Aramaic). This bowl #2, written in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, is for Pabak the son of Kufithai, Abuna the son of Geribta, and Ibba the son of Zawithai, to protect them and their families from "evil fiends and bitter adversaries," and "demons, devils, tormentors, gods and female goddesses." (If you want to read the book yourself, it's available in full text on Google Books). 

This map shows where Nippur was located in southern Mesopotamia.


This map below shows important locations in Nippur and areas that were excavated.


Both of these maps are from an article on the website of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Nippur - Sacred City Of Enlil, by McGuire Gibson, Professor of Mesopotamian Archaeology at the Oriental Institute.

According to Gibson, "Nippur was one of the longest-lived sites, beginning in the prehistoric Ubaid period (c. 5000 B. C. ) and lasting until about A. D. 800, in the Islamic era (Gibson 1992)." It was a sacred city, devoted to Enlil. He writes:
The strength of Mesopotamian religious tradition, which gave Nippur its longevity, can be illustrated best by evidence from the excavation of the temple of Inanna, goddess of love and war. Beginning at least as early as the Jemdet Nasr Period (c. 3200 B.C.), the temple continued to flourish as late as the Parthian Period (c. A.D. 100), long after Babylonia had ceased to exist as an independent state and had been incorporated into larger cultures with different religious systems (Persian, Seleucid, and Parthian empires). The choice of Nippur as the seat of one of the few early Christian bishops, lasting until the city's final abandonment around A.D. 800, was probably an echo of its place at the center of Mesopotamian religion. In the Sasanian Period, 4th to 7th Centuries, A.D., most of the major features of Mesopotamian cultural tradition ceased, but certain aspects of Mesopotamian architectural techniques, craft manufacture, iconography, astrology, traditional medicine, and even some oral tradition survived, and can be traced even today not just in modern Iraq but in a much wider area.
 Gibson writes about the excavations of Nippur:
Nippur has been the focus of major excavation since 1889 when the University of Pennsylvania opened the first American expedition in the Middle East. Finding the site a rich source for cuneiform tablets, that expedition continued to excavate at Nippur until 1900 [Hilprecht 1903; Peters 1897]. The main achievements of the expedition were to locate the ziggurat and temple of Enlil and to recover more than 30,000 cuneiform tablets of extraordinary literary, historical, grammatical, and economic importance. More than 80% of all known Sumerian literary compositions have been found at Nippur. Included were the earliest recognized versions of the Flood Story, parts of the Gilgamesh Epic, and dozens of other compositions. It was these Sumerian works, plus an invaluable group of lexical texts and bilingual (Sumerian/Akkadian) documents that allowed scholars to make real progress in deciphering and understanding Sumerian. As important in historical terms are royal inscriptions from all periods, especially those of the Kassite Dynasty which ruled Mesopotamia from about 1600 to 1225 B. C. More than 80% of our knowledge of this dynasty has come from Nippur texts. In a special category of Nippur texts are the business archives of the Murashu family, merchant bankers who controlled vast commercial and agricultural interests under the Achaemenid Persian kings (c. 500 B.C.) [Stolper 1985].
Gibson's article doesn't mention the incantation bowls, except obliquely, because he focuses on the earlier periods. The bowls are dated to the late Sasanian/early Islamic period (roughly the 5th-8th centuries CE), the last periods of habitation of Nippur.

Erica C. D. Hunter has published a number of articles on the incantation bowls, in particular on those discovered in the most recent Oriental Institute excavations (the last of which was in 1990; they stopped with the Gulf War of 1991). In one article she writes:
Recent archaeological evidence has shed further light onto the Aramaic-speaking communities of Sasanid Mesopotamia. Recent excavations at Nippur of Area WG - adjoining the Jewish settlement dug a century earlier and from which Montgomery published his forty specimens - revealed in the seventh-century Level III five downturned incantation bowls. These were randomly buried in a courtyard which also featured an oven. Three of the specimens were written in Aramaic and two in Mandaic, the latter pair being for brothers.... The placement of the Aramaic and Mandaic incantation bowls strongly suggests that two families, one possibly Jewish and the other Mandaean, shared adjacent domestic quarters.
The article is "Aramaic-Speaking Communities of Sasanid Mesopotamia," Aram 7 (1995): 319-335, and the quotation is from pp. 332-32, published on p. 129 of Rabbis, Sorcerers, Kings, and Priests: The Culture of the Talmud in Ancient Iran, by Jason Sion Mokhtarian (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015).

Back to the more ancient Nippur. The quotation that I began with is from an ancient inscription of king Ur-Ninurta, who reigned circa 1859 – 1832 BCE.  The inscription refers to the king making a copper image (with the king's face), which is holding a votive goat-kid, and it also employs the word "goat" to refer metaphorically to a leader.

The inscription is number Ur-Ninurta E4.1.6.2, and it's found in Douglas Frayne, The Old Babylonian Period (2003-1595 BC) (The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia / Early Periods / Volume 4; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), pp. 66-68.

A copy of an inscription of Ur-Ninurta on a tablet excavated at Nippur deals with the setting up, in the courtyard of Ninlil's Gagiššua temple, of an image of the king holding an offering of a votive goat (máš-kadra).
This is part of the inscription:
ii 6'-150 for the great mother of the Anuna gods,  the lady of the Kiur [...], in order to choose the mes of the Ekur, the supreme shrine, [in order] to purify the cleansing rites of shrine Nippur, the bon[d of heaven and earth, in order] to make the neg[lected] rites appear magnificently, [in order] to restore Nippur, the lea[d] goat [of the nation],

ii 16-210 it was Ur-Ninurta, who devoted himself to the Ekur, upon whom the god Enlil, king of the foreign lands, look[ed] am[ong] the broad, numerous people and truly [chose].
vi r-30 (I, Ur-Ninurta)..., (for) the gods An, Enlil, (and) Ninlil removed evil from ...

vi 4-50 and set up for them a ... (in) the shining [E]kur, (in) the ... city

vi 6'-120 I fashioned (for Ninlil) a [copper] image, whose form was endowed with my face, clasping a votive kid, standing to make supplications for me, an ornament of the main courtyard of the Gagiššua (temple).

vi 13'-140 1 dedicated it to her for my own life.

vi 15-180 (As for) the man who gives orders to  do evil against it, who [destroys m]y [handi]work
edge 1-6) ... the supreme ... of the god Enlil, may the ... which proclaims his name be revoked from  the [Ek]ur. M [ay the god N]inurta, the mighty champion of the god Enlil, forever b[e] its (the  curse's) evil spirit who cannot be countermanded.

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