Mesopotamian Scholarship and Royal Ideology

The Five Scholarly Disciplines

In no. 160 the author introduces to the king twenty "able scholars" (>ummânī lēʾuti) whom he considered fit for royal service. Each of them is identified by a professional title as expert in a particular scholarly discipline; the titles include ṭupšarru "astrologer/scribe," bārû "haruspex/diviner," āšipu "exorcist/magician," asû "physician," and kalû "lamentation chanter."[[1]] The author is careful to point out that many of the scholars, including himself, were proficient in more than one discipline, and that their ability was based on the study and mastery of an extensive technical lore.

The five scholarly professions occurring in no. 160 recur several times as a group in the present correspondence and elsewhere, occasionally together with other similar professions. Thus letter no. 7 refers to "scribes, diviners, exorcists, physicians and augurs (dāgil iṣṣūri) serving in the palace and living in the city" as a group. A memorandum from the reign of Assurbanipal (ADD 85 1 = SAA 7 1) enumerates by name seven astrologers, nine exorcists, five diviners. nine physicians, six lamentation chanters, three augurs, three Egyptian magicians (harṭibī), and three Egyptian 'scribes'; the 45 individuals listed evidently represented the totality of scholarly experts employed at the royal palace at the time.[[3]] Finally, a Neo-Assyrian vocabulary combines "wise man (LÚ.NUN.ME.NÍG.TAG.GA = hassu), diviner, exorcist, physician, chanter" into a group, while a contemporary list of professions presents "scribe, exorcist, diviner, physician" as consecutive entries.[[3]]

It is thus clear that the scholarly experts of no. 160 formed a close-knit professional group intimately associated with the concept "wise man." And while comparable foreign experts (Syrian and Anatolian augurs, Egyptian magicians and scribes) evidently could also qualify as "wise men,"[[4]] basically only representatives of the said five scholarly disciplines were included in this category. The designation "wise men" accorded to them derives from the fact that they represented mutually complementary branches of Mesopotamian Wisdom, an extensive body of traditional (largely esoteric) knowledge comparable to Jewish Kabbalah. This body of knowledge is known to us primarily through its written component, which beside philosophical texts (largely authored by scholars identifiable as exorcists, diviners or chanters) almost exclusively consists of the technical literature of the Five Disciplines.[[5]]

Not every scribe, diviner, exorcist, physician or chanter, of course, deserved the designation "scholar." As indicated by no. 160, this designation was reserved to only those individuals who excelled in their trade to the extent that they were in command of more than one branch, if not the entire extent of the Wisdom. Such individuals were responsible for the cultivation and development of Mesopotamian philosophy and science, and it is from such individuals that the present correspondence originates.

The Nature of Mesopotamian Wisdom

The technical lore of the Five Disciplines underlines the strong religious and metaphysical orientation of Mesopotamian scholarship: astrology, magic, divination and mystical philosophy, matters rejected today as pseudo­ scientific, played a prominent part in it.[[6]] True enough, mathematics, astronomy and linguistics also played an important role in Mesopotamian scholarship; but these "exact sciences'' too were harnessed to the service of the predominantly religiously and philosophically oriented Wisdom.[[7]]

Isaiah, in predicting the fall of Babylon, writes as follows (47:10): "Your wisdom (ḥåkmatek) and your knowledge (da'tek) perverted you, and you said in your heart, I am, and none else beside me." What the prophet meant by wisdom and knowledge appears in the following verses (47:12-13): "Stand now with your enchantments, and with the multitude of your sorceries, wherein you have laboured from your youth: perhaps you will profit, perhaps you will prevail! You are wearied in the multitude of your counsels; let now the viewers of the heavens. the stargazers, the monthly prognosticators, stand up and save you from what will come upon you!'' The same idea recurs in the prophecy of Nahum on the fall of Nineveh (3:17): "You have diviners like locusts and astrologers like grasshoppers, which camp in the hedges in the cold day, but when the sun arises they flee away."

These two passages, scornful as they are, reveal the great respect which the Mesopotamians had for the experts in divination, magic and astrology, and one may get an idea of why the study of these pseudo-sciences was appreciated above everything else. Insight into the supernatural or numinous was considered the greatest wisdom of all, the foundations of which were believed to have been laid by the gods themselves. This view was also shared by the author of the book of Daniel, who writes, addressing Belshazzar, king of Babylon:

There is a man in your kingdom who has in him the spirit of the holy gods, a man who was known in your father's time to have a clear understanding and godlike wisdom. King Nebuchadnezzar, your father, appointed him chief of the magicians. exorcists, astrologers. and diviners. This same Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar. is known to have a notable spirit. with knowledge and understanding, and the gift of interpreting dreams, explaining riddles and unbinding spells. (Dan. 5:11)

The King as God's Earthly Representative

Mesopotamian Wisdom provided a comprehensive and systematic explanation of the world starting from the basic proposition that God had created the universe as a mirror of his existence and man as his image.[[8]] The complex metaphysical theory derived from this basic proposition had direct political and ideological significance, since it defined the position of the king as that of God' s representative on the earth.

The central dogmas of Mesopotamian Wisdom were epitomized in an esoteric diagram called the Tree of Life, circulated among initiates only.[[9]] A stylized version of the diagram, depicted as an elaborate palmette-crowned tree trunk surrounded by a garland of palmettes, pine-cones or pomegranates (Fig. 1), served in Assyrian imperial art as an ideological symbol providing the legitimization for Assyria's claim to world dominion. This symbol involved two basic interpretations.

On the one hand, it represented the divine world order maintained by the Assyrian king as God's representative on the earth; the garland around the Tree symbolized the underlying unity of the cosmic powers operative in the universe, "gods," conceived as aspects of a single, all-encompassing transcendental God, Assur. By implication,this symbolism called for the political unity of the entire world under the hegemony of Assyria.

At the same time, the symbolism of the Tree was projected upon the Assyrian king to portray him as the perfect image of God. The symmetry, harmony, and axial balance of the Tree symbolized the absolute perfection and mental balance of this ideal man. The relevance of such symbolism for justifying the king's position as the absolute ruler of the empire hardly needs any elaboration.

FIG. 1. The Assyrrian sacred tree from the wall-panel behind the throne in Assurnasirpal's palace at Nimrud, about 875 BC. BM 124531.

For the welfare of the state, it was essential that the king live up to the requirements of perfection inherent in this ideology. The two aspects of the Tree just discussed were intrinsically interrelated: just as the order of the universe was based on the equilibrium of the cosmic powers of God, so too was the order of the human world dependent on the balance of powers concentrated in the person of the king.[[10]] Consequently, the king who would not conform to the role of the Perfect Man as set out in the Tree and its doctrinal apparatus, would automatically, willingly or unwillingly, disrupt the cosmic harmony, and with it, the stability of the empire he was commissioned to maintain.

The requirements of royal perfection involved painstaking observance of divine commandments and cultic purity and ordinances, visualized as reflections of the cosmic order on the earth.[[11]] However, that was not nearly enough. As the image of God, the king had to execute all the diverse powers invested in him in conformity with the harmony and balance of the Tree, with special emphasis on blameless moral and ethical conduct. Thus the judgments he passed as "the image of Šamaš" (the god of justice) had to be absolutely just, and their harshness had to be counterbalanced by acts of mercy committed as "the perfect image of Marduk" (the god of mercy).[[12]]

It was of course recognized that as a human being, the king was bound to err in his behaviour from time to time, no matter how hard he might strive for perfection. In principle, any slips in royal conduct, whether intentional or unintentional, were interpreted as sins against the will of God; they stained the purity of the king's soul, and, if perpetuated, were sure to provoke divine anger and punishment.[[13]] However, no sins were punished without warning: divine pleasure or displeasure with the king's conduct was manifested in the form of portents, dreams, oracles and visions sent as premonitions of the course in which he was leading the country and himself.[[14]] If such divine signals were duly paid attention to and correctly interpreted, the ruler who had sinned could identify his mistake and avoid punishment by washing away his sins, atoning for them,appeasing the gods and changing his ways.[[15]]

The king himself was not able to interpret these divine signs nor to direct his conduct properly. These tasks were taken care of by the court scholars, who exercised their function on the authority of a millennial tradition traced back to divine revelation.

1 For a full definition of these scholarly crafts, with a survey of their basic technical literature, see LAS II A, pp. 12- 15. For the purposes of the present introduction, the following compact definitions will suffice: "scribes/astrologers" (ṭupšarru): experts in the art of interpreting celestial, terrestrial and teratological portents and the ominous significance of days and months; "haruspices/diviners" (barû): experts in the art of consulting the divine will and prognosticating the future by extispicy and lecanomancy; "exorcists/magicians" (āšipu): experts in the art of manipulating supernatural forces (including illness-causing demons) by magical means; "physicians" (asû): experts in the art of curing diseases by means of drugs and other physical remedies; "lamentation chanters" (kalû): experts in the art of soothing angered gods by means of elaborate psalms and lamentations.

2 Compare this roster of scholars with the enumerations of "wise men of Babylon" in the book of Daniel (the contexts are here cited in full in order to illustrate the Sitz im Leben of these enumerations): "Whenever the king consulted them [Daniel and his companions] on any matter calling for insight and judgment, he found them ten times better than all the magicians (ḥarṭummîm) and exorcists (aššāpîm) in his whole kingdom" (Dan. 1:20); "Then the king gave orders to summon the magicians (ḥarṭummîm), exorcists (aššāpîm), sorcerers (mekaššepîm), and astrologers (lit. Chaldaeans, kasdîm) to tell him what he had dreamt" (2:2); "Daniel answered in the king's presence: 'The secret about which your majesty inquires no wise man, exorcist (āšepîn), magician (ḥarṭummîn), or diviner (gāzerîn) can disclose to you" (2:27); ''I [Nebuchadnezzar] issued an order summoning into my presence all the wise men of Babylon to make known to me the interpretation of the dream. Then the magicians (ḥarṭummajjaʾ), exorcists (āšepajjāʾ), astrologers (kasdājēʾ), and diviners (gāzerajjāʾ) came in, and in their presence I related my dream" (4:4); ''He called loudly for the exorcists (āšepajjāʾ), astrologers (kasdājēʾ), and diviners (gāzerajjāʾ) to be brought in; then, addressing the wise men of Babylon, he said" (5:7).

3 See AfO 18 83:206ff (lgituh Short Version) and MSL 12 p. 233 (Sultantepe List).

4 These experts make their appearance in Assyria only as a result of the conquests of the Neo-Assyrian kings. Augurs were obtained from Syria and northwestern Mesopotamia (cf. ABL 1346, referring to augurs from Hamat, and Iraq 20, p. 196, r. 14ff, "let the king, my lord, write to the Šubrian (king) that he should send PN, his augur"). Egyptian scholars were first imported to Assyria by Esarhaddon in 671 B.C.; note that they are not mentioned among the scholars enumerated in letter no. 7 dating from 672 B.C. The word harṭibi is a direct loan from Egyptian ḥry-tp "magician, scholar." No letters from foreign scholars are included in the present volume because no such letters are extant; in fact, it is unlikely that these scholars ever wrote any letters to the king (see p. XXVI).

5 The oral component, which constituted the theoretical core of the "Wisdom," is almost totally lost but can partially be reconstructed from the few extant specimens of the esoteric lore (e.g., SAA 3 p. 92ff), and a multitude of random passages in scholarly texts, primarily commentaries and letters, using as a guide the parallel of Jewish Kabbalah; see, in more detail, S. Parpola, "Mesopotamian Astrology and Astronomy as Domains of the Mesopotamian Wisdom,'' in H. Gaiter (ed.), Die Rolle der Astronomie in den Kulturen Mesopotamiens (Graz 1993), p. 47ff, and idem. "The Assyrian Tree of Life: Tracing the Origins of Jewish Monotheism and Greek Philosophy," JNES 52 (1993) 161ff. Other trades and crafts also had their technical literature (represented by cooking, perfume-making and glass-making recipes, horse-training and harp-tuning instructions, and so on), but the number of the extant specimens is scanty in comparison with the literature of the scholarly crafts. Such non-scholarly technical lore was traced back to divine revelation and thus also formed part of the "Wisdom" (see p. XVIIf).

6 Compare Assurbanipals famous account of his introduction to the secrets of Mesopotamian Wisdom (Streck Asb. 252 i 13-18): "I learnt the craft of the sage Adapa, the esoteric secret of the entire scribal tradition; I observed and discussed celestial and terrestrial signs in the meetings of scholars. I ponder with expert diviners the liver, the image of heaven; I can solve complicated mathematical problems lacking solution. I read sophisticated texts written in obscure Sumerian and hardly understandable Akkadian; I have studied stone inscriptions from the time before the Flood."

7 On the role played by mathematics and interpretive techniques such as gematriah and notarikon in Mesopotamian mystical philosophy and textual exegesis see, in detail, the articles referred to in n. 5.

8 Evidence on the existence of this doctrine in Mesopotamia in presented in my article on the "Assyrian Tree of Life" in JNES 52 (1993). The following exposition of the Assyrian royal ideology is largely based on this article, which should be consulted for details.

9 See JNES 52 168f, 176ff and Figs. 7-9.

10 Cf. M. Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives (New Haven and London 1988), p. 170ff.

11 See Helge S. Kvanvig, The Mesopotamian Background of the Enoch Figure (Oslo, 1984), p. 208f.

12 See JNES 52 168 with n. 33f.

13 Cf. W.G. Lambert, "Dingir.šà Incantations," JNES 33 (1974) 267ff.

14 Cf. A.L. Oppenheim, "A Babylonian Diviner's Manual," JNES 33 (1974) 197ff.

15 See no. 56 and my comments on this letter in LAS II and "Mesopotamian Astrology" (above, n. 5), p. 53f. and compare Daniel 4.

Simo Parpola

Simo Parpola, 'Mesopotamian Scholarship and Royal Ideology', Letters from Assyrian and Babylonian Scholars, SAA 10. Original publication: Helsinki, Helsinki University Press, 1993; online contents: SAAo/SAA10 Project, a sub-project of MOCCI, 2021 []

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