Guide to the classics: the Epic of Gilgamesh

Guide to the classics: the Epic of Gilgamesh

Image 20170322 27966 yag6gc
Gilgamesh explores what it means to be human, and questions the meaning of life and love. Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article

Louise Pryke, Macquarie University

“Forget death and seek life!” With these encouraging words, Gilgamesh, the star of the eponymous 4000-year-old epic poem, coins the world’s first heroic catchphrase. The Conversation

At the same time, the young king encapsulates the considerations of mortality and humanity that lie at the heart of the world’s most ancient epic. While much has changed since, the epic’s themes are still remarkably relevant to modern readers.

Depending upon your point of view, Gilgamesh may be considered a myth-making biography of a legendary king, a love story, a comedy, a tragedy, a cracking adventure, or perhaps an anthology of origin stories.

All these elements are present in the narrative, and the diversity of the text is only matched by its literary sophistication. Perhaps surprisingly, given the extreme antiquity of the material, the epic is a masterful blending of complex existential queries, rich imagery and dynamic characters.

The narrative begins with Gilgamesh ruling over the city of Uruk as a tyrant. To keep him occupied, the Mesopotamian deities create a companion for him, the hairy wild man Enkidu.

Gilgamesh in his lion-strangling mode.
TangLung, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Gilgamesh sets about civilising Enkidu, a feat achieved through the novel means of a week of sex with the wise priestess, Shamhat (whose very name in Akkadian suggests both beauty and voluptuousness).

Gilgamesh and Enkidu become inseparable, and embark on a quest for lasting fame and glory. The heroes’ actions upset the gods, leading to Enkidu’s early death.

The death of Enkidu is a pivotal point in the narrative. The love between Gilgamesh and Enkidu transforms the royal protagonist, and Enkidu’s death leaves Gilgamesh bereft and terrified of his own mortality.

The hero dresses himself in the skin of a lion, and travels to find a long-lived great flood survivor, Utanapishtim (often compared with the biblical Noah). After a perilous journey over the waters of death, Gilgamesh finally meets Utanapishtim and asks for the secret to immortality.

In one of the earliest literary anti-climaxes, Utanapishtim tells him that he doesn’t have it. The story ends with Gilgamesh returning home to the city of Uruk.

Mesopotamian mindfulness

Gilgamesh and his adventures can only be described in superlative terms: during his legendary journeys, the hero battles deities and monsters, finds (and loses) the secret to eternal youth, travels to the very edge of the world — and beyond.

Despite the fantastical elements of the narrative and its protagonist, Gilgamesh remains a very human character, one who experiences the same heartbreaks, limitations and simple pleasures that shape the universal quality of the human condition.

Gilgamesh explores the nature and meaning of being human, and asks the questions that continue to be debated in the modern day: what is the meaning of life and love? What is life really — and am I doing it right? How do we cope with life’s brevity and uncertainty, and how do we deal with loss?

The text provides multiple answers, allowing the reader to wrestle with these ideas alongside the hero. Some of the clearest advice is provided by the beer deity, Siduri (yes, a goddess of beer), who suggests Gilgamesh set his mind less resolvedly on extending his life.

Instead, she urges him to enjoy life’s simple pleasures, such as the company of loved ones, good food and clean clothes — perhaps giving an example of a kind of Mesopotamian mindfulness.

The king-hero Gilgamesh battling the ‘Bull of Heaven’.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

The epic also provides the reader with a useful case study in what not to do if one is in the exceptional circumstance of reigning over the ancient city of Uruk. In ancient Mesopotamia, the correct behaviour of the king was necessary for maintaining earthly and heavenly order.

Despite the gravity of this royal duty, Gilgamesh seems to do everything wrong. He kills the divinely-protected environmental guardian, Humbaba, and ransacks his precious Cedar Forest. He insults the beauteous goddess of love, Ishtar, and slays the mighty Bull of Heaven.

He finds the key to eternal youth, but then loses it just as quickly to a passing snake (in the process explaining the snake’s “renewal” after shedding its skin). Through these misadventures, Gilgamesh strives for fame and immortality, but instead finds love with his companion, Enkidu, and a deeper understanding of the limits of humanity and the importance of community.

Reception and recovery

The Epic of Gilgamesh was wildly famous in antiquity, with its impact traceable to the later literary worlds of the Homeric epics and the Hebrew Bible. Yet, in the modern day, even the most erudite readers of ancient literature might struggle to outline its plot, or name its protagonists.

A statue of Gilgamesh at the University of Sydney.
Gwil5083, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

To what might we owe this modern-day cultural amnesia surrounding one of the world’s greatest works of ancient literature?

The answer lies in the history of the narrative’s reception. While many of the great literary works of ancient Greece and Rome were studied continuously throughout the development of Western culture, the Epic of Gilgamesh comes from a forgotten age.

The story originates in Mesopotamia, an area of the Ancient Near East thought to roughly correspond with modern-day Iraq, Kuwait and parts of Syria, Iran and Turkey, and frequently noted as “the cradle of civilisation” for its early agriculture and cities.

Gilgamesh was written in cuneiform script, the world’s oldest known form of writing. The earliest strands of Gilgamesh’s narrative can be found in five Sumerian poems, and other versions include those written in Elamite, Hittite and Hurrian. The best-known version is the Standard Babylonian Version, written in Akkadian (a language written in cuneiform that functioned as the language of diplomacy in the second millennium BCE).

The disappearance of the cuneiform writing system around the time of the 1st century CE accelerated Gilgamesh’s sharp slide into anonymity.

For almost two millennia, clay tablets containing stories of Gilgamesh and his companions lay lost and buried, alongside many tens of thousands of other cuneiform texts, beneath the remnants of the great Library of Ashurbanipal.

Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, Wikimedia Commons

The modern rediscovery of the epic was a watershed moment in the understanding of the Ancient Near East. The eleventh tablet of the Epic was first translated by self-taught cuneiform scholar George Smith of the British Museum in 1872. Smith discovered the presence of an ancient Babylonian flood narrative in the text with striking parallels to the biblical flood story of the Book of Genesis.

The story is often repeated (although it may be apocryphal) that when Smith began to decipher the tablet, he became so excited that he began to remove all his clothing. From these beginnings in the mid-19th century, the process of recovering the cuneiform literary catalogue continues today.

In 2015, the publication of a new fragment of Tablet V by Andrew George and Farouk Al-Rawi made international news. The fragment’s discovery coincided with increased global sensitivity to the destruction of antiquities in the Middle East in the same year. The Washington Post juxtaposed the “heart-warming story” of the find against the destruction and looting in Syria and Iraq.

Ancient ecology

The new section of Tablet V contains ecological aspects that resonate with modern day concerns over environmental destruction. Of course, there are potential anachronisms in projecting environmental concerns on an ancient text composed thousands of years prior to the industrial revolution.

Yet, the undeniable sensitivity in the epic’s presentation of the wilderness is illuminating, considering the long history of humanity’s interaction with our environment and its animal inhabitants.

A cedar forest in Turkey.
Zeynel Cebeci, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

In Gilgamesh, the wilderness is a place of beauty and purity, as well as home to a wild abundance. The splendour and grandeur of the Cedar Forest is described poetically in Tablet V:

They (Gilgamesh and Enkidu) stood marvelling at the forest,

Observing the height of the cedars …

They were gazing at the Cedar Mountain, the dwelling of the gods, the throne-dais of the goddesses …

Sweet was its shade, full of delight.

While the heroes pause to admire the forest’s beauty, their interest is not purely aesthetic. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are aware of the economic value of the cedars, and the text provides a clear picture of competing commercial and ecological interests.

Where to read Gilgamesh

Since Gilgamesh’s reappearance into popular awareness in the last hundred years, the Standard Babylonian Version of the epic has become accessible in numerous translations. This version was originally compiled by the priest, scribe and exorcist, Sin-leqi-uninni, around 1100 BCE.

The scholarly standard among modern translations is Andrew George’s The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts (2003).

Despite its all-around excellence, the two-volume work is decidedly unwieldly, and the less muscle-bound reader would be well directed to The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation (1999), by the same author. Most readable among modern treatments is David Ferry’s Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse (1992), which gives a potent, poetic interpretation of the material.

Like the snake that steals Gilgamesh’s rejuvenation plant, the Epic of Gilgamesh has aged well. Its themes – exploring the tension between the natural and civilised worlds, the potency of true love, and the question of what makes a good life – are as relevant today as they were 4,000 years ago.

Note: Translations are sourced from Andrew R. George 2003. The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts, Volume 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Louise Pryke, Lecturer, Languages and Literature of Ancient Israel, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Christianity, Qumran and a relationship of Assimilation- An Essay

Note: This is an essay I recently completed for my university unit on the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was a fascinating subject and highly recommend it if you enjoy Ancient History.

Since Solomon Schechter first discovered The Damascus Document in a genizah in Cairo, scholars and enthusiasts have sought to connect Christianity with Qumran. The later texts found at the Dead Sea in 1947 spoke of a Teacher of Righteousness and a Wicked Priest, apocryphal visions of battles in the Heavenly realms, and detailed a shared Community life with a focus on purity and Law. The Scrolls have fired scholarly imaginations with theories and possibilities, ranging from Lawrence Schiffman’s hypothesis that Qumran had Sadducean roots, to Barbara Thiering’s extreme belief that John the Baptist was the Teacher of Righteousness and Jesus of Nazareth was the Wicked Priest.

Dated from the Second Temple period, a time of political and religious upheaval, the Scrolls provide another insight into the birth of Christianity, various Jewish sects, and ‘the common ground from which they all sprang.’[1]

The purpose of this essay is to explore the similarities of teachings, esoteric practices, and historical similarities between the Qumran sect and Christianity, revealing that even while they share many common elements there isn’t enough evidence to support a definitive relationship between the two.

To begin with, the most obvious questions regarding Christianity and Qumran is about Jesus himself as an Essene, a Teacher of Righteousness or a Wicked Priest depending which scholar you read, and whether New Testament documents found at the site.

Jesus of Nazareth was a charismatic rebel whose teaching ‘stands out invested with religious individuality and actuality’[2] but ultimately ‘nowhere in any of the scrolls is Jesus mentioned’[3] and the Greek fragments found in Cave 7 were not copies of New Testament writings.

Despite this there are numerous parallels in Jesus’ teachings with those practiced by the Qumran sect such as his emphasis on the kingdom, messianic self-understandings, and the similarities drawn from the beatitudes in Matthew 5:8 and 4Q525 such as, ‘ [Blessed is]…with a pure heart and does not slander with his tongue.’[4] Other comparisons in their teachings are their stance on divorce law, blasphemy and Jesus’ use of calling God ‘Abba’ or ‘Father ‘ is matched with three prayers found in Qumran using the related  phrasing ‘my Father, My God.’

This connection between Jesus and Qumran is often also linked with John the Baptist due to the proximity of his ministry to Qumran and his focus on ‘divine judgement, repentance and ritual washing.’[5] Barbara Thiering controversially argues not only for a direct connection, but that ‘The Teacher of Righteousness is an exact counterpart for John the Baptist’[6] and that his adversary The Wicked Priest ‘did almost everything Jesus was accused of by his enemies.’[7] A more plausible theory is that it is possible Jesus met Essenes during his ministry with some scholars like Riesner suggesting that Jesus stayed near their quarter in Jerusalem, and ‘the house used for the Last Supper was probably owned by an Essene.’[8]

Despite these similarities Jesus taught inclusivity and ate with those deemed unclean and marginalised not only by the Pharisaic Jews but the Essenes ‘were among those most ready to maintain purity through rigid rules of exclusion.’[9] On a theological standpoint, one of  focal points of Jesus’ teaching was ‘Forgive and you will be forgiven’[10] as well as other  provocative acts such as healing on the Sabbath, that Pharisaic Jews saw as a direct violation of the Mosaic Law. The latter is the strongest argument against Jesus being Essene (even a disgraced one as Thiering suggests) as the strict adherence of the Law was intrinsic to every aspect of Essene life including ‘sexual relations or the keeping of the Sabbath, meal practice or business dealings.’[11]

Despite the similarities in some areas of theology, The Teacher of Righteousness in Qumran, focused on the deep teachings and obligations of the Law and he was without the ‘genius of Jesus the Jew who succeeded in uncovering the essence of religion as an existential relationship between man and man and man and God.’ [12] The Scrolls themselves lack evidence of a direct relationship between Jesus and Qumran, but what they successfully do is provide another insight into Palestinian Judaism at the time of his teachings and reinforces the Jewishness of Jesus by reconstructing the world in which he had his ministry.

The next recognizable Christian figure that scholars like to associate with Qumran is the similarity in the seven letters of Paul and writings found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

According to Kuhn’s research there are over four hundred parallels between Paul’s teachings and those practiced at Qumran that focus on the ‘dualism of light and darkness within an ethical and eschatological framework,’[13] the concept of Community being a temple of God living under a new covenant, and the emphasis with which they concentrated on ‘God’s justice and man’s sinfulness, especially on justification by grace alone.’[14]

The core differences between Paul and Qumran once again is in theology especially with Paul’s faith in Christ and his different interpretation of the Torah. Before his conversion to Christianity Paul was a Pharisee and could have come into contact with Qumranian ideals during this time. He travelled extensively so it is also possible that he would have met Essenes on his journeys, much like Jesus of Nazareth did, or when he went to preach in Damascus, Antioch or his home town Tarsus.

Despite their strong conflicting views on Law and purity, Qumran and Christian theology do find more common ground in many of their esoteric beliefs, especially in the areas of healing and exorcism, Heavenly visions as well as reverence for the enigmatic character of Melchizedek.

In the New Testament Jesus and his disciples are recorded to have performed multiple healings through a laying on of hands (specifically Mark 6:5, Luke 4:40, Luke 13:13 and Acts 28:8), a practice that is not found in the Old Testament, nor in rabbinical literature. The Genesis Apocryphon found at Qumran recounts the story of how Abram’s wife Sarai was taken by the Pharaoh of Egypt and how the Most High God ‘sent a spirit to scourge him, an evil spirit to all of his household.’[15] The Pharaoh is released from this evil spirit when Abram places his hands on his head and prays for him. These passages, composed before Jesus’ time, reveals that this way of healing was ‘not only practiced by Jesus and his first disciples, but other circles as well.’[16]

Exorcism was widely performed by Jesus and his followers, and fragments of The Apocryphal Psalms found in Cave 11 have sections devoted to songs or psalms with ‘the repeated use of the  term ‘demons’ and ‘healing’’ [17]suggesting that exorcisms were also performed at Qumran. While exorcism wasn’t an unknown practice amongst the Jews there was often a traditional minyan (witnesses) needed, with other ritual elements such as washing required beforehand, where Jesus and his followers performed them sporadically with only commands.

The War Scroll found at Qumran details a final devastating but ultimately victorious war between the gentiles and the demonic forces of Belial or Satan, and the Sons of Light with angelic armies commanded by The Prince of Light, the Archangel Michael. According to XVII:5 after the defeat of Belial and his armies God will ‘send eternal succour to the company of His redeemed by the might of the princely Angel of the kingdom of Michael.’ With vivid descriptions on battle formations, priestly duties and thanksgiving ceremonies, the composer makes reference to the Book of Daniel, where Michael is also mentioned extensively as doing battle against the forces of darkness. This theme is also found in the New Testament in Revelations 12:7 where Michael and his angels throw the dragon, or Satan, down to earth in a heavenly war. Like The War Scroll, Revelations is heavy with symbolic imagery and also ends with a victory and praises of thanksgiving as the New Jerusalem is established.

While these visionary books are obviously influenced by other apocryphal writings such as The Book of Daniel, The Book of Enoch and Isaiah, the core messaging in their end of days’ battle and the fundamentals of their eschatology is different. For the Qumranian’s the one that ‘shoots forth from the stump of Jesse,’[18]  the triumphant Davidic Messiah, is to put his adversary, the king of Kittim to death, while for the Christian’s Jesus, the ‘Root and the Offspring of David’[19] will come again, establishing a new Heaven and new Earth.

Striking in both the Qumran and Christian writings is the mysterious figure of Melchizedek. In the Hebrew Bible his first appearance in Genesis 14:18, Melchizedek is described as the king of Salem and a priest of the God Most High, who enigmatically blesses Abram, gives him ‘a tenth of all’[20] and abruptly disappears from the narrative, resurfacing in Psalm 110 where the Lord says to David, ‘Thou art a priest forever after the manner of Melchizedek.’ The New Testament writings of Hebrews speaks extensively on Melchizedek, his unique Yahwistic priesthood ‘made not by virtue of a Torah requirement of physical descent but by the virtue of indestructible life’[21] and Jesus being the High Priest. In The Heavenly Prince Melchizedek found at Qumran, Melchizedek is the heavenly deliverer Archangel Michael who presides over ‘the final Judgement and condemnation of his demonic counterpart Belial’[22] and with neither his birth or death recorded ‘it is easy to imagine him as eternal and therefore that this priest should be present in the heavens.’[23]

Both Qumran and Christianity could agree that Melchizedek was an immortal figure with a priesthood assigned to him, but the conflict arises not only in Melchizedek being the Archangel Michael but also the author of Hebrew’s views of the priesthood’s ‘superiority over the levitical priesthood’[24] and their comments on the requirement of bloodlines being ‘set aside because of its weakness and ineffectiveness – for Torah make nothing perfect’[25] which is a direct violation of the Qumranian view of the Law.

The Dead Sea Scrolls has also provided scholars with an abundance of new material regarding scriptural interpretation and given a wider understanding to the practice of pesher. The sect at Qumran believed that scripture had two levels; a literal version for ordinary readers and a second level that only readers of a higher knowledge could interpret the mysteries hidden by God. Christian writers have engaged in a similar interpretive process with Hebrew prophetic writings having been decoded for foretelling’s of Jesus, such as Isaiah 53.

The writers of the Scrolls and the New Testament literature both ‘recognized the authority of the five books of the Law of Moses, held prophetic literature in high regard,’[26] and sought to find greater meanings within them. The main similarity between both practices of prophetic interpretation is what Brooke describes as the process of ‘This is That,’[27] meaning that one or more of the items within in the text is compared to another.

There is a prominent difference between the two forms of interpretation, even if on the surface New Testament interpretations seem like pesher, the process at Qumran was the ‘primary or base scriptural text always precedes the interpretation’[28] while the Christians focused on proving fulfilment by having the scriptural text recounted after the event in which they are writing.

Moving away from the esoteric to religious history, the Near East saw multiple cultural and religious changes through the Persian, Hellenistic, Maccabean and Roman periods and this impacted on the Jewish belief systems of the times. This period saw the birth of Christianity and the evolution of Rabbinical Judaism, but it also meant that ‘many Judaisms did not survive – the Essenes and the Sadducees among them.’[29] Boccacini claims that Rabbinical Judaism and Christian do not have a ‘parent-child’ relationship but one of fraternal twins birthed at the same time. The discovery of the Scolls at Qumran supports the reality that many forms of Judaism existed at the time of Jesus with their own communities, interpretations of Law and eschatological and prophetic visions of the future.

The spread of Christianity ‘turned Judaism into a multinational religion’[30] with the Rabbi’s reinforcing the concept of Judaism as the religion of the Jewish people, so one could argue that the true historical relationship  between Qumran and Christianity is one that forced assimilation.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a fascinating insight into the Second Temple Period and are a valuable study in understanding early Christianity and Judaism as well as revealing a pious and vividly literate people that valued their Law and mysteries above religious and social pressures.

The Essenes and Christianity are often curiously similar in their beliefs and practices with parallels being drawn between prominent teachings of figures like Jesus and Paul, their views and practices of healing, visions of Heavenly wars and redemption, and their reverence of figures such as Isaiah, Daniel and Melchizedek. They both held the Temple in Jerusalem with undisguised contempt and believed in a Messianic promise.

The centre of their belief systems they are so starkly different that a definitive relationship between the two can only seriously be drawn at them both being religious products of the time. Christianity with its inclusive ideals and resurrected Messiah flourished, while the Essenes strict and exclusive community could not survive, as it ‘lacked the pliant strength and elasticity of thought and depth of spiritual vision’[31] that allowed Rabbinical Judaism to endure as the dominant Jewish religion.

Note: All images used in this post were Public Domain

Bibliography

Vermès, G. 2011. The complete Dead Sea scrolls in English. 4th ed. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Allen Lane/Penguin Press.

Brooke, G.J 2005. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament. Fortress Press.

Thiering, B 2005. Jesus the Man. Random House.

Kuhn, H.W 1992 The Impact of the Qumran Scrolls on the Understanding of Paul. The Magnes Press.

Flusser, D 1957 Healing through the Laying-on of Hands in a Dead Sea Scroll. Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 7, No. 2, pg. 107-108

Delcour, M 1971 Melchizedek from Genesis to the Qumran Texts and the Epistle to the Hebrews. Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period, Vol. 2, pg 115-135

Boccaccini, G 1995 Multiple Judaisms, Bible Review (Feb 1995) 38-41.

Schiffman, L 1990 The Significance of the Scrolls. Bible Review Vol VI, pg 19-28

Messianic Jewish Shared Heritage Bible. (2012). 1st ed. Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image.

[1] Vermès 2011 pg 25

[2] Vermès 2011 pg25

[3] Brooke 2005 Pg19

[4] 4Q525 Beatitudes pg455

[5] Brooke 2005 pg24

[6] Thiering 2005 Pg19

[7] Thiering 2005 pg19

[8] Brooke 2005 pg24

[9] Brooke 2005 pg 25

[10] Luke 6:37

[11] Brooke 2005 pg38

[12] Vermès 2011 pg25

[13] Kuhn,1992 Pg 334

[14] Kuhn, 1992 pg 335

[15] IQapGen,IQ20 XX:15

[16] Flusser 1957 pg108

[17] Vermès 2011 pg 316

[18] The Book of War 4Q285, fr.7

[19] Revelations 22:16

[20] Genesis 14:18

[21] Hebrews 7:16

[22] Vermés 2011 pg532

[23] Delcor 1971 pg125

[24] Delcor 1971 pg125

[25] Hebrews 7:18-20

[26] Brooke 2005 pg 53

[27] Brooke 2005 pg 60

[28] Brooke 2005 pg 60

[29] Boccacini 1995 pg41

[30] Boccacini 1995 41

[31] Vermés 2011 pg25

Rare coin from King Antiochus’s rule discovered in Jerusalem

I’m currently studying The Dead Sea Scrolls as a part of my university degree and one of the areas of the Second Temple Period we cover is to do with King Antiochus and the Maccabean revolt. It was such a buzz that this was found this week as I read all about it! – Amy

 

An image of the coin

An image of the coin. (photo credit:TOWER OF DAVID MUSEUM)

Original Article found here on Jerusalem Post

Antiochus sparked the Maccabean revolt that led to the victory of the Maccabees and reclaiming of the Temple.

Nearly 30 years after the completion of excavations in the courtyard of Jerusalem’s Tower of David, outside the Old City’s walls, archeologists thought no stone was left unturned. However, during routine conservation work in the museum’s archeological garden, Orna Cohen, veteran archeologist and chief conservation officer at the Tower of David, spotted a metallic item among stones near a wall.

Upon closer inspection, Cohen determined the object was a bronze-leaf cent, once used in Jerusalem during the days of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a decidedly unwelcome guest in the history of the city.

Antiochus was a reviled king who made draconian decrees, sparking the Maccabean revolt that led to the victory of the Maccabees and the reclamation of the Temple.

The coin was found near the Hasmonean walls that cut through the center of the citadel’s courtyard, next to the tower base built during the day of Yonaton and Shimon, brothers of Judah the Maccabee.

During the original excavation of the Tower of David, ballista stones and iron arrowheads were found, evidence of the battles that took place in Jerusalem in the days when the city struggled for independence against the rulers of the Seleucids.

A portrait of Antiochus is engraved on one side of the coin, which was worth roughly 10 agorot back then. On the other side, a goddess is shown wrapped in a scarf.

While researchers are having difficulty dating the relic with precision, it is known that such coins were minted in Acre, a city on the northern shore of Israel that was once called Antiochia Ptolemais, after Ptolemy, and as such the coin is dated sometime between 172 and 168 BCE.

Eilat Lieber, director of the Tower of David, said the timing of the finding is auspicious.

“It is thrilling to hold in your hand a piece of history that brings the stories of Hanukka right up to present day,” he said.

 

The underrated wonder that is Mahabalipuram — My Favourite Things

I first heard about Mahabalipuram in my Class 8 or 9 Hindi textbook. While I don’t remember who the author of that piece was, but I do remember that it was about the ruminations of a sculptor who wondered about the glorious temple ruins by the sea-shore and how they came to be. Though the […]

via The underrated wonder that is Mahabalipuram — My Favourite Things

Guide to the classics: the Arthurian legend

Original article by Amy Brown , Doctoral Assistant in Medieval English, University of Geneva on The Conversation

The early trailers for Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) were released last (northern) summer, which means my favourite season in life as a medievalist academic is coming: the season of The Truth About King Arthur. It doesn’t matter if the movie itself is good or bad: the question I will be getting is “but how accurate is it?” Does it represent the “real” legend of King Arthur?

Knowing Guy Ritchie’s films, the answer is going to be a glorious “no, and it’s not even trying”, but modern audiences often seem to be attracted to the idea of an adaptation that is more true than others.

The 2004 film King Arthur, a glorious romp featuring Kiera Knightley in an impractical outfit fighting hand-to-hand with an even more impractical short bow, billed itself as telling the “real” story of King Arthur as we’d never seen it before. Set, ostensibly, in the 5th century, it promised the story of a beleaguered Briton warlord rallying his people against the Saxons – but it also gave us a love triangle featuring Arthur, his wife Guinevere, and the knight Lancelot; a tale which first appeared in the 12th century, in France.

Can you tell a King Arthur story to a modern audience without including the royal love triangle? The Australian animated series Arthur! And His Square Knights of the Round Table (1966), aimed at young audiences who presumably weren’t supposed to comprehend a complicated narrative of love, betrayal and sin, is nevertheless peppered with in-jokes about the Queen’s devotion to the comically inept Lancelot.

The BBC’s Merlin (2008), a delightful festival of historical inaccuracies, made the triangle a key part of Guinevere’s character arc for several seasons, ending with poor Lancelot as the tool of necromancy and plots against the throne.

Interestingly, Guy Ritchie’s Legend of the Sword seems to have cast no Lancelot; it remains to be seen if modern audiences will accept a Lancelot-less Camelot as “real” Arthuriana. But whether they do or do not, Ritchie’s work will be compared to an imagined true story of King Arthur, which never existed, even in the Middle Ages. The medieval sources dealing with King Arthur are numerous, inconsistent, and wildly ahistorical in and of themselves.

The historical sources

‘King Arthur’ by Charles Ernest Butler. Charles Ernest Butler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The name Arthur first appears in the work of the 9th century Welsh historian Nennius, who lists twelve battles this Arthur fought against invading Saxons. Similarly, the Welsh Chronicles (written down in the 10th century) make some references to battles fought by Arthur. On this shaky foundation, along with a scattering of place-names and oblique references, is an entire legend based.

Ask any scholar of Arthurian literature if King Arthur really existed, and we’ll tell you: we don’t know, and we don’t really care. The good stuff, the King Arthur we all know and love, is entirely fictional.

The “Arthurian Legend” really kicked off in the early 12th century, with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (1138), which purported to describe the entire history of Britain from the day dot until about the 7th century.

He describes the founding of Britain by the (mythical) Trojan warrior Brutus; he covers a lot of the historical events described in Nennius’ earlier work; and his account is the first to really describe King Arthur’s reign, his wars against the Saxons, and the doings of the wizard Merlin. Some elements, like the part where Merlin helps Arthur’s father Uther deceive and sleep with another man’s wife, thus conceiving Arthur, remain key parts of the Arthurian legend today. Other elements modern audiences expect, like the Round Table, are still absent.

Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in Latin, and his book was read and treated as a history book in the Middle Ages. But very quickly, the material was re-worked into French and English poetry. The Norman poet Wace, whose audience included people living in both France and England, based his Roman de Brut (1155) on Geoffrey’s History. He added many things to the story, including the Round Table itself.

Around the turn of the thirteenth century, an English poet named Layamon took both Geoffrey and Wace’s works, combined them, and added more in his long English poem Brut. Arthur is not the only subject covered in the Brut, but it’s the first treatment of King Arthur in English.

These versions, and some of the later English romances like Of Arthur and of Merlin, focus on battles and political tensions. Aside from Merlin they feature few supernatural elements, and do not usually devote much attention to love. In these versions, the traitor Mordred who defeats Arthur at the battle of Camlann is usually his nephew, not his illegitimate son; and Guinevere may willingly marry him after Arthur’s death.

The Romances

Arthurian romance is where things really start getting fun, from the 12th century onwards. The earliest romances did not focus on Arthur himself, but on various heroes and knights associated with his court.

The very first might be the Welsh Culhwch and Olwen, the events of which rarely make an appearance in later Arthurian works, but which share with them a common basic plot structure: a young man needs to prove himself to win the hand of a fair lady, goes to Arthur’s court, undergoes a series of supernatural adventures, and is eventually able to marry his lady and settle down.

‘Arthur’s Tomb’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The earliest surviving French Arthurian romances are by an author named Chrétien de Troyes. He wrote five romances, of which the most fun, in my humble opinion, is The Knight of the Lion (1176). The most famous is The Knight of the Cart (1180), which introduces Lancelot and his love affair with Queen Guinevere.

Hot on its heels came The Story of the Grail (1181), which introduces Perceval and the Grail quest – although Chrétien himself never finished that work. At around about the same time, a separate tradition of romances about the knight Tristan and his affair with Queen Isolde of Cornwall was also circulating.

Over the 13th to 15th centuries countless romances were written in French and in various other European languages, telling tales of the adventures of individual knights associated with King Arthur.

For instance, in the 14th century English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1390), a young Gawain is challenged to cut off the head of the Green Knight, in return for which the Green Knight will cut off Gawain’s head a year later. Unfortunately for Gawain, the green knight has supernatural headless-survival powers which Gawain lacks, and so the adventure unfolds as Gawain seeks to keep his bargain and his head.

After Chrétien de Troyes’ day, the Grail quest story became extremely popular: there are several continuations of his unfinished poem, a complete reworking in German by a Wolfram von Eschenbach, and many translations. In these, Perceval is the hero who becomes keeper of the Grail. In the complex French prose version known as The Quest of the Holy Grail (1230), Lancelot’s illegitimate but extraordinarily holy son Galahad takes that honour.

How Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival Were Fed with the Sanct Grael; but Sir Percival’s Sister Died by the Way by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The death of Arthur

If you read no other piece of medieval Arthuriana, read the 13th century French prose romance The Death of King Arthur (1237). The Penguin translation by James Cable is eminently readable, and cheap too. This romance circulated in the middle ages as the last of a “series” of Arthurian works beginning with the Grail’s arrival in Britain and ending with the break-up of the Arthurian court and Arthur’s own death. We call this whole series the Vulgate Cycle, or the Lancelot-Grail Cycle.

This series, rather like many modern fantasy series, was written out of order: the long romance known as the Lancelot Proper and the Quest of the Holy Grail (the one with Galahad, mentioned above) were composed first, by different authors; very quickly afterwards the Death of King Arthur was added, and then the prequel material dealing with the origin of the Grail and the birth of Merlin was added.

In the Death of King Arthur, the Arthurian court is aging. Lancelot has lost his chance at the Grail, the court’s harmony is shattered as Guinevere’s adultery comes to light, Mordred betrays Arthur, and everything falls to pieces.

A detail of the painting The last sleep of Arthur by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, 1898. via Wikimedia Commons

Fast forward to the 15th century, and an English knight named Thomas Malory, serving time in prison in Calais for attempting to abduct a young heiress, gets hold of the Vulgate Cycle, the Tristan romances, and a range of other material, and produces the most famous piece of English-language (despite its French title) Arthuriana: Le Morte d’Arthur. Malory, whatever else he might have been, was a completist, and he tried very hard to make a single coherent story out of the many contradictory he sources he had.

Chances are, if someone in an English-speaking country says to you they’ve read the “original” story of King Arthur, it’s Malory they mean. Its great popularity is explained by the fact that William Caxton put out a printed edition in the late fifteenth century. You can find that for free online, but the best reading version is the Oxford World’s Classics translation by Helen Cooper.

The ‘real’ Arthur today

Very few people get their first idea of King Arthur from a medieval text, today. When I taught Arthurian classes at Sydney Uni I used to ask the group to describe their first encounter with the Arthurian legend – it got oddly confessional at times, liking asking people to describe their religious conversions or coming-out experiences.

A lot of people my age and younger met Arthur through the movie The Sword in the Stone (1963), although in my case it was the infinitely funnier and more terrible Quest for Camelot (1998).

I was reading Arthurian stories long before I learned that the way we’re supposed to judge an adaptation in the modern world is its “fidelity” to its source. I loved Howard Pyle’s The Story of King Arthur (1903) and the 1998 miniseries Merlin and the ridiculous BBC children’s show Sir Gadabout (2002), and the last thing I worried about was whether or not they incorporated exactly the same plot elements.

There’s a distinct pleasure, though, in reading your favourite story told again in new ways: Sir Gadabout was so funny to me precisely because it plays fast and loose with elements that are treated as sacred in the solemn Victorian style of Howard Pyle, or the serious moralising of T.H. White’s Once and Future King (1958).

Ask a group of medievalists what the best Arthurian movie is, and 95% of us will answer Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail (1975). The reason for that is not, as anyone who has seen it can guess, because it is exceedingly faithful to Thomas Malory’s monumental work, or to any other particular text.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) EMI Films

What Monty Python did so brilliantly was take the cultural “idea” of Arthur (perhaps at that time best encapsulated in the musical Camelot (1967)), along with a broad knowledge of Arthurian traditions both medieval and modern, and have fun with it on various levels. You don’t need to have read the weird romances dealing with the Questing Beast to laugh at the Black Beast of Argh, for instance, but if you have, knowledge of the “original” can only improve your appreciation of the adaptation.

And so I contend that whether or not Guy Ritchie includes Lancelot is immaterial. As far as I’m concerned it’s not a real Arthurian movie unless it contains the Beast of Argh, and that’s the stance I’m sticking to.

Readers interested in the history and development of Arthuriana could consult the second edition of The Arthurian Handbook (Routledge, 1997), or explore the texts, images and mini-histories at The Camelot Project.

 

Who were the Philistines?

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Original article found One for Israel

They had been digging for years and found nothing. Archaeological evidence giving information about the Philistines and their civilization has been found in the past, but no one had ever found any bodies. It was a mystery. Some assumed that they must have buried their dead at sea, but there had been indication that maybe – just maybe – there might be Philistine graves in the Israeli port city of Ashkelon.

A team of archaeologists went to Ashkelon to see what they could find, but after days of digging they ended up disappointed and frustrated. National Geographic described how, just when they had given up and people had started to leave, Adam Aja, assistant curator at Harvard’s Semitic Museum, was overwhelmed with determination to continue. He wanted to keep digging until they hit bedrock, and it wasn’t long before they came across a human tooth. He knew then that they had found what they were looking for.

Clues in the ancient graveyard of the Philistines

Since then, they have found the remains of 211 Philistines in Ashkelon from some 3000 years ago, buried in a manner distinctly different to the Canaanites or the Hebrews of the time[1], whose custom it was to lay the bodies out in stone tombs until only the bones remained, then to gather the bones and add them a collective hole which contained the bones of their ancestors (hence the Biblical accounts of the Patriarchs being “gathered” to their people). Later it became Hebrew tradition to put the dry bones in individual caskets the length of the femur. The Philistines, on the other hand, buried their dead in oval ditches the ground, some with a few precious items or a flask of perfume near their nose, and left them undisturbed in the ground.

According to the Bible, the Philistines were the enemies of Israel, who battled them many times, and even stole the Ark of the Covenant at one point (until the destruction it wreaked among them proved too much, and they meekly sent it back to the Israelites). But apart from taking the role of Israel’s enemies, the origins of the Philistines are a bit enigmatic. They are thought to have come from the Aegean, based on pottery and artifacts pointing to a Hellenistic connection, but the origins and movements of people groups around the time of the Bronze Age are not always straightforward to deduce.

“Finding the Philistine cemetery is fantastic because there are so many questions regarding their genetic origins and their interconnections with other cultures.” Assaf Yasur-Landau, Associate Professor of Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Haifa.

The Bible connects the Philistines with the island of Crete (‘Caphtor’ in Jeremiah 47:4; Amos 9:7). As it has done many times in the past, archaeological evidence is now proving the Bible to be correct – that they had indeed come to Canaan’s shores from the Greek islands, although it is still unclear whether they were Cretan by origin, or had just been living there. Either way, it is clear to archaeologists that the Philistines were not native to Canaan but were from the Aegean area, as attested by ceramics, architecture, burial customs, and pottery remains with non-Semitic writing on them (including a shard of pottery with a Cypro-Minoan script, dating to around 1150-1000 BCE) [2].

There is great excitement in the world of archaeologists over this new discovery, and it’s worth taking note of the fact that they had despaired of ever finding what they were looking for. But there was just one man refused to give up, and he was well rewarded.

[1] National Geographic, Discovery of Philistine Cemetery May Solve Biblical Mystery, 10.07.2016
[2] HaAretz, Archaeologists find first-ever Philistine cemetery in Israel, 10.07.2016

Imitation game: how copies can solve our cultural heritage crises

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Original article by Felicity Strong on The Conversation

Visitors to the Otsuka Museum in Japan are offered the chance to see through time. Two life-sized copies of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper are hung on opposing walls, one showing it before the major 1999 restoration, and one as it is today.

Visitors can pivot their view to observe changes in colour on the paintings in front of them. The true-to-scale copies are painted on ceramic tiles, which the Museum claims can maintain their colour and shape for over 2000 years.

The Museum offers visitors the ability to literally walk through the history of Western art’s greatest works. Other recreations include Vincent Van Gogh’s lost Six Sunflowers painting, which was destroyed in 1945 by US airstrikes on Tokyo. Art lovers can view paintings in a manner rendered impossible in real life.

As the world faces ongoing cultural heritage crises – from poverty, to war, to natural disaster – is the creation of copies the answer?

Increasingly sophisticated technology, including 3D printing, offers an alternative to traditional preservation techniques. However, while these new technologies may solve problems of accessibility to precious antiquities they also raise other problems of authenticity and trust.

The New Yorker recently profiled the work undertaken by the Factum Arte workshop in Madrid, which uses advanced 3D printing technology to recreate ancient artefacts that are being ravaged by time and modern life.

The head of the project, Adam Lowe, describes the new artefacts as “rematerialized” facsimiles. Notable projects include a full sized reproduction of King Tut’s burial chamber, built out of extraordinarily detailed scans. The original tomb is at risk of deterioration due to thousands of tourists breathing on ancient plaster, as well as possible excavations to uncover what could be Nefertiti’s tomb next door.

Despite these successes, there are objections to the practice of creating copies. Critical theorist Walter Benjamin famously argued that art loses its “aura” when it is reproduced: the impact an original artwork creates when it’s uniquely present in time and space vanishes as soon as copies are made.

A 5.5-metre recreation of the 1,800-year-old Arch of Triumph in Palmyra, Syria, is seen at Trafalgar Square in London in April, 2016. Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Yet ultimately, the transferral of art into a new medium and context allows entire new audiences to have a brand new – and possibly deeper – connection to our greatest treasures.

Anyone who has battled the crowds in front of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch in the Rijksmuseum or the mass of selfie sticks in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, will appreciate how Otsuka Museum affords the visitor the opportunity to experience a painting’s colours, composition and artistic impression.

Of course the experience of these “rematerialized” paintings and artefacts will be different from that of the original pieces. Tutankhamen’s replica tomb, while set near the original in Luxor, is missing the authentic musty smell of the ancient rooms. It also features a digitally restored panel destroyed when the tomb was originally opened.

Where is the harm?

But as long as the audience clearly understands that these are replicas, from the perspective of preserving cultural heritage, where is the harm in appreciating these objects in a new medium?

Visitors to the Otsuka Museum and Factum Arte are under no illusion that what they are viewing are originals. These are not fakes, as the attention grabbing headlines claim, but replicas and copies, the distinctive feature being a lack of intent to deceive. Honesty with your audience is of paramount importance.

The issue of restoration and conservation is historically fraught, and intensified now by various economic and cultural tensions. As noted in the New Yorker article, visiting Egypt right now is an unusual experience due to that country’s recent political upheavals. Aside from the chance to visit one of the Seven Wonders of the World without battling hoards of tourists, the issues of preserving of the country’s cultural and archaeological assets are obvious.

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo has limited air-conditioning, with cracked showcases and storage units on display in the main exhibition spaces alongside many priceless relics. They are awaiting the new museum, which has been under construction for many years.

Ironically, the museum collection features a copy of one of the most important Ancient Egyptian artefacts, the Rosetta stone, with the original version found in the British Museum, over 2000 miles away.

In contrast, a different response to cultural heritage concerns can be seen in the vast temples at Abu Simbel. Originally carved into the side of a mountain over the Nile, the temples came under threat with the construction of the Aswan High dam in the 1960s. Under the supervision of UNESCO, the temples were cut out and moved 65m up and 210m northwest.

Tourists and visitors in 2014 queue outside the temple of Abu Simbel to see the dawn light up the temple’s inner sanctum to mark the anniversary of Pharaoh Ramses II’s coronation. The temple is angled so that the inner sanctum lights up twice a year: once on the anniversary of his rise to the throne and once on his birthday. Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

In this case what has been replicated is not the physical temples of Ramses II but the original location and authenticity of the experience as it was originally intended.

The move meant that the temple’s axis is no longer aligned as it was during Pharaonic Egypt. The structure was created so the sun lit up the statues inside the temple twice a year, on February 21 and October 21. The so-called “miracle of the sun” still occurs, just one day later.

Whilst there is no attempt to conceal the relocation, one cannot help ascribing perceived defects to the move. When did Ramses lose his beard? Was it dropped?

Jonathan Jones recently argued in The Guardian that we should leave the crumbling remnants of the Isis-ravaged Syrian town of Palmyra alone, and recognise that the destruction of this sacred site forms part of its history and newfound fame.

For Jones, the authenticity of Palmyra is its decay, not the “faked-up approximation” that a 3D printed version might offer visitors.

But we are constantly battling the push and pull of authenticity and heritage. While Jones may deride the inauthentic replication of Syrian archaeological sites, we must confront the issue of preserving our cultural heritage in manner that is accessible in the future.

When these remnants are no more than dust and rubble, would a future generation really rebuff a “rematerialized” 3D printed version? So long as the creation of a replica does no harm to authentic version, where is the problem in creating a coherent copy?