Celebrating Life in Mesopotamia
Celebrating Archaeology. Tributes to Lloyd Cotsen. Backdirt, Annual Review of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA. December 2018, pp. 58-64.
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Marilyn Kelly-Buccellati discusses in this paper the role and the meaning of celebrations in ancient Mesopotamia, with a focus on the site of Urkesh (Tell-Mozan). Indeed, celebrations and festivals were not only perceived as mere spare time, but occasions to affirm connections among the people, their gods, and their city (p. 58). Such as occasions (connected with religious festivals, weddings and funerals) are attested by mean of different architectonical, iconographical and textual sources: aside of public feasts, also personal celebrations are documented in evidences from three Syrian sites, namely Urkesh, Ebla, and Mari.
Furthermore, the role of women within these celebrations is particularly stressed and analyzed: for those usually working in households, unfortunately, no clues of information can be detected; nevertheless, from some source, it is possible to argue how they bought and sold properties, while others could also work outside the proper household as midwives, wet nurses, tavern keepers and weavers (sometimes also as managers, such as the case of Muma-ummi at Adaba). A particular role in celebrations was featured by beer drinking, considered as a sign of civilization as attested in the Epic of Gilgamesh in the process of humanization of Enkidu. The same poem also attests the existence of a tavern keeper Siduri, advising Gilgamesh to enjoy life (pp. 59, 64). Seals impressions from Urkesh, dating back to ca. 2250 BC (the time of queen Uqnitum and the king Tupkish), also display women in representations of palace contexts, not related to any religious event: Instead of recording military victories, the rulers of Urkesh are interested in representing the royal family, within a dynastic program that aims at showing a stable succession of power and, in the case of the seals of Uqnitum, her preeminent role in the palace (p. 59).
On this extent, the queen is paired to her husband, the king of Urkesh: the scenes are placed in occasion of formal and informal contexts, but always considered as a celebration of life as it is clear e.g. from Fig. 2, on p. 60, displaying the impression of a seal: The dimension of life is projected by this blending of a real and very concrete situation (a live lion) and the formal moment of the crown prince’s recognition by the ruler (p. 60). Also Fig. 3 (on the same page) depicts a family scene but conveying a political message: The queen is proclaiming that she is the most important female in the court (we assume she may be related to the royal house of Akkad, like her successor, Tar’am-Agade) and that her son should become the next king of Urkesh (p. 60). All these depictions, and many others, can be intended to show and manifest the dynastic continuity of the royal descendance, the family dimension bringing out a special aspect of life, imbuing the official aspect (the dynastic concern) with a different kind of energy (p. 61). Despite these in-door depictions, Fig. 5 on p. 61 instead carries the image of a ritual celebration performed by king Ishar-kinum, being a celebration in public of royal power and legitimation. The following paragraph on p. 61 stresses the importance of the use of seals in Syria, as also attested in a letter from Mari (sent by princess Shimiatum to her father Zimri-Lim); therefore, the legends of the seals are of particular importance, because they show a close connection between the functions of the individuals as given by their titles and the images on the seals (p. 61). Under this respect, three seals (belonging to Zamena, Tuli, and Ishar-beli) are described as reporting everyday occurrences (e.g., Tuli was cook of Uqnitum p. 62), such as cooking activities or the birth of a foal, in the scope of a wider perspective on royal court life and administration.
The following paragraph, pp. 63-64, is focused on the marriage celebrations between the courts of Ebla and Mari on wedding occasions, describing the ritual ceremonies connected to the anointing and the purification of the bride and the dispatching of precious gifts; among these official scenes, also the role of the wet nurse is underlined in the written sources, the latter retaining a strong and intimate relationship with the new queen (p. 63).
The last section of the paper (pp. 63-64) is briefly devoted to formal celebrations of life, where life emerges with all its vigour in a variety of contexts. The formality surrounding the king, the queen, and the crown prince is pierced through, as it were, by the concreteness of moments that proclaim the value of family ties (pp. 63-64).
[Marco De Pietri – April 2019]