The article discusses a trope in cuneiform literature that I term the “self-referential climax,” in which stories end by describing their own composition in a final confluence of narrated time and the time of narration. This trope is crucial to the study of cuneiform literature because it affords us a glimpse of how ancient poets viewed their own poems. I focus on three case studies—Inana and Shukaletuda, The Cuthean Legend, and Gilgamesh—that all use the trope to set up an ambivalent contrast between the story’s medium and main character: in all three cases, form triumphs over content.
“The Return of the Text: On Self-Reference in Cuneiform Literature,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies, vol. 75, no. 1 (Spring 2023): 93–107. Link.
The book includes a translation of the five poems attributed to Enheduana, the first known author, as well as an introduction and three essays that unpack her life and legacy. The translation is an innovative and fairly free rendering of her challenging hymns; a more literal translation can be found on the website I created to accompany the book, enheduana.org. The essays introduce the reader to the dramatic time in which Enheduana lived, the ancient reception and main themes of her poems, and the modern rediscovery of this unjustly forgotten figure.
Enheduana: The Complete Poems of the World’s First Author. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2023. Link.
The Exaltation of Inana is a complex poem, and scholars disagree on how its structure should be understood. But the text gains a previously unnoticed clarity of composition from its use of invocations—the rhetorically charged apostrophes to the goddess Inana. By following the patterns of repeated invocations, one finds in the text a neat subdivision into six sections, each with their unique form of address. The essay concludes by considering the poetic effects of these invocations.
“Enheduana’s Invocations: Form and Force,” in Women and Religion in the Ancient Near East and Asia, edited by Nicole M. Brisch and Fumi Karahashi, Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Records 30 (2023, Berlin: De Gruyter), pp. 189–208. Link.
For the volume on cuneiform narratives I co-edited, I wrote about the episodic nature of Babylonian epics. Akkadian narrative poems were often divided into a series of tablets, and those tablets—I argue—shaped the story told upon them. In Gilgamesh, divisions between tablets often correspond to physical borders in the story, in a conflation of form and content; and in Enuma Elish, the events of Tablet I take on a very different tenor if they are read in the isolated context of that Tablet, instead of the epic as a whole.
“Tablets as Narrative Episodes in Babylonian Poetry,” in The Shape of Stories: Narrative Structures in Cuneiform Literature, edited by Sophus Helle and Gina Konstantopoulos, Cuneiform Monographs 54 (2023, Leiden: Brill), pp. 93–111. Link.
Together with Gina Konstantopoulos, I edited a volume on narratological approaches to cuneiform literary, historical, and religious texts. The goal of the volume is to function as a methodological toolkit, with each of the papers – which span from the third to the first millennium, covering a wide variety of genres in Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hittite – presenting one possible approach to studying the narrative structures found in cuneiform texts, and illustrating that approach through a concrete case study.
With Gina Konstantopoulos, ed., The Shape of Stories: Narrative Structures in Cuneiform Literature, Cuneiform Monographs 54 (2023, Leiden: Brill). Link.
The article proposes a new definition of philology as a systematic engagement with crises of reading, focused on the difficulties that prevent readers from gaining access to or drawing meaning from a given text, all the way from scrubbed signs to obscure ontologies. Responding to two recent interventions in the field—Philology by James Turner and World Philology by Sheldon Pollock, Benjamin Elman, and Ku-ming Kevin Chang—the article explores the practices, history, and current state of philology.
“What is philology? From crises of reading to comparative reflections.” Poetics Today ,vol. 43, no. 4 (December 2022): 611–637. Link.
The chapter, written for my PhD thesis, argues that “authorship” means two things at once: textual production and its presentation (that is, the actual activity of authors and its depiction). I argue that this presentation has an inherently narrative form, and that for ancient cultures, it is more methodologically sound to study such narratives than the reality of authorship. Further, authorship’s double nature imbues it with an odd temporality: authorship-as-presentation claims to be identical with authorship-as-production but is in fact born belatedly, in the wake of a text’s circulation.
“Narratives of Authorship and Cuneiform Literature,” in Authorship and the Hebrew Bible, edited by Sonja Ammann, Katharina Pyschny, and Julia Rhyder (2022, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck), pp. 17–35. Link.
The note argues that the term Chaldean, as it appears in Classical sources, was not only a byname for Babylonian, as is commonly thought. In fact, the word was confused with a profession of scholar-priests known in Akkadian as kalû, so that “the Chaldeans” could refer to both Babylonians in general and to a group of temple scholars specialized in astronomy.
“‘Chaldean’ as kalû?,” in Nouvelles assyriologiques brèves et utilitaires, vol. 2022, no. 1 (April 2022), pp. 82–84, entry no. 39. Link.
In a short response to Adam Miglio’s insightful article on bird calls in Gilgamesh, I argue that the birds find a larger thematic resonance in the epic’s exploration of the outermost borders of humanity: the birds in Gilgamesh are repeatedly shown perching on the messy border between the human and non-human.
“Commentary,” in Journal of Near Eastern Studies, vol. 81, no. 1 (April 2022), pp. 179–80. Link.
The book includes a translation of Gilgamesh, and five essays that introduce readers to the world of the epic. The translation is a fresh take on the ancient epic and seeks to bring out the poetic power, clarity, and enchanting cadence of the original text. The essays discuss the epic’s long history, its literary form, its depiction of emotions (especially the homoerotic bond between the main characters), its engagement with death and the power of narrative, and its social context, including the role of women and of the natural world.
Gilgamesh: A New Translation of the Ancient Epic. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021. Link.