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 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 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.
The majority of Babylonian epics are organized according to the same narrative structure: the story is divided into two acts, where the second act mirrors and expands the first. The essay shows that this structure applies to Atra-hasis, Enuma Elish, Gilgamesh, Etana, and more, for a total of nine texts.
“The two-act structure: A narrative device in Akkadian epics,” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions, vol. 20, no. 2 (2020 [April 2021]), p. 190–224. Link.
The essay explores the representation of time and space in Gilgamesh. The figure of the threshold is a key aspect of the epic, separating highly different, but internally homogeneous kinds of time and space—a structure that also affects its depiction of characters and textuality.
“The chronotope of the threshold in the Epic of Gilgamesh,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 141, no. 1 (April 2021), p. 185–200. Link.
In a monologue on mortality from the tenth tablet of Gilgamesh, the sage Uta-napishti depicts death through a set of poetic paradoxes: death is both certain, since it cannot be avoided, and uncertain, since we cannot know anything about it. The essay studies how Uta-napishti represents what he claims to be unrepresentable.
“Babylonian perspectives on the uncertainty of death: SB Gilgamesh X 301-321”, Kaskal, vol. 14 (2017), pp. 211–19.
As a preliminary study for my subsequent article on the “two-act structure” in Akkadian epics, this note shows that certain phrases from the first half of Atra-ḫasis are repeated in the second half, but with the opposite meaning.
“Contrast through ironic self-citation in Atra-ḫasīs,” in Nouvelles assyriologiques brèves et utilitaires, vol. 2015, no. 4 (December 2015), pp. 158–60, entry no. 95. Link.
The article (my first) proposes a new understanding of rhythm in Akkadian poetry. Following a suggestion by Wolfram von Soden, it shows that analysing the prosody of Akkadian poems as a sequence of trochees and amphibrachs can reveal a dynamic medium for literary expression.
“Rhythm and expression in Akkadian poetry,” Zeitschrift für Assyriologie vol. 104, no. 1 (June 2014), pp. 56–73. Link. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/za-2014-0003