Month: April 2012
Cuneiform has always interested me. It is difficult and subject to a huge amount of interpretation and choice. So let me set it out for you so that you can understand better the complexity of Cuneiform.
One of the first mistakes that people make when thinking about Cuneiform is that it is a language and writing systems in itself. More accurately, cuneiform is one of the earliest known expressions of writing, made up of a number of writing systems used for a number of languages throughout Mesopotamia. These several types of writing inscriptions include logosyllabic, syllabic and alphabetic scripts.
It dates to as far back as 3000 BC but precursors of Cuneiform reach far further into the 80th Century BC when clay tokens were used for record keeping. These tokens require an article in themselves but for the moment I direct you to the analysis of Denise Schmandt-Besserat. More direct precursors were being used in the Uruk IV period around the 4000 BC before more recognisable forms appear in Sumer. Precursors began as pictograms like many other early scripts. But these pictographs evolved through time becoming simplified and abstract with the number of symbols becoming smaller. Cuneiform simplified in a way similar to the Egyptian scripts become less pictographic and more phonetic. However, the Cuneiform scripts became extinct by the 2nd Century AD. It was gradually replaced by the Phoenician alphabet during the Neo-Assyrian Empire.
So cuneiform itself was not a language but a writing system being adapted to many languages and evolving in form to suit such languages and period. It was particularly adapted for writing Akkadian, Eblaite, Elamite, Hittite, Luwian, Hattic, Hurrian, and Urartian. And the alphabet was used in both Ugaritic and Old Persian. The majority of examples that survive were written on clay tablets with blunt reed styluses which produced the wedge-shaped signs that give cuneiform its name. Wedge-shaped signs inspired the name cuneiform from the Latin cueus meaning ‘wedge’. While precursors were often written vertically, cuneiform eventually changed to being written horizontally from left to right.
We can split the forms into several periods which help us track the evolution:
The Proto-literate period from around 3500 to 3100 sees the first documents in cuneiform which survive, which were found at Jemdet Nasr in the Sumerian language. These early forms are on clay tablets in vertical columns which have survived because of baking in fires which occurred in the period. Particular to the earliest forms we see the use of pictographs to indicate important concepts and things such as gods, countries, objects, cities and peoples. These were used as determinants; signs depicting the concept at the end of a word or as the word itself similar in use to those found in Egyptian hieroglyphs. These pictographs began to lose their original function and in some cases disappeared around 2900 BC. Other pictographs started to exhibit phonetic elements as the range of signs decreased in number during a constant flux of forms.
Archaic Cuneiform saw the change of direction from left to right in horizontal rows around the middle of the third millennium BC. Additionally the signs rotated by 90 degrees counter clockwise to accommodate for the writing styles and implements. This made the writing quicker and easier for the scribe. The majority of examples from the Archaic period show cuneiform being used on commemorative stelae and carved reliefs in an official capacity to record the achievements of the rulers involved. While the number of signs continued to decrease, their use and complexity increased as signs were used to portray several concepts and/or phonetic meanings. This increased complexity makes it very difficult to transliterate the script because of the vagueness in distinctions between pictograms and syllabograms.
Akkadian cuneiform started to appear between 2500 and 2000 BC and would later evolve into Old Assyrian cuneiform with additional modification to Sumerian orthography and new phonetic values being added to older signs. This led to a higher level of abstraction in the form of the signs being used. Typical signs from this period tend to hand between five and ten wedges making up one symbol. The script remained logophonetic though with its use of both logograms and determinatives in addition to phonetic signs. By this time, Akkadian cuneiform was made up of around 300-400 signs plus determinatives which made a total of about 800 signs being used.
Assyrian cuneiform was a mixed method of writing from the end of the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires. It was made up of a mixture of logographic and phonemic writing which eventually was adapted to form Hittite cuneiform in around 1800 BC. This Hittite cuneiform adapted Old Assyrian cuneiform to the Hittite language with a layer of Akkadian logographic spellings added. Between 1000 and 600 BC the Assyrian cuneiform continued in use but was further simplified.
So you see, the cuneiform scripts are difficult to transliterate and were very difficult to originally decipher. Decipherment attempts date to the Arabic and Persian historians of the medieval Islamic world and it is only recently that some of these scripts have been fully interpreted and deciphered. The difficultly in transliteration means that one is required to make choices during analysis because of the many meanings that can be ascribed to a sign.
One thing that has stayed the same in cuneiform scripts is their numerical system, which funnily enough we still use in part today. It was based on the numbers, 1, 10 and 60. Look familiar? Our concept of reflecting time still encompasses this numerical system. So no one can say the Sumerians didn’t do anything for us!
- The invention of cuneiform: writing in Sumer – J.Glassner (2000)
- Cuneiform texts and the writing of history – M.Van de Mieroop (1999)
- Cuneiform: List of Cuneiform Signs (2010)
- The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture – K.Radner (2011)
- Cuneiform Inscriptions: Chaldean, Babylonian and Assyrian – J.Morgan (2010)
- Cuneiform Inscriptions And Hieratic Papyri (2004)
- Cuneiform documents from the Chaldean and Persian periods – R.Sack (1994)
We often read ‘In the beginning…’ but there are actually several beginnings told throughout the Bible, many of which have interesting relationships to other Mediterranean creation myths from Greece, Egypt and the Ancient Near East. So I want to explore some of those relation, the comparisons and contrasts. Frankly this could, and I’m sure does somewhere, make up an entire book series. So lets look at some of the basics.
The Old Testament contains at least a dozen creation “stories”. Two of these stories are told in Genesis 1 and 2, in addition to the creation story in Job 38 and the fragment in Job 26:7-13 among others. These stories are not always consistent with each other, so some will hold similarities to contemporary creation myths, while others contain contrasts.
One major point of comparison between Biblical creation myths and other creation myths is the idea of separation as a key component in the creation process. The idea of separation is seen several times throughout Genesis. Genesis 1:4 reads, “God saw light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness,” indicating the creation of night and day. The idea is also in Genesis 1:6, “God said, let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”
Egyptian mythology also has separation themes; telling of the separation of the god of the earth and of the sky as a major part of the creation process. Though these creation aspects are represented as deities in Egyptian mythology, the idea remains; the separation of the earth and the heavens to create a place in between, to be inhabited. The idea of separation is also seen in the Mesopotamian creation myth the Enuma Elish. The god Marduk ‘separates’ Tiamat (primeval waters), splitting her in half, placing one half above the other, forming heaven and earth.. As in the Biblical myths, the act of separation is used as a key aspect of creation. Hesiod’s Theogony illustrates this idea was also an accepted part of Greek creation mythology. Hesiod explains that Gaia (Earth) was ‘separated’ from Ouranos (sky) through a scheme resulting in Ouranos detaching from Gaia, separating earth from the heavens.
Another similarity is the idea of chaotic water being a primal substance. The first account of Genesis refers to chaotic water being present at the time of creation. Genesis 1:2 states “…the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This idea of chaotic water is witnessed in the Enuma Elish as Tiamat and Apsu both represent forms of chaotic water, and it is out of them that creation results. In all accounts of Egyptian creation the idea of chaotic water is apparent. The Heliopolis version of Egyptian mythology tells of the primeval matter ‘Nun’, the watery chaos from which all is created. In contrast, the creation myth of Job 38 is almost methodical: “Who marked off [Earth’s] dimensions? … who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set…?”
Greek mythology doesn’t seem to directly refer to water as the primal substance, but Hesiod explains the first god was ‘Chaos’, resembling the watery chaos of the other myths, representing the same ideas of a void from which all was created. Hesiod’s understanding of Chaos contrasts however Ovid’s, who defines it as an “anarchic dark matter that preceded the formation of the universe.”
The creation myths of Genesis share another common feature of Near Eastern, Egyptian and Greek accounts: they have a cyclical theme. Boadt indicates that this cyclical theme can be seen in Genesis as each of the first three days of creation parallels the next three days. Genesis’ Priestly account shows the creation of light and darkness on the first day is parallel to that of day and night on the fourth day. Whereas, the creation of waters and sky on the second day parallels the creation of sealife and life of the air on the fifth. This pattern is continued in with the third and sixth days.
This cyclical theme is seen in the Enuma Elish and Greek creation. However, the cyclical acts of these mythologies are based more on the violent processes which do not appear in the Genesis. This is a point of uniqueness. The Enuma Elish shows a cyclical theme in the overthrowing of Apsu by Ea in parallel to the overthrowing of Tiamat by Marduk. Hesiod also expresses this theme in Greek creation with the overthrowing of Ouranos by his son Kronos and then the defeat of Kronos by Zeus. The cyclical theme is also seen in Egyptian accounts as they believed in the idea of the first occasion and that life was part of a continuous process. For example, the rising and falling of the sun was imagined as a cyclical process repeating every day, rising and returning to Nun. However, the account in Job 38 is not cyclical; instead it is more of a process.
Biblical creation can also be compared and contrasted in relation to the formation of the god/s and the elements of nature. Genesis indicates that creation resulted from the divine word of a monotheistic god. Sproul asserts that this form of creation is not completely reflected in other mythologies. Hesiod explains that Greeks believed the first acts of creation were the result of sexual procreation by the gods Chaos and Gaia. Sexual procreation as a primary means of creation is also seen in the Memphite versions of Egyptian mythology, though the gods are the product of both asexual reproduction (Shu and Tefnut) and divine word in some accounts such as the Heliopolis (Re rising out of Nun). Near Eastern mythology also includes sexual procreation in creation, “…from Apsu and Tiamat in the waters gods were created.” From these accounts we see Biblical creation as fairly unique as it never includes an act of procreation within Genesis, however, Egyptian accounts do share a relation in including creation by divine word. Job, while not including procreation, does parallel it in 38:8 where it reads: “Who shut up the sea behind doors, when it burst forth from the womb.”
All four cultures’ accounts can be viewed as nature myths as they share a reaction to the power of nature and the creation of human life, even though humans have a limited role in Egyptian mythology. The Biblical accounts and the Enuma Elish both have cultic functions. The Enuma Elish displays cultic functions of kingship, and the Biblical Priestly cults feature the day of rest, both corresponding with ritual theories. Harris and Platzner explain Etiological theories of myths are attempts to explain origins. This theory, seen in all of these mythologies, shows Biblical creation is not unique as a prescientific attempt to justify the creation process.
Biblical and other creation myths show contrasts in relation to the role and creation of humans. The creation of humans in Biblical myth is more important in the J account than the Priestly account. In both, humans are created in the image of god, whereas in Near Eastern myth they are created to serve the gods, but are divinely related as they are moulded from divine blood, “blood to bone I form, an original thing, its name is Man.” Hesiod’s accounts don’t include human creation, but Aristophanes relates that males were created from the sun and females from the earth. Some versions of Egyptian myth recount human creation by Khumn from clay, as do Near Eastern myth with the creation of man by Nintu from clay and blood. Greek, Egyptian and Near Eastern accounts are similar to the J version of Genesis as all refer to creation of man from the earth/clay.
Genesis is in part different because it saw creation not as the act of divine slaughter and violence, but as the divine word of god. Harris and Platzner assess that this is unlike Mesopotamian and Greek creation mythology which “features violent conflict between different generations of gods.” Hesiod describes the conflicts between the generations of gods creating order from chaos. The same idea appears in the Enuma Elish as the violence between generations creates ultimate order to chaos. Genesis, however, refers to a creation of divine word alone, reshaping older myths of “a primordial watery chaos to fit a monotheistic concept.” It would be wrong to say that Biblical accounts are purely non-violent. In Job 26:12-13, ‘By his power he churned up the sea, by his wisdom he cut Rahab to pieces, by his breath the skies became fair; his hand pierced the gliding serpent.’
We also see that the Biblical myth is different because it contains the only creation myths encompassing monotheism. All other creation accounts are based on polytheism. The Egyptian creation myths start with one god of many, such as Nun (the primeval waters),  Ptah in the Memphite versions and Atum in the Heliopolis versions. Greek and Mesopotamian creation myths recount creation in polytheistic terms as the result of several generations of gods, each representing a creation component. Biblical myths do, however, include the trinity within creation. In John1:1-4, ‘In the beginning was the Word [Jesus], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made.’
The Biblical creation myths then do not stand out generally as unique. They contain themes that run through numerous creation myths from civilisations in direct contact and under similar influences to the Biblical cultures. And that my friends is ancient history for you! It is very difficult to be unique when it has all been done before. Any PhD student knows…
Note that this website can be followed by pressing the ‘Follow by Email’ option on the right hand side of the screen
 Holy Bible: New International Version, Hodder and Stroughton (London, 1996), Genesis 1.3, p.3
 Ibid., Genesis 1.6, p.3
 Pinch, G., Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Goddesses and Traditions of Ancient Egypt (Oxford, 2004), p.65
 Allen, J. P., Genesis in Egypt (Connecticut, 1988), p.9
 The Enuma Elish in Sproul, B. C., Primal Myths (New York, 1979), p.92
 Hesiod, Theogony in Harris, S.L., and Plarzner, G., Classical Mythology: Images and InsightFourth Edition (New York, 2004), p.89, lines 160-190
 Harris, S.L., and Plarzner, G., Classical Mythology: Images and InsightFourth Edition (New York, 2004), p.66
 Holy Bible, op.cit., Genesis 1.2, p.3
 Sproul, B. C., Primal Myths (New York, 1979), p.80
 Harris and Platzner, op.cit., p.68
 Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament (New York, 1984), p.111
 Holy Bible, op.cit., Genesis 1
 Ibid., Genesis 1
 Ibid., Genesis 1
 Sproul, B. C., Primal Myths (New York, 1979), p.123
 Hesiod, op.cit., lines 160-190
 Pinch, G., op.cit., p.68
 Sproul, B. C., op.cit., p.123
 Hesiod, op.cit., lines 110-120
 Shaw, I., and Nicholson, P., The British Museum: Dictionary of Ancient Egypt (London, 2003), p.284
 Enuma Elish, op.cit., p.92, lines 1-10
 Sproul, op.cit., p.91 – The Enuma Elish’s main purpose was to praise Marduk’s divine supremacy and to honourBabylon.
 Harris and Platzner, op.cit., p.40
 Greek, Egyptian, Near Eastern and Biblical myths are all an attempt to explain creation in a non-scientific way (Eg. The sky, sea, earth and life itself) which reflects the primitive understanding of the world and its creation.
 Sproul, op.cit., p.104
 Arisphanes in Plato’s Symposium
 Sproul, op.cit., p.114
 Platzner and Harris, op.cit., p.70
 Ibid., p.70
 Pinch, op.cit., p.58 – explanation of the first god rising out of Nun, the primeval waters, due to differing accounts this god is ascribed as being Amun, Ra or Ptah depending on the version understudy
 Shabako Stone, king sha-bak, 700BC, 25Dyn