W05 – Archaeological and Textual Perspectives on Ritual and Religion

Organizers: Paul Delnero (Johns Hopkins University) — Mónica Palmero Fernández (University of Reading)


  1. Walther Sallaberger (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München)
  2. Mónica Palmero Fernández (University of Reading)
  3. Jacob Lauinger (Johns Hopkins University)
  4. Nicola Laneri (Center for Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Studies: School of Religious Studies)
  5. Elisa Roßberger (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München)
  6. Paul Delnero (Johns Hopkins University)
  7. Lauren Ristvet (University of Pennsylvania)
  8. Anna Glenn (Johns Hopkins University)
  9. Beate Pongratz-Leisten (New York University: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World)

General Abstract

Recent work has highlighted the difficulty in establishing the causality of religious thought and behaviour. It seems that what we do is intrinsically tied with how we think, and that therefore religious modes of thinking are inseparable (if not indistinguishable) from religious practice. The critical role of religious behaviour in creating and shaping religious conceptions raises essential questions concerning the interrelation between materiality and religious discourse. This workshop aims to offer a space of dialogue for Archaeologists and Assyriologists to establish reciprocal collaboration in addressing the entanglement of materiality and textuality in religious thought and practice that is also attuned to current work in the social sciences as an integrative node between material culture and linguistic analysis.
Papers submitted for this session deal with a wide range of topics from both fields, but the organisers will give priority to those submissions that offer an explicit engagement with methodology or which aim to integrate archaeological, textual, and art historical material. As way of guidance, the following themes may be explored:

  • Textualisation of rituals and ritualisation of texts.
  • The politics of memory and transmission of knowledge in the context of religion.
  • Entanglement of the material and the numinous.
  • Physical loci of religious action (monuments, spaces, objects, people, natural phenomena, etc.,): aspects of liminality, agency, potency.
  • Images: are they textual or material? (Embodiment, enactive cognition).
  • Bodily practices: How do proprioceptive practices engage cognitively with the experience of religion? (e.g. healing rituals). What role do the senses and sensory experience play in ritual performance and the experience of ritual?

General Contacts: pdelner1@jhu.edu; m.palmerofernandez@pgr.reading.ac.uk

Paper Titles with Abstracts

To view the abstracts, please click on the titles:

Approaching the Divine in Early Bronze Age Mesopotamia
Walther Sallaberger (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München) 

One of the most enduring questions in the discussion of Mesopotamian religion is how the individual could have approached the deity in the temple. The ubiquitous presence of deities the Mesopotamian societies seemingly stand in contrast to enclosed temple precincts with their sacrificial cult, which convey an impression of restricted access to the divine. This contribution will concentrate on Southern Mesopotamia in the Early Bronze Age (third millennium BCE) in order to provide the historical unity necessary for a social and cultural discussion of religious practices. First, I will focus on the modern scholar's approach to the divine in order to describe better the role of deities in their world. Various ways of how the individual interacted with the gods in their temples will be treated in the second part of this paper.

Revising the Myth of Continuity: the Cult of Inanna/Ishtar in the third Millennium BCE
Mónica Palmero Fernández (University of Reading)

In this paper, I shall discuss a common assumption made about the interpretation of Mesopotamian religion and cult: that of the continuity of cult. Incorporating Judith Butler’s notion of performativity, I shall examine how the (re)production of spaces and the acts of worship (material performance) on the one hand, and the discursive (ideological) narrative on the other ground each other in the co-construction of religion and the negotiation of power in relation with the figure of the goddess Inanna/Ishtar during the late Early Dynastic period.

The Statue of Idrimi as a Locus of Religious Action
Jacob Lauinger (Johns Hopkins University)

The inscribed statue of Idrimi from Alalah (modern Tell Atchana) offers one of the earliest narrative accounts from Late Bronze Age Syro-Anatolia and thus has been frequently utilized in reconstructions of the history of that period. The statue’s place in the religious life of LBA Alalah has received less attention, though a scholarly consensus generally holds that the statue played a role in an ancestor cult. This paper attempts to deepen our understanding of the Idrimi statue in this regard by combining archaeological, art historical, and textual perspectives in order to approach the statue as a locus of religious action.

Divine Statues and Icons: Consecrating and venerating the cultic Image in the Ancient Near East
Nicola Laneri (Center for Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Studies: School of Religious Studies)

‘Things’ and ‘mind’ are closely related in how we perceive the world and construct our cognitive schemata, because, as stated by numerous scholars interested in materiality, objects engage with us and they are transformed by our relationship with the outer world but also with the supernatural world. In fact, religious beliefs are built upon a spiritual (inner) domain that is physically engraved into the material presence of the divine in the objects and the natural elements and phenomena that surround us. As a consequence, as stated by David Morgan and colleagues, we have to «regard sacred things as tools with handles for both the human user and a non- human one (i.e., the supernatural) … it is the simplest version of a network: three agents engaged in a dynamic set of relations that redefine the scope of each» (Morgan, Plate, Stolow, Whitehead 2015).
In particular, it is the physical representation of the divinity in the world of the devotees (i.e., the statue or the iconic representation) that become central for developing forms of religious beliefs. This is especially the case of polytheistic ancient religions in which the statue gave ‘life’ to the deity. In the case of ancient Mesopotamia, as posed by Oppenheim (2013: 166), the deity was considered present through his/her iconic representation.
In fact, only in mythological stories the gods are located in cosmological places, otherwise their image (statue) represents them on earth and when the image travels theirs essence travels with them. The icon had a double function: to represent the divinity in the sanctuary in which sacrifices were enacted and to travel within the landscape for specific ceremonies. In order to reach this status, the ancient Mesopotamian statue of a deity was brought to life after its creation through the ritual of the ‘washing of the mouth’ (i.e., mîs-pî ritual, Walker and Dick 2001) and, as mentioned in later Seleucid texts from Uruk, it was kept alive by its feeding with two meals a day. At the end of its life, the statue was buried in a votive place (usually under the temple’s floors as is the case of Early Dynastic statues, Evans 2012).
This paper will thus investigate the importance of the materiality of the divine essence through its representation in statues and other forms of visual representation with a specific focus on the ritual of the washing of the mouth in the ancient Mesopotamian tradition.

Cult of Thrones: Reconciling visual and textual Evidence for figuratively adorned Thrones, Daises, and Platforms in Ur III to Old Babylonian Mesopotamia
Elisa Roßberger (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München)

Year names, royal inscriptions, and administrative records testify to the great expenditures invested into the manufacture and figurative design of divine thrones and daises during Ur III and Old Babylonian times. A more modest form of materialization were clay miniatures of thrones with richly decorated backs typically found in the contemporary archaeological record. I suggest that we should also take an enigmatic group of terracotta plaques into account when discussing thrones and related furniture in combination with figurative art. I argue further, that the stool depicted on these plaques carries a bust-like royal image and represents a potent physical locus of religious practice. The circulation of clay replications picturing this distinctive image-furniture arrangement throughout Old Babylonian Mesopotamia attests to its iconic status which continued in abbreviated form into later periods.

Knowing without Understanding: Sound and Meaning in the Experience of Sumerian Ritual Laments
Paul Delnero (Johns Hopkins University)

One frequently asked question about Sumerian cultic laments is how the content of these texts, which had a very long tradition of ritual performance spanning over two millennia, could have been understood, when they are written in a language that few, if any, of the participants in rituals involving the texts could read, speak, or comprehend. Although there are countless religious traditions that utilize texts written in languages which many adherents do not understand, but are nonetheless aware of the content of the texts through other means, the question can also be considered from the perspective of how the meaning of ritual texts is often secondary to the other sensory modes by which they are experienced in ritual contexts, including hearing and sound. In this paper, the interface of sound and meaning in the performance of Sumerian ritual laments will be considered by examining the types of writings that occur in a large group of phonetically written sources for the laments, and the function of these sources in the performing and experience of the laments in rituals.

Materiality, Performance and Politics: Achaemenid Rituals and Empire
Lauren Ristvet (University of Pennsylvania)

The paradox of the large size, long duration, but limited material remains of Achaemenid imperialism has led to divergent views of this empire, with several archaeologists emphasizing the empire’s small impact outside of its Iranian heartland.  Such treatments contrast with historical views of the empire, which emphasize its power and longevity.  This paper will focus on the Achaemenid material remains that we have of provincial sites in eastern Iran, the Caucasus, Mesopotamia, and the Levant and argue that they are related to ritual performance.  Tulip bowls, censers, palaces, gardens, and wall paintings, were key material participants in ritual and political practice in Persian capitals.  Attention will be given to the sensory experience of these rituals, as they can be inferred from material and texts, particularly the senses of taste, smell, and touch.   Bodily practices were critical to the experience of the empire in the provinces, and played an important role in its maintenance.

Offering, Prayer, and Divine Blessing in Sumerian Hymns
Anna Glenn (Johns Hopkins University)

The corpus of Old Babylonian Sumerian hymns to deities, the majority of which were undoubtedly composed to be sung or recited during religious ceremonies, represents an important segment of the documentation reflecting the liturgy and ritual practice of this period. However, the task of restoring these hymns to their original performative contexts proves to be a difficult and often extremely speculative one, and the dearth of ritual procedural texts dating to this period leaves us relying largely on the content of the hymns themselves to theorize when and why a particular hymn or type of hymn might have been performed.
In this paper, I consider one of the exceptional cases in which an Old Babylonian hymn seems directly to refer to its own ritual setting: namely a širgida-hymn to the goddess Sud that describes a supplicant bringing prayers and offerings to the goddess and exhorts her to accept his gifts. With this as a starting point, I will examine the themes of prayer, sacrifice, and divine blessing in the širgida corpus as a whole, and will consider how these topics might be tied to the incorporation of such hymns into larger ritual ceremonies, as well as their place in the broader system of Old Babylonian temple and cult.

The Cultic Topography of the Assyrian akitu Festival
Beate Pongratz-Leisten (New York University: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World)


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