The Early Text Cultures Research seminar for Hilary Term 2023 will be on the theme of Anthropology and Religion. We hope that the seminar will enable us to explore ways in which traditional anthropological questions can (or cannot) help us elucidate key literary texts as sources for ancient religion. Speakers will discuss Old Norse, Classical Latin, Early Greek, ancient Near Eastern, Old Babylonian and Vedic contexts. After a ca. 20-min presentation, there will be ample opportunity for cross-disciplinary discussion.
The seminar will be held in the Corpus Christi College Seminar Room, on Wednesdays of even weeks at 2–3pm (UK time). A 30-minute roundtable discussion will follow directly after the final session on 8 March.
To join remotely, please register here.
Week 2, 25 January
James Parkhouse: Old Norse
Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines: Analogical and Anthropological Perspectives on the Legends of Wayland and Daedalus
This paper revisits a prominent narrative correspondence between the Germanic story of Wayland the smith, exemplified by the Old Norse-Icelandic poem Vǫlundarkviða (probably 10th century CE), and the Graeco-Roman myth of Daedalus, most fully recounted in the Latin poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1st century CE). Each is a peerless craftsman, imprisoned on an island by and forced to work for a king, from whom he escapes by manufacturing wings. I set to one side the well-ploughed question of a ‘genetic’ relationship between the two tales, considering instead the ways in which an ‘analogical’ comparison can illuminate our readings of both texts and their underlying myths. I argue, first, that these two texts, and by extension the wider traditions of which each is a product, articulate (in notably different ways) a cultural anxiety over the destabilising potential of craftsmanship; and second, that both texts exhibit a shared framework of gendered causality, whereby dynastic collapse is presented as the consequence of the disruption of patriarchal authority by female agents. Further, I highlight striking parallels to this gendered framework in anthropological reports of ritualised metallurgy in modern sub-Saharan Africa.
Week 4, 8 February
Joe Barber (Balliol College, Oxford): Classics
Disappearing and Dying Gods in the Ancient Near East and Early Greece
One of the most recent and fruitful trends in the study of the ancient world has been the examination of the similarities and possible connections between the mythology of early Greece and that of the Ancient Near East. My current research, part of which would be presented in this paper, focuses on one of the most widespread mythological narrative patterns. This material offers an optimal test case for comparing the mythologies of several different cultures in such a way as to further our understanding of the myths in their own context.
Narratives involving disappearing or dying gods are found across the Ancient Near East as well as in Greece. The category of the “dying-god”, first described in detail by Frazer and since applied to the ancient east Mediterranean by scholars such as Gaster, has been heavily criticised by more recent scholars. I try to bring a fresh approach to the topic to determine whether we can really talk of such a category within this broad cultural context.
The earliest attested example in the Classical world is the closely linked disappearances of Persephone and Demeter, best known from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, but also attested in several early Orphic fragments. The disappearances of these two goddesses follow a very similar pattern in which the goddess disappears, causing disaster and upheaval which prompts attempts to bring her back. A very similar story pattern, involving essentially the same character types and narrative stages, can be found in various Near Eastern myths describing disappearing and dying gods. Some of the better known of these include the Mesopotamian accounts of Inanna-Ištar’s descent to the netherworld, and the Ugaritic storm god Baal’s conflict with the god of death. I will also examine various Hittite texts which tell similar stories about the angry withdrawal of various gods, such as Telipinu.
The geographical and cultural range of this story pattern is thus quite large. This fact, combined with the large number of texts dealing with disappearing gods in the ancient world, presents us with an ideal opportunity to compare the use of similar narrative themes in different mythologies. Though one naturally wonders how the same type of story pattern comes to be found in so many places, a direct connection between these similar texts is virtually impossible to trace. I will therefore demonstrate how this comparative method can inform our perspective on these myths in their own context. This will illuminate the different ways in which these cultures used myth to conceptualise the relationship between the divine and the human and the boundary between mortal and immortal.
Week 6, 22 February
Christie Carr (Wolfson College, Oxford): Assyriology
The Sumerian Sacred Marriage Ritual
In this lecture, I will introduce and discuss the Sacred Marriage Ritual, a proposed cultic event in which the kings of the Ur III (end of 3rd mill. BC) and Isin dynasties (beg. of 2nd mill. BC) are thought to have had sexual relations with the goddess Inanna, perhaps with a priestess playing the role of the goddess. The main evidence for the Sacred Marriage Ritual comes from Sumerian literary texts extant from the Old Babylonian period. The ritual has been discussed extensively in modern scholarship, and erotic literary texts and imagery from Mesopotamia have often been attached to the function and purposes of this cultic event.
Week 8, 8 March (2–3.30pm)
Barbora Sojkova (All Souls College/Balliol College, Oxford): Sanskrit
On Ancient Animals: Vedic Literature and Multispecies Anthropology
My talk will stem from my doctoral research which concerns with the nature of human-animal relationship in ancient Indian literature. The Vedas are a vast and complex corpus of ritual materials, written in Vedic Sanskrit in ca. 1500-500 BCE. Although primarily concerned with ritual practice, the texts offer us details about life in ancient India every now and then. One of these details is the unusual categorisation of living beings: the Vedas consider people to be domestic animals (paśu), a notion which has wide philosophical implications. In my talk, I will discuss this peculiar idea, as well as the wider human-animal entanglements in ancient India. I will argue, amongst other points, that to understand the coexistence of people and animals in ancient India, the usual philological approach employed in Vedic studies should be informed by methods and findings of multispecies anthropology.