Demarcating Ekphrasis in Mesopotamia

Justin Johnson

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In its original Graeco-Roman context, the term ekphrasis (ex- ‘out’ + phrazein ‘to explain’) was quickly narrowed down to its usual present-day definition, as “a vivid description of a work of art,” but in this contribution I argue that older definitions involving vividness and emotional involvement with the object of description are ideally suited for an extension of the concept to Mesopotamian literary practice. Vividness can already be identified, obliquely, in Irene Winter’s contrast between Western “representation” as opposed to Mesopotamian “manifestation,” where manifestation necessarily involves direct interaction between a worshiper or ritual specialist and the statue that acts in the stead of the king.
I argue here that this kind of vividness can be redefined, in largely formal terms, as a rhetorical practice in which a typically third person description (aka “representation”) is altered so as to give the impression of first or second person direct participation (aka “manifestation”). In Mesopotamia this rhetorical phenomenon is most clearly visible in the so-called Tigi Hymns, particularly when a votive object is directly addressed in the second person (and the ritual contextualization of these acts of direct address in well-defined sections of the hymnic genre).
As part of a broader effort to define the different “descriptive paradigms” that operated within early Mesopotamian scientific thought, the carefully circumscribed type of ekphrastic description that we find in the Tigi Hymns can be contrasted with other descriptive paradigms in cuneiform literature such as physiognomic descriptions and the late šikinšu texts. Within these several varieties of descriptivism, however, the particulars of ekphrastic description in the Tigi Hymns and similar materials are distinctive, and this paper concludes with a brief catalogue of ekphrastic descriptions in Classical Sumerian literature.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationVisualizing the Invisible with the Human Body
Subtitle of host publicationPhysiognomy and Ekphrasis in the Ancient World
EditorsJ. Cale Johnson, Alessandro Stavru
Place of PublicationBerlin
PublisherDe Gruyter
ISBN (Electronic)9783110642681, 9783110642698
ISBN (Print)9783110618266
Publication statusPublished - 11 Nov 2019

Publication series

NameScience, Technology and Medicine in Ancient Cultures
PublisherDe Gruyter
ISSN (Print)2194-9778


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