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Ancient Babylon: Where to Start?

I’ve long noticed that while people continue to care deeply about ancient myths and cultures, and even argue passionately about them, it’s not always obvious where to start with understanding its context. In the case of ancient Babylon, if we date the Mesopotamian written record from the early 3rd millennium BCE, it has arguably a longer continuous written history than that of Western Europe.

If you imagine the task of summarizing “Western Civilization” in a book, let alone a chapter, you can guess what a tricky balancing act this is. And how absurd it would be to expect one statement from one person to capture all, or even most, of its facets. So instead I’m throwing out a set of options.

1 Sweeping and Magisterial, if Outdated, Overviews

Leo Oppenheim, Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (open access)

Jean Bottéro, Ancient Mesopotamia

2 Brilliant Advances in Our Understanding

Eleanor Robson, Ancient Knowledge Networks (open access)

Francesca Rochberg, Before Nature

3 Reliable Translations of Important Texts

–broad collections (you’ll learn a bit about everything):

Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia (a concise survey of Akkadian-language narratives)

Jeremy Black, The Literature of Ancient Sumer

–more focused (you’ll gain deeper knowledge of a specific area):

Wilfred Lambert, Babylonian Creation Myths

Andrew George, The Epic of Gilgamesh (bizarrely Penguin lists the very up to date 2019 edition as 2003 but never fear, if you order it you’ll get the 2019)

Martha Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor

Some Further Explorations of Mine

I’d suggest you pick one from each of the top three categories to start. Then if you want to drill down a little I have some deeper surveys of:

What the Babylonian Creation Epic is really about, with a synthesis of two amazing studies, by Piotr Michalowski and his student Andrea Seri.

Who Hammurabi really was (to start with, that wasn’t how he would have pronounced his name, and it turns out that that tells you a lot about who he was)

What the Editing of the Gilgamesh Epic really tells us about biblical composition

A small sampling of Assyriologists who share their learning online

Moudhy Al-Rashid @Moudhy

Jay Crisostomo @cjcrisostomo

Gina Konstantopoulos @gvkonsta

Megan Lewis @digi_hammurabi

Willis Monroe @willismonroe

Eleanor Robson @Eleanor_Robson

note: these are accounts that are especially ancient-content-heavy (unlike e.g. mine which is equally devoted to things like strongly-held musical opinions. That said…)

The Three Best Mesopotamian Metal Songs

I could include others but I don’t want to mislead people by including posers who I shall not name

  1. High on Fire, “Steps of the Ziggurat/House of Enlil”–self explanatory
  2. Ooozing Wound, “When the Walls Fell”–no explicit Mesopotamian content but I’ve decided it’s actually about the “Darmok” episode of Star Trek
  3. Nile, “Von unassprechlichen Kulten“–technically this means “conderning unpronounceable religious practices” but since that describes pretty much the entire field I think we’re good.
  4. Morbid Angel, “Umulamahri“–sorry, four best.

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