19th International Conference for Ancient East-Mediterranean Studies in Tartu (ICAEM 2021): Epic, Society and Religion in the Ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean cultures

16–18 July 2021

General information

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this conference, which was initially planned for 2020, takes place as a hybrid event, both onsite in Tartu (Senate Hall, main building of the University of Tartu, Ülikooli 18) and online via Zoom. Please write to caemc@ut.ee for any additional information.


Keynote speakers

Dr. Natalie May (Leiden University): 
The Poem of Erra, the Epic of Healers

Prof. Margalit Finkelberg (Tel Aviv University):
Beyond Literature and History: Homer and Vergil as Foundational Texts [RECORDING]

Prof. Christoph Levin (University of München): 
In Search of a Hebrew National Epic [RECORDING]



Note that all times are according to EEST (Eastern European Summer Time, GMT+3). See https://www.thetimezoneconverter.com/ to check your local times.

FRIDAY, 16 July 2021

10.00 Start of the conference



Vladimir Sazonov (University of Tartu): The Epic of Tukultī-Ninurta and the Middle Assyrian Religion and Ideology

The Epic of Tukultī-Ninurta reflected quite well the ideological paradigm and crucial elements of the state religion of the late Middle Assyrian period, especially of the time when Tukultī-Ninurta I and his predecessors reigned. This poem correlates well with royal inscriptions from the same period as the same events are mentioned and the same ideological elements are represented. The style and rhetoric of The Epic of Tukultī-Ninurta are very similar to the style of Middle-Assyrian royal inscriptions of Tukultī-Ninurta I and other Middle Assyrian kings. We should not forget that the poem is a propagandistic text the purpose of which was to glorify the successful victory of Assyrian army and Tukultī-Ninurta I over Kassites in Babylonia. From royal inscriptions we know Tukultī-Ninurta I was also very active as a builder, creating the new imperial capital city Kār-Tukultī-Ninurta and building many temples and sanctuaries.
Tukultī-Ninurta’s new ideological program of ruling the totality was reflected also in his ambitious building programs in Kār-Tukultī-Ninurta where he gave ceremonial names to the newly-built temple of the god Aššur and to his new royal palace, as we read in his royal inscriptions. B. Pongratz-Leisten in 2015 argues that this is the only known example of a temple and royal palace sharing the same name – “house, mountain of all the me” and “palace of all the me”. Nevertheless, The Epic of Tukultī-Ninurta is a narrative text which could be partially used for the reconstruction of some historical events which took place during Middle Assyrian period, while several of these events were in the royal inscriptions, as also mentioned in the epic.


Sebastian Fink (University of Innsbruck): Enmerkar and Lugalbanda

Epic texts in Sumerian are few. Interestingly the heroes always come in pairs. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are in the center of one tradition, while the other epic tales center on Enmerkar and Luglbanda. However, the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is of a quite different nature than that of Enmerkar and Lugalbanda. This is a sharp contrast to royal inscriptions, especially those on royal stele, where the sole actor is the heroic king.
The aim of this talk is to make these differences obvious, to discuss what qualities are ascribed to the king and his “complement” and finally to evaluate if the epic tradition presents a different concept of the hero as the royal inscriptions do.


Yakov Kadochnikov (University of Tartu): Narām-Sîn in Sumerian and Akkadian Literary Texts

Curse of Agade narrates a story of a confrontation between Akkadian king Narām-Sîn and the head of the Mesopotamian pantheon in the third millennium BCE, god Enlil. This antagonism had no historical kernel (except the rebuilding of the god’s temple in Nippur by the king), as can be figured from the original royal inscriptions of Narām-Sîn. However, the text initiated a long-lasting tradition of prescribing to the literary image of Narām-Sîn some unfortunate characteristics. The aim of this presentation lies in discussing how the king’s image was changing over time and which particular misdeeds were weighted upon the king by later literary tradition.

12.55–14.30 Lunch break


Gebhard J. Selz (University of Vienna): Considerations on Metaphors and Myths: their Dual Function in Early Mesopotamian Belief Systems

Metaphors as myths are means to make the (physically) unapproachable (intellectually) tangible, independent from their medial representations, be they verbal, visual or action based. Such representations can be dynamic, as in verbal metaphors, mythologemes, e.g. the smallest units of a narration or sentence which are considered ‘mythological’, or in rituals but also static as in nominal compounds and (non-finite) sentences, in emblematic representations or symbols/motifs which again correspond to the various kinds of personalization or roles in (ritual) actions. In short, metaphors and myths mediate between known and unknown reality. For the purpose of this paper we distinguish between mytheme and its elements referring to myths independent of their modes of representation. Mythologeme in contrast is perceived as a unit of a narrated myth. Complex myths consist of sequences of simple mythemes; their mythological quality being linked to their structural elements.
It will be argued that in all sorts of transmedial representation of myths the ‘mythological’ qualities are intrinsically linked to the structural element of a mytheme for which metaphors often play a salient role.
These hypotheses will be elaborated on two examples: 1) It will be shown that the metaphorical use of the “shepherd” and the “top dog” > “hero” became structural element of mythemes by which ‘real’ political and military actions could not only be understood but also framed and restrained. 2) It will next be outlined how and why the mundane activity of “pouring out water” was metaphorically used to understand the natural world and consequently developed a hyper-mytheme generating a set of diverse myths.
We conclude that metaphors and myths are not only means of explanation of the reality but at the same time means to create new forms of knowledge.


Vladimir Emelianov (St.Petersburg State University): Mesopotamian Epic Tradition and the Cultic Calendar

The paper will examine the epic texts of ancient Mesopotamia in their correlation with explanatory texts and menologies. Such masterpieces of literature as Lugale, Angim, the Epic of Erra, Harab, the New Assyrian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh contain direct or indirect indications of the sacred time of events. The paper will show that each of these epic texts is associated with a cultic calendar. Particular attention will be paid to the recently obtained evidence of the connection of the 10th table of the Epic of Gilgamesh with the constellation Capricorn and the 10th month of the Babylonian calendar Tebetu.


Vladimir Shelestin (St. Petersburg State University, St. Petersburg; Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow): Time in the Hittite myth and epic

Scholars usually consider the Hittite mythological and epic texts to reflect the narrative traditions of Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Syria, the same as could be said for many other elements of the Hittite culture. Despite the epic texts found in the Hittite archives are often labeled to be foreign or translated literature, the Hittite scribes worked a lot to adapt them to their own worldview. The paper will discuss the temporal aspect of these texts to understand the peculiarities of the Hittite time perception. These texts show little attention to small units of time like day. The only mention of the seven-day-term in the Song of Release can be the feature of Syrian and not Hittite culture. The positive distinction of these texts from their analogues in the rest of the Ancient Near East is the detailed description of the multi-month processes like gestation that can find its counterpart in the ritual texts. The Song of Going Forth have shown the limits of time in the Hittite worldview and gave life to the vivid discussion about how long were the nine days of kingship for the primeval gods. The detailed analysis of all time periods mentioned in the Hittite mythological and epic texts shows that the Hittites had no passion to the great numbers measuring their real or mythological past even with the availability of tools for it, in contrast with other Ancient Near Eastern and Indo-European traditions. These features of time perception in the Hittite myth and epic fit well to our knowledge of the Hittite calendar, based on the periods of one month and of one or several years.

16.15–16.30 Pause


Patrick Huang (University of London): Revisiting Musical Mythology: The Legend of Pythagorean Hammers and its Tie to the Orient

The Pythagorean Hammer is a famous myth of the discovery of music theory, depicted by Nicomachus in his Enchiridion harmonices around 2nd century A.D. In the story, Pythagoras discovered the theory of music tuning by listening to different sound made by blacksmith’s hammer. However, a far earlier version can be traced to a myth of Rhea Kybele, the Phrygian goddess conflated by two deities, with an equivalent deity called Kumbaba in Hittite mythology. The term Kumbaba sounds strangely similar to the Akkadian Humbaba in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and its etymological origin may further show clues to the meteorite worship in Mesopotamia. In my presentation, I will briefly explain the detailed story of Pythagorean Hammer, followed by a comparison with the myth of Rhea Kybele, Kumbaba and some relevant evidence, in order to trace its variation and dissemination. Furthermore, I will reassess several possible models about the Oriental influence of Ancient Greek, in order to examine the most coincident model in the case of Pythagorean Hammer.


Nina V. Braginskaya (National Research University “Higher School of Economics”, Moscow): Daphnis and Chloe and Gilgameš Poems

The sexual initiation of Daphnis by Lykainion—Greek for Latin lupula, a harlot—in Longus’ novel Daphnis and Chloe is striking against the backdrop of the absence of the widely known story of hero growing wise and human through intercourse in the whole Greek tradition. The earliest written attestation of the sexual initiation is the story of Enkidu and the harlot Šamḫat in the Gilgameš Epic. The similarity of the episodes could be of anthropological or other nature.
Yet a set of motifs of the Sumerian poem Bilgames and the Netherworld, if compared with motifs around Lykainion scene, makes the concentration of Mesopotamian features suggestive.
Lykainion requests Daphnis fight against the eagle. | Gilgameš is requested by Inanna to fight the Anzu-bird. 
Lykainion teaching Daphnis a lesson of sexual education replaces Chloe on the "marriage bed", and subsequently withdraw herself. | Female demon usurps the core of the tree allotted for Inanna's throne and (marriage) bed, symbolically replacing Inanna on her throne and bed; Gilgameš makes her flee away.
Daphnis picks the remaining apple from the top of a tree so the snakes cannot poison it lying on earth. | Gilgameš kills snakes in the roots of Inanna’s tree.
It is actually impossible to prove the dependence of Longus on the recorded Mesopotamian tradition. Longus’ contemporaries, Aelian and Lucian, freely dispose the names Gilgamos and Kombabos, getting them through presumably oral channels, and in the plots alien to the ancient Oriental epic. While Longus—whatever sources he had—seems to follow carefully details found in Gilgameš poems. He employed the archaic rite de passage to lean the novel’s plot against the contrast and reconciliation of ignorance and growing sensuality, pleasing so the tastes of his time.

19.00 Dinner 


SATURDAY, 17 July 2021

10.30–11.05 [RECORDING]

Andrej Yu. Mozhajsky (National Research University «Higher School of Economics», Moscow) – Victoria K. Pichugina (Institute for Strategy of Education Development of the Russian Academy of Education): “Seven-gated” Thebes: Epic Tradition, Topography and Evidence of Material Culture

Numerous stories from the mythological history of ancient Thebes were manifested in ancient poetry and prose of different periods One of these stories – about the bloody struggle for power among King Oedipus’ sons and the siege of the city that accompanied that struggle – gained popularity in ancient literature (Aeschylus, Euripides, Pausanias, Pseudo-Apollodorus, Statius, Hyginus, and others). Thanks to Aeschylus, who had turned to the Mycenaean topography and stated the presence of the city’s seven gates, Thebes appeared as a city with a specific spatial organization. Despite the fact that ancient authors list the names of these gates (albeit different) and try to locate them, the issue of whether the city had exactly seven gates still causes controversy among researchers.
The epithet “seven-gated” Thebes, known since the creation of Homer’s Odyssey (11.260–5), reflects the Kadmeia’s real fortification whose traces date back to the Mycenaean times. Unlike Schober and Symeonoglou, we believe that the Mycenaean Thebes could indeed have seven gates and we will try to prove this through the example of the archaeological research, as well as the arguments taking into account the topography and the functions of the fortifications. We can also find confirmation in some later literary sources which directly connect the fortification of the Kadmeia with the monuments of the Mycenaean period. For instance, Aeschylus (Sept. 526–528) associates the Kadmeia Northern Gate with the Amphion Hill, which, in our opinion, reflects the development of urban space in the Archaic period and the further communication of ancient cultural meanings linked with topography into the classical period.


Chiara Caleo (University of Pisa): Tanagra Sarcophagi

During the last period of the Mycenaean era, about 1200 BCE, in a secluded place in Boeotia called Tanagra, clay sarcophagi began to be produced, decorated with excruciating scenes of grief. They are the last amazing testimony of the long Mycenaean art tradition and give evidence of the different moments of the funeral ritual, such as female mourning, the “prothesis” (or the exposure of the dead), the processions of the men and the rites in honor of the dead. From the iconographic analysis of the Tanagra “larnakes” it is possible to identify some particular rites belonging to the funeral ritual and find them almost unchanged in some episodes of the Iliad (e.g. the funerals of Patroclus).


Elo-Mall Toomet (University of Tartu): The Myths of Argos: Local Cults and Early Epic Poetry

The Argive plain in the Peloponnese in southern Greece is home to several characters, both of the mortal and immortal kind, who are crucially important to ancient Greek myth. These characters were often connected to specific places of cultic importance and often considered or claimed to be the direct ancestors of different groups of people living in the Argive plain, thus strengthening the connection between the local inhabitants and the land. 
This paper explores how this relationship between the Argive landscape and its actual and mythical inhabitants is visible in a specific body of written sources – the early Greek epic poetry of the archaic period, which has often survived only in a very fragmentary form – and how these early epics that came to be of panhellenic importance might have used the locally meaningful Argive stories and cults, also influencing them in turn.

12.15–14.00 Lunch

14.00–15.00 [RECORDING]

Keynote 2. Margalit Finkelberg (Tel Aviv University): Beyond Literature and History: Homer and Vergil as Foundational Texts

Although the literary character of the Homeric poems and Vergil’s Aeneid is indisputable, we will not do full justice to either if we approach them only as works of literature. Likewise, although the narratives of the Trojan War and the foundation of Rome that Homer and Vergil promulgated were universally received by their respective audiences as truthful accounts of the past, they cannot be approached as historiographic narratives in the proper sense of the word. Homer and the Aeneid functioned neither as solely literary nor as solely historiographical texts but, rather, as bearers of foundational myths which played a pivotal role in the civilizations to which they belonged. As a result, they themselves became factors in history and thus acquired a special status, comparable to the status of the Bible and other canonical texts of the pre-modern world.


Ruth Scodel (University of Michigan): Homeric Epic and the Sacred Landscape

This paper will argue that the Homeric epics are remarkable in how little they contribute to the landscape, especially the sacred landscape, of the Greek world. There are passing mentions of some of the most important shrines—Dodona, Delos, Delphi—but no hero leaves a trace at them. The heroes do not create institutions, build monuments, or make dedications. This is probably not only the result of their seeking a Panhellenic audience, but reflects the epic’s insistence on its own importance as the only real transmitter of memory. The very lack of such information, however, along with the piety of most of the heroes, made them readily available for use by later Greeks.


Ronald Blankenborg (Radboud University Nijmegen): The Shape of Wisdom: The Situational Context of the Paroemiac

In this paper I will argue that the close relation between the Greek proverbial or wisdom saying and its metrical shape is a guarantee for its recognition and identification in an otherwise differently shaped metrical environment. Or to turn things around, I argue that the demarcation of the metrical paroemiac shape is suggestive of the audience’s interpretation of the speech act as a wisdom saying. 
From the point of view of metrics, paroemiacs are indebted to both dactylic shapes and anapaestic shapes. The paroemiac itself may be analysed starting from either metrical prototype. In metrical environments that are sensitive to epiploke like the epic dactylic hexameter, metarrhythmisis allows for the single verse to be interpreted as ending in a paroemiac. This possibility is used extensively to make epic verses end in proverbial sayings, especially by Hesiod in his Works and Days. The capacity of the hexametric line to make the paroemiac recognisable is best explained, I argue, in terms of situational context: the idiosyncratic combination of metrical form and semi-religious content.

16.10–16.25 Pause



Janika Päll (University of Tartu): Formulas on the Way from Homeric Epic to Christian Biblical Epic: Example of Zeus

The epithets of Zeus, reflecting his position as a weather-god and the principal deity have been studied much, mostly regarding their original Greek and comparative Indo-European context. This paper proposes to study the development of these epithets in Christian Greek literature from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance and Early Modern humanists (where they emerge in the so-called Renaissance and Early Modern Biblical epics), both with and without direct connotations to the pagan culture. My aim is to demonstrate how and which of these epithets in Greek and Early Modern Biblical epics could have resulted from the influence of Biblical Judaeo-Christian literature, from Christian poetry of Late Antiquity and Church Fathers, or from humanist re-appraisal of Homer and Hesiod. Focusing on Christian poets of late antiquity, I’ll pose (and hopefully answer) the question: whether and how could the context in which these poets lived (i.e. the climate and geography of the Mediterranean region) have influenced the transmission of the epithets of pagan god(s) from pagan into Christian poetry.


Mait Kõiv (University of Tartu): Homeric Question, the “Age of Homer” and the “Homeric Society”

There is no agreement on how and when the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed. Their composition, or the final fixation of the text, has been dated from the ninth to the sixth century BC while the “evolutionary model” suggested by Gregory Nagy and his school assumes a fluidity of the text until the Hellenistic period or even later. This uncertainty gives us no firm basis for specifying the “Age of Homer” as a more or less exactly and narrowly define period of time. Despite this, the historians attempting to reconstruct the socio-political organisation of the early Greece generally stick to the late eighth (and early seventh) century dating of the poems and consider the society described in the epics – the “Homeric society” – as a more or less adequate description of the realities of the of the eighth century and/or of the preceding Early Iron Age. The present paper points out the discord between the discussion of the Homeric question and the usual contextualisation of the “Homeric society”, and explores the implications of the different dating of Homer for the interpretation of the society described in the epics.


SUNDAY, 18 July 2021

10.00–11.00 [RECORDING]


11.35–11.50 Pause


Delila Jordan (University of Innsbruck): Virgil and Lucan: Construction and Deconstruction of the Roman Myth

Writing the Aeneid, Virgil aimed at nothing less than writing a foundation myth of Rome. For this end, he connected Roman history with the Homeric and therefore Greek history via the main protagonist Aeneas. Aeneas follows the gods’ instructions most of the time, respects divine rules, establishes the Roman mores and is therefore often referred to as pius. By using different narrative strategies, Virgil bridges the gap from the times of the mythological foundation to his own present. For example, the parade of the future heroes of Rome in book VI allows him to stabilize and endorse contemporary political conditions. In other words, the epic aims to support the ruling political party in Virgil’s own time by the creation of a Roman myth.
In stark contrast to Virgil, Lucan’s Bellum civile deals with civil war and the downfall of Rome. There is no positively described hero, and the protagonist Caesar is pictured as outrageous and disrespectful to humans and gods (impius), which makes him the complete opposite of the pius Aeneas. Furthermore, the epic is characterised by extremely cruel descriptions and a negative view of history which leaves the reader with the impression that the destruction of Rome is an unavoidable fact.
While Virgil constructed the Roman myth, Lucan took it up and deconstructed it. He demonstrates a detailed knowledge of Virgil’s text and reverses important characteristics of his predecessor’s work. For instance, book VI of the Bellum civile, which structurally corresponds to Aeneas’ Katabasis, deals with a witch, Erictho, and necromantic incantation. There are several other examples showing that Lucan intentionally takes up aspects from the Aeneid and reverses them. To sum up, Lucan uses narrative strategies typical for the epic tradition and inverts them. My presentation will focus on a detailed comparison of those passages, which will lead to a better understanding of Lucan’s interpretation of the Roman myth by identifying the main aims of Lucan’s attack on it.

12.25–13.00 [NB! Not presented live, click below for text and slides]

Nade Proeva (University Sts. Cyril and Methodius, Skopje): The Phrygian Legend of Philemon and Baucis and Tombstones in Roman Macedonia

The legend of Philemon and Baucis transmitted in literary form by P. Ovidius Naso (Metamorphoses, VIII, 628–730), in fact reflects the primeval belief in eternal life, imagining and representing the dead in the form of the tree. We can observe the reflection of this legend, i.e. of this belief of the afterlife, much later on the funerary monuments of Roman times in Upper Macedonia (spread across the Middle Axios valley, present day Vardar River), showing the deceased in the form of a tree (here a pine-tree, according to the funeral practice). The reason for this survival in Macedonia can be found in the recalled tradition of migration of the Brygians from Macedonia to Asia Minor, where they were known as the Phrygians in the historic times (Herodotus, Strabo, Plinius). These tombstones corroborate the historicity of the migration of the Brygians, revealing the Brygian substrate in the ethno-genesis of the ancient Macedonians. An impetus to revive these beliefs shared by Macedonians and Phrygians was the increase of trade contacts between the Balkans and Asia Minor during the Roman imperial period. AVAILABLE FOR DOWNLOAD: Text. Slides

13.00 Lunch

14.30 Ecxursion


Conference description

Narratives based on tradition have often functioned as the founding texts of the respective cultures. These texts can be composed either in verse or in prose, they can be traditionally inherited and often ascribed to a legendary author like Sin-leqi-unnini in Mesopotamia, Moses for the Jews or Homer in Greece, or composed by a particular historical person like Virgil in Rome. As crucial components of their cultures, they confirm the collective identity, and both reflect and shape the attitudes of the people and their way of life.

Such epic texts have enormous value for understanding the societies producing them. They usually relate some legendary events in a reputedly distant past, and are strongly linked to religion and mythology. On the other hand, they reflect the social relations and ideologies of the time of their composition, or of the period of the oral transmission before achieving the final literary form. The consequent multivalence, and the interplay between tradition and innovation, make a proper reading of the information they transmit highly complex and debatable. To what extent were these texts traditional and which role, if any, has a single ‘genius’ in their composition? To what extent did they transmit the traditional religious understandings or shape and transform these? How should we understand the society they describe and in which way did they, intentionally or not, shape the contemporary social and perhaps political relations? These questions will be the main focus of the conference.


Organizing committee 

Mait Kõiv, Amar Annus, Urmas Nõmmik, Janika Päll, Vladimir Sazonov, Ivo Volt

Research Center of Ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean Cultures, University of Tartu, Estonia

Information on past conferences