Celestial divination in Esarhaddon's Assur a inscription.

AuthorCooley, Jeffrey L.


The definition of the term "propaganda" here concurs with that employed by Nevling Porter in her study of Esarhaddon's Syrian stelae: Propaganda is deliberate persuasive communication, the goal of which is to convince people to think specific things and perform certain acts that further the objectives of the originator of the communication. (1) In the academic study of propaganda these desired patterns of thought and behavior are often referred to as action. The kind of action that the propaganda desires to elicit determines the kind of propaganda employed. The action and the propaganda that leads to it can thus be divided into two categories: integration and integrative propaganda, and agitation and agitative propaganda, (2) The first primarily connotes the desired effect of making an audience passively accepting of the propagandists' direction and leadership. (3) As Ellul characterizes it, integration stabilizes and unifies the audience and is a long-term undertaking. (4) Though integration is often a goal unto itself, it can also effectively create a fertile and reliable field in which the second kind of action, agitation, can grow. Agitation refers primarily to the behaviors that the propagandist seeks to provoke. (5) It must be emphasized that the desired behaviors, the actions of integration and agitation--and not merely the thought processes that lead to them-are really the end goals of propaganda.

One of the observations noted in the study of contemporary propaganda is that it is not solely directed at the general public. (6) Since specific groups of people have specific political connections and skill sets, it follows that propaganda can be tailored to target not just the general public, but also these particular populations, in order to elicit the actions unique to their groups. Previous studies on the use of texts and visual communication in the Neo-Assyrian period have thus concluded that the Assyrian crown indeed targeted specific groups with carefully focused propaganda.

For example, Reade's study of the Neo-Assyrian palace reliefs argues that these images were strategically situated to address specific audiences, namely, courtiers and foreign visitors. (7) Winter convincingly maintains that the standard inscriptions and their accompanying reliefs seem to carry the same message, but were directed at literate and non-literate groups, respectively. (8) Similarly, Nevling Porter's study of Esarhaddon's stelae from Til Barsip and Sam'al demonstrates that the creators understood the local history of the reception of Assyrian hegemony and fit their images and texts to suit. (9) When it comes to the Neo-Assyrian royal inscriptions in general, we can reasonably assume that the implied audience, at least in part, was the literate intelligentsia. (10)


The relative density of references to divination in the inscriptions of the Sargonids is a well-known phenomenon. (11) Such references, of course, provided a general sense of divine support for the monarchs and their specific undertakings. As well, the Sargonids consistently presented themselves as cultivated patrons of, even participants in, traditional Mesopotamian scribal scholarship; the mantic references are a significant facet of this. (12) Yet, in spite of the exceptional attention paid by the Sargonids to mantic activity in the royal inscriptions, specific references to celestial divination in these texts are few and far between. (13) While Sargon II mentioned the positive results of celestial divination in his famous Letter to Assur, (14) and Sennacherib seems to have labeled several gates after celestial features, the first clear reference in the royal inscriptions per se to that mantic practice appears during the reign of Esarhaddon.

The first of these explicit references appears in the beginning of Assur A, Esarhaddon's description of his renovation of the Esarra temple in Assur, and is the focus of my discussion. The text is known from at least nine exemplars: seven clay prisms, one stone tablet, and one clay tablet. (15) As is typical of such royal inscriptions, all of the copies were found deliberately buried in the foundations of various structures in Assur, except for the clay tablet, whose exact provenance is unknown. If Esarhaddon had intended the message of Assur A to be relayed to a general audience, even a literate one, clearly there would have been more effective means of doing so than burying the text in the ground. Perhaps we must assume that the dissemination of the text and its agenda was to be accomplished first in its repeated manufacture and then by word of mouth among individuals who could comprehend the text's specific significance.

In any case, Assur A has several mantic references, all of which confirm the legitimacy of Esarhaddon's activity, not just those which concern celestial divination. (16) The references to hepatoscopy, lecanomancy, and prophecy merely highlight in broad terms the positive or reliable nature of the oracles generated through these methods. In marked contrast, those deriving from celestial divination are manifestly more sophisticated and include rather precise details regarding specific omens. Indeed, the celestial divination references are so specific that we are able to situate them within contemporaneous practice. Against this background, Esarhaddon's assertions in terms of this mantic tradition are revealed to be highly unorthodox and problematic.

Yet, in spite of the difficulties with the inscription's mantics, its technical sophistication is an important indicator of its implied audience; it assumes that its audience had a knowledgeable background in the practice of celestial divination, perhaps even technical training. Winter noted a similar kind of specificity in her study of the development of the narrative program of Neo-Assyrian palace reliefs, that

the ability to receive the message contained in the program ... is a direct function of the effectiveness and clarity of the presentation of the message, the "packaging"..., and of the cognitive competence of the audience: the stored knowledge brought to the situation, ability to understand signs and signals, and skill in decoding ... (17) That is to say, the creator of such an ideologically loaded message (in Winter's case, the designer of the reliefs in Assurnasipal II's palace, in contrast to that of reliefs from later in the period) must understand his audience, and employ an audience-appropriate symbolic system.

Esarhaddon begins to describe his mantically delivered divine approval at the beginning of the text proper, shortly after his own titulary:

d[30 u d]UTU DINGIR.MES mas-su-te ds-[su] de-en kit-te u mi-sa-ri a-na KUR u UN.MES sa-ra-ku ITI-sam-ma har-ra-an kit-te it mi-sa-ri sab-tu-ma UD.[1].KAM UD.14.KAM u-sa-di-ru ta-mar-tu In [order] to give the land and the people verdicts of truth and justice, the gods [Sin and] Samas, the twin gods, took the road of truth and justice monthly. They made (their simultaneous) appearance regularly on the [first] (18) and fourteenth days. (19) Koch-Westenholz describes this statement as a "general reference to the auspicious omens of opposition and, probably, conjunction of the sun and the moon on the proper dates. This is a literary phrase like 'may Sin and Shamash bless him without cease.'" (20) Though her characterization has gained some acceptance, (21) there are nonetheless problems with it. While the statement in Assur A is a generalization, it is an intentional generalization of a very specific set of astronomical phenomena and presumes their specific mantic applications: Both of these astronomical events are considered auspicious. For example, SAA 8 409, a report from the celestial diviner Rasili, notes an omen associated with the auspicious beginning of a month:

DIS ina UD.1.[KAM IGI KA] GI.NA SA KUR DUG-a UD.[1].KAM DINGIR KI DINGIR in-nam-mar MI.SIG5 sa LUGAL be-li-ia If (the moon) [becomes visible] on the first day: reliable [speech]; the land will become happy. On the [first] (22) day the god will be seen with the other: good for the king my lord. (23) Rasili here seems to equate a month which has begun on the first, i.e., in an ideal manner, with the gods (undoubtedly the sun and moon) being seen with each other. The apodoses are appropriately positive. As well, SAA 8 15 reports a solar-lunar opposition on the fourteenth:

1 UD.14.KAM 30 u 20 KI a-ha-mes IGI.MES KA GI.NA SA-bi KUR DUG-ab DINGIR.MES kurURI.KI a-na da-mi-iq-ti i-ha-sa-su hu-ud SA-bi ERIM-ni SA-bi LUGAL DUG-ab MAS.ANSE kurURI.KI ina EDIN par-ga-nis NA-is If on the fourteenth day the moon and sun are seen together: reliable speech, the land will become happy. The gods will remember Akkad favorably; joy among the troops; the king will become happy; the cattle of Akkad will lie in the steppe undisturbed. (24) The variant apodoses (ll. 8-rev. 4) offered by the diviner who wrote this report, the chief scribe Issar-sumu-eres, are all overwhelmingly positive and cover multiple facets of the land, including the status of the religious climate, the army, the monarchy, and livestock.

Returning our focus to Assur A, Esarhaddon would have us believe that the sun and moon appeared in happy conjunction on the first of the month and in blissful opposition on the fourteenth on a monthly basis (arhsamma, line 7'). But this was not and could not have been the case. The appearance of the sun and moon in relation to each other are not this regular, and Esarhaddon certainly had to deal with the negative apodoses of such inauspicious phenomena on many occasions. Indeed, lunar-solar oppositions occur frequently on dates other than the fourteenth, and reports and letters which mention this phenomenon are so common that these texts are difficult to date with precision. (25) Nonetheless, because the...

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