John B. Davis Lecture Hall in the Ruth Stricker Dayton Campus Center at Macalester College
1600 Grand Avenue
St Paul, MN 55105
Myth is often thought of as something primordial, transmitted but not created, as if it were part of a culture’s genome. Actual myths were of course composed in historical time. From ancient Mesopotamia myths survive together with historical context: we often know when a myth was written and what events gave rise to its composition. In one case we even know who wrote it. This one is the poem relating how Erra, god of war, seized the reins of cosmic power and so wrecked the world. It was written in the late eighth century BCE by a Babylonian author who reports that he received it from the gods in a dream. His poem, composed in response to the unremitting warfare that beset Babylonia during the expansion of Assyria’s empire, when the land of southern Iraq was riven by factions and overrun by foreign fighters, achieved notable popularity in its day. Many exemplars and excerpts, some in the form of amulets, have been found at various sites in Iraq.
The present lecture will illustrate how the poet transmuted lived experience into myth, drawing upon and transforming his literary tradition to compose an apotheosis of war. It will examine the historical background of the myth of Erra, the intellectual and material world in which it took shape, and how contemporary audiences received it. Recognizing that violence could be forestalled by understanding it, knowing its course and its consequences, people took the poem as a prophylactic to ward off war.