A Gust from the East to the West


Dr Francesca Minen was one of this year’s Henri Frankfort Short-Term Fellows. Whilst conducting her research, Francesca decided to resume a previous research interest thanks to discussions with other fellows at the Institute. In this blog post, Francesca explains how ancient East and Western intellectual heritage may be compared fruitfully. The analysis of the notion of the four elements, namely air, allows us to trace back to ancient Mesopotamia cultural aspects shared by Biblical, Classical, and consequently contemporary traditions.

Ancient Near Eastern studies at the Warburg Institute

With its departments, libraries and museums, the Knowledge Quarter of Bloomsbury represents London’s most vibrant and stimulating academic district. For a researcher of the Ancient Near East, this is the best place to work in Europe, maybe in the world. Two of the most important institutions for this field lie at a walking distance of less than five minutes. On the one hand, the British Museum; on the other, going north, the School of Oriental and African Studies. However, a little further north, it is possible to benefit greatly from another institution. 

The Warburg Institute is a world leading research centre for the study of world intellectual, cultural and art history. Even if this centre is most dear to Art historians and Renaissance scholars, the Institute plays its part in the scholarship of several disciplines. The study of ancient Mesopotamia is also well established, at least since the directorship of Professor Henri Frankfort. In 1949 Frankfort has been appointed as second director of the Warburg Institute upon the death of Fritz Saxl, who made vital decisions for this intellectual centre. After turning Aby Warburg’s library into a research institute in 1921, Saxl decided to transfer it from Hamburg to London to protect Warburg’s efforts and legacy from the Nazi regime in 1933.

Despite being best known as Egyptologist and archaeologist, Henri Frankfort has contributed significantly also to our understanding of the cultural history of the broader ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean region. Over the last few years the Warburg Institute has offered short-term fellowships in his memory, allowing scholars to pursue research in the intellectual, art and social history of the Ancient Near East, as well as its cultural contacts in the wider ancient world and its legacy for Western identity. 

Henri Frankfort

As a result, Warburgians welcome every year a small number of Ancient Near Eastern philologists and art historians. The discussions that usually arise in the common room are centred on the roots of European cultural and intellectual traditions. These interactions are very stimulating both ways, as residents Warburgians are encouraged to learn if a given concept of Classical origin also existed in ancient Mesopotamia, while Ancient Near Eastern fellows are challenged to rethink to their discipline from totally different perspectives. 

Methodological problems in the comparison of Cuneiform and Classical knowledge

The comparative study of Ancient Near Eastern and Classical thought presents a series of difficulties deriving from their different historical, environmental and cultural premises. Moreover, the view of the Greco-Roman world as the cradle of European civilization generated biases towards Ancient Near Eastern cultures, especially when considering their scientific lore. It is believed that contemporary Western experimental sciences have originated first in ancient Greece. This positivistic assumption, still widespread among historians of science, has led not only to disregard forms of knowledge that did not coincide with the modern definition of science, but also to label them as ‘unscientific’. 

This has been the case of the ancient Assyro-Babylonian medical system. Nevertheless, more recent years have experienced a change of paradigm. This was encouraged by an increased accessibility of Ancient Near Eastern scientific sources, as well as by a wider tendency to consider cuneiform scientific knowledge in the framework of its own cultural system (i.e., emic approach) rather than judging it from our contemporary viewpoint (ethic approach).

A further problem arises from the nature of cuneiform sources themselves, as they do not present any form of theory. The term ‘theory’ is here intended as a systematic formulation of general principles and related deductions pertaining to a given discipline, art or branch of knowledge; therefore, a formulation aimed at interpreting experienced phenomena and at foreseeing their possible consequences. In this sense, Assyro-Babylonian scholars did not formulate philosophy, treatises or handbooks comparable to those circulating in the Graeco-Roman world. However, they observed nature and its phenomena, they itemized and classified them, producing logical deductions from their observations. Mesopotamian men of learning fixed their ‘pointillistic’ knowledge in lists of words or items, as well as meticulous collections of omens. 

Divination was the basic expression of scientific thought in ancient Mesopotamia. It originated as a series of techniques to encourage communication with the divine. This could have been achieved by provoking signs to be deciphered in order to foresee the future. A good example is extispicy, based on the examination of the internal organs (namely the liver) of sacrificed animals. Divination was concerned also with the observation of spontaneous happenings, such as star movements, weather phenomena, malformed human and animal births, the appearance or behaviour of men, as well as their symptoms. All the omens at the core of these divinatory sciences are formulated as hypothetical clauses, encompassing every possible case. Even laws, such as those of the Codex Hammurabi, were structured in this manner. The observed phenomena are stated in the protases, while their possible consequences for the land, the king or the individual are reported in the apodoses. Only in a restricted number of instances is it possible to trace with ease the logical link implicitly expressed in these protasis-apodosis associations. Since this scientific material is not self-explanatory overall, it needs to be interpreted and compared with further cuneiform documentation. By these means, it is possible to reconstruct the implicit theories and views on every aspect and concept pertaining to Mesopotamian everyday and intellectual life.

The ‘four elements’ in ancient Mesopotamia?

An illustrative case is that of the ‘four elements’, a theory originated in early Greek philosophy and applied to medicine, alchemy and astrology over the centuries. As exemplified at best by the Warburg Institute’s emblem, the four elements are deeply intertwined with European intellectual, cultural and artistic history. With due distinctions (as the lack of any explicit theorisation), they can be traced also in ancient Mesopotamian observations of nature. They were recognised as fundamental elements of the world in mythological narrations. In addition, they were functional to explain scientific notions, such as human anatomy, physiology and disease symptoms.

Clay is the most common material in Mesopotamia: as it was used to fashion the majority of artefacts, including buildings, it was also believed to be the constitutive matter of mankind. Another geographical characteristic of the region is water: the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, with their respective tributaries, forced men to develop advanced irrigating techniques. The capillary canal systems and their difficult maintenance offered suitable imagery to explain health issues such as gastrointestinal diseases and a gynaecological problem labelled as ‘locked fluids’. The use of these metaphors to explain the internal presence of liquids in the body and their related problems indicate that Assyro-Babylonians viewed internal human anatomy as characterised by a similar, inner network of waterways. Further symptoms are indicated by ‘fire’, expressive of feverish states, and also ‘wind’, attested in contexts pertaining to breathing, constipation and flatulence, but even referring to an evil agent of disease.

Wind, breathing and the soul 

In cuneiform sources ‘wind’ is the closest term to designate ‘air’. As a matter of fact, a word perfectly coinciding to our contemporary concept of ‘air’ does not surface in any of the 26 volumes composing the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary. To the contrary, they attest a consistent group of designations of weather phenomena related to different levels of air blowing strength (such as winds, breezes, hurricanes etc.).

It appears that Assyrians and Babylonians could perceive air as an existing element of nature only when they could feel its movements and see their consequences. This can be related to a Mesopotamian way of dealing with what was ‘visible’ and what was not, as the perception of skin, which is surrounded by a great paradox: despite being the most visible part of our body, it is often given for granted as an individual organ, being rather identified with our body or self. From cuneiform sources it can be noticed how skin was not ‘seen’ as a constitutive human organ, unless it was revealed by peeling or its complete removal from a person’s body. 

In a similar way, air per se could not be seen or perceived unless it showed its presence. In this case, the recognition of the existence of air derived by means of perceiving its blows and different temperatures. This is consistent with later theories related to air from Classical philosophers. For example, the Pre-Socratic Anaximenes stated that air is invisible when it is absolutely unvarying; on the contrary, it becomes visible thanks to cold, heat, humidity and movement. The importance of this last property, in particular, has been recognised also by Seneca, who defined ‘wind’ as ‘agitated air’.

An Old Babylonian cylinder seal from the British Museum’s Collection. Hematite cylinder seal with some quartz; a kilted figure with a “wind-swept” beard, outstretched arms and wings, stands behind a kilted, winged demon with a tail and birds’ talons instead of feet, who holds a dagger or stick, and extends one hand towards a winged demon who faces left with both hands raised, and the lower part of whose body is made up of entwined snakes.

In Akkadian, ‘wind’ is expressed commonly by the term šāru (Sumerian IM). On the one hand, it refers to a natural phenomenon, but designates directions and cardinal points as well, while the expression šār erbetti identifies the wind rose and the four corners of the world, in its entirety. On the other hand, šāru is attested in a variety of different contexts, pointing to breath and the action of breathing, but also to metaphorical concepts such as nothingness, vanity and futility, or the dead, his spirit or his soul. 

In Sumerian, the concept of wind was strictly connected with the belief in the Afterworld, as it can be viewed as the intermediary state between the living and the dead soul of an individual. In particular, Sumerian ZI corresponded to Akkadian napištu, which can be translated as ‘life’, ‘breath’, ‘breathing’, or ‘living soul’. When death came, a person would release his ‘wind’ (IM / šāru), which may be better paraphrased as his ‘last breath’ or, even, his ‘spirit’. After the appropriate funerary rituals, this spirit was appeased and conceived as a properly defined entity (GIDIM / eṭemmu) embodying the soul of the deceased or his ghost.

This brief summary allows us to appreciate an important interconnection among the concepts of air, respiration, soul and spirit. The same association of ideas surfaces also in Hebrew and Classical sources, as well as in the history of Western thinking centred on weighty philosophical Greek and Latin terms such as spiritus and animapneuma and psyche. In particular, this latter concept in its original Homeric sense refers to the cold breath of death and may mirror similar values ascribed to IM and šāru in cuneiform sources.

Evil winds, ghosts and demons

Nevertheless, the conceptualization of šāru is even more ambiguous. Overall, winds were conceived as created and used by gods. Just as gods could affect men in a positive or negative manner, winds could bring fortunes or misfortunes to mankind. Winds could be labelled as ‘evil’ also because they were believed to carry dangerous beings, such as demons, ghosts or witches. Therefore, an evil wind was understood as a possible agent of misfortune, including sickness. The actions of winds, demons and ghosts are described often with the same verbs and in the same contexts. In medical sources, it appears that there was a certain degree of linguistic interchange among these agents of illness, to the point that šāru may not refer to the presence of air in the body as a symptom, but rather as a supernatural evil being responsible for the symptom itself. 

A similar distinction among good and evil winds characterises Western thought from Christian and Talmudic traditions, which have transformed progressively these opposing forces into angels and demons. However, the ambiguity of these ethereal beings remains, especially in instances related to sickness. An interesting example is the account on the epileptic boy as reported in the Gospels. As a matter of fact, Mark (9, 17-29) describes the agent of disease as a ‘spirit’. On the other hand, Matthew (17, 14-20) characterises it as ‘demon’. However, Luke (9, 37-43) labels this agent indifferently as ‘spirit’, ‘impure spirit’ and ‘demon’. This linguistic interchangeability characterizing the responsible for the boy’s epilepsy not only among the three versions, but also in a same account, is remarkable in the light of the Akkadian uses of ‘wind’, ‘evil wind’ and ‘demon / ghost’ in similar contexts.


Final remarks

The analysis of the concept of wind in ancient Mesopotamia allowed us to discover interesting points of cultural contact with Western cultures, which originate from Classical and Biblical traditions. Firstly, we observed how the principle of movement was a key factor in the perception of air in ancient Mesopotamia. Secondly, we underlined how ‘wind’ in Mesopotamia was not only referred to as a weather phenomenon, but also to the concepts of soul and spirit. As the air movements implied by respiration were recognised as fundamental for life, Mesopotamians believed that someone’s last breath enclosed a constitutive part of the self. Finally, we noticed a confusion among evil winds, ghosts and demons, especially when they are all recognised as carriers of misfortunes such as disease. For all these arguments based on ancient Mesopotamian documentation, we have been able to find interesting parallels from ancient Classical, Biblical and Christian sources. 

Despite the undeniable differences among these cultures, the analysis delivered us the proof of a common cultural ground deriving from the universal inner nature of man, namely his need to understand and explain aspects belonging to the natural and supernatural world. Over the centuries these anthropological needs have been often forgotten in order to establish differences among civilizations and their cultures, rank them according to biased criteria and justify alleged political and cultural supremacies. Within the East-West dynamic, such phenomena are embodied by Colonialism, Orientalism and – in the field of the history of science – Hellenophilia. These attitudes are still practiced today, as political outbursts from all over Europe demonstrate. However, the lack of interest in comparing Eastern and Western cultures is also widespread in higher education curricula, too often strictly delimited within their own respective research domains.

With its Henri Frankfort Fellowship, the Warburg Institute represents one of the few research institutions to openly foster this comparative approach and to recognise the study of the cultural relations among the East and the West in the past as a subject deserving of academic interest.

Dr Francesca Minen

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Dr. Francesca Minen completed both her studies in Classics and the study curriculum of the Superior Graduate School at the University of Udine (Italy) in 2014. She defended her PhD dissertation on ancient Mesopotamian dermatology at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice in 2018. Her research interests are Assyro-Babylonian medicine and cultural-intellectual history of the ancient Near East. Thanks to the Henri Frankfort short-term fellowship at the Warburg Institute, in early 2019 she conducted a preliminary survey of information of medical relevance in the series of terrestrial omens Šumma ālu, ‘If a city is set on a high’, tablets 1-63.