In Popular Culture: Shumma alu in Denmark

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As Cécile Michel notes in her interview, the IAA ‘must encourage its members to increase their contacts with a wider public by any means’. Often, philologists feel limited in the means of outreach available to them, and experience a lack of enthusiasm from the wider public. In this paper, originally given at the RAI in Marburg this year, Sophus Helle describes the advantages and disadvantages of turning to alternative forms of academic outreach to appeal ot a wider public.

By Sophus Helle

In the main hall of the museum Brandts 13, in the Danish city of Odense, lies a floor unlike any other. Inscribed on its irregular marble slabs is a poem by the Danish artist Morten Søndergaard, and the audience reads the work by literally walking around on it. It is entitled Ukend dig selv, or ‘Unknow thyself’, a negated version of the inscription over Apollo’s temple in Delphi.

More striking still, the poem was directly inspired by the linguistic and conceptual structure of Babylonian omens, and in particular, the omens of urban life collected in the series known as Shumma alu. The verses are as all structured as ‘truncated omens’, a sequence of portentous scenarios bereft of their interpretation: ‘if’s’ without ‘then’s’. Morten Søndergaard engaged with the text of Shumma alu to produce something like a 21st century equivalent to the ancient terrestrial omens.

The work is a fascinating curiosity in itself: it is not every day that modern art engages with ancient divination. It is certainly not every day that Danish poetry points the reader to the cuneiform past, though of course the Babylonian material is but a point of departure for Søndergaard, who puts the format of the omens to his own poetic purposes. But, while interesting, one may also ask whether the poem can be more than a curiosity for philologists working with the ancient material. Can this kind of work, experimental and unconventional as it is, be useful and not just curious to Assyriologist?

I think one way it can be useful is as a case study for unconventional forms of outreach activities, forms of outreach that bring academic content and historical perspective to the audience in ways that are very much not the classical format of the museum exhibit or the public lecture. I will therefore try to evaluate some advantages and disadvantages of working in collaboration with artists and with unconventional forms of outreach.

Full disclosure: the poet, Morten Søndergaard, is in fact my father, which of course puts me in a somewhat curious position when presenting his work. On the one hand, I am not really in any position to critique his work objectively, so I will not be presenting an analysis or an evaluation of the poem – I would be obviously biased in that regard. On the other hand, what I can do is to provide some insider-knowledge, as it were, that would not otherwise be available about how this work and its use of Babylonian material came about.

Photo by Kirstine Mengel
Photo by Kirstine Mengel

From omen to poem

Morten Søndergaard is a Danish poet, and throughout his work, but particularly since 2012, he has experimented with concrete poetry, including walls, marble inscriptions and medicine cabinets. His floor of Babylonian omens is part of that broader interest.

Three years ago he expressed to me his interest in the genre of omens, and so for his 50th birthday I translated for him a selection of omens from Shumma alu. He was pleased, but that was, I thought at the time, the end of it. However, at the same time he was working on a project dealing with depression, and unbeknownst to me decided to employ the structure of the omens for this project. The result was Unknow thyself, and about half a year before this poem was to be carved he let me know that he had been working with the Babylonian material.

An interesting anecdote in that context is that, when he sent me the full text, I translated sections from it and sent them to Ann Guinan. Guinan got back to me and pointed to two particular verses: ‘if the sun is your father’, and ‘if the moon is your mother’. She wrote that these verses somehow did not fit. They fell short of the more bounded structure of the Babylonian omens. I passed this on to my father, who obligingly deleted those verses from the poem. A rather rare instance, I think, of Assyriologists being able to censure modern art for its historical accuracy.

Photo by Kirstine Mengel
Photo by Kirstine Mengel

The poem is carved onto blocks of Carrara marble, for a total 10 metric tonnes and 200 square meters. Its 152 verses all begin with the Danish word ‘hvis’, meaning ‘if’, and that is of course the most immediate relation between the poem and the structure of Shumma alu. But these clauses are left hanging, there is no conclusion. They are half-omens, as it were, protases without the accompanying apodoses.

A few lines are based directly on the Babylonian text, such as ‘if every day you consider building a grave’, from tablet 16 line 1, or ‘if you hold your heart’, based on tablet 15 line 16, which reads: ‘If water is spilled in the doorway of a man’s house and it is like someone holding his heart’. But most verses employ the format only, filling it with more modern or general content, such as, ‘if you have forgotten your password’, or ‘if you step on the lines’, or ‘if you are a child home alone’, and so on. The similarity to the Babylonian terrestrial omens in these cases is of a more general nature – as a sequence of ‘the “if’s” of everyday life.’

I would note also a few more specific relations on the level of form. A structure that has been transposed directly from omens to poem are the polar opposites of Shumma alu, that is, the relation between two juxtaposed omens where a single difference in the protases yields opposite apodoses. In the poem one also finds such pairs of protases exploring contradictory scenarios: ‘if you arrive’ versus ‘if you don’t arrive’, ‘if you leave me’ versus ‘if you return’, and so on.

The poem also incorporates the sequential structure that pervades so much of Shumma alu, that is, the lists of scenarios where a protases is repeated upwards of a hundred times with only a single word altered in each iteration. An example from the first tablet of Shumma alu is the format ‘if X are numerous in a city’. Through the repetition of this structure, the text considers an abundance of twins and thieves, scholars and fools, stranglers and short men, and so on (tablet I lines 80-146). The poem also employs the format of the list, though to a much less extreme extent, in sequences such as ‘if you have faith in the floor’, ‘if you have faith in the sun’, ‘if you have faith in others’; or ‘if the roof collapses’, ‘if the floor disappears’, ‘if the wall comes tumbling down’.

A final and more general similarity that should be noted is the emotional impact of these omens and half-omens. A number of scholars have noted the connection between divination and anxiety, and this connection is not only retained in the poem, but powerfully amplified by the loss of the apodoses, which leaves only such troubling scenarios as ‘if you stand still and death passes you by’, ‘if happiness cannot find you’, ‘if you cry yourself to sleep night after night’, and so on.

Unconventional outreach formats

Though these resemblances are interesting to note for those engaged with Babylonian omens, they are far from apparent to the general reader. My reason for considering the poem in relation to the matter of outreach is then not so much the content of the work itself, but the notoriety it gathered, and how that notoriety allowed for a number of follow-up activities, including a lecture series. Perhaps most importantly, I am working together with Morten to produce a volume where the half-omens of the poem will be set alongside translations of ‘actual’ Babylonian omens and explanations of their original cultural context.

This brings me to the broader question of Assyriological outreach, and our need as scholars to communicate not only our research findings but perhaps especially the very basics of our field to the reading and tax-paying public that, at least in Denmark, funds the work we do. Indeed, the field of Assyriology faces a constantly increasing need for outreach work, as public and politicians alike continue to question the necessity of philological research, and as that doubt materialises itself in budget cuts, department closures, and funding reduction.

Luckily, this increasing need for outreach is also being met by an increasing scholarly attention to the subject, as I hope this series of the newsletter illustrates. For example, in a previous issue Sabina Franke concluded that ‘there is the realization, especially among the younger colleagues, that something has to be done. My intent was to show what can be done and how to do it, to show that there are some ideas that can be taken up easily and that everyone of us can get involved.’

What is happening with this increasing focus on outreach, as the contributions to Franke’s volume in Altorientalische Forschungen clearly show, is also that scholars are moving into new and unconventional formats, that is, other formats than the classical museum exhibitions, the public lecture, or the popularising essay.

An example could be the tetralogy of plays written by Assyriologist Selena Wisnom, which moves backwards through the four Sargonid kings. Another interesting format is the board game – interesting because so thoroughly interactive. While some Mesopotamia-themed board games were designed at least in part as outreach projects, others were clearly not.

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I would be amiss if I did not mention the Epic of Gilgamesh, undoubtedly the greatest hit of Assyriology in terms of popularization. Theodore Ziolkowski has documented some of the many ways in which Gilgamesh has been reworked into a host of various media, including but not limited to, opera, ballet, symphonies, pop music, novels, poems, modern art, theatre, film, tv-series, anime, video games, and children’s book. We should not necessarily rejoice at this proliferation, or at least not only rejoice. Many of these are based on problematic translations or unfaithful adaptations. But it is worth letting this multitude of genres push us to reconsider what tools and what media we have at our disposal to communicate our findings.

Pros and cons

With that, I turn to what I perceive as some of the main advantages and disadvantages of working with unconventional outreach formats, taking Unknow thyself as my main example. An obvious advantage is that other formats will be able to reach other kinds of audiences and communicate other kinds of texts. While narratives like that of Gilgamesh are comparatively easier to make appealing, Babylonian omens are difficult to get a modern audience excited about, because reading them is such a repetitive and sometimes chaotic affair. But modern poetry can tap into their structure and turn that into something which is appealing even for readers who care little about history.

A disadvantage is that working across media most often allows scholars to communicate either the content or the form of the ancient material. In the endless retellings of Gilgamesh, for example, the story stays more or less the same, but the form differs. By contrast, in Unknow thyself the format of the omens is retained, but filled with more modern content and concerns. Scholars accordingly have to be aware of what, exactly, they want to get across with their outreach.

Either way, what matters in such cases is often not the work itself, but the more conventional outreach work that it in turn allows for. Experimental poetry, alternative theatre, or revived board games (or a publication in Nature!) can all create moments of attention, occasions for communicating in forms that are more familiar. Søndergaard’s poem, for example, was an occasion for a lecture series on the ancient world. That is then something else to be aware of – that often working in unconventional formats requires following up on the generated attention with more conventional work.

Another advantage is that these unconventional formats allow us to present the ancient material in more open forms: we can present things in striking ways without having to package it in our own interpretation and understanding of the material. We can use such genres to tell stories that the audience can then make up their own mind about. We can use interactive formats to draw the audience into more active engagements with the material. The floor is a good example of this: it literally allows the reader to make their own way across the poem, and walk around as they see fit.

The flip side is that the reader is then also more likely to interpret the work in ways that have very little to do with ancient realities. The audience may come away with an impression of the material that differs very much from our own. This is especially the case if the work has been produced in collaboration with an artist, in which case the scholar will most often have limited control over the final product, the story of Ann Guinan’s correction being a rare exception. The historical inspiration is in most cases subsumed under the final artistic demands. Only rarely will scholars have the possibility or the wish to undertake such a project themselves, with Wisnom’s plays being an again rare exception.

Bridging past, present, and future

The final pair of pros and cons is simply this. On the one hand, working with unconventional formats is often exciting – it is different and engaging. On the other hand, it is often highly challenging. As philologists, or archaeologists for that matter, we are not trained for this kind of work, it is outside our comfort zone. It is rewarding, I have found, but it is also difficult.

To sum up, I am not trying to advocate unconventional outreach formats, but I am trying to highlight some things to be aware of for scholars who sense a necessity in bringing their research to broader audiences and want to explore new avenues of communication in doing so.

Unknow thyself offers an intriguing point of departure for considering how we can connect past, present and future; how we can bring ancient texts to life in ways where they might speak to fears, hopes and anxieties of a modern audience without jeopardizing the connection to historical reality. The poem is not the full answer to those questions, but it is a thought-provoking instance of how things can be done differently.

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