Life, love and conflict in the hill country around 1200BC
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In a Milk and Honeyed Landon
Far from the Spaceportson

Richard Abbott

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Permanent links to blog articles on ancient poetry are at:
Google+ (part 1), Google+ (part 2), Google+ (part 3)
Blog (part 1), Blog (part 2), Blog (part 3)

The portions of poems and songs scattered through In a Milk and Honeyed Land and the other stories are all either translated by the author from various Hebrew and Egyptian originals (often with minor changes such as personal names), or else are new compositions using the same kinds of style and convention as the original works. The translated snippets from the Hebrew bible are mainly but not exclusively taken from items which scholars consider to be early compositions. It is most likely that, like the creative works of art of any nation, the style of poetry found in the bible can be traced back to earlier origins. The Israelites would have absorbed, and transformed, ways of writing and singing from other people they encountered around them.

The extent of Egyptian influence, which in In a Milk and Honeyed Land features as a key creative spark between Damariel and Nepheret, is less certain. There has been a great deal of debate as to what kinds of creative designs Egyptian and Hebrew poets and song-writers used, and so far no consensus has been reached. A casual inspection of poetry of any of these ancient languages shows that there was no attempt to create lines of consistent length within a poem. However, there is good evidence that, at least for the bulk of later Hebrew poetry, there was an attempt to keep lines more or less the same length, so that the average lengths of lines across different poems work out pretty much the same. Recent research carried out by the author under the supervision of Trinity College, Bristol confirms the existence of a ‘popular’ style of New Kingdom Egyptian poetry, in which as Nepheret explains, the first line of a pair comes out longer than the second. The very earliest Hebrew poetry seems to share this pattern. A different style was used in Egypt for royal and official temple poetry and music.

If Nepheret and Damariel were instrumental in introducing this style into the hill country, or indeed if the early Hebrews were familiar with the style because of earlier encounters, this injection of new life into the poetry did not last more than a few centuries. Of course a few centuries would still be a substantial contribution to the artistic life of the region! Later Hebrew poetry shows no real signs of Egyptian influence, either because of deliberate rejection of past influences, or else the natural result of developing new styles and tastes.

It seems altogether likely that the first settlers that archaeology recognises as Israelite, responsible for the sudden increase in small villages and settlements in the central hill country, sang songs that blended both Egyptian and Canaanite styles along with their own traditions. As time went by and they came to dominate not just the hill country but the adjacent valleys and lowlands, they developed their own distinctive national style, often rejecting the thought of any prior influences.

In a Milk and Honeyed Land and the oher stories are set at a time when the mixture was very much on the surface, and suggests that a few individuals might have been responsible for bringing about the particular mix of ideas. We have no way to know how these different influences were blended into a single creative whole, but it is possible that such a combination of individual talent and background was crucial. This particular time in history presents an ideal opportunity for these people to have met and changed each other’s thinking.

Other Writing Issues

The chapter names are taken from a fair guess at the names of letters of the alphabet used by the Canaanites. They are similar in name to later Hebrew and Arabic letters but differ in details. So far as we can tell, this alphabet was invented as a variation on older Egyptian forms some five or six hundred years before this story is set, either in the Sinai or else near Karnak in Egypt. This alphabet, which seems easy to learn and natural to us, was not used for serious large-scale inscriptions or monuments for about a thousand years after its invention, though there are plenty of examples of short pieces of writing, often to indicate ownership of small items.

In a few places the story touches on items that are genuinely linked to the area. There was indeed a woman who wrote to the Egyptian pharaoh in the way that Damariel tells his brother Baruk in In a Milk and Honeyed Land. It is probable, though not certain, that she lived in or near Kephrath, and her two letters are now known as EA 273 and 274. She identifies herself in the letters as Nin-Ur Mah Mesh, ‘the Lady of the Lions’. The letter that Damariel and Nepheret wrote for the Egyptian governor at Gedjet - Gaza - has never been found, but the style in which it is written mirrors many Egyptian letters where a person writes to their superior.

If Damariel ever did write out the agricultural calendar for Baruk, the copy has been lost to us. The version that we do have was found near Gezer, a little over ten miles down the track towards the coast, and so is known as the Gezer Calendar. The tablet that Kothar acquired for Damariel at Bayth Shamsh - Beth Shemesh - which Damariel identifies as part of the tale of Gishgimu, is better known to modern readers as Gilgamesh. Although this originated far to the east, it was a popular story and partial versions have been found at many different locations. The closest that we know of so far to this story is from Megiddo, about 50 or so miles north of the four towns, from a few generations before this story. There really was a scribe called Ilimilku, whose name appears on some of the most important religious tablets from the city of Ugarit, on the coast of modern Syria, but we do not know if he ever copied out the story of Gilgamesh.

The joke that Kothar learned while in Bayth Shamsh is one of the oldest pieces of humour we know.

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