The voice of Hammurabi

Among the oldest existing laws are several codes of law from the Ancient Near East. Surely the most famous of them is the Code of Hammurabi. Since the stele with the text of this Babylonian law was found in 1901 at the spot of the ancient town of Susa several editions of it have been produced, mainly because of later found additional witnesses. Josef Kohler, the famous versatile scholar, first at the University of Würzburg and later in Berlin, started one of the earliest editions of the Code, written in the Akkadian language in cuneiform script, and the young Paul Koschaker worked on the edition of the sixth volume (Hammurabi’s Gesetz (6 vol., Leipzig 1904-1923)) with translated charters and a juridical commentary. This edition – except the second volume – is available online at JScholarship of the Johns Hopkins University. The stele is kept at the Louvre in Paris, and their website offers much about this famous object. Every book on the general history of mankind mentions Hammurabi’s laws.

On the web you can find English translations, for example by W.L. King at a website of the University of Evansville, and in Yale University Law School’s Avalon Project. The Online Library of Liberty has digitized the edition and translation edited by Robert Francis Harper (Chicago 1904). Jean-Pierre Morenon has digitized some French translations. A German translation from 1926 has also been digitized. The most recent edition is by Martha Roth, Law collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (2n ed., Atlanta, Ga., 1997); a transliteration is provided in Riekele Borger’s Babylonisch-assyrische Lesestücke (3rd ed., 2 vol., Rome 2006). One can use also the edition and translation provided by M.E.J. Richardson, Hammurabi’s Laws. Text, Translation and Glossary (2nd ed., London-New York 2004).

All this can be termed received knowledge, easily retrieved and quickly to find nowadays. Agnes Jonker, a Dutch archivist who contributes often to the Dutch online archival forum maintained by Eric Hennekam, posted on September 30, 2010 a notice on a message of the same date from the University of Cambridge entitled “Gone but not forgotten: Babylonian bounces back” about Dr. Martin Worthington of St. John’s College, Cambridge, and his project of sound recordings of ancient Babylonian and Assyrian poetry and literature. He and fellow Assyriologists have made some thirty recordings which are presented at the website of the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London. Two recordings are concerned with the Code of Hammurabi. Albert Naccache reads the prologue and a number of paragraphs, and Aage Westenholz reads the epilogue and some other fragments.

Hearing a text being read can radically alter your perception of a text. Lately I was asked to give my opinion about the inclusion of biblical texts in booklets for liturgical use. I am inclined not to include them, except when these texts are really difficult to follow, for example because of unclear references to persons in a story or because of an unfamiliar word order in a less often used translation. Reading aloud from the Bible or from a law code is not just presenting information by mouth like in a lecture, but part of a ritual. It is ritual reading, and reading aloud enforces the text and what it represents. Yesterday I saw on the website of the Swiss journal Ancilla Iuris an article from October 2010 by Fabian Steinhauer, ‘To Order Observation – Beobachterin weiter Ordnung’, written in memory of Cornelia Vismann. She would have been the person to expand on this notion. Reading aloud the law gives it a viva vox. Hammurabi’s stele gives a very powerful image of a mighty ancient king, and this is reinforced, even doubled, by listening to the readings from his law. I agree completely with Martin Worthington in giving the pages with the recordings an additional URL, www.speechisfire.com.

Am I right in guessing this news from Cambridge somehow escaped legal historians? Even if I have simply been unaware of it last year I do like to write about it today. Hat tip to Agnes Jonker! When I first read about it on the Dutch archival forum I initially thought about a Fools’ Day joke, but this is definitely serious. Anyway, the website of the SOAS in London provides a lot of supplementary information, including the link to the website Knowledge and Power in the Neo-Assyrian Empire of the Higher Education Academy and the British Museum, where you can learn more about the Akkadian language and cuneiform script, with Hammurabi’s code among the exercises.

Hammurabi’s code in three dimensions

The audio sources for Hammurabi are not the only new form of presentation of this legal text. At Digital Hammurabi, the website of a project of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md., a tool is presented which would indeed fit in the series from a well-known Californian company which in fact graciously supports iClay, a tool for three-dimensional representation of cuneiform tablets. Depending on your browser and the capacities of the graphic card of your computer you can look at such tablets from many angles. Epigraphy, the auxiliary historical science for the study of inscriptions, could benefit, too, using this kind of tool. One of the results of the project is a standard for computer encoding of Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform, included in 2006 into Unicode 5.0. The Electronic Tools and Ancient Near East Archives (ETANA) with its own digital library is one of the best websites to look for more information about Hammurabi and his laws. The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative of the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, will help you to learn more about the cuneiform script.

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