Visiting Research Scholar Spotlight: Martin Worthington

By Martin Worthington

Hard to define and tricky to interpret, literature is a curious beast to study. This is all the more so for works which stem from traditions which are not ours, and societies about which our knowledge is still being pieced together. It can then become mysterious indeed.

Take, for example, the Babylonian Epic of Gilgameš. Few people outside Assyriology know this, but its twelfth and final Tablet (i.e. chapter) differs from the foregoing eleven Tablets by being couched in prose rather than verse, and by contradicting the story’s main plot. This doesn’t make ancient Babylonians lazy or naïve, it means that they had a different conception from ours of literary compilation. It is our task to try and develop models for how they operated. For, unlike the Greeks and Romans (who gave us Aristotle’s /Poetics/, etc.), Mesopotamians never explained in writing what literature meant for them, how they thought it worked, or even what they thought it was.

During my time at ISAW, I am working on two books. One is about the Babylonian Flood story, in particular how the god of wisdom tricked humanity into building the Ark for his protégé, the Babylonian Noah. The basic idea can be explained in under a minute (and if you came to my ISAW public lecture, you’ll know what it is ...). But working out the details has proven astonishingly complex (and varied! My most recent inter-library loan request was for a book entitled Pigeons and People). It currently stands at over 80.000 words, and counting...

The other book will be a collection of essays about less-known masterpieces of Babylonian, Assyrian and Sumerian poetry. I aim both to develop new ideas about them, and to bring them to the attention of new audiences.

One of these poems is the folk-tale of The Poor Man of Nippur. Last June, in my home University of Cambridge, we have made the tale into a short film, acted out by Assyriology students in the original language. A sneak preview will be showing at ISAW on February 27th, with formal release (online, open-access) later in the year. We’ll also talk a bit about the story, and the making of the film.

Read more about Martin Worthington's work on his biography page here.