Memory, Tradition, and Image Production in Ancient Mesopotamia

Beate Pongratz-Leisten


Just as memory has been conceived of as a passive reservoir where visual data can be stored to be tapped when necessary, so has tradition been looked at as conservative, static, and rigid in nature. Reworking, creativity, and innovations, as reflected in the visual and textual repertoire, however, and the persistence of cultural key metaphors in tradition throughout Mesopotamian history need not to be exclusive. The variations upon received themes reveal that reception and interpretation or reformulation are not separable operations. Rather they are thoroughly interdependent, and the way themes are seen and depicted depends upon and varies with experience and expectations. Developmental psychology and cognitive science have long been calling attention to the fact that the experience of recollection and the recollection of experience are reciprocally engaged, in other words that visual intelligence richly interacts with, and in many cases precedes and drives, rational and emotional intelligence. Vision is not merely a matter of passive perception, it is an intelligent process of active recollection and construction.  What follows then is that any imagery created as a pictorial construction steeped in the stream of tradition had to pass the scrutiny of the beholder’s visual intelligence before they can address his or her emotional and rational intelligence. It is this combination of representation by means of acquired schemes and formulas meeting the expectations of the beholder and Bildmagie blurring the boundaries between reality and image and so directly affecting him which will be explored. 

Beate Pongratz-Leisten is Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at ISAW. She was trained as a translator and interpreter of French and Spanish at the École Supérieure d'Interprètes et de Traducteurs, Paris, and the University of Mainz. In 1983 she embarked on a second career in ancient Near Eastern Studies, Egyptology, and Religious Studies at Tübingen University and Harvard University. She received her doctorate and habilitation from Tübingen University. Before joining the faculty of ISAW she taught at Tübingen University and Freiburg University in Germany, as well as at Princeton, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton Theological Seminary. Her research interests include political, intellectual and religious history of the ancient Near East, materialities of culture, literature, formation of textual communities, transmission of cultural memory, ritual performance and ritual texts.

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