The Fictitious Construction of Presence:

Evoking the Image in Art and Writing in Ancient Mesopotamia

Beate Pongratz-Leisten


The phenomenon of literary description of the artwork, known as ekphrasis, generally has been ascribed to the Greeks, where it was part of the curriculum of rhetorical training, a rhetorical technique of persuasion. Rather than being a literary genre – something that modern art history, literary theory, and anthropology have turned it into, and rather than mimesis, it was a poetic device intended to free the image of its three-dimensional habitat and transform it, so that it could become a powerful tool to spark emotions in the audience. A close look at the literary production in Mesopotamia reveals that such a rhetorical technique was already present in royal inscriptions including hymns celebrating the building of a temple as well as in historical inscriptions. In all these cases language, while drawing on the shared traditional cultural repertoire of mythic narratives and pictorial representations, emerges as a powerful means drawing on sense perception, memory, and imagination to create an image in the mind, to create a new reality.

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 PrincetonYale, 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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