This section contains a list, in alphabetical order, of some of the technical terms most commonly used in Mesopotamian commentaries and provides a brief description of their functions. It does not offer a comprehensive catalog of all the functions these terms can have, but rather aims to make the text editions of the Cuneiform Commentaries Project more easily accessible. Each entry includes a brief bibliography at the end, with an emphasis on recent studies.
The examples provided on this page have mostly been excerpted from editions prepared for the Cuneiform Commentaries Project. To access the full text, please click on the CCP number that appears after each quotation.
The colon or Glossenkeil is the commentarial device par excellence. It usually represents the link between the explanandum and the explanans, and in principle it may introduce any of the explanations described in the section Hermeneutic Techniques. However, some of the exegetical devices (such as paraphrase or alternative interpretation) are usually preceded by a specific technical term.
The translations in the Cuneiform Commentaries Project usually render the colon as “means”: for instance, the equation uptanarrad : uptanallaḫ (lit. “he scares (him)” = “he terrorizes him”) is translated “‘he scares him’ means ‘he terrorizes him’.” In cases in which the equation is less direct, the interpretation of the colon is given in parentheses: e.g., ītakkal : DU.DU (lit. “it will devour itself” = DU.DU”) is translated as “‘it will devour itself’ (can be written as) DU.DU.”
If the explanandum is located at the end of one line and the explanans is located at the beginning of the next one, the Glossenkeil can be written at the end of the first line, at the beginning of the second, or can be omitted altogether.
Commentaries occasionally feature cola with three wedges and cola with two wedges simultaneously.1 They usually employ the former to introduce quotations from the base text and the latter to separate successive commentarial entries.2 The photo below is of the commentary BM 42916 (CCP 3.1.58.C): in it the different omens from the base text are separated from one another by means of a triple colon (circled in red in the photograph), whereas the words in the commentary are separated by a double colon (marked in blue):
The preposition ana, “to,” appears quite frequently in commentaries. Its basic function is to introduce a reference term that is necessary for the correct understanding of the word or clause preceding it. This reference term is on many occasions the citation form of the word commented upon, such as the infinitive in the case of verbs, or the more basic nominal form in the case of derivate nouns. Thus in the following example, the word sāmta, “redness,” is said to derive from the noun sūmu by means of the preposition ana:
Occasionally the term appears as ana muḫḫi: in the following passage, the phrase thus introduced indicates that the ambiguous writing ḫa-de-e corresponds to the verb meaning “to commit sin” (ḫaṭû), and not to the near homophone with the meaning “to rejoice” (ḫadû):
However ana not only introduces words grammatically related to the commented term: it can also precede words that describe the semantic field to which the explanandum is understood to belong. In these cases the expression appears very commonly as ana (muḫḫi) … qabi, “it is said about …” (vel sim.).3 Thus in the following passage the commentator establishes a figurative meaning of the sentence by means of such a phrase:
The preposition ana can also, by providing a reference word, redefine the scope of the base text. Thus in the following case a series of omens involving eclipses are said to refer “to the summer,” i.e., they are considered applicable only during the summer months:
The term aššu, lit. “because,” is one of the most multifunctional technical terms used in Mesopotamian commentaries. It can appear either after the explanandum – in which case it introduces the main explanation –, or else after a commentarial argument, modifying and refining its scope. The many different functions in which aššu is employed can be subsumed under two main ones: (1) to specify the scope of the main text or of a previous explanation and (2) to provide a justification for a previous explanation or for the base text.
In the former function aššu behaves much like the etymologically related term ana, discussed above.4Thus in the following example the command “break the top of its umbilical cord!” from a birth incantation is said to refer to the “reed that cuts the umbilical cord”:
The specification of a previous term need not take the form of a single word or phrase. In fact, aššu can also introduce entire sentences that paraphrase the base text. Thus in the passage quoted below the protasis “he gets rid of it (sc. the snake) with difficulty” is said to be said “on account” (aššu) of a snake that lingers for a long time on top of the man:
The second function of aššu is to provide a justification for the base text or for a previous explanation. This justification can take many different forms. For instance, it can contain an etymographic analysis of the word, as in the following example:
The justification introduced by aššu can occasionally take the form of a quotation from a literary text, as in the case of the passage below. In the base text, the fact that a snake “coils around the door and bolt (sikkūru) of a man’s house” is said to foretell either the expansion or the abandonment of the house. The commentary then explains that one of these prognoses applies to a noble man and the other to a humble man. This distribution is then justified by the commentator by means of a clause beginning with aššu, a clause which is in fact a quotation from an incantation. The aššu line is intended to support the commentator’s attempt at explaining both the positive and the negative prognosis as applicable to different social classes. The quotation supports the interpretation by referring to a seemingly unrelated object, the “strong reed-hut (šutukkū dannūtu) of Ningirzida,” and then by equating “reed-hut” (šutukku) with “bolt” (sikkatu). The line from the incantation, šutukkū dannūtu, refers, mutatis mutandis, to both the “noble” and the “humble”: the “noble” is represented in the word dannu, “strong,”5 whereas the “humble” is represented in šutukku, “reed-hut,” which is said to mean sikkatu (a word whose logogram, gag, is contained in maš.en.gag, the word for “humble”). Thus aššu introduces a quotation from a text that justifies and supports a highly sophisticated interpretation.
It is possible to find other uses of aššu that do not entirely conform to those enunciated above, but their correct understanding must await a comprehensive study of the uses of this particle in Mesopotamian hermeneutics.
The technical term kayyān(u), lit. “firm, actual,” is only attested in a handful of Late Babylonian commentaries, where it usually appears as one in a series of alternative explanations. It designates the “literal” interpretation of a word or passage.6 According to Gabbay, 2014“Actual Sense and Scriptural Intention: Literal Meaning and Its Terminology in Akkadian and Hebrew Commentaries”, in Encounters by the Rivers of Babylon: Scholarly Conversations between Jews, Iranians, and Babylonians, Mohr Siebeck, 2014, pp. 335-370.: 336-345, the concept of “literal interpretation” includes two apparently contradictory types of explanation: an etymological interpretation of a word that does not take into account its actual meaning in its context, and a contextualized interpretation that disregards its more usual meanings. ,
The following example belongs to the former category: the difficult form ṭe-ra-at is first explained “literally” as derived from the verb ṭarû, “to beat.” This is followed by an alternative interpretation introduced by šanîš, “secondly,” which speculates about alternative meanings derived from the lexical equations of the near homophones nanduru and edēru:
The word libbū (usually written lìb-bu-ú) is one of the most poorly understood commentarial technical terms. Morphologically it is a prepositional expression derived from the noun libbu, “heart” (GAG §115d), which has a locative or an ablative meaning (lit. “in the center of” or “from the center of”). Note that this technical term is also attested, albeit rarely, as ina libbi, e.g. in CCP 3.6.3.D ll. 6-7. In commentaries libbū commonly introduces a commentarial argument that justifies or clarifies a previous explanation: it can thus be freely rendered as “(as derived) from (the fact that).” In this function libbū can introduce different types of clauses, whose main characteristic is that they provide additional information on the explanation they follow. libbū can, for instance, introduce quotations from lexical or literary texts, providing that they add something to the argument. This is the case in the passage below, in which libbū introduces a quotation from Gilgameš that serves to illustrate the meaning “vulva” of the word ḫurdātu:
libbū can also appear immediately after the explanandum, introducing the main explanation. In these cases libbū seems to be used to introduce alternative renderings of the base text, which rephrase it by means of more idiomatic expressions. This is the case in the following example:
Other uses of libbū do not appear to be subsumable under either of these categories, but a comprehensive study of the uses of this term would go beyond the limits of this introduction.
mā is the Assyrian citation particle: in texts of other genres mā is often used to introduce and structure direct speech (GAG §121b). As argued by Frahm, 2011Babylonian and Assyrian Text Commentaries. Origins of Interpretation. Ugarit-Verlag, 2011.: 110, since the particle is elsewhere used to introduce direct speech, it may be assumed that the explanations preceded by mā represent some sort of quotation, perhaps from an oral source. ,
In the corpus of commentaries its use is restricted to a few commentaries from Assyria. The following example is taken from a commentary on the exorcistic series Udugḫul:
ša has two basic grammatical functions in Akkadian: (1) determinative pronoun (as in šarru ša bābili, “king of Babylon”) and (2) relative pronoun (as in šarru ša ana bābili illaku, “king who goes to Babylon”). Commentaries use ša in both functions. As a determinative pronoun ša appears occasionally with the same function that it has in lexical lists, viz. to define which of the several possible meanings of a word is referred to in that instance. Thus in the following passage it restricts the meanings of the polysemic verb ešēru, “to be/go well”:
As a relative pronoun, the main function of ša is to introduce paraphrases, i.e., reformulations or interpretations of the base text. The relative pronoun seems to be the preferred method in cuneiform commentaries to introduce paraphrases. These paraphrases need not necessarily depend on lexical equations; they can also be attempts at interpreting the base text more freely. Thus in the following example the verb “to suffer” is said to mean “to be hungry and thirsty”:
ša iqbû and kī(ma) iqbû
The verb qabû appears in commentaries combined with some of the other technical terms studied here. Thus, for instance, the expression ša ana (muḫḫi) qabû, “which is said about something,” provides a reference term or phrase that helps the interpretation of the base text or the commentarial argument. A similar expression, ina … qabi, “it is said in …”, is used to identify the text from which a quotation is taken.
However the function of two of the most frequent technical terms involving the verb qabû, ša iqbû, “what it says,” and kī(ma) iqbû, “like it says,” has eluded modern researchers until recently. U. Gabbay (2012“Akkadian Commentaries from Ancient Mesopotamia and Their Relation to Early Hebrew Exegesis”, Dead Sea Discoveries, vol. 19, pp. 267-312, 2012.: 305-308 and 2014 , “Actual Sense and Scriptural Intention: Literal Meaning and Its Terminology in Akkadian and Hebrew Commentaries”, in Encounters by the Rivers of Babylon: Scholarly Conversations between Jews, Iranians, and Babylonians, Mohr Siebeck, 2014, pp. 335-370.: 348-364) has now demonstrated that ša iqbû usually follows a quotation from the base text, whereas kī(ma) iqbû normally appears after the interpretation. While ša iqbû simply marks a quotation, kī(ma) iqbû refers to the new meaning gained with the commentary. The two expressions, ša iqbû and kī(ma) iqbû, can appear separately or, more rarely, together. Thus in the following passage the prognosis “Heaven and earth will become enemies” is reinterpreted as referring to celestial and terrestrial water being in competition: ,
ša iqbû appears very occasionally as mala iqbû, “as much as it is said,” especially in the commentary CCP 3.1.16 ll. 10 or 13-14. mala iqbû appears to be used when the term being explained appears in more than one of the lines of the base text. It can thus be freely rendered as “on all the occasions it appears.” In the following example, the word “cloud” in the main text is said to refer to “the summer,” i.e., to a summer cloud:
Other related expressions are ša išṭuru, "what is written," and ša iddû, lit. “what is put down in writing.” The former seems to be attested only in the commentary CCP 3.8.2.A. The later, ša iddû, appears only in two commentaries (CCP 3.6.3.C l. 40 and CCP 6.6), and fulfils the same function as ša iqbû, i.e., to mark the text that is going to be explained. Thus in the following example:
šanîš, šalšiš, rebîš, etc.
When a cuneiform commentary wishes to offer several alternative explanations for one and the same word or clause, it may introduce them by means of an adverbial number: šanîš, “secondly,” before the second explanation; šalšiš, “thirdly,” before the third; and so on (the highest such number attested is ḫamšiš, “fifthly”).7 The explanations thus introduced are independent from each other, even though they can be based on similar philological interpretations.
The different interpretations offered in commentaries may be based on divergent grammatical analyses of the base text. This is the case in the following passage, which deals with an omen whose main interpretative difficulty lies in an ambiguous logogram: ti-ma, which can mean either “to carry” or (more frequently) “to live.” The commentator introduces the first possible interpretation of the omen as a paraphrase, preceded by the relative pronoun ša. He then proceeds to justify this interpretation by giving one of the possible values of the logogram ti-ma. A second possible interpretation follows to this one, beginning with the technical term šanîš:
As stated above, the first equation is occasionally said to be the “literal” one (see above on kayyān(u)), whereas the rest of the explanations in the series can be of a more speculative nature. However, this is not always the case: often all the interpretations are of the same type.
- 1. For some examples, see CCP 3.1.u37,CCP 3.8.2.A, CCP 4.2.W, CCP 3.1.u22, CCP 7.2.u13 (some of these fragments may belong to the same tablet).
- 2. A similar hierarchy of cola is employed in some Late Babylonian bilingual texts, in which the Akkadian text is nested in the Sumerian text by means of a triple colon to its left and a double one to its right.
- 3. Note the unique writing ana … šaṭir, “it is written about …,” in the commentary CCP 3.8.2.A o 8.
- 4. In fact, the phrase described above, ana (muḫḫi) … qabi, “it is said about …,” is also attested with aššu, aššu … qabi, “it is said about …,” for instance in the commentary to Marduk’s Address to the Demons (CCP 2.2.2).
- 5. Compare dannu = kabtu e.g. in Izbu Gurru Mahīru 71.
- 6. Note that no technical term for a “non-literal” or “figurative” interpretation has yet been identified.
- 7. Some commentaries introduce all alternative explanations by means of šanîš, “secondly,” irregardless of their sequential order: e.g. CCP 3.5.25 o 12-14. For a reference to a sixth explanation in a commentary that uses the expression ša pî n, “from the nth mouth,” see Frahm, 2011Babylonian and Assyrian Text Commentaries. Origins of Interpretation. Ugarit-Verlag, 2011.: 164. ,