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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Dress and Identity in Old Babylonian Texts

  • Author(s): Tanaka, Terri-lynn Wai Ping Hong
  • Advisor(s): Veldhuis, Niek
  • et al.

The present study argues that using dress theory is a productive means of reading cuneiform texts from ancient Mesopotamia. Although anthropological studies on dress have flourished in recent years, and despite the economic and social importance of dress in ancient Mesopotamia, previous research has focused on either archaeological remains or pictorial representations of dress; however, anthropological theories on dress have not yet been applied to ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform texts written in Sumerian and Akkadian. This is surprising, given that the rich and varied cuneiform textual tradition provides a unique perspective on these cultural phenomena.

Three major anthropological theories on dress have been identified: the semiotic approach, in which an item of dress functions as a symbol, representing not the item of dress itself, but an abstract idea or concept; the dress as material object approach, in which the focus is on the item of dress itself as an object that can communicate aspects of identity; and the use of dress in the construction of identity approach, which emphasizes the surface of the body, and looks at the body as a medium on which identity can be constructed using dress. It builds off of the second approach in that it requires understanding what aspects of identity an item of dress is communicating, in order to understand how the individual is using dress to actively construct identity.

This study starts with a philological analysis of items of dress that appear in texts to discern what aspects of identity are expressed through the item (dress as material object approach) in order to examine what identity the individual is constructing (or having constructed for him or her) by the use of various items of dress (dress used in the active construction of identity approach). Since dress plays an important role in a wide variety of texts (from legal to administrative to epistolary) throughout all of Mesopotamian history, it would be beyond the scope of this study to examine every text in which dress appears. The purpose of this study is to apply these methods to a selected group of texts from the Old Babylonian period, to demonstrate both the use and the usefulness of these methods in reading ancient Mesopotamian texts. This study examines selected texts in three different contexts: literary, legal, and ritual.

The chapter on literary contexts focuses on the composition "Inana's Descent to the Netherworld," and argues that identity, as expressed through dress, plays a key role in understanding various aspects of the text, including the significance of Inana's dressing and undressing, why Inana was judged for her attempt to take over the Netherworld, and why she handed over Dumuzi as a substitute for herself.

The chapter on legal contexts focuses on the use of the hem of the garment in legal contexts. It argues that the hem of the garment is equivalent to a cylinder seal in expressing an individual's legal identity, which carries with it both rights and responsibilities. As a result, it can be used to bring about a change of identity for the woman in both marriage and divorce.

The chapter on ritual contexts focuses on the use of dress to bring about a change of identity through a rite of passage at various points in the life cycle: at birth, and at death. At birth, dress is used to start constructing the newborn's gender identity (as opposed to its biological sex). At death, dress is used to transfer the deceased from being a living member of the community to being among the dead.

Thus, looking at dress as a material object that can communicate identity, in order to understand how the individual involved is constructing his or her identity (or having his or her identity constructed) is a valuable way of reading (or re-reading) ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform texts. Not only does it make it possible to investigate the idea of identity, which might otherwise not be directly accessible, but it also illuminates aspects of the texts that might be puzzling or else overlooked, if items of dress are treated not as items of dress, per se, but as symbols that represent something else.

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