Today’s post looks at some of the general background to these issues – some later posts will look at how poets of the era composed their work.
Poetry and song make up an important part of In a Milk and Honeyed Land. They appear in the regular religious celebrations as well as major festivals and as a part of everyday interactions between people. The romantic and marital relations that Damariel enjoys are shaped by responses to music. What do we know about them in the real history of the second millennium Levant?
Prose accounts of various kinds – including everyday items such as personal complaints and lists of possessions as well as war diaries or historical annals – make up the majority of pieces of writing that have been recovered from the ancient near east. However, a great deal of poetry has also been found. Given the fragile nature of writing materials, and the fact that in this era a great deal of information was held and passed on verbally, we can be confident that both singing and public recital were of great social importance. Just as in In a Milk and Honeyed Land, they were used to keep hold of cultural memory and religious expression, as well as to have fun.
The Egyptian climate is much more suitable for preserving written items, especially in the south of the country, than the countries in the Levant. So it is from Egypt that we find not only poems written on papyrus, pottery and stone, but also wall pictures of male and female singers and musicians, typically performing at banquets or parties. Anyone fortunate enough to have seen the British Museum exhibition of wall paintings from the tomb of Nebamun (http://goo.gl/SgSy4), or at least to have read the accompanying book (http://goo.gl/dbHVF), will remember the group of women musicians there. We even have a few tomb paintings where fragments of songs are shown above groups of labourers at work – perhaps a romantic ideal, but also perhaps recording for posterity something of Egyptian working class culture. The overwhelming majority of poems found in Egypt address middle class and elite interest and preoccupations, naturally enough since the ability to write fluently was limited to people within these groups.
Within the Hebrew bible, of course, both poems and prose can be found, although it is not always clear from the original language which mode the author was using in every case. The very oldest layers of this complex book consist of poems, and some people think that the prose portions were developed later around a skeleton of songs and poems that held the emerging nation’s memory. Another possibility is that both prose and poems crystallised side by side out of oral tradition, and we recognise the antiquity of the poetic portions more easily than prose since it is less able to change without losing its essential core.
The poets and songsters of that age would have learned their trade from the cultures they encountered on a daily basis. Then as now, cross-cultural influences could spread as people moved about or met each other at shared venues. In a Milk and Honeyed Land proposes that Nepheret brought knowledge of Egyptian styles up into the hill country, and that she and Damariel together worked on a hybrid style blending together the music of their cultures. Later on, this fusion was introduced to the Israelites, who took up some parts and not others, merging them with their own traditions.
It is, I believe, a creative mix of this kind that we find in the oldest biblical poems – Egyptian, Canaanite and Israelite styles brought together into a unified whole. This was the major topic of the academic work I did, under the title Triumphal accounts in Egyptian and Hebrew, planned for ebook publication later this year. Meanwhile, you can enjoy the fictional presentation of these ideas in In a Milk and Honeyed Land.
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