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The Ram in the Thicket:
the Cradle of Civilization

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The Ram in the Thicket 

An International Interdisciplinary Colloquium

September 23, 2005, Carter Hall at USI, 9:00 am - 4:00 pm


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Click on program name for abstract information
Session 1
9:00 am
Session 2
10:00 am
Session 3
11:00 am
Session 4
12:00 pm
Session 5
1:00 pm
Session 6
2:00 pm
3:00 pm


After the Reception

The Great LyreWhat is The Ram in the Thicket?

The Ram in the Thicket is one of many stunningly beautiful art objects made of gold, lapis and shell circa 2600 BCE at UR, the legendary birthplace of Abraham.  This interdisciplinary colloquium will examine inherited shared cultural motifs from the Cradle of Civilization, their origins and manifestations from the time of the Ram in the Thicket to the present.  Some topics will include: The Epic of Gilgamesh; Sumerian mythology; the goddess in Sumerian, Akkadian and early Hebrew traditions; the first poet, Enheduanna, 2300 BCE; French and English influence in the Middle East; contemporary journalism in the Middle East; veiling practices and gender issues; father-son relations in patriarchy; sacrifice in the Old Testament; and belief in the afterlife.  The colloquium will investigate the rich heritage of the Middle East, from its earliest beginnings in the creation of writing, urban life, western religion, poetry, metallurgy, science and medicine, which is our cultural inheritance in the present.

Liberal Arts faculty from the Departments of Psychology, Journalism, Philosophy, Sociology, English, Humanities, Art, Foreign Language, Art, and Political Science will give twenty minute lectures, poetry, and prose readings.

Each session will begin on the hour from 9 am to 3 pm, including two 20-minute lectures. All students, faculty and staff are encouraged to attend as many sessions as possible. A reception will follow at 3 pm.

The Great LyreAbstracts of Presentations

  • SESSION 1:  9:00 am

Prof. Eric Von Fuhrmann
Sumerian Mythology

Archaeological evidence proves the beginning of walled cities from around 3000 BC in Mesopotamia and the building of temple complexes within them. These temples were built for the cult of particular gods: for example, the Sumerian city of Eridu for the god Enki. Because life was precarious, it was prudent for cities to be guarded by a special god who was responsible for both the city and its people. The temple was his house, and rituals of feeding, clothing and washing the god were carried out within the sanctuary. With the god lived his spouse and sometimes his children.

In the third millennium B.C. the Sumerians developed religious ideas and spiritual concepts which have left an indelible impress on the modern world, especially Judaism, Christianity and Islam. On the intellectual level Sumerian thinkers and sages, as a result of their speculations on the origin and nature of the universe, evolved a cosmology and theology which carried such high conviction that they became the basic creed and dogma of much of the ancient Near East. Sumerian minstrels and bards, and their later heirs, the poets and scribes, created the richest mythology of the ancient Near East, which cut the gods down to human size, but did so with understanding, reverence, and above all, originality and imagination.

Dr. Richard R. Mussard, Philosophy
Wisdom Literature and the Quest for Wisdom: Babylon and Beyond

This presentation begins with a clarification of the nature of wisdom literature through a reference to the various genre’s and themes of those biblical works originally defining the concept: Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastics, the Song of Songs, Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon. It proceeds to note that the existence of these forms in the earlier literature of the Near East serves to confirm the international and multicultural phenomena of wisdom literature. This international character is even further confirmed by modern instances in our popular literature. However, this presentation also ventures to consider even broader meanings of wisdom literature than is contained in these earliest forms. Harold Bloom’s passing, and somewhat paradoxical claim, that “any major poem is a wisdom writing since even a great unwisdom is wisdom” (italics mine) is taken to constitute one reasonable expansion of the idea of wisdom literature. However, other instances beyond poetry can be found in the great proclamations of divine revelation, in the great systems of human law, and in the spectacular developments in the liberal arts and sciences. For the idea of wisdom has historically been associated with these expressions as well.

Beyond this, this presentation considers the role of wisdom literatures in the quest for wisdom itself. Is this literature sufficient for becoming wise? Is it necessary? Is it merely helpful? Or is it utterly useless? This requires an articulation of the core idea or essence of wisdom. For this purpose I propose as an adequate characterization of the essence of wisdom that it is a state of integrity in knowing, being and acting, and not merely a state of integrity in believing, being and acting. Only with something like this hand can we properly sort out the literature that is genuinely wise-making in the fullest sense from that which is not. For only literature that expresses true beliefs that are properly justified and genuinely reliable can constitute wisdom in the proper sense. Bloom is ironical or wrong in saying that “even a great unwisdom is wisdom,” without making it clear, or without our understanding, that it is only when an encounter with great expressions of unwisdom is properly critical that a growth of wisdom can result.  

  • SESSION 2:  10:00 am

Dr. S. B. Darrell, English
Secrets and Forbidden Places

The Epic of Gilgamesh, by far the oldest poem strongly to influence Western civilization, derives from legends about a king of Uruk (in ancient Sumeria, now Iraq) who lived about 2700 BCE. From those legends come several versions of Gilgamesh’s story—including a great battle, a vengeful goddess, a deceptive serpent, a long quest-journey, the original story of the Great Flood (later used by the Genesis writer).

This paper focuses on the Gilgamesh poem written by Sin-leqqi-unninni, an exorcist-priest-poet who lived in the Middle Babylonian period, sometime after 1595 BCE. This priest-poet shaped various Gilgamesh legends into one epic, written in cuneiform on 12 clay tablets, front and back. In the poem, Sin-leqqi-unninni addresses issues that still concern us:

  • how human beings become civilized and fit for urban life (Gilgamesh, Enkidu, Shamhat)
  • how heroes fight together to improve life for their people (Gilgamesh and Enkidu against Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven)
  • how gods intervene in human life—for good and ill (Aruru, Enlil, Ninsun, Ishtar)
  • how human beings respond to loss, death, the desire for immortality (Gilgamesh, Enkidu, Siduri, Urshanabi, Utnapishtim)

As a result of these stories and themes, the poet reveals how Gilgamesh becomes the “hero who knew secrets and saw forbidden places, / who could ever speak of the time before the / Flood” (I. 4-6). Indeed, the tyrant in the poem’s beginning becomes not only a great king—who built the great walls of Uruk--but also a wise, good man who learned the secrets of valuing this life.  ( FULL TEXT )

Dr. Maurice Hamington, Philosophy
Gilgamesh in the 24th Century

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest known stories in the world. It is a complex tale of a great leader who takes on grand adventures in an effort to gain better understanding of the big questions of the cosmos: life, death, divinity, purpose. In the process, the hero, Gilgamesh, provides numerous lessons about humanity. Many different people who sought to define themselves through their heroes wrote the epic over generations. Today, an epic narrative is being collectively constructed about the future that also seeks insight about the human condition: Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry may have been the architect but numerous authors, scriptwriters, and fans have contributed to amassing over 700 Star Trek television episodes, 10 full-length feature films, and hundreds of novels. These futuristic epic heroes have names like Kirk, Picard, Sisco, and Janeway but they too take on grand adventures to seek knowledge. This talk will explore some of the parallels as well as the moral and philosophical importance of the epic adventures Gilgamesh and Star Trek.

  • SESSION 3: 11:00 pm

Dr. John Gottcent, English
The Silence of Abraham

The binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 is one of the most dramatic and mysterious incidents in the Hebrew Bible. One question that adds to the mystery is “why does Abraham not speak up when Yahweh tells him to ‘take your son Isaac, your only son, whom you love, and sacrifice him atop a mountain which I will show you’?” The easy answer—Abraham is simply evidencing great faith—is belied by several other incidents earlier in the narrative in which Abraham, facing somewhat analogous challenges, responds quite differently—by ignoring Yahweh, scoffing at him, laughing at him, negotiating with him. This presentation will explore these issues and offer a theory as to “the silence of Abraham,” suggesting that this silence derives from an evolving relationship in which both Abraham and Yahweh test one another and develop a mutual trust as a result.   ( FULL TEXT )

Pat Aakhus, Director of International Studies
Reading of essay on Ur

(excerpt) In her chamber Queen Puabi sleeps and her kingdom also has been cast into sleep, so that when she wakes, thousands of years from now, she will not be alone. Her family and friends will not have passed away. This nectar sends them all to sleep. Though skin turns to earth, leaves stay gold, carnelian red, lapis violet as summer midnight. Thorns grow thick around them, dust of millennia falls and lies like silken coverlets on the sleeping people; they too turn to dust.  ( FULL TEXT )

  • SESSION 4:  12:00 pm

Dr. Charles Barber, Political Science
British and French Impacts on the Middle East: Three Phases of Influence, 1905 to 2005

During the 20th century, Great Britain and France had continuous impacts on the Middle East. Their influence progressed through three distinct phases. The first phase, Colonialism, continued until 1946. Britain owned territory on the Arabian peninsula, while France owned the Maghreb (northwestern Africa). Both countries held Fertile Crescent mandates for the League of Nations after World War I. Britain ran Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine, while France governed Lebanon and Syria. The end of World War II heralded the dawning of a second phase, Neo-Colonialism. From 1946 to 1991, these two European powers yielded their political influence, while still attempting to hold on to their economic investments. Two events symbolic of this phase were the 1956 Suez War, which led to British-French withdrawal from Egypt, and the 1962 French loss of Algeria. The U.S. and Soviet Union filled power vacuums as part of their ongoing Cold War. During the present third phase, EuroMed, Britain and France have supported European Union efforts to establish a Mediterranean Community. While British-French impacts on the Middle East are more subtle than they were 100 years ago, they are still significant. ( FULL TEXT )

Dr. Chad Tew, Journalism
The New Information War: The Role of the Internet in the Co-construction of War

Military strategists have recognized that the control of information is an important component of modern warfare among mediated societies. During the First Iraq War, American television coverage dominated the international mediascape. In contrast, America has not been able to control the coverage of the Second Iraq War as effectively. First, Arab-speaking satellite television networks, such as Al-Jazeera, now compete with western news media for a regional audience. Second, this is the first American war to be fought in the Internet Age, which has allowed Arab media to publish online news accounts for Arab and non-Arab speaking audiences. Third, the internet has also allowed Iraqi citizens the opportunity to communicate within and beyond their borders. These trends have given rise to more cross-cultural contacts between warring societies.

What are the implications of this cross cultural contact? As the war began, the “Baghdad Blogger” began an online diary, called a weblog. The weblog allowed him to tell others about life in Baghdad as the Americans invaded and attempted to establish control. The international mainstream media then amplified his accounts through their coverage of his weblog. And his internet postings were later assembled and published in book form. Through an analysis of the Iraqi War bloggers, I will apply mass media theories to explain how these new media tools have been used to co-construct the war. Co-construction is the phenomenon in which different parties share their perspectives to form a meaningful experience of an event. This phenomenon is more relevant in the Second Iraq War as Americans and Iraqis have increased means to communicate with each other.

  • SESSION 5:  1:00 pm

Dr Steve Williams, Sociology, Director of Gender Studies
The Rights of Women in the Middle East: When is it “Our” Business?

One of the most dominant Western images of the Arab and Muslim world is that of veiled and cloistered women, denied access to the public sphere and kept ignorant by their husbands or fathers. The apparent inequality of women has been used in the West as evidence for the “backwardness” of the Muslim religion and the Arab culture. In reality the practice of purdah - the physical and symbolic separation of the sexes - was maintained in ancient Persia and Babylon long before the Muslim faith existed. Yet untangling the historical, cultural, and religious influences on gender relations in the Middle East is a task that few in the West seem inclined to attempt. Many Muslim women support the veiling of their physical selves as a practice of honor and dignity, a means of avoiding the common Western view of women as sex objects. In some cases, however, the curtailing of women’s rights seems disturbingly clear, as evidenced in Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. This paper attempts to develop some criteria for distinguishing between judgments from the outside (i.e. Western) world which are simple ethnocentric pronouncements and those which are legitimate calls for the protection of human rights.

Dr. Leslie J. Roberts, French
The Female Face of God: Enheduana’s poems to Inanna and the Shekinah of Hidden Jewish texts

This paper will explore the non-traditional, apocryphal elements of the Jewish heritage by going back to the source – Sumerian civilization. The Canaanite religion taken on and transformed by the Hebrews was based on the Sumerian cult of Inanna and her consort. I will study the Biblical images and symbols that come directly from the Sumerian cult, such as the tree of life, the serpent, the apple, the high places, the bride and bridegroom.

  • SESSION 6:  2:00 pm

Jim McGarrah, English
A reading of original poetry

The Good Soldier (excerpt)
          I - Isaac

The sand swirls around the hem of his robe,
tents billowing in the distance like canvas sails
as he and Abraham trudge away from camp
toward Mt. Moriah.
The sun casts his father’s shadow
over the son and shades the desert cactus
in blackness. The boy smells their vanilla
blooms, feels their roots against
his sandal soles and wonders why his father
carts the wood for Yahweh’s altar so far
from home, so close to desolation.
He asks as they climb into the clouds,
slipping on the damp rocks,
with the cries of carrion birds and jackals
in their ears, why no sacrificial lamb trails behind.
His father says they have a deal with God
and Isaac knows his duty is obeisance as the heir.
He never questions why his father’s
God might need his youthful blood, or how much
land its shedding might buy for a people
not yet born, but stacks the kindling on the flat
plateau as Abraham glides his blade
along a whetstone. “This will hurt me more
than it hurts you.” He hears his father whisper
hollow words that will ring for generations of sons
and wants to cry, “How is that possible?”
Instead, he lets his father bind his hands
and lay him on the metal grate so blood
will drip and fuel the fire below.
Abraham puts his palm against the sweating forehead,
coaxes the throat to expose itself as if it were a white rose,
the bloom most beautiful right before it dies.
Isaac sees the knife slice through the thin mountain
air, the sun reflects his face off the metal,
the taste of copper fills his mouth when he bites his lip.
His heart thumps behind his eardrums so loud the clouds
tremble and gnash their teeth against a graying sky.
What does death smell like - brackish water
in the salt sea, his mother Sarah’s milk-less breast,
and brother Ishmael’s tainted flesh, all soaked
into the cuff of his father’s wool robe as it drapes
across his eyes to blind the final stroke.
What does death sound like?
The harsh bleat of an innocent ram caught in a thicket.


John Gibson, Latin and English
A reading of original poetry

Seville Cathedral
8th July 1401. “Let us build a church so big that men will think us mad.”

‘To the greater glory of God,’ he could or would,
Perhaps, have said, atop the minaret.
The muezzin’s call to prayer’s been stilled for good,
And jangling bells will soon ring out a threat
Across the Judería’s roofs: “Abjure
Or burn, convert or fly.” The mosque’s austere
Geometry’s no more, yet words endure:
The Arabs’ rio grande, Guadalquivir.

This pious dark’s a store of gold and gore,
Transmuted alchemy of death and sweat.
Saeta and the drums cannot ignore
The New World’s passion or the Old’s regret.
On Holy Days Seises dance the Virgin’s ecstasy;
Close by, a tomb of bronze preserves the Admiral’s fantasy.


A Teaching Enhancement Awards (TEA) Grant Project...

through the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence and with support from the School of Liberal Arts and the Society for Arts and Humanities.

For more information, contact:

Pat Aakhus, Director of International Studies 

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