REPAC is short for “Repetition, Parallelism and Creativity: an Inquiry into the Construction of Meaning in Ancient Mesopotamian Literature and Erudition”. The project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement n° 803060). REPAC is an ERC Starting Grant project running from 2019 to 2024. The research team is led by the Principal Investigator Dr. Nicla De Zorzi and it will include, over the whole course of the project, four post-doctoral researchers and two PhD candidates.

REPAC investigates repetition and parallelism as structuring and meaning-making devices in Akkadian literature and scholarly writing, aiming to demonstrate their grounding in a culture-specific “analogical hermeneutics” which pervades the core texts of Ancient Mesopotamian culture. In the final phase of the project, we will highlight the specifics of the Mesopotamian evidence by comparing analogical hermeneutics in Ancient Mesopotamian literature and scholarly writing with parallel textual patterning in the closely related corpus of Biblical poetry and, as an absolute first, in the Ancient Chinese literary and philosophical corpus.


The project is envisaged as a contribution to the intellectual history of Ancient Mesopotamia. Its goal is to study a key feature of the mentality and world-view of the learned scribes who produced the core works of Mesopotamian culture.

Our sources are literary and scholarly texts written in the Babylonian language on clay tablets in the Cuneiform script. The topical range of these compositions extends from literary gems such as the Gilgamesh Epic to lengthy compendia of a highly technical nature on magic and divination.

We aim to reveal the “analogical hermeneutics” embedded in these compositions. That is to say, we seek to a culture-specific literary and scholarly method in which analogical thinking plays a fundamental role. REPAC’s working hypothesis is that the composition of the most important literary and scholarly texts from Ancient Mesopotamia was strongly influenced by processes of analogical inference and that these processes can be brought to light by focusing on a structuring device whose widespread use in Ancient Mesopotamian erudite compositions has never been investigated before: textual repetition.

In Ancient Mesopotamian literature and erudite text production, repetition in its several forms occurred not only as an aesthetic ornament. Grounded in the pragmatics of the texts, it served as a springboard for the construction of meaning through analogy. REPAC will demonstrate this on the basis of a corpus drawn from three major genres, literature, magical texts, and divinatory compendia. We are the first to investigate repetition in all its facets as a single phenomenon and to highlight the role of analogical reasoning in framing the scribal world-view that accounts for its importance and ubiquity. Analogical reasoning and the power attributed to analogy in general draw on a culture-specific belief in the interconnectedness of words, concepts, and things sharing an element of similarity.

Ancient Mesopotamia can be placed firmly within a continuum of cultures which are characterized by world-views based on interconnections formed by similarity and displaying a predilection for analogical reasoning, but specifics need to be established. In the project’s comparative component, this worldview is elucidated further through the lens of comparative evidence from other cultures, in particular Ancient China.

Ancient Mesopotamia and Ancient China stand out among ‘analogist’ cultures in general. These two complex agrarian societies have obvious parallels in chronology and socio-economic and political structure. Crucially, and in contrast to almost all other ‘analogist’ cultures, in both cultures textual repetition and analogical reasoning are heavily dependent on the nature of the non-alphabetic script used. REPAC will investigate these similarities.

Another area of comparison is represented by repetition and parallelism in Biblical poetry. While profiting from the methodology of Biblical studies, REPAC will open up a scarcely used reservoir of comparative Babylonian material for the study of repetition in Classical Hebrew poetry: the project’s text corpora will provide proxy data for modelling the functions of repetition and parallelism in ways that cannot be achieved based on the Biblical material alone.

REPAC adopts a combination of methods grounded in philology, textual criticism, and historical interpretation. The project aims at reconstructing, if not an entire mode of thought, than the way in which a certain historically conditioned mode of thought gave shape to a whole range of erudite textual genres of one of the principal civilizations of antiquity.

REPAC has four specific objectives, which are linked to four interrelated work packages and a specific set of research questions:

  1. REPAC will investigate comprehensively the role played by repetition as a structuring device in Akkadian literature and scholarly writing. Studying textual elements which are separate but yoked together through contiguity and similarity, the project will reveal repetition as a major vector for poetic creativity, rhetorical effectiveness, and inventiveness in argumentation.
  2. REPAC will establish the functions of repetition in context, i.e., with respect to genre, pragmatics and linguistic function. In particular, it will clarify the role played in literature by repetition beyond the level of poetic ornamentation; it will provide a study of ritualistic forms involving similarity- and analogy-based repetition; it will elucidate the power of similarity-based textual patterning and analogical reasoning in divination.
  3. REPAC will clarify how repetition and analogical reasoning reflect a vision of the world as permeated by correspondences between its parts resulting from bonds of similarity.
  4. REPAC will create a dialogue with relevant neighbouring fields of study regarding the investigation of repetition and parallelism and of the underlying worldviews.

Work Packages

The goal of WP 1 is to assemble a comprehensive interdisciplinary bibliography and to define a unified terminology for the description of the textual phenomena investigated by the project.
The philological work packages 2-4 provide the project’s disciplinary part by focusing, respectively, on literature, magic, and divination. The principle outcomes of WP 2-4 will be three monographs on variant repetition and analogical reasoning in literature, magic, and divination which will offer an innovative reading of core texts of Mesopotamian erudition.
Work package 2 will focus on variant repetition in Akkadian poetry, i.e., in texts based on the poetic line or verse, including narrative (myths and epics), celebratory (e.g., hymns to the gods), and didactic compositions (e.g., the Babylonian Theodicy). Given the long and often uncertain textual history of many compositions, consistency in terms of transmission and historical setting will be achieved by focusing on texts known from the first millennium BCE. For compositions whose textual history reaches back into the second millennium BCE, systematic comparisons will elucidate diachronic change with respect to the phenomena studied. Second, we will study as a separate group texts for which an actual date of composition in the first millennium is certain or at least likely, with a view towards identifying the specifics of this group. The WP has a double focus: first, it will offer a comprehensive description of the phenomena it examines; and second, it aims at an interpretation of their function, in terms of pragmatics, beyond the level of poetic ornamentation. The PI will undertake this research as part of REPAC’s team. Martina Schmidl will assist the PI as a postdoctoral researcher.
Work package 3 focuses on variant repetition and analogical reasoning in magical compositions. Akkadian anti-witchcraft literature will be the core corpus. This subset of the magical corpus of the first millennium BCE is available, to a large extent, in excellent modern editions (http://www.cmawro.altorientalistik.uni-wuerzburg.de/startseite/). To ensure representativeness, selected magical and ritual compositions of other types, all as attested in the first millennium BCE, will also be taken into account. A PhD candidate will complete the program set out in this WP as a PhD thesis under the supervision of the PI. Francis Simons will assist the PI as a postdoctoral researcher.
Work package 4 investigates the role of repetition in first millennium divinatory compositions with a view towards understanding the interplay of horizontal (sign – prediction) and vertical (inter-omen) relations of similitude and contrast in omen sequences. The WP will elucidate the nature of the analogical reasoning that underlies the ʽparallelisticʼ patterning of these omen sequences. This WP will examine two major first millennium BCE corpora of divinatory texts. The first is represented by the standardised or ʽcanonicalʼ version of the extispicy series iškar bārûti, “the series of the diviner’s craft,” or simply bārûtu. The second corpus is represented by the astrological omen series Enūma Anu Enlil “When Anu and Enlil”. WP 4 will be the task of a PhD candidate who will complete the program as a PhD thesis under the supervision of the PI.
Work package 5 has a double focus. Firstly, it will unite the several threads of REPAC’s argument. Secondly, it will widen its perspective through cross-cultural comparison. WP 5 will compare the role of repetition in the compositions investigated in WPs 2-4 and will attempt to explain differences by referencing the divergent pragmatic settings of the text corpora. It will also synthesise REPAC’s findings regarding the pervasiveness and impact of the worldview which, according to the project’s working hypothesis, underlies our sources: the scribes’ belief in the interconnectedness of words, concepts and things sharing a bond of similarity which is elaborated on through analogical reasoning. REPAC will develop this hypothesis, turning it into a major building-block in the reconstruction of Ancient Mesopotamian scholarly thought. For cross-cultural comparison, WP 5 will take up threads of an argument for which WP 1 will have laid the groundwork: repetition and parallelism in other literatures and the existence in other cultures of similar worldviews based on interconnections formed by similarity and analogy and displaying a predilection for analogical reasoning. Two areas of comparison will command REPAC’s particular attention: the much-studied issue of parallelism in Biblical poetry, and the question of correlative thinking and literary forms of argument in Ancient China. WP 5 will put REPAC’s work on analogical thought in Mesopotamia on the map for the history of ideas in general. WP 5 will be largely a collective effort of the entire team of REPAC, which will be reinforced by a Sinologist and a Biblicist.

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