By Contributing Writer E.L. Meszaros

The concept of “canon” is mired in controversy. Should a canon be defined by the divine author of the component texts, by its continued use as a set of objects of study, or as a prescriptive ruleset? Defining a canon can be problematic, and the results often prove troublesome as well, often perpetuating ideas of white male importance (Black, Reconstructing the Canon).

“Canon” is no less controversial when applied to Mesopotamia, beyond the standard ideas of a biblical or “Western” canon. Scholars debate not only whether this term, which is borrowed from other fields, is applicable to the ancient near east but also its exact definition in this context. Is the Mesopotamian canon defined by the authority of the text, with a divine or legendary author like that required by the biblical canon? Standardization may also play a role in identifying canonical titles, with texts that are widely copied with little variation indicating a general cultural importance.
By looking at these characteristics of a canon in the context of one Mesopotamian text, we can see if there’s any value in borrowing this debated idea within Assyriology. Examining the validity of the concept of a canon within the Mesopotamian world by looking at its application to the exemplar text MUL.APIN allows us to evaluate the future — and necessity — of this concept.
MUL.APIN is a Babylonian astronomical treatise dated to the early 7th century B.C.E. at the latest, though possibly earlier (Watson and Horowitz, Writing Science Before the Greeks, 1). The name comes from the first line of the text, a common practice for Mesopotamian literature, and translates to the name of the constellation “The Plough.” MUL.APIN is customarily presented in all caps separated by a period, as is standard for transliterations of Sumerian logograms. It compiles astronomical information like star lists and astral phenomena of planets, stars, the sun, and the moon, as well as more mundane information on weather patterns and shadow measurements (Steele, Watson and Horowitz, Writing Science Before the Greeks). More than sixty copies of this text have been found as partially preserved tablets from a range of geographical locations (in Babylonia and Assyria as well as into Anatolia) and from different historical periods (from Neo-Assyrian to Seleucid), suggesting its wide use (Steele, “The Continued Relevance of MUL.APIN in Late Babylonian Astronomy” 4).


MUL.APIN Clay Table, Public Domain

MUL.APIN is generally presented in two tablets of some 400 lines (Watson and Horowitz, Writing Science Before the Greeks 2). These tablets show a remarkable consistency across the known preserved copies, though some versions appear on one or three tablets and the tablet division is not fixed (Hunger and Steele, The Babylonian Astronomical Compendium MUL.APIN 1). MUL.APIN is a particularly interesting vehicle for examining ideas of canonicity in Mesopotamia given its relatively stable form and long history of continued use.
We can attempt to interpret the unique stability and longevity of MUL.APIN through the lens of the canon to understand whether this framework is useful in the context of Mesopotamian texts. One critical component of canonical works is the authority of the text. Often, authority of a text is based on the authority of its author; in the case of the canon, this is perhaps most frequently associated with divine authorship. When gods are attributed as the origin of a text, the text itself gains authority in turn. This divine origin hearkens back to early problematical definitions of a biblical canon, associating the concept of a canon with divine nature. Despite conflicting ideas for the role of authorship in conferring authority (and therefore canonicity), the application to MUL.APIN is relatively easy as this text has no known author. Regardless of whether divine or historic authors convey authority, MUL.APIN benefits in no way from this.
Authority can be granted to a text by more than just its author, however. Rochberg-Halton (“Canonicity in Cuneiform Texts” 136) explains how antiquity confers authority, claiming that a divine author is no different in ability to establish authority from a legendary or historic author. Divinity does not have to be the focus, then, but rather historicity. MUL.APIN, with its continued use through many periods of Mesopotamian history, seems to be able to lay claim to antiquity even if it has no named historic author. By virtue of continued use over millennia, MUL.APIN becomes a text with authority because of its historic nature and established use over a long period of time.
Authority, however, as established through divine or ancient authorship or by continued use over time, is a problematic way to establish canonicity. The lack of an author for MUL.APIN rules out many methods for establishing the authority of this text. Additionally, membership within the group of texts viewed as “canonical” by this criterion happens over time and not as a result of conscious decision making (Lambert, “Ancestors, Authors, and Canonicity” 9). Thus, the authority of the text is a back-formation and not necessarily descriptive of how a text was used. Moreover, no clear definition of authority seems applicable. A canon defined by authority of texts is therefore problematic, has little explanatory power, and what it can help define can already be taken care of through other means of examination.
One of the most commonly regarded methods of determining membership in the Mesopotamian canon is through the standardization of text. Veldhuis (“TIN.TIR= Babylon, the Question of Canonization and the Production of Meaning” 80) writes that “In Assyriological literature canonicity has almost exclusively been defined in text-critical terms, taking standardization as a near-synonym of canonization.” The more variation found within a text, the less it has gone through the process of canonization. But this definition has its own associated problems in that what it means to be “standardized” is still hard to define. Rochberg-Halton (“Canonicity in Cuneiform Texts” 128) claims that “Exact wording does not seem to have been an essential ingredient in textual transmission,” and that the content of a given text could remain flexible in exact wording or even order, resulting in what she describes as “only a relative stabilization.”
Palace of Nebuchadnezzar

Panorama view of the reconstructed Southern Palace of Nebuchadnezzar, 6th Century Babylon, Iraq

One of the unique characteristics of MUL.APIN is its unusual stability. Steele (“The Continued Relevance of MUL.APIN in Late Babylonian Astronomy” 2–3) writes that “The composition was remarkably stable with extremely few differences between the preserved copies.” Hobson (The Exact Transmission of Texts in The First Millennium BCE 153) claims that in all sources of MUL.APIN there are only around 200 orthographic variants, ranging from missing determinatives and logographic/syllabic spelling substitution (characteristics of the cuneiform writing system), the use of case endings, and changes in grammatical number (Hobson, The Exact Transmission of Texts in The First Millennium BCE 153–155). While many of these variations are particularly minor and agreement between individual tablets is fairly significant, Hobson (Hobson, The Exact Transmission of Texts in The First Millennium BCE 153) also notes that “the rule seems to be that where some sources agree in a particular aspect of their orthography they will disagree elsewhere.” These minimally diverse renderings suggest, not the lack of a definitive version, but rather equal employ of the differing variants. Despite the presence of variations, the number identified is limited and represents a highly standardized text within its cultural context.
Not only is MUL.APIN remarkably standardized, but standardization to this level is unusual in the astronomical texts (Steele, “The Continued Relevance of MUL.APIN in Late Babylonian Astronomy” 13–14). Such stability is not the result of few remaining copies of the text, either; more than sixty copies of MUL.APIN remain to us, fixing the stability of this text over a large number of documents. Our sources also come from wide geographical and temporal spreads, suggesting that the standardization of MUL.APIN survived movement and transplantation from city to city across time (Steele, “The Continued Relevance of MUL.APIN in Late Babylonian Astronomy”).
However, MUL.APIN is a much shorter text than others that have been assigned to the Mesopotamian canon, and often shorter texts display fewer variations. The reduced stability in these other, longer texts that are frequently assigned to the Mesopotamian canon suggests that stability is not a necessary attribute for canon membership. Attributing MUL.APIN’s substantial textual stability to a canon therefore does not explain why this text demonstrates unique standardization and is a trait that does not appear to define canonical texts.
Additionally, standardization can also be analyzed outside of the context of canonicity, as part of the Mesopotamian scribal school or even just in regular textual comparisons. All together, though examining standardization touches on interesting aspects of the MUL.APIN text, treating MUL.APIN as a canonical text in order to examine aspects of standardization is not necessary and does not provide new information.
For an idea that is already cumbersome, burdened by meaning and definitions from outside fields and disputed heavily within Assyriology, a canon provides little new information about MUL.APIN and no new tools for examination. Rather than continuing debate on how to define and delimit a Mesopotamian canon, it seems more productive to set the idea aside entirely and focus on individual components. An analysis of stability and authority outside of the context of a canon proves more useful to understanding MUL.APIN than any attempt to lump these characteristics under one overarching term. If the idea of a canon does not aid in understanding or interpreting, then it’s time to let go of this idea.
E.L. Meszaros is a PhD student in the History of the Exact Sciences in Antiquity at Brown University. Her research focuses on the language used to talk about science, particularly as this language is transmitted between cultures and across time.