Saana Svärd – Lectio praecursoria 22.2.2012

Saana Svärdin väitöskirja ”Power and Women in the Neo-Assyrian Palaces” (Valta ja naiset uusassyrialaisissa palatseissa) tarkastettiin 22.2.2012 Helsingin yliopistossa. Vastaväittäjänä toimi Dr. Joan Goodnick Westenholz, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University, ja kustoksena professori Axel Fleisch.


The Neo-Assyrian Empire was one of the largest empires of the ancient Near East. Additionally, it is one of the best documented ones as well. Thousands of Neo-Assyrian cuneiform tablets have been found, mostly from the area of modern Iraq. The Neo-Assyrian Empire had its roots in an older Assyrian tradition, although there was a large gap in Assyrian cuneiform documents from ca. 1200 to ca. 900 BC. From this time period, few Assyrian cuneiform sources have survived. Usually the Neo-Assyrian period is seen as beginning in the year 934 BC and ending with the destruction of the capital city, Nineveh, in 612 BC.

Neo-Assyrian women in general have not been discussed in detail in earlier research. Broadly speaking, Neo-Assyrian women acted in all the roles that men did, although considerably fewer women than men appear in the texts. Neo-Assyrian women corresponded with men, with the king, and with each other; they bought, sold, loaned, borrowed, guaranteed debts and acted as witnesses, owned property, were involved in trading ventures, used seals, etc. Nonetheless, they were usually under the jurisdiction of the male head of the family.

The women related to the palaces are without a doubt the best attested women in the Neo-Assyrian texts. This dissertation is the first comprehensive survey regarding them. However, the aim of this study is not to present a mere catalogue of powerful women, listing occupations and texts. Instead, the aim is to go further than that and show that, by using theories of power, one can get new viewpoints additional to those obtained by the traditional philological methodology. For that purpose, I have used the concept of “power” to develop fruitful approaches for analyzing Neo-Assyrian texts. The Neo-Assyrian women of palaces are an appropriate subject for such an endeavor, both because there has been little research regarding Neo-Assyrian women and because their power is difficult to identify with traditional methodological and theoretical approaches.

The name of my dissertation, Power and Women in the Neo-Assyrian Palaces, illuminates the two objectives of my dissertation. To start with “Women”: My aim was to describe what kind of women lived in the palaces and in what roles they functioned. I both outlined the structures of the women in general in palaces and also documented them as individuals.

Most of the textual evidence in this dissertation relates to the queens, whose household and position were permanent fixtures of Neo-Assyrian society. Once chosen as the queen, the position was for life. The evidence demonstrates that the queen exercised considerable hierarchical power and that there was only one queen at a time. Furthermore, it seems that their sphere of action and the nature of their authority was comparable to that of the kings. One of the best known queens in the history of Mesopotamia was the Neo-Assyrian queen Naqi’a. She is especially well known from the reign of her son, Esarhaddon. For example a military commander writes to her addressing her as his lord. The commander asks for help against an enemy attack in the following manner (SAA 18 85): “Now they have dismantled the bridge … We do not know whether or not they will go on. The military forces must reach us my lord! … My lord should know that my heart is completely devoted to my lord’s house.”

The other female members of the royal family are less prominent in the dissertation since there is less evidence regarding them. It seems that their position in the royal court was high, but it was not institutionalized in the same way as the position of the queen. Nonetheless, this did not stop some of them from gaining power in the realm.

The female head administrator, the šakintu in Assyrian, had considerable authority as the queen’s representative in many palaces all around the Empire. She had considerable financial resources and staff, and was probably running the textile production in the palaces. Additionally, many high-ranking women resided in the court, although there is no evidence of an institutionalized “harem.”

So, the first objective of my study was to describe the women of the Neo-Assyrian palaces. The second keyword in the title of my dissertation, Power, requires some more explaining. In my dissertation, I analyze theories of power in order to study the Neo-Assyrian women of the palaces.

Originally, I started my research with the question: do women have power, but soon realized that it is not very productive. The answer depends entirely on how we define power. Thus I needed a definition of what power is. This led me to sociology and I ended up with a huge variety of choices. The problem then became which definition of power to choose. Fairly soon I realized that some approaches were designed for modern Western societies only. Some definitions seemed more useful than others for the study of women and power in Assyria. I attempted to find some evidence from the ancient culture itself that would support certain definitions of power. In other words, what kind of definitions of power would be both suitable and in some reasonable accord with the Assyrian understanding of power? This question led me to the methodology of semantic analysis. Despite the tentative nature of the results, the analysis suggests that authority and hierarchical power as well as power through communication were relevant to the Assyrians.

In the end, I chose to understand power broadly, as existing in all relationships between people. This is one of the reasons why the main research question of this dissertation is not whether women had power or not, but instead, the question is: What kind of power did women have in Neo-Assyrian palaces?

This question in turn required some more exact definitions of power. In the end, I built two theoretical frameworks for my study. First of all, power can be seen as something that can be observed directly, either in the structures of the society or in the actions of individuals. This view focuses attention on hierarchical power relationships. In this study, the hierarchical power of the palace women was approached by examining how structures and individual women interacted. In other words, this forms the theoretical framework for the descriptive part of my study. In it, I answer questions like: What positions did women have in the palace hierarchy? What did they do in the palaces, and what kind of authority did they have? For example, the respectful letters that the queen gets from high officials and the extensive staff that she employed tells us that she was very high in the court hierarchy. Thus, the dissertation presents a comprehensive survey of women in Assyrian palaces, both as individuals and as officials. Such a complete study is the first of its kind.

The second theoretical approach relates to the concept of heterarchy, used here for the first time in an Assyriological study. Broadly speaking, the concept of power has rarely been discussed in Assyriological research. Nonetheless, power in general and women’s power especially has often been implicitly understood in a hierarchical way in earlier research. Hierarchical power structures were important in Mesopotamia, but other theoretical approaches can help one gain new perspectives on the ancient material. In other words, the definition of power influences research results.

The alternative approach developed in this dissertation consists of concentrating on heterarchical, negotiable and lateral power relations in which the women were engaged. Heterarchical power relations include hierarchical power relations, but also incorporate other kinds of power relations, such as reciprocal power, resistance and persuasion. If hierarchical power relations are usually envisioned as a pyramid, heterarchical power relations could be described as a three-dimensional web of power relations. As far as the material allowed, the manifestations of this heterarchical power in the textual sources were examined. It soon became apparent that the women who exercised hierarchical power were often engaged in lateral, negotiated power relations as well. For example, the queen Naqi’a I mentioned earlier receives the following letter from her son the king (SAA 16 2): “Concerning the servant of Amos, about whom you wrote to me – just as the king’s mother commanded, in the same way I have commanded. It is fine indeed, as you said.” Now, if we analyze the letter from the perspective of hierarchical power, we can say that the queen is lower on a hierarchical scale, since she has to ask for her son to act in the matter and cannot give a direct command. However, when analyzed from a heterarchical perspective, the interdependence between the mother and son is evident. Such a relationship it is not explicable by hierarchical structures of power. She did not issue an order to him, and he did not exercise his higher position in the social hierarchy. Instead, the final decision regarding the servant was the result of communication and, possibly, negotiation. Although earlier research has certainly been aware of women’s influence in the palaces, this dissertation makes explicit the power concepts employed in previous research and further expands them using the concept of heterarchy.

To conclude, the most important research results of my dissertation are twofold. First, there were surprisingly many powerful women in Neo-Assyrian palaces and they were in many cases the heads of whole sectors of administration. In other words, the hierarchical power of women was evident. Second, by using heterarchy as a new theoretical approach, new insights into women’s power are gained. Thus, my approach opens up new avenues for interpreting the texts. Furthermore, it will hopefully be useful on a wider scale than just Neo-Assyrian women.

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