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"The Assyrian Tree of Life" by Simo Parpola

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"The Assyrian Tree of Life" by Simo Parpola


I did a search but can't find any discussion of this article: "The Assyrian Tree of Life: Tracing the Origins of Jewish Monotheim and Greek Philosophy" which was published in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies in July of 1993. Professor Parpola teaches Assyriology at the University of Helsinki.

In this article, Parpola identifies and analyzes a recurrent symbolic Tree in 4th millenium Mesopotamian iconography and then goes on to argue very persuasively that this image/idea is the origin for the Tree of LIfe popularized in Jewish Kabbalah. His sources are impeccable and his logic systematic and coherent. No weird flights of fancy, no ancient alien crystal pyramids; this is a scholastic article written for academia.

He makes a strong case for the Tree's original symbolic meaning in the Near East, finding uncanny connections between the Sephir Yetzirah and the Enuma Elish. He posits an origin for the Ain/Ain Soph/Ain Soph Aur. He identifies Mesopotamian divinities that may originall have occupied each of the sephirah, and then goes on to demonstrate the ways in which this readiung of the Tree is supported not only in Babylonian myth but in application of the Qabalah itself. As a finale, he wraps up with a spectacular Qabalistic reading of the epic of Gilgamesh that illuminates both traditions. Thrilling.

Has anyone else read this piece? I'm kind of blown away by it, and even if I'm instinctively resistant to accepting bold theory wholesale, I can't find a hole in his logic and research.

Would love to hash these ideas out with someone who's gone over it...

Scion
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Thanks for pointing out the paper, Scion.

Though I have read various suggestions that connect the various depictions of Assyrian and/or Mesopotamian trees to the Kabalistic one, I have yet to read something that suggests strong evidence that the latter is in some manner derived from the former.

I'll have to chase up that paper - that sounds very interesting indeed.
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Parpola's 1993 article is famous (or infamous) in Assyriological circles. I personally studied it very deeply for a long time, and tracked down many of the sources in the footnotes.

Professor Simo Parpola is a highly regarded assyriologist, editor of the State Archives of Assyria (SAA), etc. But this paper on the Assyrian Tree of Life had many people scratching their foreheads.

I think it is one of those areas in scholarship where either you accept a speculation, or reject it. But there is no way to know the truth yet.

I think most scholars regard his assignation of Assyro-Babylonian gods to the Sefirot on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life as fanciful and anachronistic.

You have to know that most people who study these kinds of documents are linguists and philologists; then historians, and finally other kinds of specialists. Linguists and philologists often get their educated views of religion from a few survey courses in graduate school. The textbooks are still dominated by a "history of religions" approach that emphasizes the evolution of religious ideas, so that the kind of mysticism expressed by Kabbalistic, Gnostic or Sufi texts is seen as a late or decadent expression of a religion, especially since the Hellenistic period and the Alexandrian synthesis.

Mesopotamian religion is seen as very naïve paganism, and many of the scholars who read JNES are reluctant to imagine that Assyrians could have been as "advanced" in their religious ideas as the monotheistic religions. That's to put it simply.
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...That's exactly why I found it so interesting. My degree is in Religion/Philosophy, and big chunks of his argument resonate deeply with the research I did in pre-Achemenid culture (or what we "know" of it), Zoroastrianism, and the Babylonian exile. Of course, that's only anecdotal.

I think micro-specialization can be as dangerous to understanding as shoddy scholarship. And monoscopic academia one of the legacies of monotheism: a lot of comparative religious scholarship falls under the "Edith-Hamilton" school of mythology, where the tradition is a single monolithic fact to be reified. And while certainty is impossible, this paper opens up the possibility of interesting disagreement.

I can't imagine Scholem or any hardcore Kabbalah historians having much affection for his argument, but Parpola is not pulling shifty "Black Athena" revisionism by misquoting and inventing sources. The Mesopotamian roots of many monotheistic concepts is uncontested, and it seems (if not certain) at least more likely that the complicated ideas underlying the Tree represent a mutation of an appropriated tradition, rather than a complex abstraction that was formulated out of thin air by Neoplatonistic contemplation of the Pentateuch. Religions and spiritual traditions are inevitably a response to an external force. So even if the proposed connection is tenuous, it is useful.

Truth be told, my one big concern with the paper is that the familiar Qabalistic Tree of Life doesn't get depicted for so many centuries. But maybe again that's a function of the mouth-to-ear nature of QBLH. Dunno.

Ross, do you know of any academic responses/refutations of this paper? I'd love to trace it's impact, but I have a feeling that because of topic and tenor people either embraced it or swept it under the rug. I'm gonna follow your lead and track down his references this weekend.

Scion
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There are no systematic reviews of Parpola that I know of, but there seems to be an article in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Oriental Society (JAOS) by Cooper that addresses his methodology, judging by this recent statement (March 29) by Victor Hurowitz on the ANE-2 (yahoo group) list -

"In a letter I just sent to Trudy Kawami and ANE I mentioned an article by
Cooper in JAOS criticizing Parpola. That article actually had its genesis
in an AOS panel session about Parpola's Tree and offshoots participated in
by me, Alisdair Livingston, Eliot Horowitz (I think), and, of course
Simo Parpola. The papers were supposed to have been published in a special
volume but that never happened. In any case, the session was arranged
because Parpola wanted his theories seriously debated and he had
previously received dead silence. He has written much since the JNES 52
article developing and revising his initial thesis. If ANE is looking for
something to discuss, this would be a great issue assuming that some
people would seriously read what he has to say. You might start by
reading the introduction to the SAA volumes Letters from Assyrian and
Babylonian Scholars (SAA 10) and Assyrian Prophecies (SAA 9). ONe of the
major problems you'll find is that he is extremely erudite and has spread
out absolutely everywhere and you may find him citing sources you've never
heard of and have no ability to evaluate. You will also find him making
statements which are absolutely brilliant followed immediately by
statements which you think are totally imaginative. Anyway, I highly
recommend reading him."
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Scion, if you join the ANE-2 group there is a long thread where colleagues/peers discuss this article starting April 1 (Trudy Kawami's post).

You can find them by googling +ane +parpola +"assyrian tree of life"
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leszko  leszko is offline
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Can you help me?


to find electronic version of the article "The Assyrian Tree of Life" by Simo Parpola. I can't find it in the place where I live.
It is an old one . May be somebody can send me the article?
Please...
My email:
viagod@poczta.onet.pl
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Ross G Caldwell 

Quote:
Originally Posted by leszko
to find electronic version of the article "The Assyrian Tree of Life" by Simo Parpola. I can't find it in the place where I live.
It is an old one . May be somebody can send me the article?
Please...
My email:
viagod@poczta.onet.pl
Hi Leszko,

I didn't know there was an electronic version on the web. I think there are plenty of decent excerpts and reviews... but the whole article, I don't know.

I'll look. It would be worth it to have a link.

Ross
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The only copy I know of online is on Jstor, which is an academic resource that makes articles (old and new!) available to professors etc. If you know of anyone who teaches in a university...

S
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Hi all-
In terms of diagrams for which we have actual physical evidence, this following link is to the second oldest Tree of Life diagram I've seen. It dates from 11th century China, where both Jews and Arabs had been living for centuries. It fuses Chokmah and Binah into a dyadic diagram that was the precursor of the YinYang symbol. The oldest known version is by Chen Tuan from the 10th century. In that version, the sphere of Kether is named Wu, nothing (En Sof), instead of Taiji, supreme ultimate.
http://www.hermetica.info/Taijitu,Zhoudunyi.jpg
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