Radiant Things for Gods and Men: Lightness and Darkness in Mesopotamian Language and Thought


  • Shiyanthi Thavapalan




The terminology for brightness – characterising light-emission (dazzling, shining, glowing), refectivity (shiny, lustrous, matt), surface illumination (well- or poorly-lit), space illumination (brilliant, dim), transparency (transparent, translucent) – constitutes an important, yet poorly studied aspect of ancient Near Eastern colour vocabularies. This is because in most modern European languages, as in English, the meaning of colour words focuses primarily on hue (e.g. red, blue). However, research conducted since the late twentieth century has demonstrated that diferent speech communities divide colour space diferently. Many incorporate non-chromatic aspects like luminosity, transparency, the contrast between wetness/desiccation, patterns and even psycho-emotional values into the concept COLOUR. Moreover, it seems that certain basic hue categories that are so familiar to us, YELLOW, GREEN and BLUE for instance, are neither universal nor ancient. Drawing on written sources from the late Bronze and early Iron Ages, this article provides an overview of the Akkadian vocabulary for brightness. Many of the colour words in this language describe the behaviour of light – as it interacts with various surfaces and when it reaches the eye. Realising that the origins of colours in ancient Mesopotamia are found in the idea of brightness is essential, it is argued here, for understanding religious thought and also for appreciating for colour as an aesthetic and rhetorical feature of the literature, art and architecture produced by this culture.






Colour in Interdisciplinary Context