Ancient World

Rituals of War: The Body and Violence in Mesopotamia


Mar 6, 2008
6 x 9 in.
39 b/w illus.
Ancient World
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Rituals of War is an investigation into the earliest historical records of violence and biopolitics. In Mesopotamia, ancient Iraq (ca. 3000–500 BC) rituals of war and images of violence constituted part of the magical technologies of warfare that formed the underlying irrational processes of war. In the book, three lines of inquiry are converged into one historical domain of violence, namely, war, the body, and representation.

Building on Foucault’s argument in Discipline and Punish that the art of punishing must rest on a whole technology of representation, Zainab Bahrani investigates the ancient Mesopotamian record to reveal how that culture relied on the portrayal of violence and control as part of the mechanics of warfare. Moreover she takes up the more recent arguments of Giorgio Agamben on sovereign power and biopolitic to focus on the relationship of power, the body and violence in Assyro-Babylonian texts and monuments of war.

Bahrani brings together and analyzes facets of war and sovereign power that fall under the categories of representation and display, the aesthetic, the ritualistic, and the supernatural. Besides the invention of the public monument of war, and the rituals of iconoclasm, destruction, and relocation of monuments in war, she investigates formulations of power through the body, narrative displays in battle, the reading of omens before the battle, and historical divination through the body and body parts. The author describes these as the magical technologies of war, the realm of the irrational that enables the ideologies of just war in the distant past as today.

Awards and Recognition

  • Winner of the James Henry Breasted Prize, American Historical Association