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Publication: Journal of the American Oriental Society
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 27321
ISSN: 00030279
Journal code: PJOS

Letters from the Hittite Kingdom. By HARRY A. HOFFNER JR. Writings from the Ancient World, vol. 15. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009. Pp. xviii + 450, map. $45.95 (paper).

The work under review has two components: "Written Correspondence in the Ancient Near East" (pp. 1-34) and "Written Correspondence in the Hittite Kingdom" (pp. 35-374). In the first chapter we find a discussion of the "Primary Function of Written Correspondence in the Ancient Near East." Of particular interest here are Mesopotamian letters to a god, also known as "letterprayers." The responses from the gods to these letters, the "return mail" as it were, are also considered in detail. In "History and Linguistic Media" the various languages of this correspondence are described, while the cases in which messages were conveyed orally are treated in "Oral Versus Written Correspondence." This section explains why someone might prefer to convey his message orally. One of the techniques used to verify the authenticity of such oral messages was a letter of accreditation from the sender; another strategy was for the person to send along a personal object, for instance a ring. Hoffner also considers the contents of letters written on various kinds of material and in multiple copies.

Under "Personnel," details concerning the scribes, messengers, and letter carriers are provided. In particular, the information on family and social background, training, primary functions, and activities of the scribes is very accessible and clear.

The section on "The Royal Secretary" is disappointing since it is not supported from other sources, and "Languages Used in International Correspondence" duplicates material already mentioned earlier. Under the heading "Types of Letters," the range of contents of letters is discussed, and here the topic "Letters Guaranteeing the Bearer Safe Conduct" is particularly interesting.

The physical appearance of letters is described under "Literary Conventions: Common Features and Regional Variants," followed by the various greeting and address formulae used, as well as typical expressions employed in the letters. Hoffner elaborates on certain aspects of the rhetoric of the correspondence. "The Prostration Gesture" (German Huldigungsformel) outlines how this old tradition was widespread in many Eastern communities. Note that during the Ottoman period, bowing before the sultans, bowing at the king's feet, and saluting him were almost an obligation. The author discusses this gesture under four sub-headings: "The Verbs Used," "The Numerical Expression," "Further Qualifications of Manner," and "Political Implications." This information will be most useful for those wishing to undertake comparative research on this subject. At the end of the chapter, the author briefly mentions the "Late Bronze Age Epistolary Corpora," but, apart from a few studies by Vanstiphout and Vogelzang on orality and literacy in Mesopotamia, there is unfortunately little information available on this topic.

The main body of the book, the transliterations and translations of a representative corpus of letters, is preceded by discussion of Hittite letter writing in particular (pp. 35-73). This introduction covers the circumstances of discovery, findspots, publication, and previous studies, as well as what the Hittite texts tell us about letters, scribes, messengers, the postal system, the physical appearance of letters, the use or non-use of clay envelopes and seals, the various greeting formulae used, and various typical expressions. Hoffner also discusses the themes found in Hittite letters and compares them with those appearing in cuneiform letters recovered from cultures more or less contemporary with the Hittites.

The edited letters are divided into three categories: "An Old Hittite Letter," "Middle Hittite Letters," and "New Hittite Letters." Those from the Middle Hittite era are grouped according to their findspots (Hattusa, Tapikka-Mažat H÷yŘk, Sapinuwa-Ortak÷y, SarissaKužakli, and El- Amarna in Egypt). For each missive, a short commentary concerning content, dating, and philological problems is included. A number of letters that have been fully edited elsewhere are given an entry number and provided with an up-to-date bibliography but not re-edited here.

We should be very grateful to the author for this beautiful and useful book, which describes the history of Hittite written correspondence in a way that is interesting to the general reader and scholar alike. We must thank Professor Hoffner for devoting so much effort to what must often have seemed a frustrating and thankless task.

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