Students translate ancient religions for the 21st century


Cornell undergraduates put a modern face on ancient religions in the end-of-semester projects for the Myth and Religion in Mesopotamia course, taught by Jonathan Tenney, assistant professor of Near Eastern Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Tenney asked his students to take a concept or myth they discussed in class and translate it into a modern, digital medium. The point, Tenney said, was to get them to translate data and ideas reconstructed from old media methods – such as cuneiform tablets and archaeology – into today’s media.

Adam Herold ’23 turned the Babylonian Epic of Creation into a comic book cover rich with historical detail: Even the date of issue is written in Babylonian terms. Herold said he saw the story, in which the god Marduk triumphs over chaos, “as a reflection of current times and as a sign that in the end we can overcome uncertainty and decide our own destinies.”

He said making the comic cover helped him get through these difficult times. “Art is a place for catharsis and direction that has been a constant in my life,” Herold said.

According to Tenney, the project was originally intended as a short group assignment, but as part of the adjustment for distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he gave the students extra time. “Some really ran with it,” he said. “They created amazing art.”
Among other student projects was a painting interpreting the ancient origins of the flood story in Gilgamesh, and one that turned an exchange between mankind and the gods into a texting conversation.

A large portion of the class banded into groups to create entire Mesopotamian cities in the video game Minecraft. The cities created by the student groups incorporated archaeological evidence and concepts of literature and religion. Some teams went further, considering the landscape, economy and built environments surrounding religious centers.

“They not only explained what people believed, but also how they lived,” Tenney said. “They went far beyond what they needed to in the hope of creating a city that might work, following a lot of our readings, rather than just something that looked cool.

“In some ways,” he said, “they had to do what we Assyriologists have to do every day: interpret evidence with tools or methodologies that are just as limiting as the evidence itself.”

Aliyah Geer ’21, an engineering major who conceived of the Minecraft idea, said it was the ideal project for remote instruction: It didn’t require in-person collaboration, and participants could work at their own pace in any time zone without sacrificing creativity.

“This was definitely my favorite project I’ve ever done in my time at Cornell,” she said. “I think Minecraft is a fantastic medium to learn and demonstrate knowledge about ancient civilizations and architecture. Plus, it was so much fun.”

Said Tenney: “The student projects demonstrate that the oldest civilization known to humankind, that gave us almost every part of social and government organization that characterizes the world today, can be studied with interest by students from any kind of major and can be a source of inspiration.”

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.


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Painting depicting the ancient origins of the flood story in Gilgamesh, by Joyce Liu ’21.