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Frazer, Mary (7. June 2022): Heads and Beds. On the Origin of the Akkadian Term for Eunuch or Courtier. In: Journal of Ancient Near Eastern History, Vol. 9, No. 1: pp. 95-112 [PDF, 6MB]

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Alongside the ongoing debate over whether the primary meaning of the Akkadian term ša rēši (lit. “he of the head”) is “eunuch” or “courtier,” various explanations for the origin of the term have been proposed. After reviewing the seven explanations encountered in the secondary literature, and assessing their respective strengths and weaknesses, this article makes a new proposal for the origin of the term, namely that it refers to the “head” of the king’s bed. It is observed that this hypothesis is consistent: (i) with Akkadian terminology relating to parts of beds, which uses rēšu(m) to designate either a bed’s top end generally or its “headboard” specifically; (ii) with the perception, visible in Babylonian ritual texts, of the bed as a place of potential danger to its occupant; and (iii) with the Akkadian literary expression mukīl rēši (“lit. keeper of the head”) which, by analogy with well-attested expressions like mukīl bābi (“keeper of the gate”) and mukīl appāti (lit. “keeper of the bridle”), is more likely to refer to an inanimate “head” than part of the human body. The possibility that the term ša rēš (šarri) is equivalent to the Greek term εὐνοῦχος, as argued for example by (Briant, P. 1996. Histoire de l’empire Perse. De Cyrus à Alexandre. Paris: Fayard. = Briant, Pierre. 2000. From Cyrus to Alexander. A History of the Persian Empire. Translated from the French by Peter T. Daniels. Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns), has been questioned by (Lenfant, D. 2012. “Ctesias and his Eunuchs a Challenge for Modern Historians.” Histos 6: 257–97), but if the newly proposed origin of ša rēši is correct, it indirectly supports the case for an equivalency of the two terms: like εὐνοῦχος (lit. “bed-keeper”), ša rēši would literally refer to guardianship of the king’s bed. The new proposal nevertheless has no bearing on the debate over whether ša rēši primarily designates “eunuch” or “courtier.”

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