A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the Division of the Humanities in Candidacy for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations

By David Michael Calabro

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Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
University of Chicago
Commitee: Dennis Pardee, David Schloen, Michael Silverstein


There are three ways in which we intend to contribute to the state of inquiry on ritual hand gestures in the Northwest Semitic world. First, we systematically integrate Northwest Semitic textual and iconographic data. This permits full use to be made of these two equally important witnesses to Northwest Semitic gestures. Previous studies have been impeded in this regard because of the lack of an explicit methodology suited to the purpose of integrating these sources. Our own methodology is explained in section 1.5 below.

Second, we address and bring into dialogue the full range of available interpretations, as far as we are able to discover them. We bring these interpretations to bear at every stage where they are applicable, whether it be the analysis of phrases used to describe gestures in texts, the interpretation of gesture images in iconography, the synthesis of texts and iconography, or broader hermeneutical issues. Where possible, we apply the integrated data to evaluate whether previous interpretations can be refined or are to be rejected.

Third, we present an in-depth study of how these gestures function in their ritual contexts, employing interpretive perspectives from ritual studies and linguistic anthropology. These perspectives point the way for the application of semiotic categories (particularly the threefold analysis of the sign as icon, index, and symbol as developed by Charles Sanders Peirce) to cultural productions such as rituals, texts, and artworks as well as to their signifying systems of gestures and languages.42 As these perspectives are constructed relative to observation of living societies, they provide heuristic models that might not arise naturally from the textual and iconographic artifacts themselves, such as the ways in which gestures may be used in tandem with speech to shape the symbolically constructed environment, including manipulating the status of participants.