Erica Reiner, a University scholar whose work revolutionized the study of the world’s oldest written languages, died Saturday, Dec. 31. She was 81.
Reiner was the John A. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor Emerita in the Oriental Institute and Editor of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary. Her work on the project began in 1952, when she joined the University as a research assistant. From 1973 to 1996, she was Editor in Charge of the Chicago Assyrain Dictionary.
“It is difficult to overstate the significance of Erica Reiner’s contributions to the understanding of the ancient Near East,” said Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute. “The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary serves as the basic reference work for the Akkadian language, the predominant tongue of Mesopotamia for 2,500 years.”
He explained that it is more than a list of words and their translations because it functions as a cultural encyclopedia of Mesopotamian civilization. “The effective editing of a work of this scope requires a person whose knowledge encompasses philology, linguistics, poetry, history, literature, law, religion, astronomy and the history of science. Erica was one of a handful of people in the world who had that daunting list of qualifications.
“Erica combined a tough-minded commitment to intellectual excellence with a dry wit, charm, and a deep love of art, music and literature. Erica’s passion for her work was legendary. She was someone who expected the very highest standards of scholarly rigor both in her own work and in the efforts of others. Even in retirement, she continued to play a key role assisting Martha Roth, the current Editor in Charge of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, in writing, reviewing and editing entries for the final volumes. Erica’s intellectual engagement and her involvement in scholarship lasted up until the final months of her life,” she said.
Reiner explained the importance of the dictionary in testimony at a meeting of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1989:
“The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary is not only the first comprehensive dictionary of Akkadian, also called Assyro-Babylonian language, it is at the same time an encyclopedic work encompassing the records of a past civilization, and thereby serves as a tool for research in a wide spectrum of humanistic disciplines.
“The records of this civilization were deciphered barely more than 100 years ago, and their relevance to our contemporary values becomes increasingly apparent as we interpret, and through the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary make them available to colleagues who work in the fields of history of religion, literature, the arts, and retrace the history of moral and philosophical value.”
The texts from which the dictionary is compiled are the first of recorded history and cover a period from 2400 B.C. to A.D. 100. The texts come largely from clay tablets incised in cuneiform and recovered by archaeologists from Mesopotamia (present day Iraq), Iran, Syria, and other nearby areas, stretching from modern Turkey to Egypt. During the second millennium B.C., Akkadian was the common language used in diplomacy throughout the ancient Near East.
The dictionary, which was founded in 1921, now has 23 volumes. The first volume was published in 1956. Two more are currently in press and the final volume of the dictionary will be printed this year. Reiner had a hand in the development of each of the volumes.
Roth, Professor in the Oriental Institute, said Reiner’s work greatly deepened scholarly understanding of the study of ancient languages of the Middle East as well as the civilizations themselves.
“Her linguistic analysis of Akkadian was path-breaking. She brought linguistic analysis to the philological-grammatical field of Assyriology. Every grammar since then has built on her insights, none has superseded it,” she said.
Reiner published Your Thwarts in Pieces, Your Mooring Rope Cut: Poetry from Babylonia and Assyria, a collection of essays in 1985. Her insights in the book raised the standards expected of scholars working in Babylonian and Assyrian literature beyond translation to incorporating the best of literary criticism.
Scholars in the field consider her greatest contributions to be to the study of Babylonian history of science, including medicine and especially astronomy. She and the late David Pingree of Brown University published four volumes of Babylonian Planetary Omens.
The author of numerous articles, Reiner also wrote Astral Magic in Babylonia (1995), which traced the origins of Greek science and medicine in the Babylonian scholars’ observations of their world. The book examined Babylonian magical practices that made use of plants, stones and other ingredients, and also tried to secure the powers of the celestial bodies for their purposes.
“Erica Reiner presented the Babylonian materials for this kind of magic, and gave references to similar occurrences in the literature of classical antiquity,” said Hermann Hunger, professor at the Institute of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Vienna.
“The work provides a fascinating view of this ‘science,’ which is so far removed from our ways of thinking. She also made available a rich material on celestial divination in her four books on Babylonian Planetary Omens.
Reiner was one of the few people in the world proficient in the ancient language of Elamite, and she published a grammar of the language in 1969.
“Elamite is written in cuneiform but completely unrelated to Sumerian or Akkadian, and it was and is far less completely understood,” said Matthew Stolper, the John A. Wilson Professor in the Oriental Institute. He said her grammar on Elamite established her as a central authority in the field.
Reiner completed her undergraduate degree in linguistics at the University of Budapest in 1948. After studying Elamite, Sumerian and Akkadian in Paris at the Ecole Practique des Hautes Etudes, she came to Chicago in 1952. A manuscript for the Assyrian dictionary had not yet been drafted, although there had been three decades of planning and preparation.
“It took an extraordinary confluence of great scholars, led by A. Leo Oppenheim, to finally bring the vision to reality,” Roth said. “Reiner and Oppenheim were a magical duo, working together to inspire and lead the team that eventually produced the first volume in 1956.”
Reiner received a Ph.D. from the University in 1955 and joined the faculty in 1956, after serving as a Research Associate.
When Oppenheim retired in 1973, Reiner took over the project until her own retirement in 1996. “She provided the unifying vision and intellectual rigor to see this project through. It is impossible to envision the field of Assyriology or more broadly of ancient Near Eastern studies without the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, and it is impossible to envision the dictionary without Erica,” Roth said.
Reiner succeeded in securing National Endowment for the Humanities funding for the dictionary in 1976, support that continued for nearly 30 years, making it one of the highest and longest funded projects of the NEH.
Dozens of the scholars who studied with Reiner went on to be leading professors in the field in the United States as well as around the world. Many of those scholars returned to Chicago last July for the 51st Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale (International Congress of Assyriology and Near Eastern Archaeology), sponsored by the Oriental Institute.
Reiner helped organize the original Rencontre in Paris and attended many of the subsequent annual meetings. “It was right after the war, and we wanted to renew scholarly contact that had been broken because of the war,” she said last summer. “From the very beginning, we wanted to include students. The enthusiasm we had when we started the organization is still very much in evidence when we get together.”
She said she looked forward to having so many friends coming back. “We knew them when they were young scholars, and now they have become distinguished faculty members, and some of them have even retired.”
Reiner was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the recipient of honorary doctorates from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Leiden.
Her sister, Eva Cherna, of Montreal, survives her.
A Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Friday, Jan. 13, at St. Thomas the Apostle Roman Catholic Church, 5472 S. Kimbark Ave. A University memorial service is being planned for a later date.