2011 Dissertation Prize Abstracts

In 2011, only one prize was awarded. The Modern/Medieval Dissertation Prize was not awarded.

The Donny George Youkhana Dissertation Prize (Ancient)

Dr. Karen Sonik (University of Pennsylvania), “Demon-Haunted Universe: Conception of the Supernatural in Mesopotamia”

This dissertation investigates the monsters and the daimons of ancient Mesopotamia as unique cultural constructions, physical representations of what was feared, what was forbidden, and what was desired. Comprising two distinct classes of Zwischenwesen, beings of intermediate or "in between" nature existing between humans and their gods, monsters are identified as cosmic agents, challenging and interacting primarily with the gods and with the divine world, while daimons primarily function within the human or natural world, afflicting or protecting human beings on the order of the gods or on personal whim. Querying the origins and development of these entities, and the social, religious, and political contexts in which they functioned, this dissertation incorporates both literary and visual analyses and is informed by recent research in the fields of anthropology and the history of religions, as well as by studies on the "Other" as presented in sources from the Classical world, the Middle Ages, and contemporary Western culture. It establishes a consistent taxonomy and terminology of the monsters and the daimons, locating them within the Mesopotamian supernatural landscape, and considers their role as guardians and boundary-keepers, whose transgression of cosmic warning, to human beings of behaviors, qualities, and deeds that are socially, religiously, or otherwise taboo or forbidden. These broadly based discussions are accompanied by targeted case studies treating those monsters and daimons that are exceptional even among their peculiar company, and that specifically elucidate crucial themes such as the conflict between order and chaos, the delineation of socially constructed gender roles, the functions of the rare female Zwischenwesen, and the circumstances under which cosmic borders or bodily integrity may be compromised. The monsters and daimons of Mesopotamia are, ultimately, read as glyphs, encoding specific aspects of their originating culture's belief system, and offering a rare and invaluable insight into the contemporary social, political, and religious mores of the world within which they were constructed.