Lloyd Graham deposited Did ancient peoples of Egypt and the Near East really imagine themselves as facing the past, with the future behind them? in the group Ancient Near East on Humanities Commons 7 months, 2 weeks ago
Linguistic studies in Egyptology, Assyriology and Biblical Studies harbour a persistent trope in which the inhabitants of the Ancient Near East and Egypt are believed to have visualised the past as in front of them and the future as behind them. Analyses of the spatial conceptualisation of time in language have revealed that the opposite is true of almost all modern cultures. Cognitive Metaphor Theory provides two spatiotemporal models that use different reference points and are therefore mutually exclusive. In modern languages, including English, key spatiotemporal prepositions/adverbs from one model can stray into the other while retaining their original temporal meaning. Taken literally, the resulting expressions indicate that the speaker is facing the past, an orientation that happens to align with the powerful KNOWLEDGE IS VISION metaphor. Lexical drift of this kind is also likely to have occurred in Egyptian and the Semitic languages. Correcting for the “mixed metaphor” problem permits ancient speakers of Egyptian, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Hebrew, etc., to have adopted the same spatiotemporal orientation as most modern people. However, very recent studies (2014–18) show that informants with a cultural or religious focus on the past tend to visualise past events as “in front of them” irrespective of the spatiotemporal metaphors in their language. Such mappings seem to be static rather than dynamic. It is therefore inappropriate to envisage ancient thinkers as walking backwards into the future or as sitting with their backs toward the source of the “river of time;” rather, we should imagine them stopping frequently on life’s path in order to turn about-face and contemplate the (temporal) terrain already traversed by their society. Traditional societies whose aim is to return the world to its original perfection may even see the past and future as interchangeable.