Irish Academic Adds Ancient Babylonian Authenticity to Eternals Movie
When Irish academic, Dr. Martin Worthington, embarked on learning how to speak the now-extinct Babylonian language of ancient Mesopotamia, little did he know that his knowledge would be used in a blockbuster movie. Nevertheless, Worthington’s unique skill has been now put to use in order to add a touch of authenticity to the latest Marvel movie, Eternals.
Actors in Eternals Taught Ancient Babylonian Language
For the past 20 years, Irish academic Dr. Martin Worthington has been busy acquiring a unique type of expertise. Through intensive study of tablets recovered during various archaeological expeditions in Iraq, Dr. Worthington has been learning the ancient Babylonian language. This language was widely spoken in Mesopotamia from about the mid-third millennium BC until approximately 2,500 years ago, when it disappeared from the face of the earth.
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When Dr. Worthington took up the challenge of learning the Babylonian language, he probably didn’t expect his knowledge to have any practical application. But his understanding of this long-dead language has now been put to good use, explains The Irish Times , as a result of an effort by the ambitious filmmakers at Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) to add an extra touch of authenticity to their latest movie.
In the 2021 MCU epic adventure Eternals, time-traveling immortals pay a visit to ancient Babylonia, where they speak to the natives in their actual mother tongue. None of this would have been possible without the efforts of Martin Worthington, who was hired to teach Marvel’s actors how to converse in this extinct Semitic dialect.
The Irish academic taught Eternals actors to converse in ancient Babylonian. ( Marvel Studios )
Bringing Long-Dead Babylonian Language Back to Life
Technically, the language used in ancient Babylonian is known as Akkadian. It was originally spoken by the Akkadian people , who built a great empire in Iraq a few centuries before the rise of the Babylonian Empire in the nineteenth century BC.
Babylonian, or Akkadian, was the native language for groups living in different parts of ancient Mesopotamia, which included virtually all of modern-day Iraq and Kuwait and certain sections of Turkey, Syria, and Iran. This region is referred to as the “ Cradle of Civilization ,” in recognition of the high level of literacy and cultural sophistication that Mesopotamian civilizations achieved starting more than 7,000 years before the birth of Christ.
This extinct Babylonian language may be gone, but it has not been forgotten, thanks to ancient languag e aficionados. By Dr. Worthington’s estimate, there are approximately 100 people in the world who’ve studied the old Babylonian tablets , and their interpretations, long enough to gain significant knowledge of the language. Among this group, perhaps 10 can match his expertise in this arcane field.
Trinity academic Dr Martin Worthington translated dead language for Marvel film Eternals https://t.co/Wh5H1AzIpj
— The Irish Times (@IrishTimes) November 9, 2021
A Fascination with Dead Languages
Worthington’s full title is Al-Maktoum Associate Professor in Middle Eastern Studies at Trinity College in Dublin. Originally aspiring to become an Egyptologist, his fascination with the hieroglyphic languages of ancient Egypt spurred an interest in other dead languages, and when he discovered Akkadian (Babylonian) in the early 2000s it set his career off on a completely different track.
“Ancient languages have always seemed to me to glitter with a special brand of magic,” Worthington explained in an article published in RTÉ. “As a child they fascinated me from the moment I clapped eyes on Egyptian hieroglyphs, and later I went on to discover that these are just the tip of an iceberg.”
Unlike many academics, Worthington was interested in passing his hard-earned esoteric knowledge on to a broader audience. In 2010 he wrote a book entitled Teach Yourself Complete Babylonian , which was aimed at English speakers interested in becoming bilingual in languages separated by millennia in time.
Needless to say, such a book would be an ideal resource for anyone with the ability to travel in time and an inclination to tour the lands of the Babylonian Empire . Coincidentally, when the script for the Marvel movie Eternals was finished, it actually called for time-traveling superheroes (the Eternals) to visit ancient Babylonia while on a quest to save the world from destruction at the hands of terrible monsters known as the Deviants.
Once the producers of the movie found out about Dr. Worthington’s work, they contacted him to see if he was interested in helping them out—which he was, and most enthusiastically.
Cuneiform clay tablet in the Sumerian language. Worthington’s knowledge of this ancient Babylonian language comes primarily from his study of nine cuneiform tablets housed at Trinity College Dublin. ( The Library of Trinity College Dublin )
Making Ancient Babylon Eternal
Eternals is no lightweight enterprise. As the latest in Marvel Cinematic Universe’s long line of box-office-bursting blockbusters, its roster of heavyweights includes director Chloé Zhao, the first woman to win an Oscar for best director (2021, Nomadland), and A-list stars Angelina Jolie, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, and Gemma Chan. This massive production could earn close to or in excess of $1 billion (£745,900,000) worldwide, and may ultimately be seen by more than 100 million people.
With a pre-production script in hand, Dr. Worthington created written translations and audio recordings for scenes where the English dialogue he was given needed to be translated into ancient Babylonian. These were passed along to the film’s dialect coach, who practiced with the actors until they got the words and pronunciations right.
Worthington was excited about the chance to bring this ancient lost language back to life, at least for a few moments, on the movie screen. “It was thrilling to create these translations and send them out into the ether for an actor to speak them aloud, imbue them with gestures, and bring them to life,” he enthused.
“Film is such a powerful medium, which can summon a past full of moving, breathing and talking people,” highlighted Worthington. “ Eternals will raise awareness of ancient Mesopotamia and its fascinating cultures, and I hope people will go on to explore them further.”
Ancient Babylon Goes to the Movies
When he talks about the power of film, the Irish academic speaks from first-hand experience . As reported in Ancient Origins back in 2018, he wrote and directed a short film called The Poor Man of Nippur, which holds the distinction of being the first movie ever to be made entirely in the Babylonian language.
This project was quite a challenge for Worthington. His knowledge of Babylonian comes primarily from his study of nine cuneiform tablets , dating from approximately 2,100 BC onward, that are currently stored in the Trinity College Library. These texts offer a fairly extensive sampling of ancient Babylonian, but do not cover the language in its entirety. The existing Babylonian tablets are formal documents, meaning they don’t capture the use of the language in its typical, everyday form.
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The simple phrase “thank you” was one of Dr. Worthington’s biggest challenges when it came to translating. “It is ubiquitous today, but as far as we know it was not used in ancient Mesopotamia,” Worthington explained. “So I had to find workarounds – expressions such as “may the gods bless you” ( ilū likrubūki to a woman, ilū likrubūka to a man).”
If it were somehow possible to show the movie Eternals to native Babylonians, they would undoubtedly realize it had been made by non-native speakers. Nevertheless, they likely would have had no problem understanding the meaning of the dialogue.
Could Marvel’s decision to use the expertise of an Irish academic to teach actors from Eternals the ancient Babylonian language be part of a new trend? ( Marvel Studios )
Historical Authenticity in Filmmaking: A New Trend
It remains to be seen if Marvel’s decision to use the actual Babylonian language in their movie starts a trend. Since extinct languages would be totally unfamiliar to 99 percent or more of any movie’s audience, filmmakers setting scenes in the distant past could make up any language they’d like and virtually no one would know the difference.
But should other moviemakers decide to follow Marvel’s lead and shoot for authenticity, the knowledge is available for them to do so. “Thanks to over a century of scholarly work, we have built up a very good understanding of the structures and vocabulary of Babylonian as well as other languages of the ancient Middle East, such as Sumerian and Hittite,” Dr. Worthington pointed out.
Academics have already done the hardest part, resurrecting languages that had been presumed dead long ago. Translations from modern to ancient are waiting and ready to be used, in any way creative people might choose to use them.
Top image: Dr. Martin Worthington, who was hired to attain authenticity in Marvel’s Eternals, in the Library of Trinity College Dublin pictured with a collection of cuneiform tablets written in ancient Babylonian language. Source: Trinity College Dublin
By Nathan Falde