Interview: Ellena Lyell (Ellie)


University of Nottingham

Areas of Interest/Research:

Hebrew Bible, Classics, Colour, Culture, Gender, Comparative Method   

What is it about your field that you love researching?

This is actually a really tough question, as the way I approach and understand the ancient world has changed since studying Theology. I used to just read the key texts and almost accept them for what they were, and now I really love to read the Hebrew Bible in particular, and ask questions about it, digging that little bit deeper into the word choice and their possible meaning. I may never find the answer, but writing down my thoughts and reading around the questions is really fascinating and I love that it enriches my understanding of the text as a whole. 

What is one “big idea” in your scholarship?

Mainly that the conceptualisation of colour demonstrates a range of cultural nuances and offers insights into the thought processes of ancient society. Understanding ancient uses of colour is a key entry point into understanding broader, cultural themes such as beauty, wealth, power and the relationship between humanity and the divine.

What is your current research about?

I have just handed in my doctoral thesis which compared the use of colour in the Hebrew Bible to that in the Archaic and Classical Greek texts of Homer and Herodotus. In particular, the thesis analysed purple and its associations in both Greek and Hebrew literary contexts, which was used as a springboard to examine the materiality of colour and how colour was categorised in Ezekiel 27, Exodus 28, Lamentations 1 and Ezekiel 1. 

Who is one of your academic heroes and why do you admire them?

My biggest shout out has to go to Professor Carly Crouch who took me under her wing as an undergraduate student and has inspired me to no end. She has been the female role model I needed in the field, from her meticulous work to her passion for the Hebrew Bible––her enthusiasm is contagious!

What books have been formative for you in your study? Why were they so important? How did they shape you?

Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages is rich in anecdotes, an easy-to-read and witty book about the interactions between language and perception. It asks questions about the world that language attempts to describe, tracing back to Homer’s “wine-dark” sea and why the Greeks did not a have a word for “blue”. This book was what prompted me to ask similar questions about colour in the Hebrew Bible, whether it was as clear-cut as translated or cognitively understood as we know colour today.

Do you have any publications we can showcase?

I have a forthcoming article with Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament in 2021, titled “Cognitive Linguistics & Chromatic Language: Applying Modern Theories of Colour Perception to the Hebrew Bible”. I am currently working on two further articles as side projects to my PhD thesis, on the nature of “green” in the Hebrew Bible and the relationship between feet, genitalia and blood in biblical literature. I am hoping that these will be successfully published too.

Where can we follow you online?

Twitter: @ellenaclyell

If we ran into you at SBL/AAR and you didn’t want to talk about your field what would you want to talk about?

All things sport, I am an avid football (soccer) fan and play every week. I also get excited by the Great British Bake Off and pretend I know everything about avoiding soggy bottoms and proving bread. Most importantly though, I have a Bernese Mountain Dog puppy called Gwyn who is just a big cuddly bear, I could talk forever about him and the adventures we go on!   

Other than your thesis, what research/writing project are you working on right now that you’re excited about?

I am currently putting together a research project on the relationship between gender and power in the Hebrew Bible in order to apply for post-doctoral positions and jobs in academia. I didn’t really think the academic world was for me during my PhD, I had severe imposter syndrome and not a very thick skin – I just took everything personally. However, I am so excited by this project that it would be silly not to try and share it with the field. Watch this space (and cross your fingers for me!).

>> Thank you so much Ellena for taking the time to share a bit about yourself and your work.

Are you a PhD student or Early Career Researcher working in Religion or Biblical Studies? If so, we’d like to hear from you. This website is dedicated solely to interviewing PhD students and ECRs on who they are, what they love about their work, and what has inspired them. If you’d like to be interviewed, head over to the Contact page and fill out the form. There’s no catch. Don’t be shy. Self-promotion is a virtue.

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