Arvind Murthy - Mesopotamian Symbolism
Ancient Mesopotamia flourished in the region between the Tigris and
Euphrates rivers, in the area we now call the Middle East. It is an
area rich in history, from religious to geographic to (most importantly,
of course) artistic development. Examples of symbolism can be found
everywhere today, from the sometimes indecipherable images of pop
art to the usually more mundane icons many corporations use in their
logos. However, back in ancient times, when written language itself
had barely been developed, symbolism was much harder to come by. Much
of it was in the form of religious symbolism, which is today one of
the most recognizable and important uses of symbolism for mankind.
Early cave paintings often used symbolism as a way to hide their human
subjects, for the paintings were believed to wield much magical power
which could turn dangerous if employed unwisely. Paintings were thought
to contain the essence of the subject, and were usually hidden in
the depths of the caves, unreachable by ordinary means, hidden for
protection. This early supernatural or spiritual thinking gave way
to the more developed pantheon of gods and goddesses in the ancient
Mesopotamian times of Assyria, Sumer, and Akkad, the three regions
that made up ancient Mesopotamia.
I encountered some trouble while trying to find ancient pictures
of gods, goddesses, or related figures online: there was a plethora
of sites talking about each of the religious deities but very
few which displayed pictures of them. However, the ones I did
find were very impressive in their symbolic qualities. One of
the most popular artifacts online was a clay figurine of a goddess
standing upright, totally naked except for a necklace:
It reminds me of one of the pictures we looked at in class,
"Venus of Willendorf"; both statues were seen as fertility
symbols, and had marked emphasis on the sexual organs of the
body. However, while the "Venus" figurine was not
exactly what we would term "attractive" by today's
terms, with most of the focus of the artist going towards the
breasts while the arms were virtually nonexistent, the goddess
picture I found online was much more ideal-like in its proportions.
It hailed from the 17th century B.C. and is thought
to represent either the Summerian goddess Inanna or the Akkadian
goddess Ishtar. The website mentions that the doubt about that
statement stems from the fact that the figure is missing two
standard symbols of divinity, the horned crown and a ruffled
Clay Plaque, ca. 17th. Century B.C.
Inanna was known as the goddess of "love, procreation, and
war." Sometimes she has a quiver and a bow for weapons, as
well as a lion escort. Her place in Mesopotamian mythology is complete
with a story of her descent into the underworld. While she was in
the underworld, no creatures procreated, almost certainly stemming
from the fact that she is the goddess of procreation. The actual figure
of her I found had somewhat exaggerated sexual features: "she
is seen holding her breasts. Since this figure was apparently kept
in the bedroom, it is thought to have encouraged procreation in that
private place. So the love aspect of her characteristics is symbolized
through the stories of her many lovers throughout her existence, from
Tammuz, the vegetation god, to a gardener whom she turned into a frog;
in the figure it is symbolized by the location in which it was kept",
the bedroom. Her procreation powers are symbolized by the halting
of reproduction in the underworld while she was there; in the figure
it is perhaps symbolized by the exaggerated sexual features. Finally,
her war aspect is not symbolized in this figure, but is revealed by
her weapons, the quiver and bow, and by her escort, a lion.
|Another picture I found online is somewhat connected
to the goddess Inanna. It is a depiction of the Dragon of Marduk
molded onto a base of glazed brick. The materials used alone make
this a wonderful piece to look at, as I have not seen too many
glazed brick representations or dragon, much less of anything,
so the effect is quite electrifying to look at. The colors are
fantastic as well, shades of orange and brown, to give it a dark
sort of quality, enhancing the myth behind the piece. In contrast
to many of the animal depictions we looked at in class in the
cave paintings, this dragon was not considered evil and was actually
sacred to the god Marduk, the central deity of Babylon. Marduk
has quite an impressive story dedicated to him in the annals of
Mesopotamian mythology, involving a colossal ware waged with the
other gods. In the end, Marduk wins, smashing another god's skull
to use her body as the roof of the sky and doing other large-scale
modifications to the world. In this picture of Marduk's dragon
I found, the dragon is striding on all four legs in a very determined
fashion, and has a "scaly body, serpent's head, viper's
horns, front feet of a feline, hind feet of a bird, and a scorpion's
tail." It is quite an amalgamation of creatures, and
it was placed on the entrance to one of the gates the Babylon
as decoration. During a New Year's festival for the king, the
Dragon of Marduk accompanied scores of other pacing animals glazed
in brick also on the gate: “many of these other animals were
sacred to other gods. Much symbolism can be detected here, from
the dragon body (Marduk breathed fire) to the array of animal
parts adorning its body, all of which can be used as weapons in
war, Inanna being the goddess of war. Again, its location can
be seen as symbolic as well", perhaps guarding the entrance
to Babylonia against evil visitors and maybe even deterring them
from trying to invade or take over.
c. 604-562 B.C.; Mesopotamian, Neo-Babylonian
Ishtar Gate, Babylon; Molded, glazed bricks; 1.2 x 1.7 m
883-59 B.C.; Mesopotamian, Neo-Assyrian
Limestone; height 1 m
|The next piece of artwork I found from the Mesopotamian
area was that of an eagle-headed deity. Perhaps there is a link
between this and the painting we looked at in class of the shaman
dressed up in the skin of a deer or elk. While Mesopotamians may
not have dressed up as creatures anymore, clearly their respect
for animals was strong, from the Dragon of Marduk to the many
animal escorts of the gods and goddesses. This particular engraving
of an eagle-headed deity with wings came from one of the palaces
built by a king of Assyria. The deity has wings as well, and is
seen taking care of a tree, a symbol of life and fertility. These
early cultures depended immensely on their crops for survival,
so a piece like this emphasizing taking care of both the land,
and perhaps by extension (since it was in a king's palace) their
leader is understandable.
This piece from Assyria of a
Birdman also highlights their fascination with man-creature
combinations, although the Birdman has been around for many
thousands of years, often representing a mischievous creature.
In this depiction, he is shown with his hands raised, probably
holding a winged sun-disk, the symbol of divinity.
Glazed Brick; 7th century B.C.
Representing a Birdman
Mesopotamian, Neo-Assyrian Period
terracotta; 33.6 x 34.3 cm
The Ram in a Thicket, The British Museum
Gold, copper, shell, limestone & lapis lazuli
Size 45.7 cm high, 30.5 cm wide, 2600 B.C.
One of the most impressive-looking pieces I
found was "Ram Caught in a Thicket," although
it seems the title is misleading. While the animal is a golden
goat rather than a ram, the piece is made out of wood with gold
overlay, as well as other materials like shell. It is thought
that the ram may represent Tammuz, mentioned earlier as a love
of Inanna and the vegetation god. The figure has a sort of resplendent
quality to it, and glows with a kind of energy, useful for the
god of vegetation.
All of the ancient pieces I found were amazing not only in their
artistic quality but in the complexity of their symbolism as well.
It is necessary to note that these symbolic creations came not long
after the development of a written language and that the evolution
of symbolism was taking place at a remarkably rapid pace.
Garbini, Giovanni. The Ancient World. New York: McGraw-Hill
Book Company, 1968.
Ruskin, Ariane. Prehistoric Art and Ancient Art of the Near East.
New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1971.
Barnett, R. D., and D. J. Wiseman. Fifty Masterpieces of Ancient
Near Eastern Art. London: Hazell Watson & Viney Ltd., 1969.
Siren, Christoper B.. The Assyrian-Babylonian Mythology FAQ. 12
Aug. 1999. 9 Dec. 2002. <http://members.bellatlantic.net/~vze33gpz/assyrbabyl-faq.html#Tammuz>.