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Ritual and Politics in Ancient Mesopotamia

Ritual and Politics in Ancient Mesopotamia

Edited by Barbara Nevling Porter (American Oriental Series 88). Pp. xi + 120, figs. 32. American Oriental Society, New Haven, Conn. 2005. $42. ISBN 0-940490-19-6 (cloth).

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This book, the result of a workshop held in Helsinki, Finland, in July 2001 as part of the 47th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, is an important contribution to our understanding of the interaction of ritual and politics in ancient Mesopotamia. Although a growing number of studies are focusing on the impact of public rituals on political actions in this area of the world, the book draws further attention and adds considerably to this intriguing discussion.

The volume is divided into an introduction, three contributions, and a workshop discussion at the end. The essays are revised and expanded versions of talks delivered at that workshop by Reade, Sallaberger, and Talon, and explore rituals through evidence, contexts, and time periods. Reade offers an analytical survey of religious rituals as they are shown on the wall panels of the temples and palaces of Neo-Assyrian kings, while Sallaberger’s and Talon’s essays investigate, respectively, the literary representation of military exploits from Early Dynastic to Old Babylonian times and the rationale behind certain unusual royal inscriptions of the Neo-Assyrian period. Some interesting highlights of the panel discussion are presented in the concluding chapter.

While the editor has selected works that focus mainly on the Neo-Assyrian world and has provided only an overview of early ritual aspects from the south, the essays are provocative, lucid, and well researched. There is also some degree of theory accompanying the data throughout the book, though the archaeological and literary evidence is at times adequate to support the theoretical constructs. Although the contributors do not explicitly conceptualize their approach, their papers belong to postprocessual strands of archaeology with a marked stress on contextual explanations and examples of agency, practice, and bodily performance of rituals.

In the introductory overview, the editor charts a new course of investigation that acknowledges the important role played by public ritual in the lives of both modern and ancient societies. After exploring some general studies, a brief survey of recent investigations of Mesopotamian public rituals shows how these ceremonies functioned as a way for the ruler to secure legitimacy and divine support. Although not a theoretically aware introduction, postmodern theories have seduced the editor; ritual action and its meanings are defined and tied to aspects of the debates over identity, power, and legitimacy. This demonstrates the relevance of contemporary archaeology to related fields and to society in general.

Given the problematic meaning of the word “ritual,” the editor provides a useful definition employed in everyday speech: “the form of conducting worship; religious ceremonial” (5) (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 2nd ed. [Springfield, Mass. 1956]), namely the ceremonial performance of a fixed set of actions and words that are symbolically charged. However, the distinction between religious and secular ceremonies with ritual connotations is not relevant here, since Mesopotamian religion is politics, and secular statements are usually couched in religious metaphors.

In his well-illustrated essay (figs. 1–32), Reade offers a phenomenological discussion: the rituals represented on Neo-Assyrian relief sculpture are shown to be part of the flow of life, “not something set apart from the world in volumes of cuneiform texts” (8). While the author rightly contends that every monument and every scene is unique, the imagery is classified and analyzed in the following categories: ideal representations with protective figures, formal processions, sacrifices, ceremonies in camp (extispicy rituals), military triumphs, ceremonial hunts with triumphal returns, and feasts.

While Reade covers well-trod ground in his detailed examination of rituals, there are a few highlights and original patterns that deserve attention. As he notes, the king, usually wearing the ritual robe, is the main actor in every aspect of worship, most often assisted by a pair of priests acting near specific cultic objects. The general purpose of these ceremonies is to reinforce the king’s role as the intermediary between the divine and human worlds. Interestingly, the origins of supernatural beings on the walls of Ashurnasirpal II’s palace at Nimrud are traced back to the second millennium B.C.E., and we know that kusarikku (protective spirits) already existed in iconography at that early time. Also intriguing is the hypothesis that the famous motif of the king represented twice on both sides of a sacred tree may have originated in a real ritual (cf. the modern magical practice in today’s Near East of attaching strips of cloth to trees). One cannot deny, however, a certain degree of symbolism in the presence of a double king (or the king and the crown prince) undergoing a purification ritual.

According to Reade, Assyrian ritual symbolism also characterizes apparently civic ceremonies such as feasts (e.g., Ashurbanipal’s garden party) and the lion-hunt that served to impress on the subjects the image of the king performing his ancient ritual duty of protecting civilization against barbarism (wild animals). In this regard, recent investigations show that historical annals and wall reliefs feature the Assyrian encounter with the other/enemy as an opposition of the urban and civilized against the barbaric—lacking correct religious rituals. This is a dichotomy derived from morality, not race (Z. Bahrani, “Race and Ethnicity in Mesopotamian Antiquity,” WorldArch 38 [2006] 48–59).

In his conclusions, Reade presents an interesting interpretation of the uneven distribution of types through time. He suggests that the progressive decrease of ritual representations of the king (and protective spirits) after the time of Ashurnasirpal II may be due to the declining religious prerogatives of the king and his growing imperial character. Relatively less belligerent leaders such as Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal transformed ritual activities into grand public festivals. It can be stressed that the insistence on ritual activities by early kings may be also linked to the need of justifying their political deeds (e.g., Ashurnasirpal II’s move of the capital from Aššur to Nimrud), while the later public festivals may reflect Babylon’s theological influence on Assyrian ideology (cf. the new year festival at Babylon). Babylonian festivals, like Assyrian ones, represented an orderly universe and a perfect kingship used for propaganda purposes. Overall, Reade’s essay is succinct and intelligent and should be read by anyone interested in the visual aspect of rituals.

Sallaberger analyzes (in German with an English summary) the literary representation of royal military achievements in early southern Mesopotamia. He highlights an interesting trajectory of gradual change from a simple historical narrative to the later representation of political actions as timeless and placeless ritual enactments in a divine sphere in order to reaffirm the cosmic order. According to this model, the turning point is after the first Lagaš dynasty when, in stark contrast with the Assyrian historical texts, the members of the royal family, political opponents, and patronymics are omitted in all royal inscriptions of the Ur III, Isin, Larsa, and Old Babylonian periods. Thus, for Sallaberger, the “co-occurrence of filiation and historiographic texts” (97) in Early Dynastic Lagaš and in Assyria can be explained as the common need to depict the ruler’s military deeds within a human context.

It must be recalled, however, that both the Assyrian annals and the palace reliefs were not simply a mimetic record of historical events but mainly ideological and symbolic glorifications of the king (Talon). It is also possible that the shift noted by Sallaberger has to do with the introduction of divine status by the Ur III and Isin kings. The author may allude to this idea of a divine monarch when stressing that “it is as if his deeds are a ‘natural’ outcome of his might and potency” (96).

Talon investigates some unusual Neo-Assyrian royal inscriptions or foundation documents, arguing that such deviations from the norm represent the verbal enactments of expiation rituals by which the king cleared himself of a committed sin. The author, in an interesting departure from current analyses, provides an original study of each text, examining each within a larger context—as products of specific authors at a particular historical time. Focusing on some deviant texts of the Sargonid period that represent “the curse of the Sargonids” (the “Sin of Sargon,” “Apology” of Esarhaddon, seven foundation prisms, and Lord Aberdeen’s Black Stone), Talon shows how kings such as Sargon II and Esarhaddon addressed letters of apology to Aššur in order to conform to the ideal model of the perfect monarch after a breach of proper military behavior (e.g., Sargon’s attack against Babylon) or an unusual succession (Esarhaddon’s fight against his elder brothers).

Much of Talon’s chapter is also devoted to demonstrating that other unusual literary compositions (Ludlul Bēl Nēmeqi, the “Theodicy,” the myth of Erra), traditionally dated back to the Kassite period, represent deliberate attempts by the inner circle of scholars to transpose the political and religious conflict that plagued the Sargonid court to a mythical level to absolve sinful royal actions. Probably, in the absence of a strong secular principle of lineal succession, divine approval and/or election in the city assembly must have been obtained to legitimate kingship.

From this essay, it is clear that every ritual system codifies the central values of a society, so that change in political factors necessitated justification in theological terms. In this scenario, it is not surprising that Talon notes how the main scholarly families of astrologers and diviners surrounding and advising these kings would have tried to advance their position in the eyes of the king (i.e., Urad-Gula’s petition to Ashurbanipal).

There are few criticisms to make of the volume. Rituals are considered as a monolithic class, and no attempt is made, for example, to distinguish men and women in ritual performances, thus possibly engendering the activities. This applies also to the view of ritual as being composed of two parts—a ceremonial set of actions accompanied by some specific words. A more nuanced approach that acknowledges the existence of different kinds of ritual (e.g., official vs. informal) is taken up in the workshop discussion. Nonetheless, the volume has been produced to a high standard, and most of it makes for an interesting read. Every author has gone to great lengths to ask penetrating questions and to jettison the idea that ritual action can be studied devoid of its contextual performance. All the chapters are suitable for graduate seminars, although I cannot envisage using the volume as an assigned text. As a research tool, it provides a superb sampling of current study and is a key resource not only for Mesopotamian archaeologists but for all those interested in the relationship of religion and politics in general.

Paolo Brusasco
Department of Archaeology
University of Turin
10123 Turin

Book Review of Ritual and Politics in Ancient Mesopotamia, edited by Barbara Nevling Porter

Reviewed by Paolo Brusasco

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 111, No. 1 (January 2007)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1111.Brusasco

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