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The Mythology of Kingship in Neo-Assyrian Art

The Mythology of Kingship in Neo-Assyrian Art

By Mehmet-Ali Ataç. Pp. xx + 278, b&w figs. 130. Cambridge University Press, New York 2010. $99. ISBN 978-0-51790-4 (cloth).

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This volume presents a consideration of the ways in which Neo-Assyrian art incorporates a Mesopotamian iconography based on written and representational mythological traditions. The author describes and interprets a visual and a sacral language encoded in the art of the Late Assyrian palace reliefs. A scribal-sacerdotal elite is hypothesized with close ties to the master craftsmen who supervised the design and execution of the sculpture. This approach was developed to broaden the study of the sculptures, which, Ataç asserts, have in recent decades been studied mainly in their outward meaning, or sociopolitical terms, ignoring underlying levels of meaning. He examines the religious meaning of the art from a new perspective informed by the improved translations of textual and cross-cultural data now available. The entire book is framed as a metaphysical discussion of the mythological supports for the king as ruler and priest, as regnum and sacerdotem.

The study is divided into three parts. The first part focuses mainly on the human and animal ontology in the palace reliefs. The second part discusses kingship and priesthood in the art of Ashurnasirpal II. The third part deals more directly with the ways in which the mythology is illustrated in the reliefs. Part 1 includes a chapter for each of the kings who decorated a palace. The sculptured reliefs of Ashurnasirpal II, Tiglath Pilesar III, Sargon II, Sennacherib, and Ashurbanipal are analyzed, with some analysis of the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III. The discussions are directly based on selected images from the reliefs. The theme of these discussions is the symbolic significance of relationships between humans, genies, and animals, developed mainly from scenes of sacrifice, hunting, and scenes in doorways. A theme introduced here, and returned to throughout the book, is the relationship between the king and the genies. Art historical observations of similarities in structure and detail are made, but they always lead to ontological conclusions. While the observations are accurate, the conclusions drawn from the more general scenes are not persuasive to this reviewer.

The second part of the book is devoted exclusively to the explication of the reliefs of Ashurnasirpal II and his image by reference to Mesopotamian mythological traditions. The palace is seen to symbolize both the cosmos and a theocracy, functioning as both a utilitarian and a ceremonial edifice. Ataç asserts, “the state apartments were meant as spaces of display and contemplation, likely enhanced by ritual and ceremony as well, for an ‘initiated’ audience who knew how to look at this art ... the main audience of the reliefs were probably the royal residents of the palace as well as the Assyrian intellectual or scholarly elite who constituted the king’s inner circle” (123–24). The king is presented as a bridge between the gods and humanity, fundamentally both god and human, operating in a metaphysical dimension. The arguments made for Ashurnasirpal seem reasonable for him and his palace at Nimrud, where he is depicted in the company of apkallus, and where apkallus and sacred trees dominate the wall reliefs. The implication is that this is true for all Neo-Assyrian kings. This interpretation is hard to apply to subsequent kings, for whom there is little or no direct visual evidence.

Part 3 has further analysis of the mythological traditions and how they can be interpreted in relation to the palace reliefs. The first are the apkallus (wise men who inherited the wisdom of the antediluvian sages of Mesopotamian myth), depicted as bearded, winged genies with human bodies and heads. Second are the so-called Mischwesen (creatures that are part human and part animal), who also connect mythology to palace art. Bearded apkallus are represented as anointers of the king and the sacred tree. Their wisdom is religious and metaphysical. A discussion of the identities of the three unique beardless apkallus from Rooms I and L of Ashurnasirpal’s palace would have been welcome. If they are female, as has been suggested by Albenda (“The Beardless Winged Genies from the Northwest Palace at Nimrud,” State Archives of Assyria Bulletin 10 [1996] 67–78; see also A.H. Layard, Nineveh and Its Remains. Vol. 1 [New York 1849] 280; D. Kolbe, Die Reliefprogramme religiös-mythologischen Charakters in neu-assyrischen Palästen [Frankfurt 1981] 55–63; F.A.M. Wiggerman, Mesopotamian Protective Spirits: The Ritual Texts [Groningen 1992] 47–8, 62, 78–9), how can they be sages? The nature and forbearers of the Mischwesen reliefs in the palaces of Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal are also discussed. While there is brief reference to Mischwesen found in the scene of wood transport across water in Sargon’s palace (a winged bull and a fish-man), there is no mention of the statuettes of Mischwesen found in foundation deposits at Sargon’s Khorsabad (P.E. Botta, Monument de Ninive. Vol. 2 [Paris 1849] pls. 152, 153), nor of the bronze relief examples of an apkallu, two Mischwesen, and a symbol of Marduk from the doors of the palace temples (E. Guralnick, “Bronze Reliefs from Khorsabad,” in R.D. Biggs, J. Myers, and M.T. Roth, eds., Proceedings of the 51st Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, Held at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, July 18–22, 2005 [Chicago 2008] 389–404, figs. 17, 26). Mischwesen are identified with Tiamat’s monstrous children, the losers in the cosmic battle with Marduk related most fully in the foundation myth, EnÅ«ma Eliš. It is suggested that they are adopted into Neo-Assyrian palace art in response to political problems with Babylon, appeasing those whose patron god was Marduk. Elements from the Gilgamesh myth are woven into the source analyses. Select analogies are presented between Mesopotamian and Greek myth, specifically to Hesiod’s cosmology and the myths of Herakles and also to Berossos. Likewise, many analogies are drawn to Egyptian cosmology.

The connection between art and myth is seen at its most complete in relation to Ashurnasirpal, who, it is asserted, ruled as a secular king and simultaneously as symbol of the sacerdotium—not as chief priest but as the connecting link between the gods and humans. After the time of Ashurnasirpal, the primordial Mesopotamian myth of Tiamat provides a means to understanding the Mischwesen that are seen in large scale in Nineveh. The preponderance of analytical discussion in this book relates to Ashurnasirpal, with much of the argument based on visual evidence from that king’s palace. The palaces of the later kings have diminishing evidence for the specific images that so dominate Ashurnasirpal’s palace. The winged genies that are prominent at doorways and gateways at Khorsabad are dismissed from discussion with the acknowledgement that others have made the argument that they are protective in function there. This interpretation is totally unexamined. Their total absence from the later palaces at Nineveh is barely mentioned. The lamassu, human-headed winged bulls and lions that dominate doorways in all palaces, are illustrated but not discussed, as they cannot be connected to the written sources for mythology.

The author demonstrates significant command of the scholarship about the surviving Mesopotamian literary tradition and other ancient literatures. Extensive notes and bibliography will enable readers to pursue their own special interests. This book has 130 illustrations of Neo-Assyrian palace reliefs. Unfortunately, the photographs are generally small and do not clearly show specific details discussed in the text. Archaeological evidence is essentially nonexistent. For instance, discussion of mušhuššus references stone examples but does not mention the bronze relief mušhuššu from a Khorsabad palace temple door band (G. Loud, Khorsabad. Vol. 2 [Chicago 1938] 193, pl. 50.22; Guralnick 2008, fig. 27). A kusarikku (bull-man), a kulullû (fish-man), and a lahmu (man with multiple large curls) are represented on these bronze door bands. Botta found two ugallus (lion-men) and a lahmu in a foundation box at Khorsabad (Botta 1849, pls. 152–54). Nor is there reference to the wall paintings that include images of the king (Botta 1849, pl. 155) and winged genies (Botta 1849, pl. 156). Neither is mention made of examples of the king or winged genies or apkallus in glazed brick (V. Place, Ninive et lAssyrie. Vol. 3 [Paris 1867–1870] pls. 28–30, 41).

The thesis presented is closely reasoned but essentially metaphysical, based almost exclusively on the stone palace reliefs and the literary mythic tradition. Archaeological evidence from related palace materials, such as bronze door panels, foundation deposits, wall painting, and glazed brick would have been useful. Ataç’s Ph.D. dissertation (“Scribal-Sacerdotal Agency in the Production of the Neo-Assyrian Palace Reliefs: Towards a Hermaneutics of Iconography,” Harvard University [2003]) narrowly focused on palace stone sculptures and mythology was the foundation for this book. This publication maintains that fine focus, while a broader one including all palace decorations would have made it still more useful and would justify the broadly inclusive title of the work. Finally, Ataç uses a few words repeatedly (e.g., regnum, sacerdotem, sacerdotium) that seem totally out of context in a discussion of the pagan ancient Near East. Basic English would have been preferable. Despite its shortcomings, all interested in the adaptation of primordial myth to illustrate a later art will find many thought-provoking observations in this book.

Eleanor Guralnick
The Oriental Institute
University of Chicago
Chicago, Illinois 60637

Book Review of The Mythology of Kingship in Neo-Assyrian Art, by Mehmet-Ali Ataç

Reviewed by Eleanor Guralnick

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 2 (April 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1152.Guralnick

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