Iconography: Mesopotamian Iconography

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Any discussion of the religious iconography of ancient Mesopotamia is hampered by the fact that we have, on the one hand, religious texts for which we possess no visual counterparts and, on the other, representationssometimes extremely elaborate onesfor which we lack all written documentation. Mesopotamia lacked raw materials such as stone, metal, and wood, and these had to be imported. As a result stone was often recut and metal was melted down; nor has wood survived. In time of war, temple treasures were carried off as booty, and divine statues were mutilated or taken into captivity, so that virtually none remains. Indeed we should know very little of Mesopotamian sculpture of the third and second millennia bce were it not for the objects looted by the Elamites in the late second millennium bce and found by the French in their excavations at Susa in southwestern Iran from 1897 onward. In time of peace the temples themselves frequently melted down metal votive objects in order to produce others. Occasionally a hoard of consecrated objects was buried near the temple, however, presumably to make room for others. The Tell Asmar and Al-ʿUbaid hoards dating to the second quarter of the third millennium bce are two examples of this practice. In only a few cases has fragmentary evidence survived to indicate how temples were decorated (the leopard paintings at Tell ʿUqair, for instance), but their elevations are often depicted on monuments and seals, and facades decorated with date-palm pilasters or water deities have been found. The decoration of secular buildings, among them the painted murals from the palace at Mari and the limestone reliefs that ornamented the palaces of the Assyrian kings, provide some evidence for religious iconography.

Our best sources for religious iconography are therefore the small objects that are more likely to have survived. Plaques and figurines made of local clay often illustrate a more popular type of religion. At certain periods painted pottery is the vehicle for representations that have religious significance. Decorated votive metal vessels, stone maces, and small bronze figures also occasionally survive. Without seals, however, our knowledge would be extremely scant. Prehistoric stamp seals were replaced during the second half of the fourth millennium by small stone cylinders that were used as marks of administrative or personal identification until the end of the first millennium bce. These cylinder seals were carved with designs in intaglio and could be rolled across clay jar-sealings, door-sealings, bullae, tablets, or their clay envelopes so as to leave a design in relief. Such miniature reliefs are the vehicle for the most complex and tantalizing iconographic representations.

Early Imagery

Nude female figurines are among the earliest artifacts to which a religious significance can be attached. Among the prehistoric figurines of Mesopotamia are the tall, thin, clay "lizard" figures with elongated heads, coffee-bean eyes, slit mouths, and clay pellets decorating the shoulders. "Lizard" figurines have been found at southern sites in both male and female versions though the latter is dominant. Farther north, at Tell al-Sawwan, female figurines and male sexual organs were carved from alabaster. These figurines also have elongated heads and prominent eyes but are more rounded in shape. In the north, clay figurines often have abbreviated heads, and the emphasis is on a well-rounded, full-breasted body. An opposite trend is attested, however, at Tell Brak, where "spectacle" or "eye idols" were found in a late fourth-millennium temple. Here the eyes are emphasized to the exclusion of everything else, and there has even been debate as to whether they might not, in fact, represent huts. Although there is always a risk in attributing a religious significance to a figurine when there is no written evidence to corroborate this, it does seem likely that these figures had fertility connotations.

Animal combats

One motif that seems to have had a special significance throughout Mesopotamian prehistory and history shows a heroic male figure in conflict with wild animals. A pot of the Halaf period (c. 4500 bce) shows an archer aiming at a bull and a feline. A figure traditionally known as the priest-king appears on a relief and a seal of the Uruk period (late fourth millennium) shooting or spearing lions and bulls, and the same theme reappears in the Assyrian reliefs of the ninth and seventh centuries bce and forms the subject of the Assyrian royal seal. After the hunt the king is shown pouring a libation over the corpses, thus fulfilling his age-old function as representative of the god and protector of the country against wild cattle and lions. This function must have been particularly important when animal husbandry and agriculture were in their infancy but would have lost some of that immediacy in Assyrian times, when animals had become scarce and were specially trapped and released from cages for the hunt.

At certain periods the theme of animal combat became dominant in the iconographic repertoire. For several centuries during the third millennium, and at various times later on, heroes are shown protecting sheep, goats, and cattle from the attack of lions and other predators. Generally the heroes are either naked except for a belt, with their shoulder-length hair falling in six curls, or they are kilted and wear a decorated headdress. They are often assisted by a mythic creature who has the legs and horns of a bull and a human head and torso. Attempts have been made to equate the figures with the legendary king Gilgamesh and his wild companion Enkidu, but the evidence is lacking. We probably have here an extension of the theme already discussed, with the emphasis on the protection of domesticated animals from their aggressors. Prehistoric stamp seals showing figures who often wear animal masks and who are involved with snakes, ibex, and other animals probably reflect a more primitive animistic religious tradition.

Early urban imagery

The advent of an organized urban society in the second half of the fourth millennium led to the development of more varied vehicles for the transmission of iconographic concepts. Some examples of monumental sculpture have survived, among them an almost lifesize female head which was probably part of a cult statue. The wig and the inlay that once filled the eye sockets and eyebrows have vanished and make this sculpture particularly attractive to modern Western aesthetic taste. Uruk, where the head was found, was the center of worship of the fertility goddess Inanna, and a tall vase is decorated with a scene where the robed goddess in anthropomorphic form, accompanied by her symbol, the reed bundle, receives offerings from a naked priest and a (damaged) figure who wears a crosshatched skirt; this latter is probably the priest-king mentioned above. In his role as en ("lord") he is depicted feeding flocks and cattle, engaging in ritual hunts, or taking part in religious ceremonies; in his role as lugal ("owner") he triumphs over prisoners. He too has survived in sculpture in the round, on reliefs, and on cylinder seals.

Other significant motifs are known only from their impression on clay sealings. It seems that certain types of seals were used by particular branches of temple administration: boating scenes used by those connected with fishing and waterways, animal file seals for those dealing with herds. Certain designs, for instance those showing variations on a pattern of entwined snakes and birds, are more difficult to fit into this scheme of things. Other seals are squat, often concave-sided, and cut with excessive use of the drill to form patterns. These might have been used by an administration dealing in manufactured goods since potters and weavers are depicted. Some show a spider pattern, and it is tempting to associate these with the temple weavers, whose patron deity was the spider-goddess Uttu. Some more abstract patterns are difficult to interpret.

If we have dealt at some length with this early period it is because many of the iconographic concepts found later have their roots in the late fourth-millennium repertoire, including depictions of both the physiomorphic and the anthropomorphic form of deities, cult scenes with naked priests, the attitude of worship with hands clasped and large, inlaid eyes to attract the deity's attention, as well as the royal hunt, the sacred marriage, and banquet scenes. Even such quasi-abstract concepts as the rain cloud received its iconographic shape during this period, as testified by seal impressions showing the lion-headed eagle. Later he is shown on seals, vessels, reliefs, and particularly on a huge copper relief that adorned the temple at Al-ʿUbaid.

Later Developments

Banquet scenes were especially popular in Early Dynastic times (mid-third millennium) and are often associated with scenes of war: seals, plaques, and mosaic panels depict these ritual banquets, which are probably to be interpreted as victory feasts in some contexts and as marriage feasts in others. They are to be distinguished from later neo-Hittite funerary meals, but the preparation of food for the gods is a favorite iconographic motif in the second half of the second and early first millennia bce.

Deities and their attributes

The representation of deities developed slowly, though by the middle of the third millennium they were wearing horned headdresses as a means of identification. In Akkadian times (23402180 bce) distinct iconographies were established for the more prominent deities, and their position facing left became fixed, though the detailed representations of myths on seals of this period are generally incomprehensible to us. The role of some deities can be identified by the attributes they hold, others by the sprigs of vegetation, streams of water, rays, or weapons which issue from their shoulders. Often these serve only to establish that the deity is, for instance, a vegetation or a warrior god without being more specific.

In fact, it is only a very few representations which can actually be identified with any degree of certainty. Plows are frequently depicted, especially on Akkadian seals, but this is not always a shorthand for Ninurta (who is, however, depicted in a chariot on the famous Stela of the Vultures). Warrior gods on Old Babylonian seals are probably also to be equated with him in many cases, and he appears on Assyrian reliefs. The temple of Ninhursaga at Al-ʿUbaid was decorated with friezes showing dairy scenes. There are clear representations of the water god Enki/Ea in his watery house or with water flowing from his shoulders on Akkadian seals. His Janus-faced attendant, Usmu, is also shown, as is the Zu bird who stole the tablets of destiny. Later the water god fades from the iconography and comes to be represented by a turtle. A neo-Assyrian seal showing a divine figure running along the back of a dragon is often taken to represent the Babylonian god Marduk with the primeval monster Tiamat, but there is no proof that this is so.

The moon god Nanna/Sin was a major deity, but there are surprisingly few representations of him. A stele from Ur and one of the wall paintings from the palace of Mari are perhaps the most convincing representations of this god, but where gods in boats can be identified with any certainty, they seem to be the sun god. The moon's crescent below the sun disk is also extremely common. The iconography of the sun god Utu/Shamash is, however, well attested. He is frequently shown with rays rising from his shoulders, placing his foot on a mountain and holding the saw-toothed knife with which he has just cut his way through the mountains of the east. Often he is accompanied by his animal attribute, the human-headed bull (probably a bison), or by attendants who hold open the gates of dawn. Scorpions likewise can be associated with the sun god, but they are also symbols of fertility and attributes of the goddess of oaths, Ishara. A famous plaque shows the sun god seated in his temple in Sippar; he also appears as the god of justice, holding a symbolic rod and ring, on the law code of Hammurabi of Babylon.

From Old Babylonian times onward the storm god Adad occurs frequently, often standing on a bull and holding a lightning fork. His consort Shala may appear briefly, on seals and in the form of mass-produced clay figurines of the Old Babylonian period, as a nude goddess, shown frontally. Ishtar (Inanna), the Uruk fertility goddess, appears on Akkadian seals holding a date cluster, calling down rain, and often winged with weapons rising from her shoulders as goddess of war. It is this last aspect that becomes predominant, and the Old Babylonian representations are so standardized that it is tempting to see in them the depiction of a well-known cult statue. It may be her aspect as "mistress owl" which is shown on the famous Burney relief (on loan to the British Museum). Her earlier symbol, the reed bundle, is later replaced by a star. One early seal may show her consort Dumuzi (Tammuz) as a prisoner in the dock, but otherwise he is difficult to identify. Ningirsu is often identified as a lion-headed eagle or thunderbird. There are several representations of what is probably Nergal as a warrior god. The god in the winged disk on Assyrian reliefs has generally been identified as Ashur but is more likely the sun god Shamash. Amurru, the god of the Amorites, appears on Old Babylonian seals accompanied by a gazelle and holding a crook.

Unidentifiable figures

From the wealth of symbols which represent deities, many can only be tentatively identified. The Babylonian boundary stones show these symbols on podia and list names of deities, but there is often no correlation between image and text. This is also the case on Old Babylonian seals of the earlier part of the second millennium bce where we have frequent representations of unidentifiable figures and a large number of inscribed seals mentioning divine protectors: the names do not generally have any bearing on the representation. It seems that the owners of the seals were "hedging their bets" and invoking some deities in pictorial form, others in written form, and still others by their symbols.

It has also been suggested that the deities invoked most frequently were those most likely to be depicted; again this cannot be so since Ishtar, for instance, is frequently depicted and is almost never mentioned in the inscriptions. It is likely that certain deities had a well-established iconography (like the popular saints of medieval Christianity), probably based on a commonly known cult statue or wall painting, while others were invoked by name because their iconography was not as immediately recognizable. The picture becomes even more complex in neo-Assyrian times when demons played an ever-increasing part in religion: we have descriptions of the demons, but these are difficult to reconcile with the representations.

The rich and tantalizing iconography of Mesopotamia is also responsible for key images in the Judeo-Christian tradition. To cite only one example, the huge, winged, human-headed lions and bulls which decorated and protected the Assyrian palace entrances are the basis for Ezekiel's vision (Ez. 1:413) and by extension for the symbols of the four evangelists as we know them, combining human intelligence with the wings of the eagle and the strength of the bull or lion, the most powerful creatures in heaven and on earth.

See Also

Mesopotamian Religions, overview articles.


There is no recent study of Mesopotamian religious iconography. An early attempt at bringing order out of chaos is Elizabeth Douglas Van Buren's Symbols of the Gods in Mesopotamian Art (Rome, 1945). This is still a useful book but has been superseded to a large extent by Ursula Seidl's detailed study of the Babylonian boundary stones, Die babylonischen Kudurru-Reliefs (Berlin, 1968). The symbols which appear on these stones are analyzed, the various possible interpretations and identifications are discussed, and examples from all periods are listed.

Most studies on religious iconography have appeared in catalogs of cylinder seals, beginning with Henri Frankfort's pioneering attempt to relate the seal designs to the texts in his Cylinder Seals (London, 1939). Edith Porada's Corpus of Ancient Near Eastern Seals in North American Collections, vol. 1, The Pierpont Morgan Library Collection (Washington, D.C., 1948), is also a mine of information. The same author has more recently edited Ancient Art in Seals (Princeton, 1980), which includes an essay by Pierre Amiet relating the iconography of Akkadian seals to a seasonal cycle. In her introduction Porada summarizes the advances in glyptic studies which have taken place since Frankfort wrote. Many of the objects referred to here are illustrated in André Parrot's Sumer (London, 1960) and Nineveh and Babylon (New York, 1961) or in J. B. Pritchard's The Ancient Near East in Pictures relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, 1969).

Dominique Collon (1987)