Images of the Divine

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Images of the Divine


Religious Symbols. Much of the art of the ancient Near East was of a religious character and can, as a result, be difficult to interpret. Gods were depicted more often in some periods than in others, and there is a relative dearth of representations of deities from particular periods. Depictions of supernatural beings were generally of minor deities, monsters, demons, or symbols of the gods. The symbols remain the most consistent aspect of religious imagery. From prehistoric times until the fall of Babylon to the Persians in 539 b.c.e. there was little change in their form or meaning. Some of the best evidence for understanding these symbols comes from the second half of the second millennium b.c.e., when symbols of gods were used on the so-called Babylonian kudurru (entitlement monuments). These legal records of land transfers were decorated with divine images as a protection from transgressions against landowners’ property rights, and these stones are often the only surviving artifacts on which gods and their symbols are labeled.

Standards and Animals, Late Uruk Period, circa 3300 - circa 2900 B.C.E. Little evidence of how the Mesopotamians perceived their gods has survived from before the middle of the third millennium b.c.e. It is possible that deities were not represented in human form. Images carved on cylinder seals, reliefs, and sculpture in the round from the late fourth millennium b.c.e. portray what are interpreted to be standards or symbols

of gods. They take the form of poles with attached rings or streamers and are often associated with domesticated animals such as sheep and cattle. It is possible that some of the animals were also thought to represent the gods or to embody specific divine attributes. One of the best understood, most widely represented symbols is a pole with a ring and streamer, which is known to stand for Inana, goddess of Uruk. Some scholars have interpreted the sign as representing a doorpost and door hanging, perhaps at the entrance to her temple. The symbol is used to write her name on some of the earliest tablets from Uruk and also appears on cylinder seals and as clay wall inlay. It is often depicted alongside images of sheep and the so-called priest-king. The Inana symbol continued to be used to write her name even after she became associated with the Akkadian goddess Ishtar during the Akkadian period (circa 2340 - circa 2200 b.c.e.). Since the association between deity and sign often did drop out of use, other symbols are more difficult to equate with gods known from later texts. One of the most common forms in early art is the ring-post, a pole with four or six rings at the top, which scholars have suggested might be connected with either the storm god Adad (Sumerian Ishkur), the sun god Shamash (Sumerian Utu), or the heaven god Anu (Sumerian An). Like the ring-post, the Inana symbol is often associated with

scenes of animal husbandry and continues to be represented until the second millennium b.c.e.

Anthropomorphic Deities: Early Dynastic Period, circa 2900 - circa 2340 B.C.E. By the middle of the third millennium b.c.e., after several centuries of economic and political recession, the emergence of rival city-states across Mesopotamia was accompanied by a flourishing of the arts. During this period, gods began to be portrayed in anthropomorphic form and were identified as divine by their distinctive horned headdresses. The emergence of the god in human form may be related to the politically fragmented nature of southern Mesopotamia, where rival city-states and their rulers associated themselves with specific deities in a pantheon of gods. Inscriptions and the representations of a god’s symbol or sacred animal allow a few images of deities to be identified. One of the best examples appears on the fragmentary remains of a large stele from the city of Girsu (modern Tello) in the state of Lagash. A bearded male, depicted on a much larger scale than the humans portrayed on the other side of the stele, brandishes a mace. In his left hand he holds a giant net that contains the captured human enemies of Lagash. The net is sealed at the top by a lion-headed eagle (called Imdugud or Anzud in Sumerian and Anzu in Akkadian). The scale of the man suggests that he is in fact a god. (He probably wore a horned helmet as well, but that part of the stele is missing.) The appearance of the Anzu symbol and the accompanying cuneiform inscription enable scholars to identify the figure as Ningirsu, the patron god of the state of Lagash. Other gods may never have been depicted. For example, later texts suggest that a god such as Enlil was so powerful even the other gods could not look at him.

Anthropomorphic Deities: Akkadian Period, circa 2340 - circa 2200 B.C.E. The number of representations of gods increased after circa 2340 b.c.e., when the ruling dynasty of the city of Akkad came to control much of Mesopotamia by military force. This line of kings belonged to the Semitic element of the southern Mesopotamian population. The Akkadian dynasty appears to have standardized the pantheon, perhaps as a form of control, and in so doing they formalized a process of fusion, assimilation, and syncretism between Sumerian deities and Semitic Akkadian gods, which already probably had a long history. During this period, gods were portrayed wearing crowns with multiple rows of horns and flounced or tufted robes. Contemporary cylinder seals are the best source of information regarding the characteristic imagery of these gods. Among the most widely represented deities is the sun god Shamash (Sumerian Utu), symbolized by the sun disc. Shown with rays rising from his shoulders, he often carries a serrated saw and rests a foot on a mountain or a human-headed bison, symbolizing the eastern mountains through which he cuts his way each morning. Another popular deity was Ishtar, a goddess of sexuality and warfare who absorbed many of the attributes of the Sumerian fertility goddess Inana. Ishtar is often shown in her warrior aspect with weapons rising from her shoulders. She is the first Mesopotamian god to be depicted with wings, and, in the tradition of earlier female deities, she is usually shown full face. Her symbol is an eight-pointed star (the planet Venus). Ea (Sumerian Enki) is surrounded by water, or has streams in which fish swim flowing from his shoulders. His symbols, which appear in later depictions, are a ram-headed staff, a turtle, and a creature with the foreparts of a goat and the body of a fish, the prototype of the zodiac sign Capricorn. (Ea himself was the prototype for Aquarius.) The storm god, Adad (Sumerian Ishkur), is represented by a lightning bolt or fork. He is generally shown standing on the back of a bull or a liondragon.

Minor Deities. During the Akkadian period, figures with horned crowns, but often without distinctive symbols or associated animals, appear alongside the major deities. They represent minor gods. From the late third into the second millennium b.c.e., one of the most commonly depicted is the protective spirit lamassu (Sumerian lama), shown with a horned crown and a long, tiered dress. She is often depicted on cylinder seals accompanying a person, either grasping his wrist or standing with both her hands raised before her face in a form of greeting. She introduces the human to a seated god or king, the latter identified by his distinctive round brimmed cap. This role may reflect the fact that people were no longer able to approach their kings without the aid of royal intermediaries, because rulers were starting to claim divine status during the period 2300-1800 b.c.e. Small amulets of precious stones and metals representing lamassu were possibly worn on necklaces and date from the second millennium b.c.e. onward.

Cult Statues. In the Old Babylonian period (circa 1894 - circa 1595 b.c.e.) terra-cotta figures depicted gods. These small-scale images may have been intended for private devotion or small chapels. There are no surviving examples of cult statues, but images on Assyrian reliefs of the eighth century b.c.e. show near-life-size statues of gods being carried off by the Assyrian army. From descriptions in texts of refurbishing divine statues, scholars have learned that they were sometimes made from precious materials that were melted down or re-used over time. In the fifth century b.c.e., Herodotus of Halicarnassus wrote about a golden statue of a god, some fifteen feet tall, that, he was told, had been carried off from a temple in Babylon by the Persian king Xerxes (485-465 b.c.e.).

Heroes. Heroic figures appeared in the late fourth millennium on cylinder seals. A nude bearded man with belts tied at his waist and holding snakes or lions continued to be depicted through the third millennium b.c.e., where he combated lions, bulls, or leopards, often alongside the human-headed bison, which is associated with the sun god and the mountains to the east of Mesopotamia, where the wild bison lived. He probably figured in mythology that is now lost.

Demons. Some of the apkallu (sages) have wings and faces of birds or humans; they carry a bucket and a purifier that looks like a fir cone. Other apkallu are fish-like creatures with a human face, arms, and legs. They are represented during the Neo-Assyrian period (934-610 b.c.e.) as small figurines and on the wall reliefs at Nimrud and Nineveh. Besides the gods and semi-divine heroes, the Mesopotamian cosmos was filled with monsters and demons, which are rarely depicted. One known representation of a demon is the female Lamashtu, who is shown as a wingless lion-headed bird-taloned humanoid who suckles a dog and a pig. She could be frightened away by representations of another lion- or dog-headed demon, Pazuzu.

Monsters. A popular representation in the third millennium b.c.e. was the lion-headed eagle, the Anzu (Sumerian Imdugud or Anzud), who was possibly a personification of storms. This creature is sometimes shown attacking the human-headed bison (perhaps symbolizing storm clouds covering the mountains to the east of Mesopotamia). A later version of the Anzu bird was possibly the “roaring weather-beast.”


Jeremy A. Black and Anthony Green, Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992).

Anthony Green, “Ancient Mesopotamian Religious Iconography,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 4 volumes, edited by Jack M. Sasson (New York: Scribners, 1995), III: 1837-1855.

Ursula Seidl, Die babylonischen Kudurru-Reliefs: Symbole mesopotamischer Gottheiten (Freiburg: Freiburg University Press / Göttingen: Vanden-hoeck & Ruprecht, 1989).

E. Douglas Van Buren, Symbols of the Gods in Mesopotamian Art (Rome: Pontificum Institutum Biblicum, 1945).