Nakamura: The Common Terrain Shared by Myth and Iconography

by Esteban

“After this “enlivening,” the āšipu then molds this clay into various figures of power and protection, in effect reenacting the divine creation of humans from the clay of the apsû, the primordial underground freshwater ocean.

(Similar narratives of the creation of humankind reiterate a trope of the divine formation of being from clay. In the Atrahasis epic (Tablet I, lines 210–213) humankind is born from the mixing of primordial clay and the blood of a slain god, and in Enki and Ninmah (lines 24–26) humankind is made from this clay only.)

Cuneiform tablet with the Atrahasis Epic Babylonian, about 17th century BC From Sippar, southern Iraq A version of the Flood story The story outlines the structure of the universe according to Babylonian beliefs. Heaven is ruled by the god Anu, the earth by Enlil and the subterranean sweet water by Enki. The text then explains how the minor gods work in the fields but then rebel. As a result, humans are made from clay, saliva and divine blood to act as servants of the gods. This does not prove a perfect solution, as the humans reproduce and their noise disturbs Enlil's sleep. He decides to destroy them with plague, famine, drought and finally a flood. However, each time Enki instructs one of the humans, Atrahasis, to survive the disasters. The god gives Atrahasis seven days warning of the flood, and he builds a boat, loads it with his possessions, animals and birds. He is subsequently saved while the rest of humankind is destroyed. However, the gods are unhappy as they no longer receive the offerings they used to. There is a gap in the text at this point but it does end with Atrahasis making an offering and Enlil accepting the existence and usefulness of humans. Copies of this story have survived from the seventeenth to the seventh century BC showing that it was copied and re-copied over the centuries. This is the most complete version. There are clear similarities between this Flood story and others known in Mesopotamian literature, for example, the Epic of Gilgamesh. T.C. Mitchell, The Bible in the British Museum (London, The British Museum Press, 1988) S. Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia (Oxford University Press, 1991) W.G. Lambert and A.R. Millard, Atra-hasis (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1969) http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/c/cuneiform_the_atrahasis_epic.aspx

Cuneiform tablet with the Atrahasis Epic
Babylonian, about 17th century BC
From Sippar, southern Iraq
A version of the Flood story
The story outlines the structure of the universe according to Babylonian beliefs. Heaven is ruled by the god Anu, the earth by Enlil and the subterranean sweet water by Enki. The text then explains how the minor gods work in the fields but then rebel. As a result, humans are made from clay, saliva and divine blood to act as servants of the gods.
This does not prove a perfect solution, as the humans reproduce and their noise disturbs Enlil’s sleep. He decides to destroy them with plague, famine, drought and finally a flood. However, each time Enki instructs one of the humans, Atrahasis, to survive the disasters. The god gives Atrahasis seven days warning of the flood, and he builds a boat, loads it with his possessions, animals and birds. He is subsequently saved while the rest of humankind is destroyed. However, the gods are unhappy as they no longer receive the offerings they used to. There is a gap in the text at this point but it does end with Atrahasis making an offering and Enlil accepting the existence and usefulness of humans.
Copies of this story have survived from the seventeenth to the seventh century BC showing that it was copied and re-copied over the centuries. This is the most complete version. There are clear similarities between this Flood story and others known in Mesopotamian literature, for example, the Epic of Gilgamesh.
T.C. Mitchell, The Bible in the British Museum (London, The British Museum Press, 1988)
S. Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia (Oxford University Press, 1991)
W.G. Lambert and A.R. Millard, Atra-hasis (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1969)
http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/c/cuneiform_the_atrahasis_epic.aspx

And this mimetic act doubles back, for at the end of the incantation the āšipu invokes the creative utterance of Enki (Ea) and incants himself into the picture; here he blurs his position as both mime and mimed other: “in this way, as both chanter and person chanted about, as demonstrator and demonstrated, he creates the bridge between the original and copy that brings a new force, the third force of magical power, to intervene in the human world” (Taussig 1993:106).

(One creation myth (of many) also poses Enki (Ea) as taking on the organization of the entire universe and accomplishes this feat solely in the creative power of his word (Black and Green 1992:54)).

And it is the āšipu’s body that provides the ligature of this bond:

O Ea, King of the Deep, to see…

I, the magician am thy slave.

March thou on my right hand,

Be present on my left;

Add thy pure spell unto mine,

Add thy pure voice unto mine,

Vouchsafe (to me) pure words,

Make fortunate the utterance of my mouth,

Ordain that my decisions be happy,

Let me be blessed wherever I tread,

Let the man who I (now) touch be blessed.

(Utukki Limnuti, III/VII:260 ff. Thompson 1903-04:27-9, added emphasis).

It is bodily sense — initiated by the āšipu’s voice, movement, and touch — that forges a correspondence between the natural and the divine.

Through the mimetic faculty, magical craft and performance invites a direct and sensuous relation with the open world capable of recuperating a pre-organized state of sensation and perception.

This visceral presentation of the self-becoming-other and spirit-becoming-substance, reproduces the original fold of being that encompasses divine, human, and natural worlds. The Mesopotamian world was indeed enchanted, and humans, always already engaged in such a world, needed only to feel or sense in order to retrieve such unity.

I have dwelled upon the bodily aspects of practice — namely, those gestures of relating and transforming through incantation, touch, and movement — to underscore magic as a technique, as a knowing and producing that choreographs a dis/re-organization of worldly relations.

Magical performance amounts to a mimetic demonstration of vital correspondences between ideas, essences, and things in the processual enactment of an ideal made real. The affective force of such bodily techniques arises from the kinetic communication and experience of the performance; but how are we to make sense of the power or force of ideal protection made real through the burial of miniature figurine deposits?

Most commonly, scholarship has approached this ritual practice and material assemblage by considering certain symbolic and conceptual linkages to Neo-Assyrian ritual, religion, and culture, for instance, the common terrain shared by myth and iconography (see Green 1983; 1993; Wiggermann 1992; 1993).

While such critical analyses get at important aspects and processes of ancient intellection, they ultimately fail to consider the devastatingly material logic of magic that often subverts (only to reinforce) such discursive productions of meaning. To redress this imbalance, I presently examine this concrete logic and how it discloses apotropaic power.”

Carolyn Nakamura, “Mastering matters: magical sense and apotropaic figurine worlds of Neo-Assyria,” Archaeologies of materiality (2005): 30-1.