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Gane: Neo-Babylonian Monsters, Demons & Dragons From a Narrow Slice of Time & Space

A number of scholars have already correlated Mesopotamian iconography with cuneiform texts to identify and illuminate composite beings over a wide range of periods in terms of their historical development, association with deities, and impact on humans within ancient systems of religion and mythology.

The present research draws heavily on their work, but uniquely focuses on basically synchronic, tightly controlled, comprehensive analysis of the iconographic repertoire of hybrid beings in a narrow slice of time and space.

Mesopotamian composite beings have been the focus of several formative works. One of the most influential scholars in the field has been Frans A. M. Wiggermann.

This is Figure 2, K2987B+ and K9968+, from Professor F.A.M. Wiggermann, Mesopotamian Protective Spirits: The Ritual Texts, 1992, pp. 195-7.

This is Figure 2, K2987B+ and K9968+, from Professor F.A.M. Wiggermann, Mesopotamian Protective Spirits: The Ritual Texts, 1992, pp. 195-7.

In his Mesopotamian Protective Spirits: The Ritual Texts (1992), he examines the identities and histories of those Mesopotamian supernatural creatures mentioned in the Neo-Assyrian texts K 2987B+ and KAR 298.

Regarding this partial representation of all Mesopotamian hybrids, Wiggermann summarizes:

“The texts treated are rituals for the defence of the house against epidemic diseases, represented as an army of demonic intruders. The gates, rooms, and corners of the house are occupied by prophylactic figures of clay or wood, that the texts describe in detail.”

(Frans A. M. Wiggermann, Mesopotamian Protective Spirits: The Ritual Texts (CM 1; Groningen: Styx & PP, 1992), p. xii. (This is a second edition of Wiggermann’s dissertation, originally published as Babylonian Prophylactic Figures: The Ritual Texts [Amsterdam: Free University Press, 1986].)

As he points out, these figures described in the texts have been discovered in archaeological excavations, providing a significant link between text and material remains.

Although Wiggermann’s monograph is difficult to navigate (due to the nature of its organization), it has been the backbone of much of my research.

An excerpt from the introduction to F.A.M. Wiggermann's Mesopotamian Protective Spirits: The Ritual Texts, 1992, p. xi.

An excerpt from the introduction to F.A.M. Wiggermann’s Mesopotamian Protective Spirits: The Ritual Texts, 1992, p. xi.

An important systematic treatment of composite creatures by Wiggermann is his 1997 Reallexikon der Assyriologie (RlA) article titled “Mischwesen. A. Philologisch. Mesopotamien.”

(Frans A. M. Wiggermann, “Mischwesen. A. Philologisch. Mesopotamien,” Reallexikon der Assyriologie (RlA) 8:222-246.)

Here he provides numerous textual, philological, and archaeological examples of most of the known Mesopotamian creatures, and clarifies terms for categories.

Modern scholarship identifies distinct categories of subdivine (but superhuman) creatures. Those that walk on all fours, like quadruped natural animals, are identified as monsters while those that walk on two legs, like humans, are designated as demons.

Dragons, which belong to a separate class, are hybrid creatures that are essentially snakes.

(Cf. Joan G. Westenholz, ed., Dragons, Monsters, and Fabulous Beasts (Jerusalem: Bible Lands Museum, 2004), p. 11.)

According to Wiggermann, monsters are neither gods nor demons.

(Wiggermann, “Mischwesen. A,” RlA 8:231.)

Although their names are occasionally written with the divine determinative, they usually do not wear the horned crown of divinity.

They are not included in god-lists, not found in the list of “evil spirits” (utukkū lemnūti), and not mentioned in medical texts as demons of diseases.”

(Cf. Chikako E. Watanabe, Animal Symbolism in Mesopotamia: A Contextual Approach (WOO 1; Vienna: Institut für Orientalistik der Universität Wien, 2002), p. 39.)

Constance Ellen Gane, Composite Beings in Neo-Babylonian Art, Doctoral Dissertation, University of California at Berkeley, 2012, pp. 2-3.

Gane: A Study of Mischwesen in the Neo-Babylonian Period

“This study investigates the contribution of iconographic depictions of composite beings, commonly referred to by the German term Mischwesen, toward an understanding of the worldview of the Neo-Babylonians. This important aspect of their art provides access, albeit limited, to Babylonian ideology.

Anthony Green, Mischwesen. B, Reallexikon der Assyriologie, 1994, p. 245.

Anthony Green, Mischwesen. B, Reallexikon der Assyriologie, 1994, p. 245.

Unlike previous scholarly treatments of Mesopotamian supernatural hybrids, this study focuses on all extant, provenanced composite beings of a single period.

Focusing on a narrow one-period corpus facilitates the possibility of identifying correlations between emblematic visual elements and evidence for the perspectives of those who produced and viewed them, namely, the Neo-Babylonians.

The Neo-Babylonian Empire lasted from 626 to 539 BC. However, the present cultural research follows Edith Porada’s chronological framework for the iconography of NB material, which begins about 1000 BC and extends just past the fall of the Babylonian Empire in the sixth century BC.

(Edith Porada, “Suggestions for the Classification of Neo-Babylonian Cylinder Seals,” Orientalia 16 (1947): 145-165, pls. III- VIII.)

Anthony Green, Mischwesen. B, Reallexikon der Assyriologie, 1994, p. 246.

Anthony Green, Mischwesen. B, Reallexikon der Assyriologie, 1994, p. 246.

This study gathers and builds on several branches of previous scholarship, such as publications of examples of NB composite beings that provide the data for this research, general investigations of such depictions over their entire history, textual and lexical sources that elucidate aspects of such beings, and explorations of methodology relevant to interpretation of such emblematic art.

Previous works have exposed a number of key concepts applicable to NB composite beings (see further in “Literature Review” below). Most basic is the function of such portrayals as metaphors for supernatural beings, with hybrid body parts representing various attributes.

Anthony Green, Mischwesen. B, Reallexikon der Assyriologie, 1994, p. 260.

Anthony Green, Mischwesen. B, Reallexikon der Assyriologie, 1994, p. 260.

Also foundational is the principle that a symbolic depiction should be appropriate to its referent (in this case a supernatural being) and the function of the object on which it is portrayed. Another significant concept is the occultization (sic) of some primordial personalities represented by mixed beings.

Any attempt to draw immutable conclusions in this area of research is fraught with inherent limitations.

First, the extant NB set of data is only a partial representation of all the hybrids produced during this period, and does not include items that have been destroyed, remain undiscovered, or are at least inaccessible to scholars.

In particular, it is important to avoid making arguments from silence.

Second, even if all NB composite beings were available, they did not comprise or belong to a thoroughly unified or consistent system.

Anthony Green, Mischwesen. B, Reallexikon der Assyriologie, 1994, p. 261.

Anthony Green, Mischwesen. B, Reallexikon der Assyriologie, 1994, p. 261.

(Cf. Jean Bottéro, Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia (trans. Teresa Lavander Fagan; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), pp. 26-28. A. Leo Oppenheim states, “A systematic presentation of Mesopotamian religion cannot and should not be written” (Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964], p. 172).

Rather, the NB repertoire of hybrid creatures results from complex accretions over millennia. Therefore, we should be cautious about making generalizations.

Nevertheless, in this study I will explore patterns emerging from the data that will illuminate the place of composite beings in the cosmic community.

This will shed light on the nature of the cosmos and the degree to which its elements are interconnected in the worldview of the Babylonians, as reflected in their iconography.

Constance Ellen Gane, Composite Beings in Neo-Babylonian Art, Doctoral Dissertation, University of California at Berkeley, 2012, pp. 1-2.

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