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Category: Ellis

Nakamura: The Figurines as Magical Objects

The Hybrid

“The magical power of the āšipu also allows him to identify certain mythological and supernatural beings appropriate for the task of protection; these are ancient sages (apkallū), warrior deities and monsters, associated with civilized knowledge and the formidable forces of life, death, peace, and destruction of divine will and rule (Green 1993; Wiggermann 1993).

These figures take on different protective attributes depending on the nature of the represented being; the apkallū act as purifiers and exorcists to expel and ward off evil forces, while monsters, gods, and dogs tend to the defense of the house from demonic intruders (Wiggermann 1992:96–97).

Lahmu, “Hairy,” is a protective and beneficent deity, the first-born son of Apsu and Tiamat. He and his sister Laḫamu are the parents of Anshar and Kishar, the sky father and earth mother, who birthed the gods of the Mesopotamian Pantheon. Laḫmu is depicted as a bearded man with a red sash-usually with three strands- and four to six curls on his head. He is often associated with the Kusarikku or “Bull-Man.” In Sumerian times Laḫmu may have meant “the muddy one”. Lahmu guarded the gates of the Abzu temple of Enki at Eridu. He and his sister Laḫamu are primordial deities in the Babylonian Epic of Creation –Enuma Elis and Lahmu may be related to – or identical with- ‘Lahamu’ one of Tiamat’s Creatures in that epic. http://foundfact.com/portfolio-view/lahmu/#!prettyPhoto http://foundfact.com/library/beings-people-and-gods/page/6/#!prettyPhoto

All of these figures find some association either with the underworld or the freshwater ocean under the earth (apsû) which was the domain of Enki, the god associated with wisdom, magic, incantation, and the arts and crafts of civilization (Black and Green 1992:75), and notably, all but the lahmu portray composite human–animal physiognomies (Figure 2.2).

Figure 2.2. Apotropaic figures with associated features.  1. Drawing after Richards in Black and Green (1992:65).  2. The identification of the lahmu figure is controversial; it names both a cosmogonic deity and one of Tiamat’s creatures (Wiggermann 1992:155–156), and may also represent an apkallu sage (Ellis 1995:165; Russell 1991:184, fn. 27)

Figure 2.2. Apotropaic figures with associated features.
1. Drawing after Richards in Black and Green (1992:65).
2. The identification of the lahmu figure is controversial; it names both a cosmogonic deity and one of Tiamat’s creatures (Wiggermann 1992:155–156), and may also represent an apkallu sage (Ellis 1995:165; Russell 1991:184, fn. 27)

Such forms manifest a communion of things generally held to be opposed to each other. The blending of humans and animals in this context might capitalize on the tension between Mesopotamian conceptions of a structured, civilized human world and a chaotic, untamed natural world (Bottéro 1992).

Hybrids materialize a unity of self and other, human and animal as a strange being that is at once knowable and controllable and unknowable and incontrollable.

Fish-man known as a Kulullû. Terracotta figurine (8th-7th BCE) in the Louvre collection, Nr. 3337.  The Kulullû is distinct from the fish-Apkallū. They are not the same.

Fish-man known as a Kulullû. Terracotta figurine (8th-7th BCE) in the Louvre collection, Nr. 3337.
The Kulullû is distinct from the fish-Apkallū. They are not the same.

As beings in-between, hybrids embody potential, transition, and similarity in difference. Such liminality is often associated with dangerous power, a power that obeys the apotropaic economy of the supplement, since it terrifies and yet provides the surest protection against that terror (Derrida 1974:154).

Another depiction of the Kulullû, or fish-man.

Another depiction of the Kulullû, or fish-man.

By miming such beings in clay figurines, the āšipu brings forth their active life and force in petrified form. Capitalizing on the apotropaic logic of defense, this gesture captures self-defeating force and suspends it in space, material, and time.

Many of the figurine types are depicted in movement with hands gesturing and a foot forward to suggest forward movement. Following Susan Stewart (1984:54), I submit that the force of animated life does not diminish when arrested in the fixity and exteriority of the figurine, but rather, is captured as a moment of hesitation always on the verge of forceful action.

The apotropaic figurine is a magical object — what Michael Taussig calls a “time–space compaction of the mimetic process” — doubled over since its form and matter, creation and presentation capture certain inherent energies that humans desire to control.

The magical object, which encounters the unknown by presenting its form and image “releases a force capable of vanquishing it, or even befriending it” (Deleuze 2003:52). But as ritual texts and archaeological deposits confirm, it was not just the images themselves that rendered power, but something in the process of their creation.

While such apotropaic figures appear in grand scale and idealized form on wall reliefs flanking entrances of kingly palaces purifying all who passed through the gates, the figures standing guard in floor deposits performed an additional task.”

Carolyn Nakamura, “Mastering matters: magical sense and apotropaic figurine worlds of Neo-Assyria,” Archaeologies of materiality (2005): 34-6.

Nakamura–Rimbaud’s Derangement of All the Senses, Magic, and Archeology

“Curiously, archaeological research has not fully exploited the evocative cooperation between text, iconography, material, and deposition in this apotropaic practice. Rather, it has been the art historical and Assyriological traditions that have provided the most thorough deliberations on the ritual.

Iconographic analyses present detailed visual descriptions of the figurines (Klengel-Brandt 1968; Rittig 1977; Van Buren 1931), and trace out a visual typology of apotropaic images (Green 1993; Wiggermann 1993), while textual analysis investigates the symbolic logic of apotropaic prescription and the mythological identities of the figures (Wiggermann 1992).

Two long-awaited volumes no doubt will provide further analyses of particular site assemblages (Green forthcoming) and the apotropaic figurines in general (Ellis forthcoming). Despite the richness of textual and archaeological data, an anthropological perspective is distinctly lacking; however, such research would considerably enrich our views of this remarkable ancient practice.

Regrettably, studies of previously excavated materials have not exploited the diverse range of approaches afforded by modern social sciences. While previously excavated sites and materials admittedly do not often lend themselves to the analytical and interpretive techniques most favored by archaeologists, such data should not be omitted from modern reconsideration and inquiry simply because they present a special challenge for substantive interpretation (see Meskell 1999).

There is, in fact, adequate data to perform detailed contextual and spatial analyses of the apotropaic practice at certain Neo-Assyrian sites. Furthermore, I would argue that conventional interpretations in archaeology — still oriented toward explanation and meaning — fail to get at the most compelling aspects of ancient magic, exactly that which makes it magical.

Magic surely presents something beyond the reach of representational or functional interpretations and thus demands a different perspective. What is required is an evocation of magic that aims directly at the caesura between meaning and matter and delves into the shadowy processes of materializing experience, belief, and value.

Perhaps it is not surprising that archaeology, with only material traces of human activity to work with, has left the critical study of magic to other disciplines. It is revealing that “magic” is generally invoked as an explanation for those slippery things, processes, and occurrences that our rational and linguistic varieties of logic can’t quite master.

From this vantage, magic has become something more suitable for explaining than for being explained. But as Mauss (1972) decisively observed in A General Theory of Magic, magic is as much a way of doing as a way of thinking.

We should consider, then, not a logic but an aesthetics of magical practice, as a particular way of making sense (Gosden 2001). And this way of doing engages a radical materiality that not only enacts the mutual constitution of subjects and objects, but provides the condition for such discursive practices.

A consideration of materiality vis-à-vis magic, then, does not presume and continue the anthropological pursuit of finding meaning in matter, the well-rehearsed terrain of discovering how various cultures construct and inscribe meaning in their artifacts.

What is magical or forceful in certain artifacts evades such fixed and flattened analyses since processes of abstraction do not account for the “untranscended materiality” or “plastic power” of the object that derives from the thing’s materialness itself (Pels 1998:101).

Impoverished attempts to discover the meaning or social context of a magical artifact, as it were, fall short not only because of an opacity of things, but also because our habituated ways of apprehending and constructing meaning threaten a veritable non-recognition of the things themselves.

This purifying analytical gaze effectively eviscerates matter of its very materiality — its innate capacity to continuously engage and enter into new relations. But recovering a recognition of things simply requires embracing the thingness of matter, namely, that insistent sensuousness of things that compels a confrontation with humans.

This move does not return us to problematic theories of materialism, but rather engages a notion of materiality as a dialectic and supplemental aesthetic of relating to.

Humans mime the animate in the inanimate, and the ideal in the real, to create and transform the world around them, only to be created and transformed right back. Such is the reality of matter: it “strikes back” (Pels 1998:91).

Within this framework I suggest that apotropaic figurine magic encompasses a process that enacts both a distinct mode of perception and a material event that renders a protected reality.

This discussion converges specifically on two aspects of magic: first, how magic capitalizes on a tension between the social construction of meaning and the radical autonomy of matter, and second, how magical perception, in the way of poetic action, masters the unknown by recovering and performing a “derangement of all the senses.” (Rimbaud 1967:302 and Deleuze 1993).

From such a viewpoint, Mesopotamian magic neither constitutes nor opposes a “rational” mode of knowing the world, but rather moves alongside in tandem, as counterpoint in a polyphonic system of knowledge. From this perspective, magic engages a sensuous metaphysics and grounds the possibility of a distinct socio-religious worldview.”

Carolyn Nakamura, “Mastering matters: magical sense and apotropaic figurine worlds of Neo-Assyria,” Archaeologies of materiality (2005): 19-22.

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