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Category: Temples

Figurines Excavated from the Burnt Palace and Fort Shalmaneser

The most expansive text prescribing the types of figurines is the Aššur ritual KAR, no. 298. After defining the purpose of the ritual as to avert evil from the house, the text begins to prescribe the types of figures to be fashioned and buried at set locations.

BM 124573, courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum. Plate Xa.  This fish apkallū appears to have his right hand raised in the gesture of blessing with the mullilu cone, with the banduddu bucket in his left hand.

BM 124573, courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum. Plate Xa.
This fish apkallū appears to have his right hand raised in the gesture of blessing with the mullilu cone, with the banduddu bucket in his left hand.

It begins with a long passage prescribing wooden figures of seven apkallē “Sages,” from seven Babylonian cities. No such actual figurines appear to exist, nor should we expect any if the prescription were faithfully followed, since timber figurines would have perished.

A bird-apkallū of the Nisroc kind, plate IXb. The figure is too worn to discern what is held in the right hand, while the left hand holds what appears to be a banduddu bucket.

A bird-apkallū of the Nisroc kind, plate IXb. The figure is too worn to discern what is held in the right hand, while the left hand holds what appears to be a banduddu bucket.

The next passage, however, prescribes apkallū figures with the faces and wings of birds. These are the bird-headed figures (Plate IXb), found appropriately in groups of seven. As well as in the Burnt Palace, a group of such figures was found in Fort Shalmaneser in a late seventh-century context; the excavator believed that the figures were redeposited ninth-century pieces, but they are rather different in style (ND 9518, figures in the round rather than flat-backed plaques) and may in fact date closer to the period suggested by their findspot.

Fish-Apkallū figure, Plate Xb. ND 4118, courtesy of the British School of Archeology in Iraq, photograph by David A. Loggie.

Fish-Apkallū figure, Plate Xb. ND 4118, courtesy of the British School of Archeology in Iraq, photograph by David A. Loggie.

A group of figures of the same type was found by George Smith in the so-called “S.E. Palace,” perhaps a part of the same building as Palace “AB;” the pieces are close in style to the Burnt Palace examples and may date to the late ninth century.

ND 4123 (IM 59291), Plate Xc, courtesy of the British School of Archeology in Iraq. Photograph: David A. Loggie.

ND 4123 (IM 59291), Plate Xc, courtesy of the British School of Archeology in Iraq. Photograph: David A. Loggie.

The ritual goes on to prescribe a set of seven figures of the apkallē cloaked in the skin of a fish. This type is represented by septenary groups of fish-garbed human figures which vary somewhat from deposit to deposit.

The usual type from the Burnt Palace, thin and fairly flat, sometimes has a fish-head and, on the reverse, a dorsal fin (Plate Xb), but often has no very obvious fish elements, so that the pieces must be identified  from others in the same deposit or by comparison with those in other deposits.

Also from the Burnt Palace come some more obvious human-piscine figures of heavy solid clay (Plate Xc). Six examples of this subtype were found, together with a seventh, “leader” (?), figure of the same being but of a very different style: a tall but flat fish-garbed man, the scales and tail indicated on the back by incised cross-hatching and diagonal lines.

ND 7903B. Courtesy of the British School of Archeology in Iraq, photograph by David A. Loggie. Plate Xd.

ND 7903B. Courtesy of the British School of Archeology in Iraq, photograph by David A. Loggie. Plate Xd.

Over thirty figurines and metal figurine accoutrements were found not buried in boxes but loose in the fill of one of the so-called “barracks-rooms” of Fort Shalmaneser. They would seem to be remnants from disturbed deposits, but evidently reused, since the fish-cloaked figures, of incongruous styles, were nevertheless seven in number.

It is possible, therefore, that the room was a kind of sick-bay, decked out with these prophylactic images. Plate Xd shows one of the types found, rather crudely made but with the line of the fish-cloak evident enough.

It is interesting to note, in this context, that when one of the legs is exposed and set forward on figurines of this type, it is the left one, perhaps foreshadowing an Islamic custom of entering a holy place with the right foot first, but the haunts of the jinn leading with the left.

The fish-cloaked figure is known in Mesopotamian art from the Kassite period, and despite a dearth of extant sculpture was not an uncommon figure in the Neo-Assyrian palace or temple (Plate Xa).”

Anthony Green, “Neo-Assyrian Apotropaic Figures,” Iraq, Vol. 45, 1983, pp. 88-90.

Worship of Idols and Graven Images

“Just as a great king might exercise wide dominion in the world but needed to sleep and eat, so too the Mesopotamian gods were ascribed universal dominion but had physical, social and aesthetic needs that their human subjects were created to serve (Oppenheim 1977: 183–98).

Thus temples of the gods were at first houses then palatial structures where the god ruled as a householder and dignitary (Oppenheim 1961: 158–69). The god’s house was provided with sleeping quarters, audience chambers, storerooms and dining halls in which choice foods were served and music performed. There were gardens for the god’s enjoyment and dalliance. Their homes were appointed in luxurious style with works of art, commemorative inscriptions and treasuries of offerings, gifts and valuables.

The gods travelled to visit other gods and entertained each other with feasts accompanied by speeches and heavy drinking. Like any good householder, the gods were concerned with the stewardship of their domains. The Sumerian goddess Nanshe, for example, is described in a hymn as searching out fraud and embezzlement in her household accounts ( Jacobsen 1987a: 131; Heimpel in Hallo 1997: 526–31).

The gods were understood to be physically present at will in an image (Hallo 1983) that was dressed and adorned with special clothing, jewelry and headdresses. Destruction of the image or its removal by an enemy was a disaster for the community, demanding a theological explanation: the deity was angry with his city or her people, even if no cause for this anger could be established, and had forsaken both the image and the community.

Return of an abducted image was a moment of jubilation and renewal of patriotic feeling, as when the lost statue of Marduk was returned from its captivity in Elam by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar I (twelfth century BCE).

Some Mesopotamian authors speculated on the relationship between an object produced by human craftsmanship and a universal cosmic power, asserting, as in the Epic of Erra, that the image was primeval and the craftsmen uncanny, with later human counterparts permitted by the gods to make repairs (Foster 1996: 765). However, reports of theft of divine apparel or jewelry suggest that not all Mesopotamians were awed by images of the gods.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Gods in Their Dwellings,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 181-2.

Specialization of the Priesthood

” … The growth of the temple organizations along the lines above set forth naturally resulted in a differentiation of priestly functions. Besides a number of general names for priest, such as sJiangu, enu, “votary” and ummdnu (expert), with gradations of rank as indicated by the title shangu makliTihu, “high priest”, we find over thirty classes of priests recorded in the material at our disposal.

The “exerciser” (mashmashu or dsMpu) is separated from the “diviner” (baru, literally “inspector”), and these two from the “singer” (zammeru), “anointer” (pashishu), and “musician” (Ualu, lallaru, naru, etc.) and from the “snake charmers” (mushlakhkhu) , who formed a class by themselves and perhaps had other functions than the name suggests. Each of these had numerous subdivisions such as “libationist” (ramku, nisakku), “anointer” (pashishu), [5] “dream interpreter” and “oracle” (sha’ilu) and others such as urigallu, and the abkallu, abarakUu, whose exact functions still escape us. [6]

Women also took a large part as priestesses of one kind or another in the temple service [7] as singers, “howlers” (chanting the lamentations), musicians, exercisers and furnishing oracles. We find also several classes of holy women leading a secluded life in special homes which would correspond to our cloisters and nunneries, and who were regarded as constituting in a measure the harem of the god to whose service they were dedicated.

Some of these were “sacred prostitutes”, and it is in connection with this class of priestesses that rites were practised in the temples which, while probably regarded as purely symbolical to promote fertility among mankind and in the animal world, were unmistakably obscene, or at least degenerated into obscene rites.

In addition to the purely religious duties in connection with the temple service, the priests were also the scribes, the judges and the teachers of the people all three functions following naturally from the religious point of view involved in writing, in legal decisions and in knowledge in general.

The tradition once established, the priests continued to act as the official scribes in the case of the thousands upon thousands of legal and commercial documents that have come down to us from all periods, though, to be sure, in later days we occasionally come across a scribe who does not appear to have been a temple official.”

Morris Jastrow, The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 272-3.

The Rise of the Priests

” … Corresponding to the growth of the temples, we find the organization of the cult extending its scope; and with this extension, the steadily increasing power and authority of the priests. In the small beginnings of the Euphratean cities, the priestly and secular functions no doubt rested in one and the same person.

The ruler of a city or district, as we have seen, [3] was regarded as the representative of the deity. As such he stood in a special relation to the deity, acting as a mediator between the latter and the people, while upon his good standing with the god, the general welfare of the people depended. On the very ancient monument of Ur-Nina [4] we find the ruler himself offering the libation to the god, though behind him stands an attendant who is probably a priest to assist in carrying out the rite.

As early, however, as the days of Gudea (c. 2450 B.C.) the ruler himself is led into the presence of the deity through the mediation of a priest. Gudea is so depicted on seal cylinders and other monuments, and presumably therefore the marked differentiation between priest and ruler thus illustrated was at the time an established custom of long standing.

The mediatorship may, indeed, be set down as the chief prerogative of the priest in Babylonia and Assyria. With this as a starting-point, his other functions as sacrificer, as exerciser, as inspector of the liver for the purpose of ascertaining the disposition of the deity, as astrologer and as diviner in general, interpreting birth-signs, dreams, and furnishing the answer as to the meaning of all kinds of occurrences that deviated from the normal or that in any way aroused attention, may be derived.

The people could proceed as far as the inner court of the temples, where an altar stood, but beyond that the priests alone could venture, and the rulers only if accompanied by a priest who as the privileged servitor of the deity had access to the divine presence.

Intercession is thus a distinguishing function of the priest, as a corollary to his role as mediator.”

Morris Jastrow, The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 271-2.

Gods, Goddesses, Demons

” … In the early stages of Sumerian culture, the gods and goddesses who formed groups were indistinguishable from demons. They were vaguely defined, and had changing shapes. When attempts were made to depict them they were represented in many varying forms. Some were winged bulls or lions with human heads; others had even more remarkable composite forms. The “dragon of Babylon”, for instance, which was portrayed on walls of temples, had a serpent’s head, a body covered with scales, the fore legs of a lion, hind legs of an eagle, and a long wriggling serpentine tail. Ea had several monster forms. The following description of one of these is repulsive enough:–

The head is the head of a serpent,

From his nostrils mucus trickles,

His mouth is beslavered with water;

The ears are like those of a basilisk,

His horns are twisted into three curls,

He wears a veil in his head band,

The body is a suh-fish full of stars,

The base of his feet are claws,

The sole of his foot has no heel,

His name is Sassu-wunnu,

A sea monster, a form of Ea.

R.C. Thompson’s Translation.

Even after the gods were given beneficent attributes to reflect the growth of culture, and were humanized, they still retained many of their savage characteristics. Bel Enlil and his fierce son, Nergal, were destroyers of mankind; the storm god desolated the land; the sky god deluged it with rain; the sea raged furiously, ever hungering for human victims; the burning sun struck down its victims; and the floods played havoc with the dykes and houses of human beings.

In Egypt the sun god Ra was similarly a “producer of calamity,” the composite monster god Sokar was “the lord of fear”. Osiris in prehistoric times had been “a dangerous god,” and some of the Pharaohs sought protection against him in the charms inscribed in their tombs.

The Indian Shiva, “the Destroyer”, in the old religious poems has also primitive attributes of like character.

The Sumerian gods never lost their connection with the early spirit groups. These continued to be represented by their attendants, who executed a deity’s stern and vengeful decrees. In one of the Babylonian charms the demons are referred to as “the spleen of the gods”–the symbols of their wrathful emotions and vengeful desires.

Bel Enlil, the air and earth god, was served by the demons of disease, “the beloved sons of Bel,” which issued from the Underworld to attack mankind. Nergal, the sulky and ill-tempered lord of death and destruction, who never lost his demoniac character, swept over the land, followed by the spirits of pestilence, sunstroke, weariness, and destruction.

Anu, the sky god, had “spawned” at creation the demons of cold and rain and darkness. Even Ea and his consort, Damkina, were served by groups of devils and giants, which preyed upon mankind in bleak and desolate places when night fell. In the ocean home of Ea were bred the “seven evil spirits” of tempest–the gaping dragon, the leopard which preyed upon children, the great Beast, the terrible serpent, &c.

In Indian mythology Indra was similarly followed by the stormy Maruts, and fierce Rudra by the tempestuous Rudras.

In Teutonic mythology Odin is the “Wild Huntsman in the Raging Host.”

In Greek mythology the ocean furies attend upon fickle Poseidon.

Other examples of this kind could be multiplied.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

Ancient Animism

” … The memorable sermon preached by Paul to the Athenians when he stood “in the midst of Mars’ hill,” could have been addressed with equal appropriateness to the ancient Sumerians and Akkadians.

“I perceive,” he declared, “that in all things ye are too superstitious…. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men’s hands as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things … for in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.”

Babylonian temples were houses of the gods in the literal sense; the gods were supposed to dwell in them, their spirits having entered into the graven images or blocks of stone.

It is probable that like the Ancient Egyptians they believed a god had as many spirits as he had attributes. The gods, as we have said, appear to have evolved from early spirit groups. All the world swarmed with spirits, which inhabited stones and trees, mountains and deserts, rivers and ocean, the air, the sky, the stars, and the sun and moon.

The spirits controlled Nature: they brought light and darkness, sunshine and storm, summer and winter; they were manifested in the thunderstorm, the sandstorm, the glare of sunset, and the wraiths of mist rising from the steaming marshes.

They controlled also the lives of men and women. The good spirits were the source of luck. The bad spirits caused misfortunes, and were ever seeking to work evil against the Babylonian. Darkness was peopled by demons and ghosts of the dead. The spirits of disease were ever lying in wait to clutch him with cruel invisible hands.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

A Human Head Carried on a River of Blood

” … The first men on earth to receive knowledge of the gods, and to build temples and shrines and to summon meetings for religious observances are said to have been the Egyptians. 5 They were the first, too, to take cognizance of holy names, and to repeat sacred traditions. Not long after them the Assyrians heard from the Egyptians their doctrines as to the gods, and they reared temples and shrines: in these they placed statues and images.

Originally the temples of the Egyptians possessed no images. And there exist in Syria temples of a date not much later than those of Egypt, many of which I have seen myself, for instance, the temple of Hercules in Tyre. 6 This is not the Hercules of Greek legend; but a Tyrian hero of much greater antiquity than he.

There is likewise in Phœnicia a temple of great size owned by the Sidonians. They call it the temple of Astarte. 7 I hold this Astarte to be no other than the moon-goddess. But according to the story of one of the priests this temple is sacred to Europa, the sister of Cadmus. She was the daughter of Agenor, and on her disappearance from Earth the Phœnicians honoured her with a temple and told a sacred legend about her; how that Zeus was enamoured of her for her beauty, and changing his form into that of a bull carried her off into Crete. 8 This legend I heard from other Phœnicians as well; and the coinage current among the Sidonians bears upon it the effigy of Europa sitting upon a bull, none other than Zeus. 9 Thus they do not agree that the temple in question is sacred to Europa.

The Phœnicians have also another sacred custom, derived from Egypt, not from Assyria: it came, they say, from Heliopolis into Phœnicia. I never witnessed this myself, but it is important, and of great antiquity.

I saw too at Byblos a large temple, 10 sacred to the Byblian Aphrodite 11: this is the scene of the secret rites of Adonis: I mastered these. They assert that the legend about Adonis and the wild boar is true, 12 and that the facts occurred in their country, and in memory of this calamity they beat their breasts and wail every year, and perform their secret ritual amid signs of mourning through the whole countryside.

When they have finished their mourning and wailing, they sacrifice in the first place to Adonis, as to one who has departed this life: after this they allege that he is alive again, and exhibit his effigy to the sky. They proceed to shave their heads, 13 too, like the Egyptians on the loss of their Apis. The women who refuse to be shaved have to submit to the following penalty, viz., to stand for the space of an entire day in readiness to expose their persons for hire. The place of hire is open to none but foreigners, and out of the proceeds of the traffic of these women a sacrifice to Aphrodite is paid. 14

Some of the inhabitants of Byblos maintain that the Egyptian Osiris is buried in their town, and that the public mourning and secret rites are performed in memory not of Adonis, but of Osiris. 15 I will tell you why this story seems worthy of credence. A human head comes every year from Egypt to Byblos, 16 floating on its seven days’ journey thence: the winds, by some divine instinct, waft it on its way: it never varies from its course but goes straight to Byblos. The whole occurrence is miraculous. It occurs every year, and it came to pass while I was myself in Byblos, and I saw the head in that city.

There is, too, another marvellous portent in the region of the Byblians. A river, flowing from Mount Libanus, discharges itself into the sea: this river bears the name of Adonis. 17 Every year regularly it is tinged with blood, and loses its proper colour before it falls into the sea: it dyes the sea, to a large space, red: 18 and thus announces their time of mourning to the Byblians.

Their story is that during these days Adonis is wounded, and that the river’s nature is changed by the blood which flows into its waters; and that it takes its name from this blood. Such is the legend vulgarly accepted: but a man of Byblos, who seemed to me to be telling the truth, told me another reason for this marvellous change.

He spoke as follows: “This river, my friend and guest, passes through the Libanus: now this Libanus abounds in red earth. The violent winds which blow regularly on those days bring down into the river a quantity of earth resembling vermilion. It is this earth that turns the river to red. And thus the change in the river’s colour is due, not to blood as they affirm, but to the nature of the soil.” 19

This was the story of the Byblian. But even assuming that he spoke the truth, yet there certainly seems to me something supernatural in the regular coincidence of the wind and the colouring of the river.”

Herbert A. Strong and John Garstang, trans., The Syrian Goddess, by Lucian, 1913, pp. 42-8.

The Naassene Fragment, on the Ithyphallus

” … (7) And they say that not only the Mysteries of the Assyrians and Phrygians substantiate this teaching (logos) concerning the Blessed Nature, which is at once hidden and manifest [but also those of the Egyptians 1].

C. 2 [The Nature] which (H. he says) is the Kingdom of the Heavens sought for within man—

H. —concerning which [Nature] they hand on a distinct tradition in the Gospel entitled According to Thomas, saying as follows:

C. “He who seeketh shall find me in children from the age of seven years 3; for in them at the fourteenth year 4 [lit. æon] I hidden am made manifest.”

H. But this is not Christ’s Saying but that of Hippocrates:

“A boy of seven years [is] half a father.” 5

Hence as they place the Original Nature of the universals in the Original Seed, having learned the Hippocratian dictum that a child of seven is half a father, they say at fourteen years, according to Thomas, it is manifested. This 6 is their ineffable and mysterious Logos. 7

(8 8) S. (H.—At any rate they say that) the Egyptians—who are the most ancient of men after the Phrygians, who at the same time were confessedly the first to communicate to mankind the Mystery-rites and Orgies of all the Gods, and to declare their Forms and Energies—have the mysteries of Isis, holy, venerable, and not to be disclosed to the uninitiated.

H. And these are nothing else than the robbing of the member of Osiris, and its being sought for by the seven-robed and black-mantled 1 [Goddess].

And (they [the Egyptians] say) Osiris is Water. 2 And Seven-robed Nature—

H. —having round her, nay, robing herself in seven ætheric vestures—for thus they 3 allegorically designate the planet-stars, calling [their spheres] ætheric vestures—

S. —being metamorphosed, as ever-changing Genesis, by the Ineffable and Uncopiable and Incomprehensible and Formless, is shown forth as creation.

J. And this is what (H. he says) is said in the Scripture:

“Seven times the Just shall fall and rise again.” 4

For these “fallings” (H. he says) are the changes of the stars, 5 set in motion by the Mover of all things.

(9) S. Accordingly they 6 declare concerning the Essence of the Seed which is the cause of all things in Genesis, that it is none of these things, but that it begets and makes all generated things, saying:

“I become what I will, and am what I am.” 1

Therefore (H. he says) That which moves all is unmoved; for It remains what It is, making all things, and becomes no one of the things produced.

(H. He says that) This is the Only Good—

C. And concerning this was spoken what was said by the Saviour:

“Why callest thou me Good? One is Good 2—my Father in the Heavens, who maketh His sun to rise on righteous and unrighteous, and sendeth rain on saints and sinners.” 3

H. And who are the saints on whom He sendeth rain and the sinners on whom He also sendeth rain—this also he tells subsequently with the rest.

S. —and (H. that) This is the Great, Hidden, and Unknown Mystery of the Egyptians, Hidden and [yet] Revealed.  For there is no temple (H. he says) before the entrance of which the Hidden [Mystery] does not stand naked, pointing from below above, and crowned with all its fruits of generation.

(10) And (H. they say) it stands so symbolised not only in the most sacred temples before the statues, but also set up for general knowledge—

C. —as it were “a light not under the bushel, but set “on the candlestick” 1—a preaching “heralded forth on the house-tops.”2

S. —on all the roads and in all the streets, and alongside the very houses as a boundary and limit of the dwelling; (H. that) This is the God spoken of by all, for they call Him Bringer-of-good, not knowing what they say.

H. And this mystery [-symbol] the Greeks got from the Egyptians, and have it [even] to this day.

At any rate, he says, we see the “Hermes” 3 honoured by them in this form.

(11) S. And the Cyllenians, treating [this symbol] with special honour, [regard it as the] Logos. 4

For (H. he says) Hermes is [the] Logos, who, as being the Interpreter and Fabricator of all things that have been and are and shall be, was honoured by them under the symbolism of this figure, namely an ithyphallus.”

 G.R.S. Mead, Thrice-Greatest HermesVol. 1, 1906, pp. 155-8.

From Hippolytus, Philosophumena; or, Refutation of all Heresies.

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