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Nakamura: Magic as Mimesis in Mesopotamia

“Merleau-Ponty’s (1968) notion of intertwining or chiasm between interior and exterior experience might provide a helpful ontological frame here.

This bare movement of perception posits the emergence of various social worlds from the sensuous interchange between interior and exterior phenomena, namely, nodes of self-organization (perception) and the “chaos” of indeterminacy (being).

There exists a necessary separation and continuum between the former and the latter as the very condition for perception, such that perceptual faith becomes a “strange attractor in the circulation of sense, in the interweaving of perceptual and material systems” (Mazis 1999:233).

And Merleau-Ponty (1968) conceives of the bare notion of flesh as providing the substrate or condition for this movement. Flesh posits a world of indeterminate being connected by an essential openness to becoming completed by the world, things, others, qualities and interrelations (Grosz 1999:151).

Such transactions are never “completed” per se, but rather engage in continuous exchange, in an ongoing process of becoming. This unity, therefore, conditions perception as “a communication or communion, the taking up or completion by us of some extraneous intention or, . . . the complete expression outside ourselves of our perceptual powers and coition, so to speak, of our body with things” (Merleau-Ponty 1962).

The notion of an original unity seems to inhabit a Mesopotamian worldview in which dreams, visions, abnormal events, internal organs, and entrails provided an “empirical” basis for reality. In this reality, interior events and natural and social phenomena were intimately and specifically related.

One could argue that this worldview maintained a certain interpenetration or continuity between the interiority of the mind and the exteriority of the world. This notion is supported in the polysemic and polyphonic character of the Mesopotamian writing systems.

According to Asher-Grève and Asher (1998:39), the Sumerian language and vocabulary offers no evidence for the radical bifurcation of mind and body that is so fundamental to Western intellectual thought.

They find support for this notion in the Sumerian word, Šà, a holistic term that denotes the mind, body, and heart; the body and heart are the seat of the will, “it thinks, feels, has power over the limbs and is open to the influence of the deities” (1998:39).

Moreover, they see the body as providing a fundamental point of reference in early Mesopotamia; Sumerians see the body as the total being, confirmed by the absence of a distinct Sumerian word for brain/mind (1998:40).

In later times, ancient scribes and scholars exploited the flexibility of the Akkadian language evidenced in plays and puns on words (see Alster 2002). It is notable that the formation and development of the cuneiform script (created by Mesopotamians for Sumerian and adapted also to Akkadian), always allowed for a number of permutations and ambiguities to intervene, on the level of things indicated as well as on the level of signifying words (Bottéro 1992:94).

This capacity for linguistic signs and phonemes to hold multiple and freely interchangeable values reveals an indeterminacy built into what Bottéro calls the concrete and polysemic character of a “script of things” (Bottéro 1992:100). In other words, linguistic thought also supports a material logic of correspondence.

Although Mesopotamians certainly made distinctions between various concrete and intangible phenomena — the supernatural and natural worlds were connected through a notion of divinity, but were not seen as the same — perhaps it was the potential for their connection or conflation that was significant in the context of magic.

The reorientation of classical mind–matter, subject–object divisions within a relation of continuity and mutual implication sets up an ontological frame that might better approach an ancient Neo-Assyrian worldview (following Meskell 1999; 2002; 2004).

Such a frame not only situates magic in a pre-discursive world of relations, but also grounds it in an aesthetics that discloses a powerful process of enacting correspondence.

It should come as no surprise, then, to find mimetic work as a principle technique of magic, since the recovery of the world in its pre-differentiated unity provides the condition for the mimetic process of getting into the skin of an other (cf. Taussig 1993), that way of making which is the occasion of magic.

If this unity becomes obscured by the habitual, purifying movements of social process, then magic seeks its recovery in secrecy, through the concrete work of mimesis.”

Carolyn Nakamura, “Mastering matters: magical sense and apotropaic figurine worlds of Neo-Assyria,” Archaeologies of materiality (2005): 26-7.

On Dagon, Anu, Ishtar

In the Assyrian inscriptions Anu is coupled with Dagan, “the exalted one,” whose female consort seems to have been Dalas or Salas.

Thus Assur-natsir-pal calls himself “the beloved of Anu and Dagon;” and Sargon asserts that he “had extended his protection over the city of Harran, and, according to the ordinance of Anu and Dagon, had written down their laws.”

Here Dagan or Dagon is associated with Harran, the half-way house, as it were, between the Semites of Babylonia and the Semites of the west. From Harran we can trace his name and cult to Phoenicia.

Beth-Dagon was a city of Asher, in the neighbourhood of Tyre and Zidon (Joshua xix. 27), and the fragments of Philôn Byblios, the Greek translator of the Phoenician writer Sankhuniathon, tell us expressly that Dagon was a Phoenician god.

That the statement is genuine is made clear by the false etymology assigned to the name, from the Semitic dâgân, “corn.” But it was among the Philistines in the extreme south of Palestine that the worship of Dagon attained its chief importance.

Here he appears to have been exalted into a Baal, and to have become the supreme deity of the confederate Philistine towns. We hear of his temples at Gaza (Joshua xvi. 21-30) and at Ashdod (1 Samuel v. 1 sp.), as well as of a town of Beth-Dagon, and we gather from the account given of his image that he was represented as a man with head and hands.

The goddess Ishtar, wearing the horned headdress of divinity, with spears and maces on her back. The goddess is winged, and stands with her foot upon a lion, her sacred animal.

The goddess Ishtar, wearing the horned headdress of divinity, with spears and maces on her back. The goddess is winged, and stands with her foot upon a lion, her sacred animal.

It is probable that the worship of Anu migrated westward along with the worship of Istar. The god and goddess of Erech could not well be dissociated from one another, and the spread of the worship of the goddess among the Semitic tribes brought with it the spread of the worship of the god also.

Detail of the goddess Ishtar. From a cylinder seal in the British Museum.

Detail of the goddess Ishtar. From a cylinder seal in the British Museum.

I am inclined to think that this must be placed at least as early as the age of Sargon of Accad. The worship of Istar found its way to all the branches of the Semitic family except the Arabic; and, as we shall see in a future Lecture, the form of the name Ashtoreth, given to the goddess in Canaan, raises a presumption that this was due, not to the campaigns of the early Babylonian kings, but to the still earlier migrations of the Semitic population towards the west.

Ishtar, goddess of sexuality and warfare. She appears frequently on seals, relief carvings, and in descriptions as a mighty warrior who protects the king.  Ishtar was associated at an early period with the Sumerian goddess Inanna and both deities are depicted with symbols of fertility, such as the date palm, and of aggression, such as the lion.  This iconography survived relatively unchanged for over a thousand years. Here, Ishtar's astral quality is also emphasized: above her crown is a representation of the planet Venus.  In the first millennium BC more unusual stones were used to make seals: this one is made of green garnet, which may have come from northern Pakistan. British Museum, ME 89769, acquired 1835. D. Collon, First impressions: cylinder seals (London, The British Museum Press, 1987) H. Frankfort, Cylinder seals (London, Macmillan, 1939) http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/g/garnet_cylinder_seal_ishtar.aspx

Ishtar, goddess of sexuality and warfare. She appears frequently on seals, relief carvings, and in descriptions as a mighty warrior who protects the king.
Ishtar was associated at an early period with the Sumerian goddess Inanna and both deities are depicted with symbols of fertility, such as the date palm, and of aggression, such as the lion.
This iconography survived relatively unchanged for over a thousand years. Here, Ishtar’s astral quality is also emphasized: above her crown is a representation of the planet Venus.
In the first millennium BC more unusual stones were used to make seals: this one is made of green garnet, which may have come from northern Pakistan. British Museum, ME 89769, acquired 1835.
D. Collon, First impressions: cylinder seals (London, The British Museum Press, 1987)
H. Frankfort, Cylinder seals (London, Macmillan, 1939)
http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/g/garnet_cylinder_seal_ishtar.aspx

The old sky-god of the Accadians must have become the Semitic Anu at a very remote period indeed.

But it was the sky-god of Erech only. It does not follow that where the divine Ana, or “sky,” is mentioned in the Accadian texts, the god who became the Semitic Anu is referred to, even though the Semitic translators of the texts imagined that such was the case.

There were numerous temples in Chaldea into whose names the name of the deified sky entered, but in most cases this deified sky was not the sky-god of Erech. It is only where the names have been given in Semitic times, or where the Accadian texts are the production of Semitic literati composing in the sacred language of the priests, like the monks of the Middle Ages, that we may see the Anu of the mythological tablets.

Without doubt the Semitic scribes have often confounded their Anu with the local sky-god of the ancient documents, but this should only make us the more cautious in dealing with their work.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 188-90.

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