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Capital of a column from the audience hall of the palace of Darius I, Susa

Posted on May 20, 2016 at 2:20 PM Comments comments (5)

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Capital of a column from the audience hall of the palace of Darius I, Susa, c. 510 B.C.E., Achaemenid, Tell of the Apadana, Susa, Iran (Louvre) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Steven Zucker and Beth Harris.

The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia

Posted on May 20, 2016 at 2:15 PM Comments comments (0)

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The Cyrus Cylinder is one of the most famous objects to have survived from the ancient world. It was inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform on the orders of Persian King Cyrus the Great (559-530 B.C.E.) after he captured Babylon in 539 B.C.E. It was found in Babylon in modern Iraq in 1879 during a British Museum excavation. Cyrus claims to have achieved this with the aid of Marduk, the god of Babylon. He then describes measures of relief he brought to the inhabitants of the city, and tells how he returned a number of images of gods, which Nabonidus had collected in Babylon, to their proper temples throughout Mesopotamia and western Iran. At the same time he arranged for the restoration of these temples, and organized the return to their homelands of a number of people who had been held in Babylonia by the Babylonian kings. Although the Jews are not mentioned in this document, their return to Palestine following their deportation by Nebuchadnezzar II, was part of this policy. The cylinder is often referred to as the first bill of human rights as it appears to encourage freedom of worship throughout the Persian Empire and to allow deported people to return to their homelands, but it in fact reflects a long tradition in Mesopotamia where, from as early as the third millennium B.C.E., kings began their reigns with declarations of reforms.

Persepolis: The Audience Hall of Darius and Xerxes

Posted on May 20, 2016 at 2:00 PM Comments comments (1)

Growth of the Achaemenid Empire under different kings

By the early fifth century B.C.E. the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire ruled an estimated 44% of the human population of planet Earth. Through regional administrators the Persian kings controlled a vast territory which they constantly sought to expand. Famous for monumental architecture, Persian kings established numerous monumental centers, among those is Persepolis (today, in Iran). The great audience hall of the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes presents a visual microcosm of the Achaemenid empire—making clear, through sculptural decoration, that the Persian king ruled over all of the subjugated ambassadors and vassals (who are shown bringing tribute in an endless eternal procession).

Overview of the Achaemenid Empire


The Achaemenid Empire (First Persian Empire) was an imperial state of Western Asia founded by Cyrus the Great and flourishing from c. 550-330 B.C.E. The empire’s territory was vast, stretching from the Balkan peninsula in the west to the Indus River valley in the east. The Achaemenid Empire is notable for its strong, centralized bureaucracy that had, at its head, a king and relied upon regional satraps (regional governors).

Kylix depicting a Greek hoplite slaying a Persian inside, by the Triptolemos painter,

5th century B.C.E. (National Museums of Scotland)

A number of formerly independent states were made subject to the Persian Empire. These states covered a vast territory from central Asia and Afghanistan in the east to Asia Minor, Egypt, Libya, and Macedonia in the west. The Persians famously attempted to expand their empire further to include mainland Greece but they were ultimately defeated in this attempt. The Persian kings are noted for their penchant for monumental art and architecture. In creating monumental centers, including Persepolis, the Persian kings employed art and architecture to craft messages that helped to reinforce their claims to power and depict, iconographically, Persian rule.

Overview of Persepolis


Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Persian empire (c. 550-330 B.C.E.), lies some 60 km northeast of Shiraz, Iran. The earliest archaeological remains of the city date to c. 515 B.C.E. Persepolis, a Greek toponym meaning “city of the Persians”, was known to the Persians as Pārsa and was an important city of the ancient world, renowned for its monumental art and architecture. The site was excavated by German archaeologists Ernst Herzfeld, Friedrich Krefter, and Erich Schmidt between 1931 and 1939. Its remains are striking even today, leading UNESCO to register the site as a World Heritage Site in 1979.

Persepolis was intentionally founded in the Marvdašt Plain during the later part of the sixth century B.C.E. It was marked as a special site by Darius the Great (reigned 522-486 B.C.E.) in 518 B.C.E. when he indicated the location of a “Royal Hill” that would serve as a ceremonial center and citadel for the city. This was an action on Darius’ part that was similar to the earlier king Cyrus the Great who had founded the city of Pasargadae. Darius the Great directed a massive building program at Persepolis that would continue under his successors Xerxes (r. 486-466 B.C.E.) and Artaxerxes I (r. 466-424 B.C.E.). Persepolis would remain an important site until it was sacked, looted, and burned under Alexander the Great of Macedon in 330 B.C.E.

Plan of Persepolis


Darius’ program at Persepolis including the building of a massive terraced platform covering 125,000 square meters of the promontory. This platform supported four groups of structures: residential quarters, a treasury, ceremonial palaces, and fortifications. Scholars continue to debate the purpose and nature of the site. Primary sources indicate that Darius saw himself building an important stronghold. Some scholars suggest that the site has a sacred connection to the god Mithra (Mehr), as well as links to the Nowruz, the Persian New Year’s festival. More general readings see Persepolis as an important administrative and economic center of the Persian empire.

Bull Capital from Persepolis, Apādana, Persepolis (Fars, Iran), c. 520-465 B.C.E. (photo: Alan Cordova, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) (Fars, Iran) (National Museum of Iran)

The Apādana palace is a large ceremonial building, likely an audience hall with an associated portico. The audience hall itself is hypostyle in its plan, meaning that the roof of the structure is supported by columns. Apādana is the Persian term equivalent to the Greek hypostyle (Ancient Greek: ὑπόστυλος hypóstȳlos). The footprint of the Apādana is c. 1,000 square meters; originally 72 columns, each standing to a height of 24 meters, supported the roof (only 14 columns remain standing today). The column capitals assumed the form of either twin-headed bulls (above), eagles or lions, all animals represented royal authority and kingship.

Apādana, Persepolis (Fars, Iran), c. 520-465 B.C.E. (photo: Alan Cordova, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The king of the Achaemenid Persian empire is presumed to have received guests and tribute in this soaring, imposing space. To that end a sculptural program decorates monumental stairways on the north and east. The theme of that program is one that pays tribute to the Persian king himself as it depicts representatives of 23 subject nations bearing gifts to the king.

19th century reconstruction of the Apādana, Persepolis (Fars, Iran) by Charles Chipiez

The Apādana stairs and sculptural program


The monumental stairways that approach the Apādana from the north and the east were adorned with registers of relief sculpture that depicted representatives of the twenty-three subject nations of the Persian empire bringing valuable gifts as tribute to the king. The sculptures form a processional scene, leading some scholars to conclude that the reliefs capture the scene of actual, annual tribute processions—perhaps on the occasion of the Persian New Year--that took place at Persepolis. The relief program of the northern stairway was perhaps completed c. 500-490 B.C.E. The two sets of stairway reliefs mirror and complement each other. Each program has a central scene of the enthroned king flanked by his attendants and guards.

East stairway, Apādana, Persepolis (Fars, Iran), c. 520-465 B.C.E.

Noblemen wearing elite outfits and military apparel are also present. The representatives of the twenty-three nations, each led by an attendant, bring tribute while dressed in costumes suggestive of their land of origin. Margaret Root interprets the central scenes of the enthroned king as the focal point of the overall composition, perhaps even reflecting events that took place within the Apādana itself.

The relief program of the Apādana serves to reinforce and underscore the power of the Persian king and the breadth of his dominion. The motif of subjugated peoples contributing their wealth to the empire’s central authority serves to visually cement this political dominance. These processional scenes may have exerted influence beyond the Persian sphere, as some scholars have discussed the possibility that Persian relief sculpture from Persepolis may have influenced Athenian sculptors of the fifth century B.C.E. who were tasked with creating the Ionic frieze of the Parthenon in Athens. In any case, the Apādana, both as a building and as an ideological tableau, make clear and strong statements about the authority of the Persian king and present a visually unified idea of the immense Achaemenid empire.

An Armenian tribute bearer carrying a metal vessel with Homa (griffin) handles, relief from the eastern stairs of the Apādana in Persepolis: (Fars. Iran), c. 520-465 B.C.E. (photo: Aryamahasattva, CC BY-SA 3.0)


Persian art, an introduction

Posted on May 20, 2016 at 1:50 PM Comments comments (0)

The Persian Empire, 490 B.C.E.



The heart of ancient Persia is in what is now southwest Iran, in the region called the Fars. In the second half of the 6th century B.C.E., the Persians (also called the Achaemenids) created an enormous empire reaching from the Indus Valley to Northern Greece and from Central Asia to Egypt.


A tolerant empire


Although the surviving literary sources on the Persian empire were written by ancient Greeks who were the sworn enemies of the Persians and highly contemptuous of them, the Persians were in fact quite tolerant and ruled a multi-ethnic empire. Persia was the first empire known to have acknowledged the different faiths, languages and political organizations of its subjects.

This tolerance for the cultures under Persian control carried over into administration. In the lands which they conquered, the Persians continued to use indigenous languages and administrative structures. For example, the Persians accepted hieroglyphic script written on papyrus in Egypt and traditional Babylonian record keeping in cuneiform in Mesopotamia. The Persians must have been very proud of this new approach to empire as can be seen in the representation of the many different peoples in the reliefs from Persepolis, a city founded by Darius the Great in the 6th century B.C.E.

Gate of All Nations, Persepolis, photo: Matt Werner (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Apadana


Persepolis included a massive columned hall used for receptions by the Kings, called the Apadana. This hall contained 72 columns and two monumental stairways.


Assyrians with Rams, Apadana, Persepolis

The walls of the spaces and stairs leading up to the reception hall were carved with hundreds of figures, several of which illustrated subject peoples of various ethnicities, bringing tribute to the Persian king.

Apadana staircase, Persepolis, Iran

Conquered by Alexander the Great


The Persian Empire was, famously, conquered by Alexander the Great. Alexander no doubt was impressed by the Persian system of absorbing and retaining local language and traditions as he imitated this system himself in the vast lands he won in battle. Indeed, Alexander made a point of burying the last Persian emperor, Darius III, in a lavish and respectful way in the royal tombs near Persepolis. This enabled Alexander to claim title to the Persian throne and legitimize his control over the greatest empire of the Ancient Near East.





Lamassu from the citadel of Sargon II

Posted on May 20, 2016 at 9:20 AM Comments comments (0)

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Lamassu (winged human-headed bulls possibly lamassu or shedu) from the citadel of Sargon II, Dur Sharrukin (now Khorsabad, Iraq), Neo-Assyrian, c. 720-705 B.C.E., gypseous alabaster, 4.20 x 4.36 x 0.97 m, excavated by P.-E. Botta 1843-44 (Musée du Louvre) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker IN THE NEWS: Irreplaceable Lamassu sculpture, Assyrian architecture and whole archaeological sites have recently been destroyed by militants that control large areas of Iraq and Syria. This tragedy cannot be undone and is an attack on our shared history and cultural heritage. To learn more: February 27, 2015 New York Times article . Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Assyrian Sculpture

Posted on May 20, 2016 at 8:35 AM Comments comments (0)

Protective Spirit Relief from the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, 883-859 B.C.E., Neo-Assyrian, alabaster, 224 x 127 x 12 cm (extant), Nimrud (ancient Kalhu), northern Iraq © Trustees of the British Museum. One of a pair which guarded an entrance into the private apartments of Ashurnasirpal II. The figure of a man with wings may be the supernatural creature called an apkallu in cuneiform texts. He wears a tasselled kilt and a fringed and embroidered robe. His curled moustache, long hair and beard are typical of figures of this date. Across the body runs Ashurnasirpal's "Standard Inscription," which records some of the king's titles.

Although Assyrian civilization, centred in the fertile Tigris valley of northern Iraq, can be traced back to at least the third millennium B.C.E., some of its most spectacular remains date to the first millennium B.C.E. when Assyria dominated the Middle East.

Ashurnasirpal II


The Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.E.) established Nimrud as his capital. Many of the principal rooms and courtyards of his palace were decorated with gypsum slabs carved in relief with images of the king as high priest and as victorious hunter and warrior. Many of these are displayed in the British Museum.

Statue of Ashurnasirpal II, Neo-Assyrian, 883-859 B.C.E., from Nimrud (ancient Kalhu), northern Iraq, magnesite, 113 x 32 x 15 cm


This rare example of an Assyrian statue in the round was placed in the Temple of Ishtar Sharrat-niphi to remind the goddess Ishtar of the king's piety. Ashurnasirpal holds a sickle in his right hand, of a kind which gods are sometimes depicted using to fight monsters. The mace in his left hand shows his authority as vice-regent of the supreme god Ashur. The carved cuneiform inscription across his chest proclaims the king's titles and genealogy, and mentions his expedition westward to the Mediterranean Sea.

Ashurnasirpal II, whose name (Ashur-nasir-apli) means, "the god Ashur is the protector of the heir," came to the Assyrian throne in 883 B.C.E. He was one of a line of energetic kings whose campaigns brought Assyria great wealth and established it as one of the Near East's major powers.


Ashurnasirpal mounted at least fourteen military campaigns, many them were to the north and east of Assyria. Local rulers sent the king rich presents and resources flowed into the country. This wealth was ploughed into impressive building works undertaken in a new capital city created at Kalhu (modern Nimrud). Here a citadel mound was constructed and crowned with temples and the so-called North-West Palace. Military successes led to further campaigns, this time to the west, and close links were established with states in the northern Levant. Fortresses were established on the rivers Tigris and Euphrates and staffed with garrisons.


By the time that Ashurnasirpal died, in 859 B.C.E., Assyria had recovered much of the territory that it had lost around 1100 B.C.E. as a result of the economic and political problems at the end of the Middle Assyrian period.

Relief panels


Later kings continued to embellish Nimrud, including Ashurnasirpal II’s son, Shalmaneser III who erected the Black Obelisk depicting the presentation of tribute from Israel.

The Siege and Capture of the City of Lachish in 701 B.C.E., panel 8-9, South-West Palace of Sennacherib, Nineveh, northern Iraq, Neo-Assyrian, c. 700-681 B.C.E., alabaster, 182.880 x 193.040 cm (The British Museum)


Part of a series which decorated the walls of a room in the palace of King Sennacherib (reigned 704-681 B.C.E.). The Assyrian soldiers continue the attack on Lachish. They carry away a throne, a chariot and other goods from the palace of the governor of the city. In front and below them some of the people of Lachish, carrying what goods they can salvage, move through a rocky landscape studded with vines, fig and perhaps olive trees. Sennacherib records that as a result of the whole campaign he deported 200,150 people. This was standard Assyrian policy, and was adopted by the Babylonians, the next ruling empire.

During the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. Assyrian kings conquered the region from the Persian Gulf to the borders of Egypt. The most ambitious building of this period was the palace of king Sennacherib (704-681 B.C.E.) at Nineveh. The reliefs from Nineveh in the British Museum include a depiction of the siege and capture of Lachish in Judah.

The Dying Lion, panel from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal, c. 645 B.C.E., Neo-Assyrian, alabaster, 16.5 x 30 cm, Nineveh, northern Iraq

© Trustees of the British Museum. Part of a series of wall panels that showed a royal hunt. Struck by one of the king's arrows, blood gushes from the lion's mouth. There was a very long tradition of royal lion hunts in Mesopotamia, with similar scenes known from the late fourth millennium B.C.E.


The finest carvings, however, are the famous lion hunt reliefs from the North Palace at Nineveh belonging to Ashurbanipal (668-631 B.C.E.). The scenes were originally picked out with paint, which occasionally survives, and work like modern comic books, starting the story at one end and following it along the walls to the conclusion.


The Assyrians used a form of gypsum for the reliefs and carved it using iron and copper tools. The stone is easily eroded when exposed to wind and rain and when it was used outside, the reliefs are presumed to have been protected by varnish or paint. It is possible that this form of decoration was adopted by Assyrian kings following their campaigns to the west, where stone reliefs were used in Neo-Hittite cities like Carchemish. The Assyrian reliefs were part of a wider decorative scheme which also included wall paintings and glazed bricks.


The reliefs were first used extensively by king Ashurnasirpal II (about 883-859 B.CE..) at Kalhu (Nimrud). This tradition was maintained in the royal buildings in the later capital cities of Khorsabad and Nineveh.

Assyrian art, an introduction

Posted on May 20, 2016 at 8:20 AM Comments comments (0)

Map of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and its expansions.

A Military Culture


The Assyrian empire dominated Mesopotamia and all of the Near East for the first half of the first millennium, led by a series of highly ambitious and aggressive warrior kings. Assyrian society was entirely military, with men obliged to fight in the army at any time. State offices were also under the purview of the military.

Ashurbanipal slitting the throat of a lion from his chariot (detail), Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions, gypsum hall relief from the North Palace, Ninevah, c. 645-635 B.C.E., excavated by H. Rassam beginning in 1853 (British Museum)

Indeed, the culture of the Assyrians was brutal, the army seldom marching on the battlefield but rather terrorizing opponents into submission who, once conquered, were tortured, raped, beheaded, and flayed with their corpses publicly displayed. The Assyrians torched enemies' houses, salted their fields, and cut down their orchards.


Luxurious Palaces


As a result of these fierce and successful military campaigns, the Assyrians acquired massive resources from all over the Near East which made the Assyrian kings very rich. The palaces were on an entirely new scale of size and glamor; one contemporary text describes the inauguration of the palace of Kalhu, built by Assurnasirpal II (who reigned in the early 9th century), to which almost 70,000 people were invited to banquet.

Lion pierced with arrows (detail), Lion Hunts of Ashurbanipal (ruled 669-630 B.C.E.), c. 645 B.C.E., gypsum,Neo-Assyrian, hall reliefs from Palace at Ninevah across the Tigris from present day Mosul, Iraq (British Museum)

Some of this wealth was spent on the construction of several gigantic and luxurious palaces spread throughout the region. The interior public reception rooms of Assyrian palaces were lined with large scale carved limestone reliefs which offer beautiful and terrifying images of the power and wealth of the Assyrian kings and some of the most beautiful and captivating images in all of ancient Near Eastern art.

Feats of Bravery

Ashurbanipal taking aim at a lion (detail), Lion Hunts of Ashurbanipal (ruled 669-630 B.C.E.), c. 645 B.C.E., gypsum,Neo-Assyrian, hall reliefs from Palace at Ninevah across the Tigris from present day Mosul, Iraq (British Museum)

Like all Assyrian kings, Ashurbanipal decorated the public walls of his palace with images of himself performing great feats of bravery, strength and skill. Among these he included a lion hunt in which we see him coolly taking aim at a lion in front of his charging chariot, while his assistants fend off another lion attacking at the rear.

The Destruction of Susa

Sacking of Susa by Ashurbanipal, North Palace, Nineveh, 647 B.C.E.


One of the accomplishments Ashurbanipal was most proud of was the total destruction of the city of Susa.


In this relief, we see Ashurbanipal’s troops destroying the walls of Susa with picks and hammers while fire rages within the walls of the city.


Military Victories & Exploits



Wall relief from Nimrud, the sieging of a city, likely in Mesopotamia, c. 728 B.C.E. (British Museum)

In the Central Palace at Nimrud, the Neo-Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III illustrates his military victories and exploits, including the siege of a city in great detail.


In this scene we see one soldier holding a large screen to protect two archers who are taking aim. The topography includes three different trees and a roaring river, most likely setting the scene in and around the Tigris or Euphrates rivers.



List of Rulers of Mesopotamia

Posted on May 20, 2016 at 8:15 AM Comments comments (5)

Southern Mesopotamia

Early Dynastic Period 12

Gilgamesh of Uruk (legendary)

2700 B.C.

Mesanepada of Ur

2450 B.C.

Eannatum of Lagash

2400 B.C.

Enannatum of Lagash

2430 B.C.

Uruinimgina of Lagash

2350 B.C.

Lugalzagesi of Uruk

2350 B.C.

Dynasty of Akkad (Agade)


2340–2285 B.C.


2284–2275 B.C.


2275–2260 B.C.


2260–2223 B.C.


2223–2198 B.C.

Dynasty of Lagash

Gudea (59.2)

2150–2125 B.C.

Third Dynasty of Ur


2112–2095 B.C.


2095–2047 B.C.


2046–2038 B.C.


2037–2029 B.C.


2028–2004 B.C.

Dynasty of Isin


2017–1985 B.C.


1984–1975 B.C.


1974–1954 B.C.


1934–1924 B.C.

Dynasty of Larsa


1822–1763 B.C.

Old Babylonian Dynasty


1812–1793 B.C.


1792–1750 B.C.

Kassite Dynasty

Kadashman-Enlil I

1374–1360 B.C.

Burnaburiash II

1359–1333 B.C.

Kurigalzu II

1332–1308 B.C.

Babylonian Dynasty


731–729 B.C.

Marduk-apla-iddina II

721–710 B.C.


667–648 B.C.

Neo-Babylonian Dynasty (32.143.4)


625–605 B.C.

Nebuchadnezzar II

604–562 B.C.


561–560 B.C.


559–556 B.C.


556 B.C.


555–539 B.C.

Northern Mesopotamia

Old Assyrian Dynasty


1813–1781 B.C.

Dynasty of Mari


1775 B.C.

Middle Assyrian Dynasty

Ashur-uballit I

1365–1330 B.C.


1329–1320 B.C.

Adad-nirari I

1307–1275 B.C.

Tukulti-Ninurta I

1244–1208 B.C.

Ashur-dan I

1179–1134 B.C.

Tiglath-pileser I

1114–1076 B.C.


1073–1056 B.C.

Neo-Assyrian Dynasty

Ashurnasirpal II (32.143.4)

883–859 B.C.

Shalmaneser III

858–824 B.C.

Shamshi-Adad V

823–811 B.C.

Adad-nirari III

810–783 B.C.

Shalmaneser IV

782–773 B.C.

Ashur-dan III

772–755 B.C.

Ashur-nirari V

754–745 B.C.

Tiglath-pileser III

745–727 B.C.

Shalmaneser V

726–722 B.C.

Sargon II

721–705 B.C.


704–681 B.C.


680–669 B.C.


668–627 B.C.


626–623 B.C.


622–612 B.C.

Ashur-uballit II

611–609 B.C.

Mesopotamia United

Achaemenid Persian Dynasty

Cyrus II the Great

559–530 B.C.

Cambyses II

530–522 B.C.

Darius I

521–486 B.C.


486–465 B.C.

Artaxerxes I

465–424 B.C.

Darius II

423–405 B.C.

Artaxerxes II

405–359 B.C.

Artaxerxes III

358–338 B.C.

Artaxerxes IV

338–336 B.C.

Darius III

336–330 B.C.

Mesopotamian Deities

Posted on May 20, 2016 at 8:05 AM Comments comments (0)

Mesopotamian civilization existed for well over 3,000 years, from the formation of the first cities at the end of the fourth millennium B.C. to the early years of the Roman empire. During this period, religion was a major factor influencing behavior, political decision making, and material culture.


Unlike some later monotheistic religions, in Mesopotamian mythology there existed no systematic theological tractate on the nature of the deities. Examination of ancient myths, legends, ritual texts, and images reveals that most gods were conceived in human terms. They had human or humanlike forms, were male or female, engaged in intercourse, and reacted to stimuli with both reason and emotion. Being similar to humans, they were considered to be unpredictable and oftentimes capricious. Their need for food and drink, housing, and care mirrored that of humans. Unlike humans, however, they were immortal and, like kings and holy temples, they possessed a splendor called melammu. Melammu is a radiance or aura, a glamour that the god embodied. It could be fearsome or awe inspiring. Temples also had melammu. If a god descended into the Netherworld, he lost his melammu. Except for the goddess Inanna (Ishtar in Akkadian), the principal gods were masculine and had at least one consort. Gods also had families.


Possessing powers greater than that of humans, many gods were associated with astral phenomena such as the sun, moon, and stars, others with the forces of nature such as winds and fresh and ocean waters, yet others with real animals—lions, bulls, wild oxen—and imagined creatures such as fire-spitting dragons. In the Sumerian hymn “Enlil in the E-Kur,” the god Enlil is described as controlling and animating nature:


Without the Great Mountain Enlil . . . the carp would not . . . come straight up[?] from the sea, they would not dart about. The sea would not produce all its heavy treasure, no freshwater fish would lay eggs in the reedbeds, no bird of the sky would build nests in the spacious lands; in the sky, the thick clouds would not open their mouths; on the fields, dappled grain would not fill the arable lands, vegetation would not grow lushly on the plain; in the gardens, the spreading trees of the mountain would not yield fruit.


As supreme figures, the gods were transcendent and awesome, but unlike most modern conceptions of the divine, they were distant. Feared and admired rather than loved, the great gods were revered and praised as masters. They could display kindness, but were also fickle and at times, as explained in mythology, poor decision makers, which explains why humans suffer such hardships in life.


Generally speaking, gods lived a life of ease and slumber. While humans were destined to lives of toil, often for a marginal existence, the gods of heaven did no work. Humankind was created to ease their burdens and provide them with daily care and food. Humans, but not animals, thus served the gods. Often aloof, the gods might respond well to offerings, but at a moment’s notice might also rage and strike out at humans with a vengeance that could result in illness, loss of livelihood, or death.


Cuneiform tablets as early as the third millennium indicate that the gods were associated with cities. Each community worshipped its city’s patron deity in the main temple. The sky god An and his daughter Inanna were worshipped at Uruk; Enlil, the god of earth, at Nippur; and Enki, lord of the subterranean freshwaters, at Eridu. This association of city with deity was celebrated in both ritual and myth. A city’s political strength could be measured by the prominence of its deity in the hierarchy of the gods. Babylon, a minor city in the third millennium, had become an important military presence by the Old Babylonian period and its patron deity, noted in a mid-third millennium text from Abu-Salabikh as ranking near the bottom of the gods, rose to become the head of the pantheon when Babylon ascended to military supremacy in the late second millennium.


Political events influenced the makeup of the pantheon. With the fall of Sumerian hegemony at the end of the third millennium, Babylonian culture and political control spread throughout southern Mesopotamia. At the end of the third millennium B.C., Sumerian texts list approximately 3,600 deities. With the fall of Sumerian political might and the rise of the Amorite dynasties at the end of the third millennium and beginning of the second millennium, religious traditions began to merge. Older Sumerian deities were absorbed into the pantheon of Semitic-speaking peoples. Some were reduced to subordinate status while newer gods took on the characteristics of older deities. The Sumerian god An became the Semitic Anu, while Enki became Ea, Inanna became Ishtar, and Utu became Shamash. As Enlil, the supreme Sumerian god, had no counterpart in the Semitic pantheon, his name remained unchanged. Most of the lesser Sumerian deities now faded from the scene. At the end of the second millennium, the Babylonian myth “Enuma Elish” refers to only 300 gods of the heavens. In this process of associating Semitic gods with political supremacy, Marduk surpassed Enlil as chief of the gods and, according to “Enuma Elish,” Enlil gave Marduk his own name so that Marduk now became “Lord of the World.” Similarly, Ea, the god of the subterranean freshwaters, says of Marduk in the same myth, “His name, like mine, shall be Ea. He shall provide the procedures for all my offices. He shall take charge of all my commands.”


Beginning in the second millennium B.C., Babylonian theologians classified their major gods in a hierarchical numerical order. Anu was represented by the number 60, Enlil by 50, Ea by 40, Sin, the moon god, by 30, Shamash by 20, Ishtar by 15, and Adad, the god of storms, by 6.


While the great gods of the pantheon were worshipped by priests at rituals in cultic centers, ordinary people had no direct contact with these deities. In their homes, they worshipped personal gods, who were conceived as divine parents and were thought to be deities who could intercede on their behalf to ensure health and protection for their families.


Demons were viewed as being either good or evil. Evil demons were thought to be agents of the gods sent to carry out divine orders, often as punishment for sins. They could attack at any moment by bringing disease, destitution, or death. Lamastu-demons were associated with the death of newborn babies; gala-demons could enter one’s dreams. Demons could include the angry ghosts of the dead or spirits associated with storms. Some gods played a beneficent role to protect against demonic scourges. A deity depicted with the body of a lion and the head and arms of a bearded man was thought to ward off the attacks of lion-demons. Pazuzu, a demonic-looking god with a canine face and scaly body, possessing talons and wings, could bring evil, but could also act as a protector against evil winds or attacks by lamastu-demons. Rituals and magic were used to ward off both present and future demonic attacks and counter misfortune. Demons were also represented as hybrid human-animal creatures, some with birdlike characteristics.


Although the gods were said to be immortal, some slain in divine combat had to reside in the underworld along with demons. The “Land of No Return” was to be found beneath the earth and under the abzu, the freshwater ocean. There the spirits of the dead (gidim) dwelt in complete darkness with nothing to eat but dust and no water to drink. This underworld was ruled by Eresh-kigal, its queen, and her husband Nergal, together with their household of laborers and administrators.


From about the middle of the third millennium B.C., many deities were depicted in human form, distinguished from mortals by their size and by the presence of horned headgear. Statues of the gods were mainly fashioned out of wood, covered with an overleaf of gold, and adorned with decorated garments. The goddess Inanna wore a necklace of lapis lazuli and, according to the myth “The Descent of Ishtar into the Netherworld,” she was outfitted with elaborate jewelry. Texts refer to chests, the property of the god, filled with gold rings, pendants, rosettes, stars, and other types of ornaments that could adorn their clothing. Statues were not thought to be actual gods but were regarded as being imbued with the divine presence. Being humanlike, they were washed, dressed, given food and drink, and provided with a lavishly adorned bedchamber.


Deities could also be represented by symbols or emblems. Some divine symbols, such as the dagger of the god Ashur or the net of Enlil, were used in oath-taking to confirm a declaration. Divine symbols appear on stelae and naru (boundary stones) representing gods and goddess. Marduk, for example, the patron deity of Babylon, was symbolized with a triangular-headed spade; Nabu, the patron of writing, by a cuneiform wedge; Sin, the moon god, had a crescent moon as his symbol; and Ishtar, the goddess of heaven, was represented by a rosette, star, or lion.

Flood Stories

Posted on May 20, 2016 at 8:05 AM Comments comments (0)

Stories about a great flood are found in the folklore of many cultures. The earliest written sources are inscribed in Sumerian on clay tablets and date to the late third millennium B.C. Mesopotamian versions of the flood story may have had their beginnings in the annual spring flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Alternatively, some scholars believe that a change in the ancient sea level in the Persian Gulf may have given rise to stories about a deluge.


The Sumerian King List, a literary composition existing in several different versions, traces kingship from its origins to contemporary dynasties that ruled in southern Mesopotamia between the twenty-first and nineteenth centuries B.C. According to this composition, eight legendary rulers reigned for a combined total of 241,200 years, “then the flood swept over.” Ubara-tutu, from the city of Shuruppak, noted as the last prediluvium monarch in the King List, is mentioned by other names in several later flood stories. In one of these tales, called the Sumerian Flood Story by modern scholars (the ancient name is not preserved) and dating to the Old Babylonian period but possibly composed in the third millennium B.C., the gods fashion the black-headed people (the Sumerians) and create animals which multiply all over the earth. Later, after they have chosen a human king, rites are performed and cities founded. When Ziudsudra (“Life of Distant Days”) is king, he hears a message from a god saying that a flood will sweep over the land. The gods in their divine assembly have made an irrevocable order to destroy mankind. After a break in the text, the wind and gales blow and the flood sweeps over the land. The storm rages for seven days and seven nights while Ziusudra, “the seed of mankind,” and animals ride it out in a sealed boat. Finally, the flood over, Ziusudra drills an opening in the boat and the sun enters. Once on firm ground, the animals disembark and the hero sacrifices oxen and sheep. The god Enlil then appears and treats Ziusudra kindly. He is given eternal life like a god and settles in the land of Dilmun, a place at the end of the earth where the sun rises.


Another Sumerian tale, “The Death of Bilgamesh” (“The Great Wild Bull Is Lying Down”), preserved in a copy dating to the Old Babylonian period, contains a section in which the gods review the life and career of the hero Bilgames (Gilgamesh in Akkadian). They describe how the hero fought the ogre Huwawa in the Cedar Forest and how he traveled to meet Ziusudra in his “abode” and learned about the deluge. The gods inform him that in spite of the fact that his mother was a goddess, he is mortal like all humans and will eventually take his place with the dead in the underworld.


Students at the academies during the Old Babylonian period also recorded a Babylonian story about a hero named Atra-hasis that contains a flood narrative. The narrative begins with an account of the early history of humankind. When the gods create humans to ease their burden in forming the world, they mistakenly forget to limit men’s and women’s years on earth. Consequently, humans multiply to such an extent that the noise they create becomes overwhelming and the god Enlil, the head of the pantheon, cannot sleep. Enlil believes that the only way to control this surge in population is by a plague, but when the plague god is presented with offerings, he relents and the plague ends. Soon after, the human population begins to multiply anew. When Enlil’s next attempt to limit humankind’s growth by the introduction of famine fails, he orders a flood to destroy all peoples. Atra-hasis is warned by Enki, the god of wisdom, of the impending disaster. He is advised to build a boat and save both his kin and animals. The storm rages for seven days and nights. After it subsides, Atra-hasis emerges from the ark and prepares an offering for the gods. When Enlil becomes aware that his plan to destroy all living beings has failed, he asks, “How did man survive in the destruction?” Enki responds and accuses Enlil of overreacting to the population explosion: “Instead of bringing about a flood, lions and wolves should have appeared and diminished the people . . . Impose the penalty on the guilty. Impose the crime on the criminal. Henceforth let no flood be brought about, but let the people last forever.” Enlil agrees and tells the flood hero that only he and his wife shall henceforth be granted eternal life. From now on, Enlil continues, human lifespan will be numbered and human population controlled though the creation of special classes of women who will bear no children. In addition, he decrees that some babies will be snatched from the laps of their mothers by pashittu-demons.


An expanded version of the flood story is found in the 11th Tablet of the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic. Here, the legendary Uta-napishtim, son of Ubara-tutu, relates a tale about the great deluge. Warned by the god Ea (Sumerian: Enki) that the great gods have decided to send down a flood to destroy humankind, Ea instructs Uta-napishtim to demolish his house, abandon wealth, build a boat, and seek safety. He is to take on board the boat the seed of all living things. The boat is to be six decks high and shaped like a cube. Uta-napishtim obeys his god; he loads the boat with all of his gold and silver and takes on board the beasts of the field and the creatures of the wild together with artisans and all of his family and kin. Soon the storm begins; for six days and seven nights, the wind blows and the deluge flattens the land, but on the seventh day the ocean grows calm and the boat runs aground on a mountain. Seven days later, Uta-napishtim lets loose a dove to find land, but the dove returns. Next he dispatches a swallow, but it too comes back. Finally, a raven is set free and never returns. Disembarking from the boat, Uta-napishtim makes an offering to the gods, but when the god Enlil smells the smoke and sees the boat, he is seized with fury. However, reprimanded by Ea for his lack of foresight and reason, Enlil relents and declares that Uta-napishtim and his wife shall become immortal and dwell far away at the source of the rivers.


Two other ancient Near Eastern flood stories from beyond the borders of Mesopotamia are known, the most famous being the version found in the book of Genesis. Another short but very fragmentary version describing only Atra-hasis, the flood itself, and the conclusion that the hero gains immortality was found at ancient Ugarit and dates to the fourteenth century B.C.


A much later version of the flood story was written in Greek by Berossos, a Babylonian priest of the god Bel. This tale, part of a larger work on Babylonian history, is lost, but sections of the flood story are quoted by the later Greek writers Eusebius and Polyhistor. According to this version of the tale, the hero Xisuthros (Ziusudra) has a dream in which the god Kronos warns him about the onslaught of an impending flood. Xisuthros digs a hole and buries all the written material from his city. Then he builds a boat “five stades long and two stades wide” and boards his wife, children, and closest friends. After the flood subsides, Xisuthros lets loose birds who return to the ship empty-handed. A few days later, he again frees birds and they return with their feet covered in mud. When he releases birds for a third time, they fail to return. The boat having landed in the mountains of Armenia, Xisuthros disembarks, offers a sacrifice to the gods, and disappears to dwell with the gods together with his wife and daughter. When the rest of his party leaves the boat, they hear a voice from afar instructing them to return to worship the gods, dig up the writings buried in Sippar, and establish Babylon.


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