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Archive for December 2011

Where the Sword Fails, Wine may Prevail

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Dionysus Amphora

Amphora, Art Institute of Chicago
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme
Click to Enlarge.

This week’s post will be brief, as I have been traveling for the holidays. In the spirit of welcoming the new year, we’ll have a look at a charming motif of Attic vase painting.

This large ceramic vase from the late sixth century BCE is called an amphora, and it would have been used to transport oil or wine – probably wine in this case, as it is adorned with a black figure painting depicting Dionysus, the god of wine. We are also shown Hephaestus, god of the forge, atop a lively ass, led by Dionysus and trailed by a satyr.

Hephaestus was born with a club foot, making him monstrous in the eyes of his fellow Olympians, including his own mother, Hera. Humiliated by her son’s deformity, she cast him from Olympus in fire and agony, as Hephaestus recalls in Homer’s Iliad: “Thetis saved my life / when the mortal pain came on me after my great fall, / thanks to my mother’s will, that brazen bitch, / she wanted to hide me – because I was a cripple.” (1)

The Greeks understood that it is neither wise nor safe to offend a god, even for other gods. Hephaestus used his powers to craft an ingenious and beautiful throne with invisible, unbreakable bonds. He sent it to Olympus as a gift for Hera, who received it with satisfaction. But when she sat upon it, she was immediately held fast.

Zeus commanded the gods to bring Hephaestus back to Olympus to free his wife, but their entreaties fell upon deaf ears. The mighty Ares, god of war, sought to force Hephaestus back, but was driven away by fiery brands.

Hephaestus Temple, Athens

Hephaestus Temple, Athens
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

Then came Dionysus, bearing not a sword but a flagon of wine. After commiserating with Hephaestus over many cups, it was an easy matter to load the inebriated god onto a donkey and carry him back to Olympus in triumph.

This story was an enormously popular subject of vase painting, appearing on more than thirty black and red figured vase paintings. (2)

1) Homer, trans by Robert Fagles. Iliad. Penguin Classics. 1990. XVIII, 461-464
2) Harrison JE. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. Forgotten Books. 1908. p 375

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December 31, 2011 at 2:05 pm

The Tetramorph; The Sumerian Origins of a Christian Symbol

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Christ with Tetramorph, Chartres Cathedral, main portal (click to enlarge)

This week we’re going to look at an interesting Christian symbol known as the tetramorph, which usually refers to the iconographic convention of depicting the Four Evangelists in animal form, with Matthew depicted as a man, Mark as a lion, Luke as a bull, and John as an eagle. This symbolic bestiary has a long history that goes back to the earliest days of Sumer in the Fertile Crescent. 

The tetramorph will round out our introductory look at imagery coming from Mesopotamia during the great period of urban development. Mesopotamia was source for key symbolic forms that were disseminated outward along with the arts of civilization, which included writing, mathematics and geometry, astronomy and astrology, and monumental architecture. This cluster of technologies and ideas spread both west and east, giving rise to the Old Kingdom of Egypt, the Indus Valley civilization in India and Pakistan, the Shang Dynasty of China, the palatial period of Crete, and the Mycenaean kingdoms of Bronze Age Greece.

We have previously examined how Mesopotamia acted as a conduit for symbols dating back to the Stone Age in our look at the Assyrian Tree of Life motif. We then turned to the spread of Mesopotamian symbols into classical culture in our look at the Lion-Bull motif of Archaic Greece. In the tetramorph, we find evidence of the widespread diffusion of Sumerian symbols through Christian Europe, providing a clue to the extraordinary resilience of mythological symbols. They may persist in their essential meaning and configuration for millennia, despite being expressed in radically different religious idioms.

Ultimately, the tetramorph is rooted in the Sumerian zodiac. The first written evidence that we possess of a science of the stars comes from Sumer. The first constellations were probably defined no later than the 3200 BCE, when the first cities were being built. Taurus the bull, Leo the lion, and Scorpius the scorpion were the first to be designated, with Aquarius the water-carrier occurring later (1).

Assyrian Guardian

Palace Guardian
Nimrud, Assyria, c. 965 BCE
British Museum

Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius occupy and define the zones of the sky that the sun would traverse on the vernal equinox, summer solstice, autumnal equinox, and winter solstice, respectively. The eagle serves as the astrological equivalent of the scorpion (2), and thus, the lion, bull, man, and eagle represent the complete cycle of the year, and the four quarters of the earth.

This set of four creatures was popular in Mesopotamian art and iconography, as shown in this human-headed composite portal guardian from the Palace of Nimrud, composed of human, eagle, and lion parts. Its companion piece is similarly assembled from a human, an eagle, and a bull.

These four creatures first appear together in the Judeo-Christian context in Ezekiel, which was probably written around the third century BCE. In chapter 1, the prophet encounters fantastic beings in the heavens: “As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle,” (Ez. 1:10).

Ezekiel’s vision is generally interpreted as being rooted in the four Babylonian fixed signs of the zodiac, adopted from Sumer without significant modification. The vision took place during the Babylonian Captivity of Israel, and the astrological reading helps us to make sense of obscure passages such as:

As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four. And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels. (Ez. 1:20).

The association of spirit of the living creature with the wheels, “lifted up over against them,” strongly suggests the symbolism of the zodiac is at work here.

Himmelsvision des Johannes, Matthias Gerung

A similar vision, no doubt inspired by Ezekiel, was described by John of Patmos in Revelation:

And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, LORD God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come. (Rev 4:6-8)

Like Ezekiel’s rings, the eternal quality of a God “which was, is, and is to come,” suggests the never-ending cycle of the heavens.

In the second century CE, the church father Iraeneus argued in Against Heresies that there must be four and only four true Gospels, using the four creatures of Ezekiel to illustrate the intrinsic perfection of the number four:

It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the… “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side…. He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit….

For the cherubim, too, were four-faced, and their faces were images of the dispensation of the Son of God. The first living creature was like a lion, symbolizing His effectual working, His leadership, and royal power; the second was like a calf, signifying His sacrificial and sacerdotal order; but the third had, as it were, the face as of a man – an evident description of His advent as a human being; the fourth was like a flying eagle, pointing out the gift of the Spirit hovering with His wings over the Church. And therefore the Gospels are in accord with these things, among which Christ Jesus is seated. (3)

The earliest literary source explicitly equating the Four Evangelists to the four creatures of the Babylonian zodiac is Saint Jerome (c. 347-420), who makes this attribution in his Preface to “Commentary on Matthew”:

Book of Kells

The Four Evangelists
The Book of Kells, c. 800 CE
Click to Enlarge

The first face of a man signifies Matthew, who began his narrative [with the genealogy of the human lineage of Christ] as though about a man…. The second, Mark, in whom the voice of a lion roaring in the wilderness is heard [in his account of John the Baptist]. The third [is the face of] the calf which prefigures that the evangelist Luke began with Zachariah the priest. The fourth John the evangelist who, having taken up eagle’s wings and hastening toward higher matters [in beginning from the standpoint of Christ the Logos], discusses the Word of God.

During the Early Middle Ages, this set of associations was fixed as the canonical depiction of the Four Evangelists.

By the time we get to the Renaissance painting shown at the beginning of this post, we have traveled far from Sumer in 3200 BCE, where the four fixed signs of the zodiac were understood as a symbol expressing the completion of the celestial cycle. In Judeo-Christian usage, the basic meaning of this quaternary remains the same. Christ stands as the Lord of the Cycle, with his Four Evangelists acting as his “dispensation,” as Iraeneus put it. The basic symbol still represents an umbilicus linking earthly affairs with the ever-changing, unchanging heavens above.

One of the themes that emerges from this series is that symbols possess extraordinarily resilience. In the first three posts alone, we’ve seen a small collection of symbols that have spanned the entire history of human expression, from the Stone Age to the present day, living on in the collective repository of symbols and meanings that is human culture, like new wine in old wineskins.

References and Notes

(1) Rogers JH. “Origins of the Ancient Constellations: I. The Mesopotamian Tradition.” J. Br. Astron. Assoc. 108, 1, 1998. p 10.

(2) In Ezekiel commentaries, it is frequently claimed that the sign of the eagle is equivalent to the scorpion, perhaps because the constellation Aquila the Eagle is in the House of Scorpio. However, the origins of this equivalence are extremely obscure. When Scorpio was first described in Sumer, the constellation and the associated region of sky was represented by a scorpion, and this association appears to have persisted in Mesopotamian literature for the next 1500 years.

Although the bull, the eagle, the lion, and the human were clearly associated in Mesopotamia before the time of Ezekiel, as shown by the guardians of the Assyrian palace at Nimrud pictured above, I have yet to find a literary reference associating the eagle with the House of Scorpio that predates Ezekiel, and it is possible that the association is anachronistic.

If any reader knows of a pre-Ezekiel references to the House of Scorpio as an eagle, please let me know.

(3) Against Heresies, 3.11.8 Quoted from Thank you to Dr. Z of for alerting me to this reference.

Written by Mesocosm

December 22, 2011 at 11:56 am

Hildegard von Bingen to be made Doctor of the Church

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Hildegard von Bingen
Click for Full Image.

And once again I heard a voice from heaven instructing me. And it said, “Write down what I tell you.” – Hildegard von Bingen

In December, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI announced his intention to canonize the Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen and to appoint her a Doctor of the Church in October of 2012.

A Doctorship is regarded by the Catholic Church as one of the highest honors it can bestow. The title recognizes individuals for special contributions to theology or doctrine. There are currently only 34 Doctors of the Church, including distinguished luminaries such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John of the Cross.

Only three woman have been so honored: Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Sienna, and Thérèse de Lisieux. The first woman to be named a doctor of the church, Teresa of Avila, was recognized in 1970. Hildegard von Bingen will be the fourth woman doctor to be designated in a row.

Hildegard (born in Bermersheimin 1098; died in Rupertsberg, 17 Sept 1179) was famous in her day as a mystic whose visions were widely known through a popular series of written testimonies. She began having religious visions at the age of 5, and she was presented by her family to a Benedictine order at the age of 14. She received approval from the church to begin writing down her visions with the aid of her assistant Volmar in 1141, at the age of 43.

Hildegard earned an unusually high stature as a mystic, which was one of the few avenues by which women in the Middle Ages could achieve authority within the Catholic Church. Her fame made her an object of veneration, and she was a sought-after correspondent and adviser to some of the most important political and religious figures of her day, including famed theologian Bernard of Clairvaux and Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa, who offered her recognition and protection when she founded her own abbey.

A campaign seeking her canonization began in 1223, but was it rejected by Pope Gregory IX, and later by Pope Innocent IV. In 1940, her feast day was officially approved for all Catholics, reflecting her continuing popularity. (1)

Hildegard is known by many today as a composer of early church music, which has been popularized by excellent recordings by artists including Anonymous 4 and Sequentia.

Her monophonic composition is highly original and greatly affecting, employing idiosyncratic modal variations, not drawn from Plainchant, but personally devised to offer a musical commentary on the contemplative themes of her texts. The intimate dialog between her music and texts is perhaps most evident in her musical drama Ordo Virtutum, which dramatizes the Soul’s struggle with the Devil, aided by a series of Virtues. It is the earliest-known morality play of the Middle Ages.

The following excerpt from her testimony Book of Divine Works is typical of her style. It relates an encounter from one of her visions:

I am Love, the splendor of the living God. Wisdom has influenced me, and the humility rooted in the living fountain is my helper. Peace is associated with humility. Through the splendor that is my essence, the living light of the blissful angels shines. For just as a ray of light shines, this splendor shines for the blissful angels. It could hardly keep from shining, for there can be no light that does not shine. I have designed the human species, which has its roots in me like a shadow, just as one can see the shadow of every object in water. And so I am a living fountain because all creation is like a shadow within myself. As regards this shadow, the human species is formed from fire and water, just as I am both ‘fire’ and ‘living water.’ The human species has within its soul the ability to arrange everything according to its own wish. (2)

As with her lyrics, her prose is characterized by schematic, didactic allegory, which is periodically illuminated by moments of lucid, lyrical power.


(1) “Hildegard of Bingen.” New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
(2) Hildegard of Bingen, ed. by Matthew Fox. Book of Divine Works. Bear & Co. 1987.

Written by Mesocosm

December 18, 2011 at 9:45 pm

“That all should learne to sing,” William Byrd, 1588

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William Byrd

William Byrd

Reasons briefly set downe by th’auctor, to perswade every one to learne to sing.

First it is a Knowledge easely taught, and quickly learned where there is a good Master, and an apt Scholler.
2. The exercise of singing is delightful to Nature & good to preserve
the health of Man.
3. It doth strengthen all the parts of the brest, & doth open the pipes.
4. It is a singular goode remedie for a stuttering & stammering in the speech.
5. It is the best meanes to procure a perfect pronunciation
& to make a good Orator.
6. It is the onely way to know whether Nature hath bestowed the benefit of a good voyce: which gift is so rare, as there is not one among a thousand that hath it: and in many, that excellent gift is lost, because they want Art to expresse Nature.
7. There is not any Musicke of instruments whatsoever, comparable to that which is made of the voyces of Men, where the voyces are good, and the same well sorted and ordered.
8. The better the voyce is, the meeter it is to honour and serve God therewith: and the voyce of man is chiefly to be employed to that ende.

Omnes spiritus laudet Dominum.

Since singing is so good a thing
I wish all men would learne to sing.

Written by Mesocosm

December 16, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Posted in Music

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The Lion, the Bull, and the Birth of Tragedy

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Image (C) Barnaby Thieme.

Please click the thumbnail to see the full-sized image.

This remarkable statue group depicting a bull wracked by two lions is one of the most powerful works of art I have ever seen. Perhaps ten feet across, it once occupied the central pediment of the Hekatompedon temple, the predecessor of the Parthenon at the Acropolis of Athens.

This temple was built in the late sixth century BCE during the Archaic period of Greek history, which saw a great influx of political and cultural influences from the Near East. It was during this time that Greece adopted the polis city-state model of political organization from the Fertile Crescent, where it had been in use since the first cities were built around 3200 BCE.

Greek art, literature, and religion were transformed by the wave of ideas coming from the Near East. Archaic statues and vase paintings show a marked Mesopotamian influence. One of the earliest and most important literary sources for Greek religion, Hesiod’s Theogony, dates to this period, and shows the clear influence of the Babylonian epic Enuma elish, which we looked at in an earlier post on the Assyrian Tree of Life motif.

This pediment sculpture group is itself Oriental in subject and style. As with the Tree of Life, this group features an axial primary subject, a bull, flanked by a pair of heraldic figures, in this case lions, in a typically Mesopotamian style. Animal battles were a popular subject of art throughout the eastern Mediterranean.

Although it came to Greece through Mesopotamia, the lion-bull motif predates Sumerian civilization by tens of thousands of years. It is one of the oldest mythological symbols in the world, possibly as old as the Great Goddess motif of the Stone Age. It can be found in numerous cultures in a clear line of historical transmission. It passed from culture to culture during periods of contact, with each new group expressing the symbol with its own emphasis. It is a symbol of great complexity and range, and we can only begin to trace its history here.

The basic sense of the bull brought down by beasts of prey is an image of the fundamental forces of life and death in a terrible, intense struggle. As an image of the conflict that provides the sustenance of life, the lion and the bull are bound together as a single symbol.

In Ancient Greece, the bull is the sacrificial animal par excellence. The bull sacrifice played a prominent role in Hesiod’s Theogony, which was created in the same historical period as this statue group, and, as noted earlier, also shows a deep influence from the Near East.


Cyprus, 13th century BCE, British Museum
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

Theogony contains the earliest-known version of the Prometheus myth. In Hesiod’s telling, the tragic god enraged Zeus by establishing the ritual of the bull sacrifice such that the humans receive the flesh of the animal, while the gods receive only the fat and the bones. When Zeus learns of this betrayal, he proscribes a terrible punishment: “[W]ith anger ever in his mind, he would not give to the ash-trees the power of untiring fire for mortal men who live on the earth.” (1) That is to say, the ash tree keeps the fires of heaven locked within itself, so that wood must be burned for its vital essence to be released.

Taken as a primitive scientific account, there is little merit to this hypothesis, but when interpreted symbolically, we immediately find several themes in common with the Tree of Life motif we considered earlier. In both groups, we have an image of the source of life, the “fire within the tree,” or the nourishing flesh, depicted on the central axis, flanked by fierce figures, and released by the action of the symmetrical pairs on either side.

If the bull is taken as the life-giving principle, the lion must be interpreted as the dynamic force that activates its release. On the cosmological plane, we have an image of the circle of life in its mystery and terror; life devouring itself and begetting life, like an Ouroboros, a serpent devouring its own tail. On the psychological or spiritual plane, we have an image of the axis mundi, the illuminated life-center of all things, and that is experienced by consciousness in terms of pairs of opposites. The central axis is outside of time, like the holy mountain in Black Elk’s vision. The lions are symbolic of the action of time, always eating away at the life principle.

It is simply astonishing to see how far this motif has spread in space and time. Note that Hesiod took the trouble in his brief work to specify that the tree of heavenly fire is an ash tree, reminding us at once of the ash tree Yggdrasil, the World-Tree of Norse mythology, which itself immediately evokes the motif of life-giving sacrifice. It was from the World-Tree that Odin hung for nine days and nights, pierced by his own spear, in search of the waters of wisdom at the tree’s roots, as the Prose Edda tells us:

I know that I hung  on a high windy tree
  for nine long nights;
pierced by a spear  -Odin’s pledge-
  given myself to myself.
No one can tell  about that tree,
  from what deep roots it rises. (2)

We can thus connect the Norse motif with the story of Prometheus, who was likewise bound in agony, and speculate that both motifs may share a common origin in an unknown Proto-Indo-European antecedent, a tale told before the Dorian Greeks and Germanic tribes differentiated. And can this passage be read without calling to mind the Buddha’s Tree of Enlightenment, or Christ upon the Cross?


British Museum, Public Domain.
Click to Enlarge.

If we follow the flowering tree of Indo-European culture deeper toward its roots, we will also find a clear link to the great god Shiva of Hinduism, who not only symbolizes devouring time, but is invariably paired with Nandi the bull, his yana, or vehicle. It will not surprise us, then, to learn that Shiva’s consort Parvati is paired with a lion. In their combined aspect, as the god Ardhanarishvara, Shiva and Parvati are united as a single image, flanked by a bull on one side and a lion on the other. In this nineteenth century painting from the British Museum, Ardhanarishvara is aligned with an axial tree, and the waters of immortality overflow from the god’s crown. And is it my imagination, or is this tree clearly a Ficus religiosa, or Bodhi Tree?

The Sumerians were the first to fix our zodiac in the heavens, and they assigned to Leo the house that the sun must traverse during the summer solstice. The bull, representing the principle of the sacrifice that gives life, is associated with spring, and so Taurus rules the house which the sun traverses in the vernal equinox, when the world returns to life. (3)

In the symbolic language of Sumer, the lion is the great solar animal. Just as the light of the sun never varies, the lion exemplifies the clear light of awareness of eternity. The bull represents the lunar principle, which, waxing and waning in a constant cycle, exemplifies consciousness in the field of time. While the lion-consciousness is eternal and unchanging, the bull-consciousness, like the light of the moon, follows an eternal cycle of death and resurrection.

The bull god is closely associated with death and resurrection throughout its long career. In one of our earliest extant religious poems, the Sumerian lament “The Wild Bull Who Has Lain Down and Died,” we find the goddess Inanna, equivalent to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, both of whom are paired with a lion, lamenting the death of her husband Dumuzi, represented in this poem as a bull:

The slain wild bull
lives no more!
The slain wild bull
lives no more!

Dumuzi, the slain wild bull,
lives no more!
The slain wild bull
lives no more! (4)

As we can readily see by now, the scope of the lion-bull motif is so vast that one cannot quickly take its measure. However, by situating it within its field of transmission, and by looking at its direct points of contact with adjacent images, the symbol begins to speak for itself. It is no mere sign of death, but an image of sacrifice and release, and of the tragedy that waters the roots of the great heaven-tree. By contemplating this image, our perspective on the cosmic struggle can be elevated to a higher vantage point, in which the participants of the deadly conflict at the heart of life become participants of the cycle, integrated symbolically into a partless whole, and the scene is raised from brutal tragedy to holy mystery.

By virtue of this profound resonance, this sculpture group earned its stature as the primary image of the great temple of Athens that presided before the Parthenon was built. Its evocative power comes through directly by its force as a work of art, apart from its mythological implications. These pictures can only give a rough sense of its potency, and if you find yourself in Athens, I strongly encourage a trip to the Acropolis Museum, where it may be viewed. It is a most extraordinary museum.


(c) Bradshaw Foundation, click for more information

The lion-bull symbol is far older than Sumer, and probably came to the Fertile Crescent through the Anatolian religious culture that existed in the early millennia of agriculture in the Taurus Mountains. The ancient urban center of Çatalhöyük, for example, is crowded with bull-horn altars, and is famous for its statue of an enthroned fertility-type goddess flanked by lions.

In its earlier, matriarchal inflection, we often find the Great Goddess in this aspect, at the heart of these triadic images, instead of the World Tree. As symbols of the life-giving power of nature, the tree and the Great Mother are roughly equivalent, and they have been used as synonymous motifs in religious art for tens of thousands of years.

In the earliest-known religious sanctuary that features representational art, the Chauvet caves of France, first utilized around 30,000 BCE in the Aurignacian period of the Paleolithic, we find a substantially comparable mythological motif presented as the central figure of the Salle du Fond, the deepest and most remote chamber in the complex. If the journey into the cave represents a shamanic journey of initiation, as many experts on Paleolithic art believe (5), then this image depicts the central mystery recognized by the earliest-known symbolic religious culture.

On a great stalactite descending from the center of the cave, we find a charcoal drawing depicting the pubic triangle of a classic stone age Venus-type goddess, flanked on either side by a lion and a bison.

Notes and References

(1) Hesiod. Trans. by M. L. West. Theogony; Works and Days. Oxford University Press. 1988. p. 20.
(2) Hávamál, fr. Terry P. Poems of the Elder Edda. University of Pennsylvania Press. 1990. p. 31.
(3) The vernal equinox and summer solstice are no longer marked by these houses, of course, because the axis of the earth’s rotation itself turns in a cycle, producing a shift in the alignment of the constellations known as the precession of the equinoxes.
(4) Jacobson T. The Harps That Once…; Sumerian Poetry in Translation. Yale University Press. 1987. p. 47.
(5) This hypothesis is represented, for example, by Jean Clottes, lead researcher of the Chauvet Cave. See, for example: Clottes J, and Lewis-Williams D. The Shamans of Prehistory. Harry N. Abrams Publishers. 1998.

Written by Mesocosm

December 15, 2011 at 5:13 pm

The Assyrian Tree of Life

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This is the first post in a new series on Mesocosm, presenting short commentaries on pictures of interesting artifacts or works of art. Over time I’ll draw links between recurring motifs or historical connections.


This stele, displayed at the British Museum, depicts the Assyrian Tree of Life motif. These zigzaggy trees are typically flanked by a pair “winged genii,” often with animal heads and four wings, as in the vision of Ezekiel.

Tree of Life

Tree of Life, British Museum, Image © Barnaby Thieme - Click to Enlarge

Comparative religions scholars generally interpret the Tree of Life as a version of the axis mundi, a symbol that depicts the center of the cosmos. In an impressively diverse range of cultures, the higher mysteries reveal an identification of the tree at the center of the cosmos with the tree at the center of the self. The Buddha, for example, achieved enlightenment seated beneath the Tree of Enlightenment, at the vajra seat, an immovable pivot at the very center of the world.

In an extraordinary testimony to the enduring power of this image to structure the insight of sensitive persons to this day, the Oglala Sioux holy man Black Elk beautifully described the apogee of a sacred vision he experienced at the age of 9, in the 1870s:

I looked ahead and saw the mountains there with rocks and forests on them, and from the mountains flashed all colors upward to the heavens. Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.” (1)

[UPDATE 12/12/2012 – I regret to say that I have subsequently learned that this statement, attributed to Black Elk by John Neihardt, is spurious. For the full story, please see Black Elk and the Fabrication of Memory.]

Our stele comes from the palace of Nimrud, an early capital of the Neo-Assyrian empire of the first millennium BCE. Located in the Fertile Crescent in present-day Iraq, the Assyrians ruled the epicenter of urban development where Sumer and the Babylonian empire had stood long before. The stele depicts twin images of King Ashurnasirpal II (ca. 883 B.C.–859 B.C.), first great king of the Neo-Assyrians, on either side of the Tree, wearing ritual robes.

Exterior to the king, possibly acting as guardians, are two winged genii. Above the Tree hovers a winged sun disk representing the royal god Ashur, the Assyrian equivalent of the Babylonian god Marduk, hero of the creation saga Enuma elish. This great epic chronicles the creation of the world and the establishment of the order of heaven and earth. After slaying the monstrous Tiamat, the god-hero Marduk is rewarded with kingship of the gods. From the bones of his defeated foe, Marduk creates the world and establishes the forever-repeating cycles of the heavens:

[Marduk/Ashur] fashioned heavenly stations for the great gods,
And set up constellations, the patterns of the stars.
He appointed the year, marked off divisions,
And set up three stars each for the twelve months.
After he had organized the year,
He established the heavenly station of Ne-beru to fix the stars’ intervals. (3)

Both Ashur and Marduk are associated with the celestial order, marked by the immutable circuits of the heavenly bodies, and likewise associated with the divine mandate to rule. This stele proclaims the divine legitimacy of Ashurnasirpal II, who acts as custodian to the Tree of Life itself.

These myths reflect the belief that force of arms confers the ruling mandate. There is no doubt that Ashurnasirpal II ruled through strength of arms. He is remembered as a cruel king, having boasted in his annals “Three thousand captives I burned with fire. Their corpses I formed into pillars.” (2) One wonders if he was thinking of Marduk, building the world from the body of Tiamat.

Ashur’s predecessor Marduk was also prominently associated with an axis mundi image; specifically, the cosmic mountain, which is represented by the ziggurat temple structures of Babylon. The great ziggurat of Babylon itself, dedicated to Marduk, was called Etemenanki, meaning “Foundation of Heaven and Earth.” The cosmic mountain depicted by the ziggurat is roughly equivalent to the cosmic mountain described by Black Elk in his vision quoted above.

The great holiday of the Babylonian empire was the Akitu festival which began on New Year’s Day. In this festival the god of the earth ascends to the summit of the holy mountain to join with the sky, in a ceremonial recapitulation of the story of creation. The Enuma elish creation saga was read aloud. On the tenth day of the festival, the king climbed to the top of the ziggurat. In ceremonial identification with Marduk, the king of the world celebrated a mystical marriage by joining in sexual union with the high priestess, in her identification with the celestial goddess Ishtar. In this way the order of the heavens made contact with the order of the earth, and the energy released by their union drove the wheel of creation around its axis for another cycle.

This is the flowering of the rod,
this is the flowering of the burnt-out wood,

where, Zadkiel, we pause to give
thanks that we rise again from death and live.


(1) Niehard John C. Black Elk Speaks. University of Nebraska Press. 1961. pp 42-3.
(2) Nardo, Don, et al. The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Ancient Mesopotamia. Greenhaven Press. 2007. pg 39.
(3) Enuma Elish. V. 1-6. Retrieved Dec 08, 2011.
(4) H.D. Tribute to the Angels, 43. From Trilogy. New Directions. 1973.

Written by Mesocosm

December 9, 2011 at 4:20 pm

Just sayin’

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That about covers it.

Written by Mesocosm

December 8, 2011 at 1:04 am

Posted in Musings