The Assyrian Tree of Life
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.
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. (4)
(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. http://www.ancient.eu.com/article/225/. Retrieved Dec 08, 2011.
(4) H.D. Tribute to the Angels, 43. From Trilogy. New Directions. 1973.