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Posts Tagged ‘Assyria

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

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