Dæmon in the Wood; The Ritual Fallacy

Arthur Evans’ Tree of Aniconic Divinity
page thirteen

In connection with the same seal (Fig. 45), Porada and Buchanan wrote: “The style of Middle Assyrian seals is curiously reminiscent of the Akkad style of a thousand years earlier.”62 Some of the subject matter was reminiscent too, to say the least; ogre-grappling, for instance, with an erect dry rod or stock beside the grapplers (Figs. 47-49 infra) was prescribed by a tradition even older than Akkad. The dry wood is a radiant spade-haft on the Early Akkad seal in Fig. 47, whose manufacture probably about 2300 b. C.63 corresponds in time to the Early Helladic period on mainland Greece, Early Minoan III on Crete, and Early Cycladic on the other islands of the Aegean.

Fig. 47. Impression from a cylinder seal
of greenish black and olive buff serpentine.

Other seals of the same time show other multifoms of the dry stock. It is a reversed gatepost in Fig. 48:

Fig. 48. Impression from a concave shell cylinder.

An upright post stands in the background on a seal from the time of Sargon I (Fig. 49):

Fig. 49. Impression from a cylinder seal from Tell Asmar.
(Courtesy of the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.)

Fierce adult bull and male bison join the lion as varieties of ogre on the two foregoing Akkadian pieces. An explicitly fabulous kind of ferocious bull opposes the hewer in the rather unusual scene on the Akkadian seal in Fig. 50 too. The scheme is different, with additional anthropomorphic and theriomorphic figures in it expressing a larger than usual complement of narrative motifs, but the hewer as usual still faces his ogre with upright post beside him:

Fig. 50. Impression from an Akkadian cylinder seal.
(Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.)

Rarely can contemporary narrative be used to such an extent in the interpretation of ancient glyptic iconography as is possible in this instance. Henri Frankfort seized this exceptional opportunity, and analyzed the scene on the seal in Fig. 50 as follows:

Drought is symbolized by a bull; here we must quote the Gilgamesh Epic, which obviously refers to the Bull of Heaven as a symbol of the aridity of the Mesopotamian climate. It is thus described when Ishtar asks her father Anu to give her the bull that she may destroy Gilgamesh who has scorned her:

Father, Oh make me a Heavenly Bull which shall
Gilgamesh vanquish
Filling his body with flame.

But Anu warns her of the dangerous character of the creature:

If I the Heavenly Bull shall create for which
thou dost ask me
(Then) seven years of (lean) husks must needs follow
after his onslaught.

And a Sumerian fragment makes it even clearer that Ishtar plans to punish Gilgamesh by striking his city with famine:

It was reported to the Lord Gilgamesh:
Inanna has brought forth the Bull of Heaven!
She made him pasture in Erech
And drink at the waxing river:
A double-hour the waxing river flowed,
then only his thirst was slaked;
Where he pastured the earth is bare.

The heroic king of Erech succeeds in killing the bull:

Gilgamesh, like an able slaughterer, strikes with his sword the Bull of Heaven forcefully and precisely between shoulders and neck.

It is this action which we see illustrated... . The kneeling god there is hardly the Gilgamesh of the Epic, for the scene appears on our seal, not as part of the personal conflict between Ishtar and the King of Erech, but in the more general cosmic form which may have supplied the epic poets with the theme. But it is clear that the killing of the bull on the seal signifies the breaking of the drought. The Thunder-god with mace and leather-tongued whip is seen approaching from the left on his dragon of lightning, and abundant rain descends, called up by the goddess who appears with outstretched arms in the sky.64

So the action portrayed on the seal in Fig. 50 supra is a fragment of narrative. But it is surely not narrative for its own sake, and not a whole narrative. The various figures all marching from left to right across the scene constitute a kind of processional that terminates with the subduing of the bull under the upright column or post on the extreme right. This taurobolion is the focus of the scene, and it has a decidedly ritual character for two reasons. If Gilgamesh the epic slayer of the Bull of Heaven is the type of the ogre-tamer on this seal, then one must not forget what Gilgamesh did with the carcass of the Bull when he had slain it. Tablet VI in the Assyrian version of the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story:

Between neck and horns (he thrust) his sword. (150)
When they had slain the Bull, they tore out his heart,
Placing it before Shamash.
They drew back and did homage before Shamash.
The two brothers sat down.

Then Ishtar mounted the wall of ramparted Uruk,
Sprang on the battlements, uttering a curse:
“Woe unto Gilgamesh because he insulted me
by slaying the Bull of Heaven!”
When Enkidu heard this speech of Ishtar,
He threw the right thigh of the Bull of Heaven,
tossing it in her face:
“Could I but get thee, like unto him. (160)
I would do unto thee.
His entrails I would hang at thy side!”
(Thereupon) Ishtar assembled the votaries,
The (pleasure-) lasses and the (temple-) harlots.
Over the right thigh of the Bull of Heaven
she set up a wail.
But Gilgamesh called the craftsmen, the armorers,
All (of them).
The artisans admire the thickness of his horns:
Each is cast from thirty minas of lapis;
The coating of each is two fingers (thick); (170)
Six measures of oil, the capacity of the two,
He offered as ointment to his god, Lugalbanda.
He brought (them) and hung them
in his princely bed-chamber.65

Gilgamesh and his bosom companion Enkidu (compare the pair of ogre-subduers in Fig. 49 supra) use the ritually significant parts of the slain bull—heart, horns, and thigh—to do genuine homage to two male deities, and to parody proper homage to the powerful goddess Ishtar. Of these three deities, Ishtar is far the most important at this point in the Epic of Gilgamesh. She it is who invoked the fabulous beast as a chastisement to Gilgamesh, and to her Enkidu gives in anger (but gives nonetheless) the choicest joint of its flesh, the right thigh.

Similar rites of dedication must be expected as the normal sequel to the taurobolion on the Akkadian seal in Fig. 50. The incipiently votive character of the scene there gives meaning to the pillar behind the bull-slayer. It must be one of those banded and carved cedar-wood poles which Frankfort and others knew stood before the entrances to Assyrian temples.60 In the image on the seal it undoubtedly stands before the temple or shrine where the rites of offertory must be performed when the bull is dead.

Even the clearest of ritual scenes in ancient pictorial art are almost impenetrably cryptic without the kind of help from narrative tradition toward their interpretation which the Epic of Gilgamesh provides in the case of this Akkadian seal. But once the light of narrative has fallen upon such a scene, the schematic continuity in an iconographic tradition may make it possible to understand similar scenes where no contemporary narrative is available to give such help. A case in point is the following seal (Figure 51) from the Uruk period in the fourth millenium b. C., which is prehistoric in that there are no written documents (and hence no recorded tales) from that time:

Fig. 51. A cylinder seal from Uruk showing a scene of offertory.
(Courtesy of the Staatliche Kunstsammlung, Dresden.)

This scene is explicitly offertorial. As on the preceding Akkadian seal (Fig. 50) the procession of men and beasts moves from left to right toward a sanctuary marked by the pair of ringed and tasselled gateposts. These tasselled posts have been identified with the Sumerian goddess Inanna,66 who was to Akkadian Ishtar much what Greek Aphrodite was to Latin Venus. A scene of dedication to Inanna in the glyptic art of Sumerian Uruk may thus be compared with the offertory to Ishtar implied on the Akkadian seal in Fig. 50. The most important difference between the two scenes is that in the Sumerian instance (Fig. 51) the fruits of the earth quickened by rainfall and the meat gotten by slaughter are shown already prepared and laid out as if in preparation for dining, whereas the Akkadian seal depicts the same things at an earlier moment of their development: the coming of rain to stimulate the growth of vegetable food, and the slaughter of the meat-yielding animal (Fig. 51). If the connection between drought and the slaughter portrayed on the Akkadian seal seems obscure, it has only to be remembered that slaughtering is the universal recourse of cattle-keepers in time of drought, when they must reduce their herds and flocks to conserve water and pasturage.

The scene of offertory incised on the seal from the Uruk period (Fig. 51 supra is of much too early a date to be compared directly with any extant Aegean iconography, but it is strongly suggestive of the scenes of offering on the sarcophagus from Hagia Triada shown in Figs. 34, where food-animals and vegetable food and drink are similarly conveyed toward free-standing dry pillars.


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