Monday, February 22, 2021

Spotted cats: Mythological beasts of both the Old World and the New

 This unusual vase shows a human head of which all but the area of the eyes, nose, and mouth is enclosed in the head of an animal. The softness of the pelt is indicated by the way in which it tightly fits the human head. The small ears and spots are further animal attributes. It is difficult to identify the figure. It may possibly be a very Egyptianized interpretation of Herakles wearing the lion skin. - Metropolitan Museum of Art

This vessel caught my attention because it reminded me very much of ancient pre-Columbian American art.  All major Mesoamerican civilizations prominently featured a jaguar god, and for many, such as the Olmec, the jaguar was an important part of shamanism. The jaguar's formidable size, reputation as a predator, and its evolved capacities to survive in the jungle made it an animal to be revered. The Olmec and the Maya witnessed this animal's habits, adopting the jaguar as an authoritative and martial symbol, and incorporated the animal into their mythology. 

In the surviving Olmec archaeological record, jaguars are rarely portrayed naturalistically, but rather with a combination of feline and human characteristics. These feline anthropomorphic figures may range from a human figure with slight jaguar characteristics to depictions of shamanistic transformations in the so-called transformative pose, kneeling with hands on knees, to figures that are nearly completely feline.

One of the most prominent, distinctive, and enigmatic Olmec designs to appear in the archaeological record has been the "were-jaguar". Seen not only in figurines, the motif also may be found carved into jade "votive axes" and celts, engraved onto various portable figurines of jade, and depicted on several "altars".  The were-jaguar figure is characterized by a distinctive down-turned mouth with fleshy lips, and almond-shaped eyes.

The Maya, whose territory spanned the Yucatán Peninsula all the way to the Pacific coast of Guatemala, depicted gods with jaguar attributes as well.  The jaguar is said to have the ability to cross between worlds, and for the Maya daytime and nighttime represented two different worlds.  The living and the earth are associated with the day, and the spirit world and the ancestors are associated with the night. As the jaguar is quite at home in the nighttime, the jaguar is believed to be part of the underworld. Thus, Maya gods with jaguar attributes or garments are thought to have represented underworld gods. One such god is Xbalanque, one of the Maya Hero Twins who descended to the underworld, and whose entire body is covered with patches of jaguar skin. Another is God L, who is the primary lord of the underworld and often is shown with a jaguar ear or jaguar attire, and atop a jaguar throne.

This reverence for the jaguar carried forward to the much later Aztec civilization where their military elite were inducted into a unit dressed in jaguar regalia. To become a jaguar warrior, a member of the Aztec army had to capture a total of four enemies from battles. This was said to honor their gods in a way far greater than killing enemy soldiers on the battlefield. They also used spears and atlatls and fought with a wooden club studded with obsidian volcanic glass blades, called a macuahuitl. 

Jaguars, of course, were not known in the ancient Mediterranean world but the First Dynasty Egyptian deity Mafdet was often depicted wearing the skin of a cheetah.  She was associated with the protection of the king's chambers and other sacred places, and with protection against venomous animals, which were seen as transgressors against Maat.  She also represented the personification of legal justice.  It was said that Mafdet ripped out the hearts of wrong-doers, delivering them to the pharaoh's feet like cats that present humans with rodents or birds they have killed or maimed. During the New Kingdom, Mafdet was seen as ruling over the judgment hall in Duat where the enemies of the pharaoh were decapitated with Mafdet's claw.

During the reign of Tutankhamun, leopards were highly prized as symbols of royalty and divinity.  A leopard skin mantle or a cloth imitation of one was worn by the high priest during the opening of the mouth ceremony at royal burials.

Although a panther is often referred to as an attribute of the god Dionysus, the god was also depicted wearing leopard skin and using leopards as a means of transportation. In one myth, the god was captured by pirates but two leopards appear and rescue him.  

I find it interesting that cultures so far removed from each other wove their reverence for their respective spotted cats into their myths and religious practices. I can't help but wonder if the leopard-shrouded Greek figure of the 6th century BCE may have presided over one of the mystery religions as a similar priest in ancient America did.


Faience aryballos (oil flask) in the form of a head wearing an animal skin, 6th century B.C.E., East Greek, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

An Aztec jaguar warrior created by GodotDraws on DeviantArt

Aztec jaguar warriors based on codex illustrations created by American miniaturist George S. Stuart. Photograph by Peter D'Aprix.

Aztec jaguar warriors based on codex illustrations created by American miniaturist George S. Stuart. Photograph by Peter D'Aprix.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Pre-Achaemenid art: Neo-Assyrian or Median?

The Medes were an ancient Iranian people who spoke the Median language and who inhabited an area known as Media between western and northern Iran. Around the 11th century BCE, they occupied the mountainous region of northwestern Iran and the eastern region of Mesopotamia located around Hamadan (Ecbatana). Herodotus reports the Medes played a determining role in the fall of the Assyrian Empire and "could" have  formed an empire at the beginning of the 7th century BCE that lasted until the 550s BCE. It was originally thought they competed with the kingsoms of Lydia and Babylonia for hegemony.  However, the Medes left no written account of their history.  Archaeologists have had to rely upon foreign sources such as the Assyrians, Babylonians and Greeks for Median history, instead, as well as a few Iranian archaeological sites, which are believed to have been occupied by Medes. Some scholars have gone so far as to suggest a Median kingdom as a political entity never existed at all, even though it was reported to have been conquered by Cyrus the Great in 549 BCE.

Materials  found at Tepe Nush-i Jan, Godin Tepe, and other archaeological sites located in the area known as Media, together with Assyrian reliefs, show the existence of urban settlements in Media in the first half of the 1st millennium BCE which had functioned as centers for the production of handicrafts and also of an agricultural and cattle-breeding economy.

From the 10th to the late 7th centuries BCE, the western parts of Media fell under the domination of the vast Neo-Assyrian Empire that imposed Vassal Treaties upon the Median rulers, and also protected them from predatory raids by marauding Scythians and Cimmerians.  During the reign of Sinsharishkun (622–612 BCE), the Assyrian empire, which had been in a state of constant civil war since 626 BCE, began to unravel and subject peoples, such as the Medes ceased to pay tribute.

Neo-Assyrian dominance over the Medians came to an end during the reign of Median King Cyaxares, who, in alliance with King Nabopolassar of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, attacked and destroyed the strife-riven Neo-Assyrian empire between 616 and 609 BCE. The newfound alliance helped the Medes to capture Nineveh in 612 BC, which resulted in the eventual collapse of the Neo-Assyrian Empire by 609 BCE. The Medes were subsequently able to establish their Median Kingdom (with Ecbatana as their royal capital) beyond their original homeland and had eventually a territory stretching roughly from northeastern Iran to the Kızılırmak River in Anatolia.

Artwork from this period was heavily influenced by the Neo-Assyrians but scholars hesitate to associate it specifically to the Medians due to the swiftly changing alliances of various tribes, clans, and regional groupings of western Iran at the time.  Winged creatures or deities with human heads reflected Assyrian influence as well as sculptures depicting bulls or lions. Scholars believe Assyrian graphically detailed works of violence were meant to advertise the power of the empire and its rulers and to intimidate their enemies.  Often precisely rendered animal carvings and statues were viewed as protective forces containing religious significance. 

Lions regularly appear in Assyrian art. In ancient days, the Asiatic lion (slightly smaller than the African) roamed the Near East. To hunt the lions was a kingly activity of great importance. Famous carved reliefs of lion hunts show King Ashurbanipal hunting lions in an arena, sometimes from a chariot. The lion was also important as a symbol of the goddess Ishtar, the Queen of Heaven, one of the two most important deities in the Assyrian pantheon. - Metropolitan Museum of Art

A lion was thought to be a symbol of the Neo-Assyrian King Sargon II during the Neo-Assyrian period as well.

Bulls are another common motif in Assyrian art. The bull was more than just an important food source. Sumerian and Akkadian traditions describe the Bull of Heaven, which features in a conflict between Ishtar and Gilgamesh in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The bull remained an important symbol in Assyrian and other Mesopotamian cultures. It also was combined with human, lion, and avian traits to form mythical creatures. - Metropolitan Museum of Art

Triangular compositions featuring two rampant wild animals over a third creature, often a domesticated one, occur on Mesopotamian cylinder seals of the thirteenth century B.C.E., one of which shows two rampant lions sparring over a bull. But the motif is uncommon in later Mesopotamian art until it reappears again in the art of western Iran between the ninth and the seventh centuries B.C.E.  The motif of a single lion attacking a bull is visible on the remains of Persepolis but its use appears to end there. 

Pre-Achaemenid Silver and Gold Vessel in the Form of a Lion Attacking a Bull, Silver and gold, 8th-6th century B.C.E. at the Miho Museum in Kyoto, Japan

Pre-Achaemenid Silver Compound Zoomorphic Vessel of two rampant lions over a prostrate bull, Silver, 8th-6th century B.C.E., at the Miho Museum in Kyoto, Japan. This unusual vessel features a pair of rampant lions, interlocked forelegs on each other's shoulders, standing on a prone bull. The lions are identical, not mirror images, each with its head turned to the right and its right hind leg up on the bull. The lion that treads on the bull's head has a round opening in the back of its snarling mouth that serves as a spout. The gaping mouth of the second lion is solid, but a small, carefully finished circular hole in its head provides the opening through which the vessel can be filled. A narrow depressed rim around this hole suggests that a stopper once sealed it. Each lion's body is formed in two pieces, upper and lower cylinders whose joining is marked by a narrow rib. The two pieces of each cylinder fit together; no solder is visible. The hollow forelegs of the lions are formed of open tubes that fit one into the other, allowing fluid to run from the filling hole to the spout. The bull, whose cylindrical body is also hollow, serves as a base. There is no internal connection between the lions and the bull. Reputed to be part of a silver treasure found in a cave in western Iran some years ago, this remarkable piece presents a puzzle not easily solved. The orthography of Akkadian inscriptions found on some pieces of the supposed hoard show Elamite influence suggestive of a date in the second quarter of the first millennium B.C.E. If this vessel was part of that so-called Cave Treasure, it should have a similar date and place of origin. While this association cannot be documented, the imagery of the piece supports a date in the second quarter of the millennium. But the motif reappears in the art of western Iran between the 9th and 7th centuries BCE.

Pre-Achaemenid Silver and Gold Vessel in the Form of a Hero and a Winged Bull Ibex, Silver and gold, 8th-6th century B.C.E. at the Miho Museum in Kyoto, Japan

Pre-Achaemenid Silver Rhyton with Ibex Protome and Appliques, Silver and electrum, 8th-6th century B.C.E., at the Miho Museum in Kyoto, Japan

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Bust of a Priest with Silver Inlaid Eyes: Roman or Sasanian?

While I was researching the Cypriot ear spirals yesterday, I noticed this bronze bust of a priest with silver inlaid eyes dated from the 3rd - 4th century CE at the Miho Museum.  The museum identified it as late Roman but the museum's image had been shared on Flickr and I noticed that someone with the username eternal persia commented on the piece and insisted it was Sasanian.  He/she pointed to the monogram on the hat, clothes, hair design and leaves that decorate the bust and insisted these are Sasanian elements.

Intrigued, I researched the item a little further.  At first, most Sasanian portrait sculptures I reviewed were all bearded.  Then I saw an image of a relief depicting Kartir, a high priest and vizier serving during the reigns of Shapur I, Hormizd I, Bahram I, and Bahram II. Not only is Kartir clean shaven, he sports the corkscrew curls and crested hat worn by the priest of the bust at the Miho Museum.

Some scholars think Kartir may have been a eunuch, due to being depicted without a beard in the Sasanian reliefs. He first appears in historical records in Shapur I's inscription at the Ka'ba-ye Zartosht, which was most likely created between 260–262 CE. Kartir is the only religious bureaucrat mentioned in the inscription. Shapur I, termed a "lukewarm Zoroastrian", was known for his tolerance towards other religions. Although admiring the teachings of his own religion and encouraging the Zoroastrian clergy, Shapur I allowed the Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus to freely practice their religion. He was also friendly towards the founder of Manichaeism, Mani, whom he allowed to preach freely and even to be an escort in his military expeditions.

Shapur I's religious practices seems to have been somewhat unusual, though, with animal sacrifice being made for the soul of the kings and queens of the Sasanian family. Kartir, who "abhorred animal sacrifice" was unable to stop Shapur I from performing them. Shapur I died in 270 CE, and was succeeded by Hormizd I, who gave Kartir clothes that were worn by the upper class including the cap and belt (kulāf ud kamarband) and appointed him as the chief priest (mowbed).

Hormizd I died the following year and Bahram I, who was never considered a candidate for succession of the throne by his father, ascended the throne with the aid of Kartir, whose authority and influence had greatly increased. Bahram I then made a settlement with his brother Narseh who he asked to give up his entitlement to the throne in return for the governorship of the important frontier province of Armenia, which was constantly the subject of war between the Roman and Sasanian Empires.  Although Narseh held the title of Vazurg Šāh Arminān ("Great King of Armenia"), scholars think he probably still viewed Bahram I as a usurper.

Although previous Sasanian shahs had pursued a policy of religious tolerance towards the non-Zoroastrian minorities in the empire, with Bahram I's accession to the throne, and the rise of the authority of the Zoroastrian priesthood under the leadership of Kartir, this changed. When Mani, still the leader of the Manichaeists, arrived in the city of Gundishapur, Kartir and his cadre of Zoroastrian priest protested, viewing Mani as a threatening heterogeneous philosopher who presented an obscure perception of Zoroastrianism tainted by Jewish, Buddhist, and Christian ideas. Kartir pressured Bahram I to have Mani imprisoned and sentenced to death in 274 CE. Mani's death was followed by the persecution of his followers by Kartir and the Zoroastrian clergy, who used the persecution of religious minorities as a method to increase and spread their vast influence.  With the backing of Bahram I, Kartir laid foundations for Zoroastrianism's adoption as the state religion.

When Bahram I died, his son viewed Kartir as a mentor and granted him the rank of grandee (wuzurgan), and appointed him as the supreme judge (dadwar) of the whole empire.  Thereafter, Zorastrian priests were given the office of judge. Kartir's intolerance continued and his inscription at  Ka'ba-ye Zartosht boasts that he "struck down" non-Zoroastrian minorities, although modern scholars point out that Jewish and Christian sources makes no mention of persecutions during this period.

When Bahram III succeeded his father, Bahram II, something changed, however, in Kartir's relationship with the royal family.  Kartir inexplicably threw in his lot with Narseh and, along with a group of Sasanian nobles, supported Narseh's overthrow of Bahram III. But Narseh's reign  marked the return to the policy of religious tolerance which had been practiced by his father, Shapur I, all those years ago, and Kartir finally fades from history. 

Bust of a Priest with Silver Inlaid Eyes, Bronze and sliver, 3rd-4th century C.E., courtesy of the Miho Museum in Kyoto, Japan.

Relief of Kartir, the Zoroastrian high priest at Naqsh-e Rajab courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor درفش کاویانی.