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At the center of discussion this pastweek was Mehmet-Ali Atac's The Mythology of Kingship inNeo-Assyrian Art, specificallythose sections that analyzed the royal décor of Assurnasirpal II'spalace at Nimrud. In some respects, Atac's analysis of these reliefsis sober and convincing, especially when focused on the minutiae ofartifacts associated with various figures. I tend to agree with histhoughtful insights when they rest on painstakingly scrutinized data,a hallmark many of his arguments. On the other hand, some of Atac'sassertions are far less convincing, especially those that force thedata or misrepresent some important features of Mesopotamian culture. This paper will quickly address those arguments borne directly fromthe data with which I largely agree, and dwell on some of the moreproblematic claims, specifically questioning their place within anAssyro-Babylonian worldview.
Atacargues that the protomes featured on accoutrement fall into two broadcatagories: those depicting carnivores (largely lions), and thosedepicting herbivores (equids, caprids, and birds) and mythicalcreatures (mušhuššu)(Atac 2010). Moreover, lion protomes exclusively adorn swords andshields, whereas protomes of herbivorous and mythical creatures gracearmbands, thrones, ritual-ware and other objects, but never theseovertly martial objects. He connects this pattern to an Assyriansense of artistic decorum, which governs the use of protomes throughvarious subjects and compositional techniques (see Atac 2010,pp.105-106 for a summary list). Additionally, Atac views theseprotomes as subtly signifying the royal or sacerdotal characteristicsof certain scenes or individuals, culminating in the monarch, ormixta persona, whounites these qualities in himself.
It isat the heart of these conclusions where I begin to wonder whetherAtac has taken these ideas too far – overplayed the presence ofthese oppositional qualities within Mesopotamia. Atac contends thatthe crux of Assurnasirpal's visual program is the unification of theregnium andsacredotium, orkingship and priesthood, within the person of the king. He states“that the king as a human being would essentially have belonged toa military and administrative elite rather than to a priestly one,”and that in “the ancient Near East … whatever priestly identitythe king possessed should be thought to have been projected onto theking by the actual priestly elite, and hence an ideological andacquired privilege rather than an inherited quality” (Atac 2010, p.97).
Indeed,some of the oldest epithets in the Assyrian royal inscriptions attestto the king's cultic role and association with the gods, includinghis titles šangû(someform of temple administrator), iššiak aššur(vice-regent of Assur), and šakin enlil (prefectof Enlil) (Machinist 1993). Opposing Atac's vision of theroyal-priestly identity as an acquired privilege of an otherwisemartial administrator, the earliest epithets of the Assyrian monarch,which eschew the word king in-lieu vice-regent of Assur, contain noallusions to military grandeur, but seem to emphasize the rulersassociation with both god and temple. Though the epithets clearlymention the monarch's administrative capacities, they do so inrelation to the dominant divinities of the time and place. To besure, later Assyrian inscriptions are full of the martial exploits ofthe crown aided by the divine sphere (Tadmor 1997) in both epithetand narrative sections. Yet any idea of priesthood or divine serviceas an acquired privilege is conspicuously absent from these, or anyother Assyrian sources.
Anotheracute problem is Atac's definition of sacredotium. What Atac means by regniumis evident from the passage above, where the king is associated withadministrative and martial duties – what he means by sacredotiumisless clear, especially in a Mesopotamian context. In the previousdiscussion I associated priesthood with both cult and proximity tothe divine, but both cultic activities and the divine sphere are notseparate from the martial or administrative in Mesopotamia. Purification rituals were performed on weapons after battles orhunts, the great gods bestowed divine weapons on their favorites (ina non Assyrian context, see the prophecy of Adad of Aleppo toZimri-Lim of Mari in Nissinen 2003) or engaged in war themselves(enūma eliš;Machinist 1978), and bore administrative titles such as šakkanakku(highlevel administrator, governor) orgugallu (canal-inspector). Alternatively, Atac may have implied a connection with the templein his use of sacredotium,though disassociating this too from the martial or administrative isfraught with difficulty in Mesopotamia.; temples could both house theweapons of the gods and rent out weapons for income (Heimpel 1996),and were administratively complex institutions.
Ihave argued that some of main assumptions that underly this sectionof Atac's study of the reliefs of Assurnasirpal lack clarity, and insome cases, proof. It is upon these foundations that he constructshis larger arguments about the sacral character of the crown prince,his interaction with the monarch, and the integrative power of theking. Though these idea my be contentious, they certainly constitutea new reading of the reliefs of Assurnasirpal, with which others willcontest for years to come.
Ataç,Mehmet-Ali; 2010. Mythology of Kingship in Neo-Assyrian Art.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nissinen,Martti; 2003. Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East. Brill,pp. 21-22
Tadmor,Hayim; 1997. “Propaganda, literature, historiography: Cracking thecode of the Assyrian royal inscriptions,” in Assyria 1995.Proceedings of the 10th Anniversary Symposium of the Neo- AssyrianText Corpus Project. Simo Parpola & R.M. Whiting (eds.).Helsinki: The Neo- Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 325-338.
Heimpel,Wolfgang; 1996. “The Gates of the Eninnu,” Journal of CuneiformStudies 48: pp. 17-29
Machinist,Peter; 1993. "Assyrians on Assyria in the First Millennium B.C."in Anfänge politischen Denkens in der Antike. K. Raaflaub (ed).Oldenbourg: Wissenschaftsverlag, 77-104.
Machinist,Peter; 1978. The Epic of Tukulti Ninurta I. PhD dissertation, YaleUniversity.