A History of Art in Chaldaea & Assyria Part 28

As to where this paradise was placed we have no certain information. It could hardly have been a mere separate district of that abode of shades that is painted in such sombre colours. We must suppose that it was open to the sunlight; it was perhaps on one of the slopes of the _Northern Mountain_, in the neighbourhood of the luminous summit on which the gods and goddesses had their home.

The idea of a reward for the just carries as its corollary that of a punishment for the unjust, but in spite of the logical connection between the two notions, we cannot affirm that the Elysium of these Semites had a Tartarus by its side. No allusion to such a place has been found in any of the texts already translated. On the other hand, we find some evidence that the Assyrians believed in the resurrection of the dead. Marduk and his spouse Zarpanitu often bear the title of "those who make the dead live again" (_muballith_ or _muballithat miti_ or _mituti_). The same epithet is sometimes given to other deities, especially to Istar. As yet we do not know when and under what conditions renewed life was to be granted.

We need hardly add that the ideas that find expression in the Assyrian texts were by no means peculiar to the northern people. All Assyriologists agree that in everything connected with the intellect, the Assyrians invented nothing; they did nothing but adapt and imitate, translate and copy from the more prolific Chaldaeans, who furnished as it were the bread upon which their minds were nourished. It is the Chaldee intellect that we study when we question the texts from the library of Assurbanipal.

Other passages in these terra-cotta books help to complete and illustrate those from which we have, as it were, gained a first glimpse of the Assyrian Under-world; but we shall never, in all probability, know it as we already know that of the Egyptians. This is partly, perhaps, because it was less complex, and partly because the fascination it exercised over the mind of man was not so great.

History contains no mention of a people more preoccupied with the affairs of the grave than the Egyptians. Doubtless the Chaldaeans had to give a certain amount of their attention to the same problem, and we know that it was resolved in the same sense and by the same sequence of beliefs both on the banks of the Euphrates and on those of the Nile; but other questions were more attractive to the peoples of Mesopotamia. Their curiosity was roused chiefly by the phenomena of the skies, by the complicated phantasmagoria offered nightly in the depths above. These they set themselves to observe with patience and exactitude, and it is to the habits thus formed that they, in part at least, owed their scientific superiority and the honour they derive from the incontestable fact that they have furnished to modern civilization elements more useful and more readily assimilated than any other great people of the remote past.

And yet the Semites of Chaldaea were not without myths relating to the abode of departed souls of which some features may be grasped. In order to get a better comprehension of them, we must not only look to the discovery and translation of new texts, but to the intelligent study of figured representations. At least this seems to be the lesson of a curious monument recently discovered.[439]

People may differ as to the significance of this or that detail, but no one will deny that the plaque is religious and funerary in its general character, and that, whatever may have been its purpose, it is as a whole connected with the memory and worship of the dead, and therefore that this is the place for such remarks as we have to make upon it.

The object in question is a bronze plaque, sculptured on both faces, which Peretie acquired at Hama in Northern Syria. The dealer from whom he bought it declared that it came into his hands from a peasant of Palmyra. As to where the latter found it we know nothing. In any case the oasis of Tadmor was a dependency of Mesopotamia as long as the power of the Chaldaean and Assyrian monarchies lasted, and the characteristic features of the work in question are entirely Assyrian. In that respect neither Peretie nor Clermont-Ganneau made any mistake.

This plaque is a tall rectangle in shape. At its two upper angles there are salient rings or staples, apparently meant to receive a cord or chain. At the bottom it has a slight ledge, suggesting that it stood upon its base and was suspended at the same time. However this may have been, it should be carefully noticed that both of its faces were meant to be seen.

The face we call the obverse is entirely occupied by the body of a fantastic quadruped, partly chiselled in slight relief, partly engraved.

This monster is upright on his hind feet; his back is turned to the spectator, while the lower part of his body is seen almost in profile. He clings with his two fore feet to the upper edge of the plaque, and looks over it as over a wall. His fore paws and his head are modelled in the round. He has four wings; two large ones with imbricated feathers grow from his shoulders, while a smaller pair are visible beneath them. This arrangement we have already encountered in undoubted Assyrian monuments (see Figs. 8, 29, and 123). If we turn the plaque, we find ourselves face to face with the beast. His skull is depressed, his features hideous, his grinning jaws wrinkled like those of a lion or panther. His feline character is enforced by his formidable claws.

The body, lithe and lean as that of a leopard, is covered with a reticulated marking. His upturned tail nearly touches his loins, while another detail of his person exactly reproduces the contours of a snake.[440] The hind feet are those of a bird-of-prey.

[Illustration: FIG. 161.--Plaque of chiselled bronze. Obverse. From the _Revue archeologique_.]

We must now describe the reverse of this singular monument (Fig. 162). In the first place its upper edge is surmounted by the claws and face of the beast just described, which thus dominates, as it were, the scenes depicted below.

These scenes are divided by horizontal bands into four divisions, and those divisions are by no means arbitrary; they show us what the sculptor thought as to the four regions into which the Assyrian universe was divided. Those regions are the _heavens_, the _atmosphere_, the _earth_, and _hell_ or _hades_.

The highest division is the narrowest of all. It only contains the stars and a few other symbols grouped almost exactly as we find them on not a few monuments of Mesopotamia.[441] The non-sidereal emblems in this division are, no doubt, the attributes of gods who live beside the stars in the depths of the firmament.

[Illustration: FIG. 162.--Plaque of chiselled bronze. Reverse.]

In the second division we find seven animal-headed personages passing from right to left. We need not stop to describe their appearance or gesture; we have already encountered them at Nineveh mounting guard at the palace gates (Figs. 6 and 7); they belong to the class of demons who, according to circumstances, are alternately the plagues and protectors of mankind. The place they occupy represents a middle region between heaven and earth, namely, the atmosphere, which was believed to be entirely peopled by these genii.

The third division contains a funerary scene by which we are at once transported to earth. On the right there is a standard or candelabrum, and on the left a group of three figures. One of these appears to be a man, the other two have lions' heads and resemble the genii of the division above.

The most important group, however, is the one in the middle. A man swathed in a kind of shroud is stretched on a bed, at the head and foot of which appear two of those personages, half man and half fish, in which the Oannes of Berosus has been recognized (Figs. 9 and 67).[442] The figure on the bed must be that of a corpse wrapped in those linen bandages of which so many fragments have been found in the tombs of Lower Chaldaea. The two fish-like gods brandish something over the corpse which appears, so far as it can be made out, to be a flower or bunch of grass. Their gesture appears to be one of benediction, like that of a modern priest with the holy-water-sprinkler.

The lowest division is by far the most roomy of the four. It evidently represents the regions under the earth, and both its size and the complication of its arrangements show us that it was, in the opinion of the artist, more important than either of the three above it. The whole of its lower part is occupied by five fishes all swimming in one direction, a conventional symbol always employed by Assyrian artists to represent a river. The left bank is indicated by a raised line running from one side of the plaque to the other. On this bank towards the left of the relief there are two shrubs or reeds above which appears a group of objects whose character is not easily made out. Are they ideographic signs or funeral offerings? The latter more likely. At any rate we may distinguish vases, bottles, a small box or comb and especially the foot of a horse drawn with great precision. At the other end of this division a hideous monster advances on the river bank. Its semi-bestial, semi-human head is flat and scarred, with a broad upturned nose and a mouth reaching to the ears. The upper part of its body is that of a man, although its skin is seamed all over with short vertical lines meant to indicate hairs. One arm is raised and the other lowered, like those of the genii in the second division. His tail is upturned, his feet are those of a bird, and his wings show over his left shoulder. On the whole, the resemblance between this figure and the nondescript beast on the obverse of the plaque is so great that we are tempted to think that they both represent the same being.

Upon the river and in the centre of this division a scene is going forward that takes up more than a third of the whole field. It is no doubt the main subject. A small boat glides down the stream, its poop adorned with the head of a quadruped, its prow with that of a bird. In this boat there is a horse, seen in profile and with its right fore leg bent at the knee. The attitude of this animal, which seems born down by a crushing weight, is to be explained by the rest of the composition. The poor quadruped bears on his back, in fact, the body of a gigantic and formidable divinity, who makes use of him not in the orthodox fashion but merely as a kind of pedestal; his or rather her right knee rests upon the horse's back while her left foot--which is that of a bird-of-prey--grasps the animal's head.

The legs of this strange monster are human, and so is her body, but here, as in the personage walking by the river side, we find the short scratches that denote hair; her head is that of a lioness. For although her sex may appear doubtful to some it is difficult to explain the action of the two lion-cubs that spring towards her breasts otherwise than by M.

Clermont-Ganneau's supposition that they are eager for nourishment.

The bosom attacked by the two cubs is seen from in front, but the head above it is in profile, and so high that it rises above the line that divides this lower division from the one immediately above it. The jaws are open, that is to say they grin in harmony with those of the monster looking over the top of the plaque, with the genii of the third division and that of the river bank. All this, however, was insufficient to satisfy the artist's desire for a terror-striking effect, and in each hand of the goddess he has placed a long serpent which hangs vertically downwards, and shows by its curves that it is struggling in her grip. Between the limbs of the goddess and the horse's mane there is something that bears a vague resemblance to a scorpion.

We cannot pretend to notice every detail of this curious monument as their explanation would lead us too far, and, with all the care we could give them, we should still have to leave some unexplained. We shall be satisfied with pointing out those features of the composition whose meaning seems to be clear.

In the first place the division of the field into four zones should be noticed; it coincides with what we know of the Assyrian mode of dividing the universe among the powers of heaven, the demons, mankind, and the dead.

The chief incident of the third zone shows us that, like the Egyptians, the Assyrians wished to assure themselves of the protection of some benevolent deity after death. In the Nile valley that protector was Osiris, in Mesopotamia Anou, Oannes, or Dagon, the fish god to whom man owed the advantages of civilization in this world and his safety in the next. The kingdom of shadows, into which he had to descend after death, was peopled with monstrous shapes, to give some idea of which sculptors had gone far afield among the wild beasts of the earth, and had brought together attributes and weapons that nature never combines in a single animal, such as the claws of the scorpion, the wings and talons of the eagle, the coils of the serpent, the mane and muzzle of the great carnivora. The conception which governs all this is similar to that of which we see the expression in those Theban tombs where the dead man prosecutes his voyage along the streams of Ament, and runs the gauntlet of the grimacing demons who would seize and destroy him but for the shielding presence of Osiris. And the resemblance is continued in the details. The boat is shaped like the Egyptian boats;[443] the river may be compared to the subterranean Nile of the Theban tombs, while it reminds us of the Styx and Acheron of the Grecian Hades. We remember too the line of the chant we have quoted:

"There too stand the foundations of the earth, the meeting of the mighty waters."

Certain obscure points that still exist in connection with the Chaldaeo-Assyrian _inferno_ and with the personages by whom it is peopled, will, no doubt, be removed as the study of the remains progresses. We have been satisfied for the moment to explain, with the help of previous explorers, the notions of the Semites of Mesopotamia upon death and a second life, and to show that they did not differ sensibly from those of the Egyptians or of any other ancient people whose ideas are sufficiently known to us.


[419] See _Art in Ancient Egypt_, vol. i. chapter 3.

[420] Upon the tombs found at Nimroud see LAYARD, _Nineveh_, vol. i. pp.

17-19 and p. 352; vol. ii. pp. 37, 38. Some funerary urns discovered at Khorsabad are figured in BOTTA, _Monument_, &c. plate 165. There is one necropolis in Assyria that, in the employment of terra-cotta coffins, resembles the graveyards of Chaldaea; it is that of Kaleh-Shergat, which has long been under process of rifling by the Arabs, who find cylinders, engraved stones, and jewels among its graves. PLACE judges from the appearance of the coffins and other objects found that this necropolis dates from the Parthian times (_Ninive_, vol. ii. pp. 183-185). LAYARD is of the same opinion (_Nineveh_, vol. ii. pp. 58, 154, 155). Mr. Rassam found tombs at Kouyundjik, but much too late to be Assyrian (LOFTUS, _Travels and Researches_, p. 198, note). Loftus found some bones in a roughly-built vault some seventeen feet below the level of the south-eastern palace at Nimroud, but he acknowledges he saw nothing to lead him to assign these remains to the Assyrian epoch more than to any other (_Travels and Researches_, p. 198). Layard was disposed to see in the long and narrow gallery cleared by him at Nimroud (in the middle of the staged tower that rises at the north-western corner of the mound) a sepulchral vault in which the body of a king must once have been deposited (_Discoveries_, pp. 126, 128), but he confesses that he found nothing in it, neither human remains nor any trace of sepulchral furniture. His conjecture is therefore entirely in the air, and he himself only puts it forth under all reserve. The difficulty of this inquiry is increased by the fact that the people of different religions by whom the Assyrians were succeeded always chose by preference to bury their dead at high levels.

Even in our own day it is, as a rule, upon the heights studded over the plains that Christians, Mussulmans, and Yezidis establish their cemeteries; and these have become grave obstacles to the explorer in consequence of the natural disinclination on the part of the peasantry to disturb what may be the ashes of their ancestors. BENNDORF (_Gesichtshelme_, plate xiv. figs. 1 and 2) reproduces two golden masks similar to those found at Mycenae, which were found, the one at Kouyundjik, the other at some unknown point in the same district; he mentions (pp. 66, 67) a third discovery of the same kind.

But the character of the objects found with these masks seems clearly to show that the tombs from which they were taken were at least as late as the Seleucidae, if not as the Roman emperors (Cf. HOFFMANN, in the _Archaologische Zeitung_ for 1878, pp. 25-27).

[421] When we come to speak of Chaldaean sculpture, we shall give a reproduction of this relief. We cannot make much use of it in the present inquiry, because its meaning is so obscure. The stone is broken, and the imperfections of the design are such that we can hardly tell what the artist meant to represent. The two figures with baskets on their heads for instance--are they bringing funeral offerings, or covering with earth the heaped-up corpses on which they mount?

[422] LAYARD, _Monuments_, 1st series, plates 14, 21, 26, 57, 64, &c.

[423] In more than one battle scene do we find these birds floating over the heads of the combatants (LAYARD, _Monuments_, 1st series, plates 18, 22, 26, &c). We may also refer to the curious monument from Tell-loh, in which vultures carrying off human heads and limbs in the clouds are represented. For an engraving of it see our chapter on Chaldaean sculpture.

[424] See an article published by M. J. HALeVY in the _Revue archeologique_, vol. xliv. p. 44, under the title: _L'Immortalite de l'ame chez les Peuples semitiques_.

[425] PLACE, _Ninive_, vol. ii. p. 184.

[426] LOFTUS, _Travels and Researches_, pp. 198, 199.

[427] LOFTUS especially speaks strongly upon this point (_Travels_, &c. p.

199). "By far the most important of these sepulchral cities is Warka, where the enormous accumulation of human remains proves that it was a peculiarly sacred spot, and that it was so esteemed for many centuries. It is difficult to convey anything like a correct notion of the piles upon piles of human relics which there utterly astound the beholder. Excepting only the triangular space between the three principal ruins, the whole remainder of the platform, the whole space between the walls, and an unknown extent of desert beyond them, are everywhere filled with the bones and sepulchres of the dead. There is probably no other site in the world which can compare with Warka in this respect; even the tombs of Ancient Thebes do not contain such an aggregate amount of mortality. From its foundation by Urukh until finally abandoned by the Parthians--a period of probably 2,500 years--Warka appears to have been a sacred burial-place!"

[428] See the curious paper of M. E. LE BLANT entitled: _Tables egyptiennes a Inscriptions grecques_ (_Revue archeologique_, 1874).

[429] In his sixth and seventh chapters LOFTUS gives a very interesting account of his visits to the sanctuaries of Nedjef and Kerbela.

[430] The work he alludes to as his Assurioi logoi (i. 184).

[431] HERODOTUS, i. 198.

[432] See above, pp. 158-9 and fig. 49. The details that here follow are borrowed from the narrations of those who have explored the sepulchral mounds of lower Chaldaea. Perhaps the most important of these relations is that of Mr. J. E. TAYLOR, to which we have already referred so often (_Notes on the Ruins of Mugheir_, to which may be added his _Notes on Abou-Sharein and Tell-el-Lahm_, p. 413, in the same volume of the _Journal_). Cf. LOFTUS's eighteenth chapter (_Travels_, &c. p. 198) and the pages in LAYARD's _Discoveries_, from 556 to 561.

[433] "Each of the Babylonians," says HERODOTUS (i. 195), "carries a seal and a walking-stick carved at the top into the form of an apple, a rose, a lily, an eagle, or something similar, for it is not their habit to use a stick without an ornament."

[434] LOFTUS, _Travels_, p. 212.

[435] See _Art in Ancient Egypt_, vol. i. p. 145, note 3.

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