>Iconoclasm and the Mutilation of Images in the Ancient Near East

>The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago is sponsoring a symposium on “Iconoclasm and Text Destruction in the Ancient Near East and Beyond.” The symposium is organized by Natalie Naomi May.

The symposium will be held on April 8-9, 2011 at The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 1155 East 58th Street, Chicago, IL 60637.

Below is a summary of the reasons images were mutilated. This description of mutilation of images appears in the newsletter of The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago:

Reasons and purposes of iconoclasm

One of the main goals of the conference will thus be to establish which images were chosen for mutilation – a question naturally closely connected with understanding the purposes of the damage. The performative dimension underscored by Bahrani was important and probably even ubiquitous; but it was certainly not the only factor involved in the ancient Near Eastern destruction of images. The aims of such actions were multiple and interacted mutually in a complex manner. Consequently, the specific sort of damage and its possible relationship with the political and cultural setting has to be examined for each individual case.

Important to explore are parallels between the mutilation of humans and mutilation of images. As a parallel to the decapitation of flesh and blood enemies, statues were also beheaded and their severed heads mutilated. It was already Brandes who pointed to the severing of statues’ heads and extremities as a practice known from the very beginning of Mesopotamian history. The purpose of this practice was symbolic, magical and performative, resulting in loss of power by, and ‘murder’ and humiliation of the depicted person. Magical actions of this kind are well known in various sorts of apotropaic ritual (e.g. šurpu). Images were perceived as living objects, parts of gods or persons; damage to the images thus inflicting damage on the depicted, divine or human, alive or dead.

Another form of damage to an image was its effacement, more precisely erasing its mouth or nose. Such action was clearly tied to the essential role of these organs for the image as an animated and living substance. Mutilation of the nose and the mouth was thus an act antithetical to the mouth-opening ceremony that brought an inanimate object to life. In general, every kind of mutilation had multiple implications. Severing of ears was aimed therefore not only at humiliation tied to one of the legal penalties for criminal offences, but also at depriving the depicted image of a wisdom symbolized in Mesopotamia by wide ears. Mutilation of symbols of divinity and divine protection had special meaning.

Visit the web page of The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago and learn more about the symposium.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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