>Iconoclasm and Aniconism 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 iconoclasm and the significance of aniconism in the Ancient Near East. This summary appears in the newsletter of The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago:

Iconoclasm and aniconism

Through various periods of human history religious iconoclasm connects with the prohibition of figurative representation. Conception of aniconism in the ancient Near Eastern antiquity differs from the modern one. For instance there was no general ban on images as such. Nonetheless, anthropomorphic cult statues were often replaced by divine symbols.

What was the significance of aniconism in the mutilation of ancient Near Eastern images? An attempt will be made to answer this question through exploration of Mesopotamian and Biblical approaches to aniconism and comparison of the role of aniconism in iconoclastic tendencies in Christianity and Islam.

Destruction of figurative complexes

The cases of systematic damage inflicted on a complex of images or statues are of particular interest. Those took place, for instance in the Assyrian palaces of Nineveh and, probably, Kalhu in the time of the Median-Babylonian invasion (612 and 614 BCE respectively). Destruction of the statues and steles of Gudea was similarly systematic. In the narrative reliefs of the Neo-Assyrian palaces, certain depictions or participants of certain scenes were selected for effacement. Sometimes objects along with human beings were chiselled out. The choice here was not casual but rather intentional. By investigating the motivations of those who carried out these actions, we can better understand the social, political, and ritual significance of the depictions themselves.

Iconoclasm and Spoliation

Very few intact divine statues have been found from the ancient Near East. Scholars have tried to explain this fact as the result of looting of precious materials or disintegration of perishable substances. But in fact all the discovered stone statues of gods suffered intentional damage. I believe that the absence among archaeological finds of cult statues or other divine statues in the round is, in first place, a result of their intentional destruction. This process is apparently tied closely with that of spoliation of the statues. In this project’s context, a salient problem that needs to be explored is thus whether there was a connection between the abduction of and damage done to divine statues during warfare, and both the suppression of the subdued nation’s cult and installation of the cult of the invader. Cogan (1974) takes the spoliation of divine images as a plain statement of divine abandonment. But in fact, in Near Eastern antiquity religious self-identification expressed through worship of a certain deity was a substitute for ethnic and national identity. Consequently the abduction and especially destruction of an opponent’s cult statues had effects reaching far beyond a simple demonstration of power, although the significance of these actions in various periods may well have differed. It should be noted that in Assyria the imperial cult was established in annexed provinces and probably in vassal countries. The subdued population was obliged to worship Assyrian gods. Were the local cults also limited by the demolition or abduction of cult statues? It seems to me that each case should be explored individually. The deportation of the statues of Marduk and other Babylonian deities by Sennacherib could not put an end to their cult. But the uprooting of entire peoples usually drove them to accept the cults prevailing in their new places of habitation—to assimilation with the Assyrians or other ethnic and religious groups of the empire, as was the case with the Israelite tribes. Josiah’s attempt to regain rule over all territories of Judah and Israel was accompanied by the installation of the cult of YHWH and destruction of cultic images of the other gods.

Not only divine statues were subject to spoliation and destruction. The choice of deported items is a clue to understanding the nature and purpose of the process at work here. Both textual and archaeological evidence shows that not all pillaged items were damaged. Thus the famous stele of Hammurabi, taken by the Elamites from Sippar to Susa, suffered practically no damage. Moreover, it became an object of reverence and pilgrimage at its new location. Sometimes the conqueror would incise inscriptions with his name or a dedication to his gods upon his booty. The Elamite king Inshushinak did this to objects he captured in Mesopotamia; as did Ashurbanipal to gods of the Arabs that then he returned to them. These acts of inscription served various purposes, but the primary effect was understood as performative. The inscribed object – divine statue, royal stele, and so forth – became subjugated to the king, whose name it bore through the magic power of the word.

For more information about the symposium, visit The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago web page.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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