BMCR 2006.01.10

Ritual and Politics in Ancient Mesopotamia. American Oriental Series 38

, Ritual and politics in ancient Mesopotamia. American oriental series ; v. 88. New Haven, CT: American Oriental Society, 2005. xi, 120 pages : illustrations ; 27 cm.. ISBN 0940490196 $42.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Ritual and Politics in Ancient Mesopotamia is a compilation of three essays by Julian Reade, Walther Sallaberger, and Philippe Talon, introduced and edited by Barbara Nevling Porter. The essays stem from a workshop organized by Porter as part of the 47th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale held in Helsinki in July 2001, under the same title as the book. Porter emphasizes in the introduction that the book aims at joining a discussion of ritual with that of politics, indicating that most Assyriologists so far “have instead examined the religious significance of rituals, as acts of worship, acts of communication with gods, or symbolic expressions of theological concepts.” Porter points out, however, that “this is now beginning to change,” with a number of relatively recent doctoral dissertations exploring this interface as well as the works of a number of senior scholars contributing to the growing discussion. After introducing each of the three authors and their essays, Porter on the one hand attempts to present “ritual” as the overarching theme that ties all three essays together, but on the other grapples with the definition of ritual as well as with the inevitably different understanding each essay brings to the concept.

The first essay, “Religious Ritual in Assyrian Sculpture,” by Julian Reade, deals with representations of ritual activity in Assyrian relief sculpture, as well as ritual in the metaphorical sense in scenes that do not directly represent ritual acts; the second, “Von politischem Handeln zu rituellem Königtum: Wie im Frühen Mesopotamien ein Herrscher seine Taten darstellt,” by Walther Sallaberger, focuses on ancient Mesopotamian historiography and its oscillation between the “historicized” mode and the formulaic mode of presenting royal acts; and the third, “Cases of Deviation in Neo-Assyrian Foundation Documents,” by Philippe Talon, addresses the so-called sins of Assyrian kings that mark “deviations” from the model of behavior established for kings, and the repercussions of these “sins” in Assyrian historical texts that also “deviate” from established formulas. An inevitable tone of vagueness in terms of how all these three essays fit in the theme of ritual manifests itself as early as the introduction, especially inasmuch as a definition of ritual beyond what one might consider as certain acts or actions, be they ceremonial or symbolic, sacred or secular, is not given. It is especially the latter two essays, by Sallaberger and Talon, that are rather elusive in terms of how they play into ritual in this sense. All three essays, however, are highly original and of great interest.

“Religious Ritual in Assyrian Sculpture” by Julian Reade compiles and analyzes almost all of the known representations of what seem to be ritual activities on Assyrian reliefs, with special emphasis on ritual in scenes of military camp. Reade starts his essay with an intriguing note on how “the main purpose of Assyrian wall panels was extremely serious, to inspire awe and reinforce the national self-image,” while “the scenes should not always be taken too seriously,” with “innumerable genre details, and many scenes [that] have a quality akin to that of a holiday snap.” Reade examines ritual on Assyrian palace reliefs under eight sub-categories, “Ideal representations,” “Formal processions,” “Sacrifices,” “Ceremonies in camp,” “Military triumphs,” “Ceremonial hunts,” “Triumphal returns from the hunt,” and “Feasts.” Under these subheadings he brings together a variety of scenes pertaining to ritual, ranging from the formulaic representations of supernatural beings and the Assyrian “sacred tree” of Ashurnasirpal II to scenes of military ritual associated with the Elamite campaigns of Ashurbanipal. The essay is provided with a copious group of illustrations following the text that reinforces the comprehensiveness of Reade’s treatment. One cannot help feeling, however, that notwithstanding this attempt to survey these manifold instances of ritual on Assyrian reliefs, there is a list-like quality to the essay that could have been smoothened out by a slightly more rigorous analytical framework and a thicker and more diverse body of documentation of secondary literature.

As far as “ideal representations”, such as those that show the Assyrian king in association with the “sacred tree,” or holding a bowl or bow, are concerned, Reade points out that they might reflect actual rituals, but that they do not say much about them. It is perhaps Reade’s survey of representations of ceremonies in military camps that constitutes the highlight of the essay. Focusing especially on a particular formulaic representation, that of a round, circular or oval, military camp, shown in bird’s eye-view, that feature scenes of sacrifice and ceremonial chariots and standards, found in the relief programs of Ashurnasirpal II, Tiglath-Pileser III, Sargon II, and Sennacherib, Reade takes note of the recurrent theme of two priestly officiants shown side by side in front of an incense burner and a table of offerings placed in proximity to standards or chariots. Having noted earlier in the essay “that all individuals wearing high hats and fully shorn, without hair either on the face or at the back of the head” can be understood as “priests,” Reade is inclined to propose that the pair of figures that persistently appear in these military camp scenes as a rule may have consisted of one shorn priest wearing a conical long hat and another beardless figure without a headdress. From this standpoint, he is wondering if two examples of such scenes, one from Sargon’s, the other from Sennacherib’s reign, known only from excavators’ drawings, that show two beardless Assyrians with no hats whatsoever may have been erroneously rendered as such, the original slabs likely featuring one fully shorn priestly officiant with a tall hat, and another beardless figure without a headdress. There is one extant relief scene from the reign of Sennacherib (Figure 15), however, that clearly pairs two shorn priestly officiants with tall headdresses. In any event, Reade never develops a full hypothesis out of this observation, and emphasizes earlier in the essay how Assyrian reliefs often “incorporate anomalies that appear to break generally established rules, even those affecting royal iconography.”

Reade discusses further some of such divergences in the occurrence of certain cultic paraphernalia in scenes of military camp, proposing that some of such “differences may reflect chronological changes,” such as the standards that have been taken off their chariots and mounted on stands that appear in the art of Tiglath-Pileser III and Sargon II, and those that are left on their chariots featured in the reliefs of Sennacherib. It is slightly disappointing that no special treatment of the chariots themselves is undertaken by Reade, as they too clearly belong in the ritual domain, some with distinctive lion-demon protomes. Reade does mention that the standards are probably those of Adad and Nergal, but in a focused discussion of ritual in Assyrian sculpture, one surely would have liked to read more about the significance of these gods, as well as that of Ninurta, and their symbols in contexts of military scenes.

Finally, in a discussion of scenes of military triumph, Reade touches on the “horror-comic” category of themes in Assyrian sculpture within which he also includes the lion hunts of Ashurbanipal. He suggests that “most jokes in [Assyrian] narrative art … are provided by the problems, contortions and maltreatment of dead or doomed enemies.” Reade also lays special emphasis on the relief series depicting Ashurbanipal’s battle against Teumman, arguing that “the entire cycle in a sense is ritual, celebrating divine justice.” Even though not everybody might be comfortable with the designation “horror-comic” in reference to some of the seemingly “playful” scenes of violence in Assyrian art, such as the well-known garden scene of Ashurbanipal that features the decapitated head of Teumman hanging from a tree, throughout his essay, Reade is wise to take a midway between humor and seriousness in approaching the purpose of Assyrian wall panels. What perhaps emerges from the material put together and examined by Reade is more of a sense of Assyrian “humor” in the alternative dictionary definition of the word, as “in medieval physiology: one of the four fluids entering into the constitution of the body and determining by their relative proportions a person’s health and temperament,”1 rather than humor in the comical or ludicrous sense. Reade ends his essay with an image that fully demonstrates this very humor, an Ashurbanipal fragment that “shows the capture of an Elamite king who had attempted to escape to the mountains; he is hustled away comically protesting, and pushed into a chariot for transport to Assyria. Meanwhile, to one side, a lioness is stalking a wild goat.”

Walther Sallaberger signals at the outset in his essay, “Von politischem Handeln zu rituellem Königtum: Wie im Frühen Mesopotamien ein Herrscher seine Taten darstellt,” that he will not deal with politics and ritual at the level of “facts,” but rather in terms of the mode of representation of royal acts and events in ancient Mesopotamian historical texts. In this regard, he takes “ritual” not as a certain set of acts, but as a kind of timelessness and transcendence that infiltrates certain ancient Mesopotamian texts and goes beyond the specific historical situations they depict. Rather than whether or not ancient Mesopotamian texts reflect actual history, Sallaberger is interested in pointing out occurrences in Mesopotamian history writing of a distinctively historical or historicized mode of presenting events. To this end, he surveys the major phases of early Mesopotamian historiography, from the Early Dynastic period through the Old Babylonian, in order to demonstrate the limited number of instances in which specific details, names, numbers, and temporal and spatial reference points are given. Sallaberger juxtaposes this mode of history writing with what he considers to have been a more widespread practice in early Mesopotamia, that of casting royal deeds into a formulaic and hieratic mold, which he in a sense understands as “ritual” as well. Sallaberger considers one of the hallmarks of this “historical” or “historicized” mode the portrayal of the acts of the antagonists or opponents, in addition to those of the protagonists, as co-operators in the events depicted. He understands the Girsu corpus from the Early Dynastic period, which includes the well-known text on the Umma-Lagash border conflict, as the epitome of this endeavor.

Sallaberger observes that this historicized mode swiftly wanes as the chronology progresses into the Sargonic and Neo-Sumerian periods during which new genres, ranging from the legend to the hymnic building inscriptions, develop. The author sees the cylinders of Gudea as the apogee of this formulaic mode. He sees sparks of hope, nevertheless, in the Old Babylonian period when texts again start mentioning specific details regarding the time and place of deeds dealt with, even though this tendency is found more in the areas bordering the Babylonian homeland, such as Mari and Assur, rather than in the core. From this standpoint, Sallaberger sees an important affinity between that rare Early Dynastic moment of the historicized mode in Lagash and the later Assyrian annalistic tradition, both of which, regardless of historical accuracy, systematically present the ruler in his human and political context.

In a concluding restrospective synthesis, Sallaberger reiterates his observation of an irremediable progression from a “facts”-oriented mode to a “ritualized timeless” mode in ancient Mesopotamian historiography. It is here that he also probes the possible aetiology of this shift, pointing to the transition from the pre-Sargonic to the Sargonic period as the key juncture, with an interesting emphasis on the so-called reform texts of “Urukagina,” which, he argues, reveal the changes in the contemporary socio-political situation. According to Sallaberger, this new situation entails the transferal of all land ownership to the temple, the merging of the domain of the temple and that of the palace, and hence the king’s gaining control of the land formerly managed by the temple. One point of confusion here is in the controversial nature of the “reform texts” of “Urukagina,” in that whereas they are often referred to as restorative reform texts that were meant to recover land from a growing royal ownership and to go back to an ancient tradition whereby the temple was the sole owner of the land,2 Sallaberger almost presents them as innovative reforms that helped resolve this tension to the advantage of the king. One would hence have liked to see greater elaboration on the part of the author regarding his understanding of these “reform texts” and the way they help his argument.

Throughout his essay, Sallaberger almost laments the rarity, and at times the loss, of the “historicized” mode of recording royal deeds in ancient Mesopotamian historiography. In this regard, one cannot help being reminded of Henrietta Groenewegen-Frankfort’s preoccupation with sifting ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian art for those rare instances of “monumental art,” whose criterion “should, in fact, lie in a tension between the ephemeral and the lasting, between concrete event and transcendent significance.”3 The final essay of the book, “Cases of Deviation in Neo-Assyrian Annals and Foundation Documents,” by Philippe Talon, starts with a note on the fundamental ritual nature of the Assyrian annals, in that they were inscribed on clay prisms that would have been buried in building foundations, meant to last for posterity. Another matter of ritual in Assyria Talon mentions at the beginning of the essay is how in the Assyrian court scholars well-versed in astrology and divination “kept watch on the king’s behalf day and night, searching the cosmos for any evil sign that might harm him or could give information about his moral status.” It is this royal moral status that Talon probes in his essay in relation to certain exploits of the Sargonid kings, and the way they were dealt with in the annals. The author emphasizes the role of the inner circle of court scholars, the ummanu s, in the composition of these texts in the literary form of Akkadian, drawing attention on the one hand to the audience of these texts as the inner elite themselves, and on the other to the consensus between their authors and the king concerning their content.

Talon’s main objective is to identify those texts that go beyond describing royal exploits and accommodate, sometimes in an apologetic manner, the morally questionable deeds of the Sargonids, especially in their dealings with Babylonia. His first example is the so-called Apology of Esarhaddon, which attempts to justify the unusual accession of this king, through its emphasis on the idea that it was not Esarhaddon’s desire to be king but that it was rather “the desire of his father and of the gods that had put him on the throne.” Talon further notes the affinity between another Esarhaddon text, a letter to the god Ashur, and certain Sargon II texts, all of which address conquests or invasions in manners that “deviate from the normal course of military behavior.” Of special importance in this respect is Sargon’s invasion of Babylon. Even though “the Sargon annals state that this breach was committed on the order of Marduk himself,” it has been suggested that “Sargon invaded Babylonia without warning.”4 Talon sees such texts as a form of ritual atonement on behalf of the Sargonid kings for their “treacherous actions,” and contextualizes them within the long-standing concern in the Assyrian court with the negative influence of “sins” committed in the past on the monarchy, as well as with the “Babylonian Problem” of the Assyrians at large.

Drawing attention to Esarhaddon’s texts that present Sennacherib’s destruction of Babylon as an outcome of Marduk’s decision to abandon this city, and Esarhaddon’s rebuilding it as an outcome of the god’s reversal of his decision, Talon also considers Lord Aberdeen’s Black Stone as an example of “a marked departure form the norm, since it is carved on a block of black limestone in an archaizing script, resembling the Babylonian kudurru s.” Of great interest is Talon’s emphasis on allusions in Esarhaddon’s texts that relate his rebuilding of Babylon to the Babylonian Poem of Creation, Enuma Elish. Pointing out the parallel between Marduk’s demiurgic power, which includes both creation and destruction, and Esarhaddon’s building activity in Babylon, Talon suggests that “the same message imbues the whole of the Erra Myth,” for which he also proposes a Sargonid date. Even though Talon’s tendency is to see the annalistic tradition he examines as targeting legitimacy or as constituting a moral apology on behalf of the king in cases “when it was felt that he had deviated from the model,” one wonders if a rhetoric concerning demiurgic hubris on a more fundamental philosophical level might also have been embedded in these texts by the court scholars who composed them. Esarhaddon’s Apology, which states that it was not his desire to be king and that he only did what the gods wanted, is quite reminiscent of the text known as the Marduk Ordeal in which Marduk is made to apologize for the “sins” he has committed.5 From this standpoint, the curse of the Sargonids might well have constituted a rich and complex raw material for the Assyrian court scholars to contemplate the nature of kingship at deeper levels.

It seems to this reviewer that what all of these three essays are concerned with is essentially a semiology of texts and images, rather than ritual per se and its role in the public life of ancient Mesopotamia. Porter in her introduction stresses that studies that deal with the interface of ritual and politics are quite new in ancient Near Eastern studies, whereas one wonders if they have not existed for a few decades now. There is only one example Porter cites as a representative of the older approach that has primarily “examined the religious significance of rituals, as acts of worship, acts of communication with gods, or symbolic expressions of theological concepts,” and that is the 1939 work of René Labat,6 of classic quality, which is also old enough to make the “political” approach seem novel. No one would question the political character of the material dealt with in all the essays. One could certainly ask, however, if enough justice has been done in the field to the intrinsic content and meaning of this material. Perhaps the essays contained in this volume have already taken steps in that direction.


Julian Reade, “Religious Ritual in Assyrian Sculpture”

Walther Sallaberger, “Von politischem Handeln zu rituellem Königtum”

Philippe Talon, “Cases of Deviation in Neo-Assyrian Annals and Foundation Documents”


1. Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary 2005.

2. See for instance Hans J. Nissen, The Early History of the Ancient Near East: 9000-2000 BC, trans. Elizabeth Lutzeier and Kenneth J. Northcott (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1988), pp. 147-8.

3. Arrest and Movement: Space and Time in the Art of the Ancient Near East (Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 22.

4. H. Tadmor, B. Landsberger, S. Parpola, “The Sin of Sargon and Sennacherib’s Last Will,” State Archives of Assyria Bulletin (1989): pp. 3-51, esp. 45ff.

5. A. Livingstone, Court Poetry and Literary Miscellanea, State Archives of Assyria, Volume 3 (Helsinki: The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 1989), pp. 85ff.

6. Le caractère religieux de la royauté assyro-babylonienne (Paris: Université de Paris, Faculté des Lettres).