Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

The Tetramorph – The Sumerian origins of a Christian symbol

Posted by Fredsvenn on January 27, 2017

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In art, lamassu were depicted as hybrids, either winged bulls or lions with the head of a human male. The motif of a winged animal with a human head is common to the Near East, first recorded in Ebla around 3000 BCE. The first distinct lamassu motif appeared in Assyria during the reign of Tiglath-Pileser II as a symbol of power.

Assyrian sculpture typically placed prominent pairs of lamassu at entrances in palaces, facing the street and also internal courtyards. They were “double-aspect” figures on corners, in high relief. From the front they appear to stand, and from the side, walk, and in earlier versions have five legs, as is apparent when viewed obliquely. Lamassu do not generally appear as large figures in the low-relief schemes running round palace rooms, where winged genie figures are common, but they sometimes appear within narrative reliefs, apparently protecting the Assyrians.

The colossal entrance way figures were often followed by a hero grasping a wriggling lion, also colossal and in high relief. In the palace of Sargon II at Khorsabad, a group of at least seven lamassu and two such heros with lions surrounded the entrance to the “throne room”, “a concentration of figures which produced an overwhelming impression of power.” They also appear on cylinder seals.

Notable examples include those at the Gate of All Nations at Persepolis in Iran, the British Museum in London, the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Oriental Institute, Chicago. Several examples left in situ in northern Iraq have been destroyed in the 2010’s by ISIS when they occupied the area.

Lion Gate, Hattusa 01.jpg

Hattusa (Ḫa-at-tu-ša, read “Ḫattuša”) was the capital of the Hittite Empire in the late Bronze Age. Its ruins lie near modern Boğazkale, Turkey, within the great loop of the Kızılırmak River (Hittite: Marashantiya; Greek: Halys). Hattusa was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1986. 

Before 2000 BC, a settlement of the apparently indigenous Hatti people was established on sites that had been occupied even earlier and referred to the site as Hattush. The earliest traces of settlement on the site are from the sixth millennium BC. There were several other settlements in the vicinity, such as the rock shrine at Yazılıkaya and the town at Alacahöyük. 

The Tetramorph; The Sumerian Origins of a Christian Symbol

Lamassu and Shedu

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The ancient Jewish people were influenced by the iconography of Assyrian culture. The prophet Ezekiel wrote about a fantastic being made up of aspects of a human being, a lion, an eagle and a bull. Later, in the early Christian period, the four Gospels were ascribed to each of these components. When it was depicted in art, this image was called the Tetramorph.

Haia and Nisaba

In Sumerian mythology, Haya is a god associated with both the scribal arts and door-keepers. He may also have had an association with grain. Haya is also characterised, beyond being the spouse of Nidaba/Nissaba, as an “agrig”-official of the god Enlil. The god-list designates him as “the Nissaba of wealth”, as opposed to his wife, who is the “Nissaba of Wisdom”.

Haia is the spouse of Nidaba/Nissaba (also Nanibgal, the Sumerian goddess of writing, learning, and the harvest. On a depiction found in Lagash, she appears with flowing hair, crowned with horned tiara bearing supporting ears of grain and a crescent moon.

She is the chief scribe of Nanshe. On the first day of the new year, she and Nanshe work together to settle disputes between mortals and give aid to those in need. Nisaba keeps a record of the visitors seeking aid and then arranges them into a line to stand before Nanshe, who will then judge them.

In the Babylonian period, she was replaced by the god Nabu, who took over her functions. In some instances, Nisaba was his instructor or wife before he replaced her. Nabu is the patron god of scribes, wisdom and literature, being worshipped by the Assyrian and Babylonian people. He was identified as the son of the great god Marduk by the Babylonians and as the son of Ashur by the Assyrians.

Isimud

Enki is a god in Sumerian mythology, later known as Ea in Akkadian and Babylonian mythology. He was originally patron god of the city of Eridu, but later the influence of his cult spread throughout Mesopotamia and to the Canaanites, Hittites and Hurrians.

His symbols included a goat and a fish, which later combined into a single beast, the goat Capricorn, recognised as the Zodiacal constellation Capricornus. He was accompanied by an attendant Isimud (also Isinu; Usmû), a minor god, the messenger of the god, Enki, in Sumerian mythology.

In ancient Sumerian artwork, Isimud is easily identifiable due to the fact that he is always depicted with two faces facing in opposite directions in a way that is similar to the ancient Roman god, Janus.

Janus and Diana (Artimes) / Apollo

The sun and the moon

The beginning and the end

In ancient Roman religion and myth, Janus is the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, doorways, passages, and endings. He is usually depicted as having two faces, since he looks to the future and to the past.

It is conventionally thought that the month of January is named for Janus (Ianuarius), but according to ancient Roman farmers’ almanacs Juno was the tutelary deity of the month. Numa in his regulation of the Roman calendar called the first month Januarius after Janus, according to tradition considered the highest divinity at the time.

While the fundamental nature of Janus is debated, in most modern scholars’ view the god’s functions may be seen as being organized around a single principle: presiding over all beginnings and transitions, whether abstract or concrete, sacred or profane.

Interpretations concerning the god’s fundamental nature either limit it to this general function or emphasize a concrete or particular aspect of it (identifying him with light the sun, the moon, time, movement, the year, doorways, bridges etc.) or else see in the god a sort of cosmological principle, interpreting him as a uranic deity. Almost all of these modern explanations were originally formulated by the ancients.

Janus presided over the beginning and ending of conflict, and hence war and peace. The doors of his temple were open in time of war, and closed to mark the peace. As a god of transitions, he had functions pertaining to birth and to journeys and exchange, and in his association with Portunus, a similar harbor and gateway god, he was concerned with travelling, trading and shipping.

Janus had no flamen or specialised priest (sacerdos) assigned to him, but the King of the Sacred Rites (rex sacrorum) himself carried out his ceremonies. Janus had a ubiquitous presence in religious ceremonies throughout the year, and was ritually invoked at the beginning of each one, regardless of the main deity honored on any particular occasion.

Three etymologies were proposed by ancient erudites, each of them bearing implications about the nature of the god. The first one is based on the definition of Chaos given by Paul the Deacon: hiantem, hiare, be open, from which word Ianus would derive by loss of the initial aspirate. In this etymology the notion of Chaos would define the primordial nature of the god.

Another etymology proposed by Nigidius Figulus is related by Macrobius: Ianus would be Apollo and Diana Iana, by the addition of a D for the sake of euphony. This explanation has been accepted by A. B. Cook and J. G. Frazer. It supports all the assimilations of Janus to the bright sky, the sun and the moon. It supposes a former *Dianus, formed on *dia- < *dy-eð2 from Indo-European root *dey- shine represented in Latin by dies day, Diovis and Iuppiter. However the form Dianus postulated by Nigidius is not attested.

The interpretation of Janus as the god of beginnings and transitions is based on a third etymology indicated by Cicero, Ovid and Macrobius, which explains the name as Latin, deriving it from the verb ire (“to go”).

Modern scholars have conjectured that it derives from the Indo-European root meaning transitional movement (cf. Sanskrit “yana-” or Avestan “yah-“, likewise with Latin “i-” and Greek “ei-“). Iānus would then be an action name expressing the idea of going, passing, formed on the root *yā- < *y-eð2- theme II of the root *ey- go from which eō, ειμι. Other modern scholars object to an Indo-European etymology either from Dianus or from root *yā-. From Ianus derived ianua (“door”), and hence the English word “janitor” (Latin, ianitor).

According to Macrobius who cites Nigidius Figulus and Cicero, Janus and Jana (Diana) are a pair of divinities, worshipped as Apollo or the sun and moon, whence Janus received sacrifices before all the others, because through him is apparent the way of access to the desired deity.

A similar solar interpretation has been offered by A. Audin who interprets the god as the issue of a long process of development, starting with the Sumeric cultures, from the two solar pillars located on the eastern side of temples, each of them marking the direction of the rising sun at the dates of the two solstices: the southeastern corresponding to the Winter and the northeastern to the Summer solstice.

These two pillars would be at the origin of the theology of the divine twins, one of whom is mortal (related to the NE pillar, as confining with the region where the sun does not shine) and the other is immortal (related to the SE pillar and the region where the sun always shines). Later these iconographic models evolved in the Middle East and Egypt into a single column representing two torsos and finally a single body with two heads looking at opposite directions.

Lamassu

A lamassu (AN.KAL) is an Assyrian protective deity, often depicted as having a human’s head, a body of an ox or a lion, and bird’s wings. In some writings, it is portrayed to represent a female deity. A less frequently used name is shedu (AN.KAL×BAD) which refers to the male counterpart of a lamassu.

The Lammasu or Lumasi represent the zodiacs, parent-stars or constellations. The Akkadians associated the god Papsukkal with lamassu and the god Išum with shedu.

Papsukkal is the messenger god in the Akkadian pantheon. He is identified in late Akkadian texts and is known chiefly from the Hellenistic period. His consort is Amasagnul, and he acts as both messenger and gatekeeper for the rest of the pantheon. A sanctuary, the E-akkil is identified from the Mesopotamian site of Mkish. He becomes syncretised from Ninshubur.

Ishum is a minor god in Akkadian mythology, the brother of Shamash and an attendant of Erra. He may have been a god of fire and, according to texts, led the gods in war as a herald but was nonetheless generally regarded as benevolent. Ishum is known particularly from the Babylonian legend of Erra and Ishum. He developed from the Sumerian figure of Endursaga, the herald god in the Sumerian mythology, who leads the pantheon, particularly in times of conflict.

The lamassu is a celestial being from ancient Mesopotamian religion bearing a human head, bull’s body, sometimes with the horns and the ears of a bull, and wings. It appears frequently in Mesopotamian art. The lamassu and shedu were household protective spirits of the common Babylonian people, becoming associated later as royal protectors, were placed as sentinels at the entrances.

To protect houses, the lamassu were engraved in clay tablets, which were then buried under the door’s threshold. They were often placed as a pair at the entrance of palaces. At the entrance of cities, they were sculpted in colossal size, and placed as a pair, one at each side of the door of the city, that generally had doors in the surrounding wall, each one looking towards one of the cardinal points.

The city of Arbil

The name Erbil was mentioned in Sumerian holy writings of third millennium BC as Urbilum, Urbelum or Urbillum, which appears to originate from Arbilum in the language of the Hurrians who inhabited the area. Later, the Akkadians and Assyrians by a folk etymology rendered the name as arba’ū ilū to mean four gods. The city became a centre for the worship of the Assyro-Babylonian goddess Ishtar.

In classical times the city became known as Arbela. In Old Persian the city was called Arbairā. Today, the modern Kurdish name of the city, Hewlêr, appears to be a corruption of the name Arbel by a series of metatheses of consonants.

Erbil is located approximately 350 kilometres (220 miles) north of Baghdad. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in history. Human settlement at Erbil can be dated back to possibly 5000 BC, and it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited areas in the world. The earliest historical reference to the region dates to the Ur III dynasty of Sumer, when king Shulgi mentioned the city of Urbilum, the ancient Assyrian name of modern-day Arbil.

The region in which Erbil lies was largely under Sumerian domination from c.3000 BC, and from perhaps the 25th century BC, under the control of pastoralist Akkadian speaking Assyrian kings, until the rise of the Akkadian Empire (2335–2154 BC) which united all of the Akkadian Semites and Sumerians of Mesopotamia under one rule. Today Assyrians are one of the Iraqi minorities, their population is estimated to be 1.5million.

The first mention of Erbil in literary sources’ comes from the archives of the east Semitic speaking kingdom of Ebla. They record two journeys to Erbil (Irbilum) by a messenger from Ebla around 2300 BC. Later, Erridupizir, king of the language isolate speaking kingdom of Gutium, captured the city in 2150 BC.

Erbil became an integral part of Assyria by at least the 21st century BC, and it was known variously as Urbilim, Arbela and Arba-ilu. Erbil was an integral part of Assyria from around 2050 BC. The Neo-Sumerian ruler of Ur, Amar-Sin, sacked Urbilum in his second year, c. 1975 BC.

It then became a relatively important city during the Old Assyrian Empire (1975–1750 BC), Middle Assyrian Empire (1365–1050 BC) and the Neo Assyrian Empire (935–605 BC), until the last of these empires fell between 612–599 BC, and it remained part of Assyria under Persian, Greek, Parthian, Roman and Sassanid rule.

It was part of the geopolitical province of Assyria, under several regional powers in turn, including the Median Empire, the Achaemenid Empire (Achaemenid Assyria), Macedonian Empire, Seleucid Syria, Parthian Empire (Athura), Assyria (Roman province) and Sassanid Empire (Assuristan).

Under the Median Empire, Cyaxares might have settled a number of people from the Ancient Iranian tribe of Sagartians in the Assyrian cities of Arbela and Arrapha (modern Kirkuk), probably as a reward for their help in the capture of Nineveh. The Persian emperor Cyrus the Great occupied Assyria in 547 BC, and established it as an Achaemenid satrapy called in Old Persian Aθurā (Athura), with Arbela as the capital.

The Battle of Gaugamela, in which Alexander the Great defeated Darius III of Persia in 331 BC, took place approximately 100 kilometres (62 mi) west of Erbil. After the battle, Darius managed to flee to the city, and, somewhat inaccurately, the confrontation is sometimes known as the “Battle of Arbela”. Subsequently, Arbela was part of Alexander’s Empire. After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, Arbela became part of the Hellenistic Seleucid Kingdom.

Erbil became part of the region disputed between Rome and Persia under the Sasanids. The ancient Assyrian kingdom of Adiabene (the Greek form of Ḥadyab) had its center at Erbil, and the town and kingdom are known in Jewish Middle Eastern history for the conversion of the royal family to Judaism. During the Parthian era to early Sassanid era, Erbil became the capital of the Assyrian state of Adiabene.

Its populace then gradually converted from the Mesopotamian Religion between the 1st and 4th centuries to the Assyrian Church of the East Christianity, with Pkidha traditionally becoming its first bishop around 104 AD, although the ancient Assyrian religion did not die out entirely until the 5th century AD. The metropolitanate of Ḥadyab in Arbela became a centre of eastern Syriac Christianity until late in the Middle Ages.

Following the Arab Muslim conquest of Persia, the Arabs dissolved Assyria (then known as Assuristan/Athura) as a geo-political entity in the mid-7th century AD, and during medieval times the city came to be ruled by the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks. During the Middle Ages Erbil became a major trading centre on the route between Baghdad and Mosul, a role which it still plays today with important road links to the outside world.

The modern town of Erbil stands on a tell topped by an Ottoman fort. At the heart of the city is the ancient Citadel of Arbil. It is the capital city of Erbil Governorate and of Iraqi Kurdistan. Its governorate has a permanent population of approximately 1.61 million as of 2011.

Erbil’s archaeological museum houses a large collection of pre-Islamic artifacts, and is a center for archaeological projects in the area. The city was designated as Arab Tourism Capital 2014 by the Arab Council of Tourism. In July 2014, Erbil Citadel was inscribed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Today, Erbil is both multi-ethnic and multi-religious. The city has an ethnically diverse population with the Kurds forming the largest ethnic group, and with smaller numbers of Assyrians, Arabs, Armenians, Turcomans, Yezidis, Shabakis, Circassians, Kawliyah and Mandeans. It is equally religiously diverse, with believers of Sunni Islam, Shia Islam, Christianity, Sufism, Yezidism, Yarsan, Shabakism and Mandeanism extant in and around Erbil.

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