Tuesday, 20 February 2018

The Making and Renewal of the Gods in Ancient Assyria

A key chapter from The Sacred History of Being, published in November 2015. This chapter will be quite perplexing for readers who imagine that the important aspects of ancient religious practice, its preoccupations and purposes, are essentially the same as those which we are accustomed to in the later Abrahamic religions. Modern religion in fact bears very little relation to ancient religion, except in terms of some generalised concepts and vestigial remains. 

As far as the ancient Mesopotamian religious elite was concerned, it was within their power to both create divine images, and to set them up in Heaven. Strange? It is to us. But we don't make this conception unimportant by refusing to address what the evidence tells us. This chapter gives an indication of the extensiveness and detail in the evidence which has emerged from the ground over the past 150 years or so. 

The evidence for this strikingly different understanding of the nature of reality is largely ignored (currently), except by specialists in a relatively narrow field. It is hard to understand, and without an understanding of ancient philosophical ideas about the world, virtually impenetrable to modern scholarship. I've given some reasons in the chapter why this is so. 

This is just one of the puzzling areas of Mesopotamian civilization. There is elsewhere on this site a collection of divination texts, with the title 'Who will Appear Before the City?'. Equally strange, they concern conversation with Shamash the Sun god, about what will happen in the future. 

Thomas Yaeger, February 20, 2018. 


"Enki's beloved Eridug, E-engura whose inside is full of abundance! Abzu, life of the Land, beloved of Enki! Temple built on the edge, befitting the artful divine powers!" 
 'Enki's journey to Nibru.'  [i]

I have argued that the practice of philosophy in Greece is rooted in the context of religious ritual, and that philosophy as practised and discussed by Plato had as a principal purpose the exposing of a paradoxical quality in reality, in that reality has a two-fold nature (containing the limited, existing in time; and the unlimited, which participates in eternity), and that the world of experience is in effect an illusion within the ur-reality. As a consequence, the world as it presents itself is a series of images of Being, which point to its ineffable and invisible nature. Plato also spoke of the heavens as a moving image of eternity, patterned after the nature of Being, the 'most fair' image of divinity after which to pattern the world and everything contained within it. He also intimated that what applied to the reality of the Forms also applied to the 'revered and holy' images of the gods. This is possible because of the two-fold nature of reality. Things can be made holy, and holiness can be withdrawn.

So Plato was not talking entirely abstractly about Ideas and the Forms. They can have both concrete form on earth as well as a presence in Heaven. This suggests that in Ancient Greece, there was ritual practice associated with the making of divine statues, built on the precepts of the transcendent theology of the divine cults. Unfortunately, none of the rituals which might have existed have survived from the Greek cultural context.

The presence of a theory of Being in ancient Assyria has been demonstrated to be likely, on the basis of the clear similarity between the structures of the Jewish Kabbalah and the Assyrian Sacred Tree. The following chapters seek in addition to establish relationships between what Plato had to say about the creation of the world and its patterning, and ritual practice concerning the making of gods in Assyria. We have good detail for the latter. If the Assyrians understood the concept of Being as the root of reality itself, then the relationship of the forms of things to a wholly abstract concept of Being in Assyria should show parallels with the discussion in Plato.

The reconstruction of the Mis Pî ritual and its associated incantations mainly comes from the Neo-Assyrian or Neo/Late Babylonian periods. So that is from the 8th to 5th century B.C.E, although there are some fragments from Uruk dating to the 2nd century.  [ii]  These tablets come from Nineveh, Assur, Babylon, Sippar, Nippur, Kalhu (Nimrud), and a small number of other, more widely spread locations. The majority come from Ashurbanipal's library at Nineveh, and so date from the 7th century B.C.E. Their colophons confirm that they were the property of the library. Some of the texts from Nineveh are copies of texts originating elsewhere, but the tablets do not often give the sources. Full details of the existing texts are given in The Induction of the Cult Image in Ancient Mesopotamia, SAALT1, 2001, p27 - 29.

The following text concerning the preparation for the renewal of divine images, dates from the latter days of the reign of Esarhaddon (680-669 B.C.E.), and describes the process of the renewal of the cult images from the initial consultation of the oracles, to the final installation of the images.  [iii]

When in heaven and on earth signs favourable for the renewal of the (statue of) the gods occurred,  [iv]  then I, Esarhaddon, king of the universe, king of the Land of Assur,  the apple of Assur’s eye, the beloved of the great gods, with the great intelligence and vast understanding,  which the great Nudimmud, the wise man of the gods, bestowed on me,  with the wisdom which Assur and Marduk entrusted to me when they made me aware of the renewal of (the statue of) the great gods,  with lifting of hands, prayers, and supplication, (I) prayed to the divinities Assur, king of the Gods, and to the great Lord Marduk.

The following passage concerning the right to make gods we have already encountered. I repeat it here, within its original context:

 “Whose right is it, O great gods, to create gods and goddesses in a place where man dare not trespass? This task of refurbishing (the statues), which you have constantly been allotting to me (by oracle), is difficult! Is it the right of deaf and blind human beings who are ignorant of themselves and remain in ignorance throughout their lives? The making of (images of) the gods and goddesses is your right, it is in your hands; so I beseech you, create (the gods), and in your exalted holy of holies may what you yourselves have in your heart be brought about in accordance with your unalterable word”. 

Again, as is common in the translation of texts which seem to make little sense without minor emendation, this translation inserts words apparently required in English to render the meaning clear. Thus the line which says “…the renewal of the (statue of) the gods occurred” actually ought to be rendered “….the renewal of the gods occurred,” in order not merely to be strictly faithful to the original text, but in fact to enable us to understand what the text is actually saying. Likewise with the sentence “the making of (images of) the gods and goddesses is your right,” the rendering ought to be simply: ”the making of the gods and goddesses is your right.” We are dealing with a pattern of belief which employs images towards the worship of its divinities, and understands these images as actualisable representations of that which cannot be represented as an image, since that image transcends all of the categories of our understanding. The gods can have existence in this physical world precisely because of this transcendent nature.

Such existence defies common-sense, but it does not defy the logic of idolatry. Just as for some modern worshippers there is no necessary contradiction between a divinity who is transcendent in nature and yet immanent, in antiquity there was no necessary contradiction between a transcendent god and his incarnation in a cult image. The idea – by its elusive nature - was always subject to criticism, and latterly ridicule, both within and beyond the cultural grouping which supported such a notion, but it made sense within the implex of ideas around the role of the cult image.

The passage referring to Esarhaddon as: ‘the beloved of the great gods, with the great intelligence and vast understanding, which the great Nudimmud, the wise man of the gods, bestowed on me, with the wisdom which Aššur and Marduk entrusted to me when they made me aware of the renewal of (the statue of) the great gods,’ yokes together the idea of knowledge with kingship, and also with divinity, since the gods Aššur and Marduk made him aware of the need for the renewal of the great gods. He has the ‘great intelligence and vast understanding’ of ‘the great Nudimmud’, who  is in fact the god Ea, often identified with Enki the trickster god, but also the god of craftsmen. ‘Nu.dim.mud’ is one of Ea’s epithets, meaning ‘fashioner of images’.

We have already discussed the interesting equation between knowledge and ‘vast understanding’ and its contrast with the non-royal, non-divine ignorance which is the common lot of mankind within this model - the “deaf and blind human beings who are ignorant of themselves and remain in ignorance throughout their lives…”, and also Esarhaddon’s allusion to one of the theological questions of the day, by asking ‘Whose right is it, O great gods, to create gods and goddesses in a place where man dare not trespass?” Clearly however this is Esarhaddon’s task, and no-one else’s. It is a royal task, communicated to Esarhaddon by divine command, and not easy to perform: “This task of refurbishing (the statues), which you have constantly been allotting to me (by oracle), is difficult!”

The text continues with details of the means by which the gods are to be renewed.  Esarhaddon says:

Endow the skilled craftsmen whom you ordered to complete this task with as high an understanding as Ea, their creator.  Teach them skills by your exalted word; make all their handiwork succeed through the craft of Ninshiku.

Ninshiku is yet another name for Ea, a late form from post-Kassite times, though based on the Sumerian Nin-ši-ku.  [v]  Esarhaddon is asking that the workmen be endowed with all the qualities of understanding and skill associated with Ea, the god of the craftsmen (i.e., the god also known as Nudimmud). This is tantamount to the request that the craftsmen have at least a temporary divinity for the duration of the renewal of the gods. The craftsmen have the excellence of the craftsman god only for a limited period, and for a precise purpose. They are therefore in a sense demiourgoi, like Plato’s craftsman in the Timaeus, able to fashion an image after the nature of the divine, while not being wholly or permanently divine themselves. Except that in this case, the gods themselves (aspects of the transcendent divinity) are being created.

Esarhaddon’s text continues with details of the means of oracular transmission of the gods wishes to the king:

I arranged diviners in groups in order to obtain a reliable oracular pronouncement about entering the bīt mummi. I performed divination (in order to determine whether the renewal should be done) in Aššur, Babylon (or) Nineveh. To determine the experts who should do the work and their initiation, I decided that each group should decide for itself separately; and still all the extispicies were in perfect agreement; they gave me a reliable, positive answer.

In other words, the oracular inquiries made by several groups of diviners produced answers which arrived together at the same time and agreed about the same issue.

Esarhaddon tells us that the oracular answers ordered him to enter the Bit Mummi in Aššur,

The capital, city, the dwelling of Aššur, Father of the gods; they indicated to me the names of the artisans (fit) for completing the work. By authority of a reassuring and favourable oracle, the diviners ordered me to do this work as follows:  “do it quickly, pay attention, and be careful; do not let up, do not direct your attention elsewhere”.  I trusted their positive and unchangeable oracle; I placed full reliance (on it).

It would seem from this text that there were at least two sets of oracular responses involved – those which ordered Esarhaddon to enter the Bit Mummi in connection with the renewal of the gods, and a second grouping of responses which were given within the precincts of the Bit Mummi, which named the artisans who were to undertake the work, and therefore those who were to be given a temporary divinity for the purpose of renewing the gods. Esarhaddon’s will is not to be focused on any other activity than this renewal.

In a favourable month, on a propitious day in the month of Shabatti, the favourite month of Enlil, I entered the bit mummi, the place where refurbishing was done, which the gods had chosen.

Among the epithets of Enlil (Sumerian ‘Ellil’) is ‘king of the foreign lands’, and the center of his cult was the temple E-kur, the ‘mountain house’, at Nippur. One of the images associated with Enlil is ‘merchant’ which suggests association with transactions.  [vi]  Arranging the work for the month of Shabatti, Enlil’s favourite month, would therefore be seen as propitious for work so definitively connected with the otherness of the gods in heaven.

I brought carpenters, goldsmiths, metalworkers, stone-cutters, “skilled artisans knowledgeable in the mysteries” into the temple which Shamash and Adad had indicated through divination. I installed the craftsmen there.

The work by the artisans is to be done in a place of both mystery and knowledge. We might infer from the choice of this place by the gods Shamash and Adad that the place in which the renewal is to happen is not fixed.  [vii]  The choice of the Bit Mummi is therefore likely to have a special significance for this occasion of renewal. The craft of making cult images, of the manufacture of the gods, is a religious mystery, knowledge of which is granted only to a limited group, who are installed in the chosen temple.

Red gold, mined in the mountains, which no one had as yet worked for artistic purposes, countless precious stones, not yet cut…., native to the mountains and upon which Ea had generously bestowed his splendour so that they might be fit for the lordly deities, I prepared in abundance for the shrines of the great gods, my lords, and for the bejewelling of their divinity, I gave (all these costly materials) into the pure hands (of the craftsmen).

Emphasis is laid on the fact that the materials which are to be used for the renewal of the gods have not yet been worked for such purposes – in other words they have not already served as materials for another form. They are as gifted by the gods – ‘upon which Ea had generously bestowed his splendour’, and therefore suitable for the work of the renewal. The Red gold, mined in the mountains (kur – a place of otherness), has not been worked, and ‘precious stones, not yet cut’, for the ornamentation of the divine images, Esarhaddon ‘gave…. Into the pure hands’.

‘Splendour’ here is indicated by ME.LAM/Melammu.  [viii]  Black and Green suggest that it connotes a ‘brilliant, visible glamour which is exuded by gods, heroes, sometimes by kings, and also by temples of great holiness and by gods’ symbols and emblems’.  They also suggest that ‘while it is in some ways a phenomenon of light, melam is at the same time terrifying and awe-inspiring’. Further:

Gods are sometimes said to ‘wear’ their melam like a garment or a crown, and like a garment or a crown, melam can be ‘taken off.’ If the god is killed, his melam disappears. While it is always a mark of the supernatural, melam carries no connotation of moral value: demons and terrifying giants can ‘wear’ it too.

[i] Black, Cunningham, Robson, Zόlyomi, The Literature of Ancient Sumer, 2004, p330

[ii] The Induction of the Cult Image in Ancient Mesopotamia, SAALT1, 2001, p27.

[iii] The Esarhaddon text comes from Borger’s Die Inschriften Asarhaddons, Königs von Assyrien. AfO Beiheft. 9. Graz. It is reproduced in translation in C.B.F. Walker and Michael B. Dick’s The Induction of the Cult Image in Ancient Mesopotamia, SAALT1, 2001 p25-27.

[iv] Note 79 on page 25 indicates that the astronomical sign meant here was the heliacal rising of Jupiter. The omen is discussed in detail in Borger 1956: 17-18. Note 79 also suggests a comparison with an omen declaration given to Ashurbanipal CT 35 pl.13-15, line 23 , which runs: ‘I commissioned you with the renewal of these (images of the) gods and of their temples (as before the words supplied by the translator in brackets should be ignored). The astronomical omen also had to be confirmed by a liver omen.

[v] C.B.F. Walker and Michael B. Dick’s The Induction of the Cult Image in Ancient Mesopotamia, SAALT1, 2001.p25, n84.

[vi] Black and Green, Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, ‘Enlil’ p76.

[vii] Shamash and Adad were invoked in Babylonian extispicy rituals see Black and Green, Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, 'Utu', p184 . It is possible that the instruction to use the Bit Mummi as the place for the renewal of the gods was received through divination by liver. Interestingly Plato’s account of the liver in the Timaeus describes the organ as reflecting the reason, which is a reflection of the reason of the heavens, exactly as it might have been regarded here (revealing the wishes of the gods Shamash and Adad). See also Black and Green, Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, 'melam' and 'ni', p 130-1.

[viii] C.B.F. Walker and Michael B. Dick’s The Induction of the Cult Image in Ancient Mesopotamia, SAALT1, 2001.p26, n86. It can be understood in terms of a visible counterpart of the 'me' of the gods.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Working wonders: Hephaestus and the Armour of Achilles

This is a retitled chapter from The Sacred History of Being (originally titled: 'Being in Homer'). It analyses Book XVIII of The Iliad. It is something of an eye-opener about the intellectual life of what became known as the Greek Heroic Age. Much of the intellectual and tropic detail in this book of The Iliad strongly resembles ideas and themes which can be found in Mesopotamian and Phoenician sources.

It is not much studied in modern times for an understanding of Greek life and thought, since it is full of fantastical elements, whose context we think we lost long ago. It may be studied for the language and the poetry, and also for the narrative of a small but crucial part of the conflict between the Achaeans and the city of Troy.

There is an exception however, which is discussed (among other things) in this chapter. It is a favourite subject of classicists and ancient historians, but they find it hard to agree about why the passage is present in the poem, and what it means. Looking at the entire book, which hangs together extremely well as an artistic enterprise, it is perfectly clear why the passage is present, and what its meaning is.

The text of the chapter is unchanged, and I've retained the footnotes (though they have been renumbered).

TY, February 19, 2018.


A passage in Homer’s Iliad, often thought to be a later interpolation in the text, the famous ‘Shield of Achilles’ episode, features a collocation of images, struck together on an imaginary shield. The shield edge is bounded by Ocean, which among the ancient Greeks connotes border, the edge of the world. It is also the place of generation, which is associated with Being and the gods. There is a scene where a dispute is being resolved, which is an image of justice. This is an allusion (in the Greek context) to the sun God Apollo, who, like his Mesopotamian counterpart, Shamash, is a god of justice. This image, rather than being a later interpolation, can be shown to echo the themes in the same section of the Iliad.

If we follow the story from the beginning of the eighteenth book of the Iliad, where Thetis comforts her son Achilles who is grieving for the death of his friend and kinsman Patroclus, we shall see how the images point to an articulate idea of Being. The essence of the events in this book is that Thetis promises to procure her son Achilles new armour from Hephaestus. At the command of Hera, Achilles attacks and strikes terror into the enemy. The body of Patroclus is recovered, and prepared for funeral rites. The armour is prepared by Hephaestus for Achilles.

Achilles is expecting to die, recalling that his mother once informed him that, though he was the bravest of the Myrmidons, he would, though now still surviving, would leave the light of the sun ‘by the hands of the Trojans’. Twice in this passage, his contemplation of the fate of the Achaeans is described as a ‘revolving’ in his mind (and once in his soul), which is reminiscent of Plato’s description of rational thought in the Living Animal. He grieves for the fallen Patroclus, killed by Hector. He gives a dreadful moan, and we are told that ‘his venerable mother heard him, while she was sitting in the depths of the sea.’ This passage is a close parallel to the Mesopotamian image of Ea/Enki at home in the midst of the waters of the Apsu. We are told that Thetis was beside her aged father in the depths, and that she immediately lamented for her son’s grief.  [i]  We are also told that ‘all the goddesses were assembled around her, as many Nereids as were at the bottom of the sea’, so this is a place where a totality (of Nereids) is collected together. In the Mesopotamian story the location is a house, whereas Thetis resides in a cave.

We are given a list of many of their names, and these repay attention.

The list is Glauce, Thaleia, Cymodoce, Nesaea, Spio, Thoa, and ‘large-eyed’ Halia, Cymothoë, Actaea, and Limnorea, Melita, Iaera, Amphithoë, and Agave, Doto, Proto, Pherusa, and Dynamene, Dexamene, Amphinome, and Callianira, Foris, Panope, and distinguished Galatea, Nemertes, Apseudes, and Callianassa.  In addition are mentioned Clymene, Ianira and Ianassa, Maera, Orithya, and fair-haired Amathea. There were others, but they are not named by Homer. The cave is described as ‘resplendent’ and full of Nereids.

Some of these are particularly interesting. Glauce as an adjective might qualify thalassa as ‘gleaming sea,’ as it does at II, 34. Thaleia probably connotes ‘abundance’ (thallo, as in thalassa), Nesaea means ‘island’ or ‘islet, from nēsos.  Spio probably means ‘cavern, cave or grotto’, derived from ‘speos’ (in Homer appearing as speious).  Halia may mean ‘blowing seaward’ (Homer uses haliaēs to mean this in the Odyssey. In connection with the epithet ‘large-eyed’, Halia is an Ionian word meaning ‘assembly of the people’. Homer is punning), and Cymothoë ‘billowing waves’.  Actaea means coast, (Aktaia), Limnorea may connote a large pool of standing water, or directly indicate the sea, Melita may be honeyed mead, or perhaps 'sweet water', and Amphithoë suggests 'running quickly around,' as water does when it is loosed from its bounds.

And so on. The pattern is clear. These are mainly attributes of water or liquid in different states, and therefore a collection of terms which might be used to describe aspects of the sea, or of the primal ocean, which might be the focus of priestly contemplation. Other terms refer to things associated with the sea, such as caves, and shorelines, and so on. We have here a partial list of attributes and properties of images which reference the divine. It may be that the origin of this list is one or more temple documents, compiled for a cult centre, in order to standardise a set of images and descriptions which might be used to approach the reality beyond images.

Ten of the names of the Nereids appear to be similar, but in different forms. These are Amphithoë and Amphinome, Callianira and Callianassa, Cymodoce and Cymothoë, Dynamene and Dexamene, and Ianira and Ianassa. The pairing of names in divine genealogy is well known in Mesopotamia, and usually indicates a twin birth. If this is the pattern which is being followed, it suggests that the Nereids might have been part of a complete theology at one time, perhaps imported from the near East, or perhaps brought to Greece by an incoming population group. It is also possible that the Nereids are very old and local to Greece. Unfortunately we have very little other information about the Nereids from any source other than Homer.  [ii]  We do know that the Phoenician theology was also focused on the depths of the sea, paralleling part of the Mesopotamian theology, with the god Ea living in the abyss at the bottom of the ocean. And that the Greeks did extensive business in their emporia along the coast of Phoenicia.

Achilles grief stems in part from the fact that the armour of Patroclus has been removed by the Trojans. Achilles own armour was also taken by the Trojans. The decision of Thetis to supply her son with the finest possible set of armour represents an inversion of the desecratory action of Hector, which has a bearing on the design represented on the shield made by Hephaestus, since it shows good order opposed to bad order.

Thetis and all the Nereids leave the cave, weeping, ‘and the wave of the ocean was cleft around for them.’ This is an image which recalls the creation, in that the ocean may be understood as a god, and to part the waves is to cut the divine body in two, as described in both Plato's account of the creation, and the Mesopotamian  account.

The concept of fate in the Iliad is strikingly inexorable, like that found in Mesopotamian literature – Achilles says: ‘may I die then immediately, since it was not destined that I should aid my companion now slain.’ Nevertheless he asks that bad order be replaced with good, and so ‘therefore contention might be extinguished from gods and men; and anger, which is wont to impel even the very wisest to be harsh.’ This idea is represented in the design of the shield, with two communities, one of which is based on brigandage, the other a place where contention has been banished. Thetis (‘the silver footed’) had urged Achilles ‘not to enter the slaughter of Ares’ before he sees her return at dawn with the armour from king Hephaestus.

Thetis then turns away from her son, and addresses the Nereids, saying that they should now enter the ‘broad bosom of the deep’, about to behold the ‘marine old man, and the mansions of my sire, and tell him all things’. The Nereids return to Ocean here is not simply a retracing of steps, but entry into the world of the divine. It is a place which must know all things. Thetis travels alone to ‘lofty’ Olympus, to Hephaestus, ‘the skilful artist,’ to ask if he is willing to make the armour.

In the meantime, Achilles is visited by the goddess Iris (peace), sent by Hera, to remind him of the disgrace that would be the consequence of the body of Patroclus being abandoned to the Trojans. She isn't urging peace.  However Achilles tells her of his mother’s admonition not to join the battle until her return. Iris then urges that he go toward the ditch and show himself to the Trojans, so that in their terror they may desist from battle, at least for a while.

Achilles rose after the departure of Iris. The goddess Minerva threw around his strong shoulders her fringed aegis. ‘And the divine one of goddesses crowned his head around with a golden cloud, and from it she kindled a shining flame’, and the flame from his head reached to the sky. He stood, having advanced from the wall to the trench only, and did not mingle with the Greeks, mindful of the advice of his mother. Three times he shouted over the trench, and three times were the Trojans and their allies thrown into confusion, with the assistance of Pallas Minerva. By this means the body of Patroclus was recovered.

So Achilles did not fight, but recovered the body of Patroclus by the use of his intelligence, through the assistance of the goddess of wisdom. It is good order to succeed through throwing your enemies and their allies into confusion, rather than achieving your aim by violence and slaughter. This part of Homer's text reflects a time when social and political issues were often resolved through angry and divisive contention. Thetis had urged Achilles not to enter the slaughter of the god of warfare, Ares, until she returned: Ares, in a sense, is as responsible for bad order as the Trojans and their allies.

This is followed by another striking image involving Ocean. ‘Large-eyed, venerable Hera’ ‘sent the sun to return to the flowing of the ocean, against his inclination.’ The sun therefore set, and the Greeks and the Trojans stopped fighting. The Trojans assembled in their council before they even thought to eat, which suggests they were impelled by anger more than sense. They were addressed by ‘prudent’ Polydamus, the son of Panthus. The name Panthus (Panthoos) again references the ideas of the telos and of Being, where everything is embraced, including past and present. In fact, the son of Panthus is described as one who, alone among them, ‘saw both the future and the past’. Hector and Polydamus were both possessed of excellences and virtues. Born on the same day, Hector excelled in counsel, and the other ‘greatly in the spear.’ Polydamus advised to guard the towers and the city overnight, dressed in their armour. Hector effectively told him to shut up, and advised that they should fight by the Greeks ships in the morning, and that if Achilles has arisen at the ships, ‘it will be the worse for him’.

The irony here is that it is Polydamus, who excelled 'greatly in the spear' and is therefore excellent in warfare, who makes the prudent proposal. Hector, by contrast and against expectation, provided bad counsel. So the Trojans assented to Hector, and cheered him. But they were foolish, since Pallas Minerva ‘had taken their senses away from them.’ They assented to Hector’s advising of destructive things, and no one assented to the prudent counsel of Polydamus.

By this time (after sunset, when the sun is below the waves) Thetis had reached the home of Hephaestus on Olympus – incorruptible, starry, and remarkable among the brazen immortals. Hephaestus therefore is remarkable, but not divine, though he possesses attributes of the divine.  He makes statues of the gods, or in fact ‘makes gods’ as was the understanding of the early part of the 1st millennium B.C.E.  He thus has very special attributes, like the Mesopotamian Nudimmud, and can make things in heaven as well as on earth.

Homer tells us that Thetis found him sweating, working at the bellows, making twenty tripods to stand around the wall of his ‘well-built palace’. These tripods had golden wheels placed under the base of each, so that ‘of their own accord they might enter the heavenly council, and again return home – a wonder to be seen.’

Here is another image which references the world of Being. It also associates the divine world with the idea of council: the two are associated through the idea of totality, since totality is an attribute of both council and Being. And in a sense, they are interchangeable through their common possession of totality. We are told of the perfection of the work which has produced these tripods, as we were told of the perfection of the body of the living animal in the Timaeus: “so much finish had they, but he had not yet added the well-made handles, which he was preparing; and he was forging the rivets.”

So we have three attributes of the divine referenced in this passage: totality, perfection and council, struck together. The tripods have golden and therefore incorruptible wheels. They are also circular, and complete. By virtue of these attributes alone, they can pass into the heavenly council, and also return, again by virtue of these attributes.

This is a clear anticipation of the theory of wholes or totalities attributed to Pythagoras, and repeated by Plato, in which completeness by itself allows participation in the divine, and indeed identity with the divine. This passage is virtually impossible to explain outside the context of a theory of this sort. In which case, the theory of wholes and totalities was known to Homer in the 9th or 8th century B.C.E.  [iii]

The tripods are able to move between the worlds, which makes sense, if the worlds are conceived of as being physically distinct - one way in which commerce with the divine can be framed. That these remarkable objects are tripods probably reflects two things - that the objects can have reality in this world, and the worlds above and below this one. The tripod is also a common ritual object in the early 1st millennium B.C.E, and not only in Greece. It might be used to hold a vessel for burning incense, or for collecting the blood of a sacrifice, and so on. The image carries these and other associations of commerce with the divine world.

Thetis is greeted by Hephaestus, and then his wife Charis. Hephaestus recalls that “an awful and revered goddess… saved me when distress came upon me, fallen down far by the contrivance of my shameless mother,  [iv]  who wished to conceal me, being lame.”  [v]  He then focuses on the importance of Ocean for him, saying: “Then should I have suffered sorrows in my mind, had not Eurynome and Thetis received me in their bosom; Eurynome, daughter of the refluent Ocean.”  [vi]  He tells us he was with them for nine years, during which time he made in brass “many ingenious works of art, buckles, twisted bracelets, and clasp-tubes, in the hollow cave,” while “round us flowed the immense stream of Ocean, murmuring with foam: nor did any other either of gods or mortal men know it; but Thetis and Eurynome, who preserved me, knew it.” He asks Charis now to set before Thetis “good hospitable fare”, and lays aside his tools. “He went out of the doors limping, and golden handmaids, like unto living handmaidens, moved briskly about the king.” Here we have the art of statuary associated with a former inhabitant of Ocean – and it is the art of creating living statues of which Hephaestus is a master craftsman.

We are told something of their attributes: “in their bosoms was prudence with understanding, and within them was voice and strength; and they are instructed in works by the immortal gods.” We have been told earlier that Hephaestus can make objects which can enter the heavenly council of their own accord, and return again, which was “a wonder to be seen”. So we know that setting up statues within Heaven is within his abilities. He can make living creatures which have within them the attributes of prudence and understanding. They are also instructed in works by the immortal gods, which means that these golden handmaids are expressions of the divine will and intention.

At this point Thetis makes her request to Hephaestus, that he make armour for her son Achilles. The armour of Achilles was lost when Patroclus was slain, since Achilles had given him his own. Thetis explains that “All day they fought round the Scaean gates, and certainly on that day had overturned Troy, had not Apollo slain, among the foremost warriors, the gallant son of Menoetius, after having done such mischief, and given glory to Hector.” Apollo is the god of justice as well as of the Sun, and so is the dispenser of victory and defeat to men in battle.  [vii]

It is particularly interesting to consider how it is that negative characteristics can have positive qualities, as we find in the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Odysseus has the epithet ‘Sacker of Cities’, and at the time Homer was writing, it is clear that being a ‘sacker of cities’ was not seen universally as reprehensible to the society of the time, but Homer himself objects to it.  [viii]  Hence the 'Shield of Achilles' passage, where the contrast is made between a prosperous city and a city under siege, open to destruction and the division of spoils. The idea is planted that the rapacious behaviour of former times, in a time before reason, may not have much to recommend it.

Underlying the idea that the ‘sacking of cities’ is something which may have honour and glory associated with it, is the abstract notion of greatness. The sacking of a city is greatly destructive, and so participates (within this simplistic model) in greatness. What we have here is an idea which fits within the mental model in which it is possible to connect with divinity through extreme action. There would have been many objections to this, on the grounds that such action did not promote the good, or good order. Hence it was a question which would have exercised the Greeks as being a pattern of behaviour which superficially made sense within a mental model of the world of the late Bronze Age.

[i] It is interesting and possibly significant that Homer never mentions Nereus by name, but is referred to as the 'aged father' of Thetis.

[ii] It is well known that Homer composed the Iliad and the Odyssey somewhere in Anatolia, and so the Nereids may have been part of the theology of an Anatolian cult, rather than a Greek one. It is unnecessary to explore here that even in ancient Greece it was accepted by some that a significant number of their gods had a foreign origin.

[iii] The alternative would be to argue that not only is the 'Shield of Achilles' passage a later interpolation, but that much of the eighteenth book of the Iliad comes from a much later date. I don't think that would be a credible suggestion. The very fact that so much in Homer has been difficult to explain for so long, argues that the text we have comes from an age with a different set of preconceptions about how things work.

[iv] In later accounts, Hephaestus is son of Hera, without the intervention of a father. Here he is son of Zeus and Hera, sister and wife.

[v] The lameness of Hephaestus reflects the awe in which workers in metal were once held: they seem to work magic, and yet they are here on earth. They seem to work with heavenly fire, but are not actually divine.

[vi] Eurynome is daughter of Okeanos, as he says. But her name means something like 'wide pasture'. The first part of her name translates literally as 'broad' or 'wide'.

[vii] His equivalent in Assyria is Shamash, who has similar qualities, and is sometimes represented in palace reliefs as hovering over the field of battle, represented by his symbol of the winged circle.

[viii] 'Destruction of cities' is included among the lists of Sumerian 'mes'.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

How the Sacred and Profane Worlds were Joined

This is an abridged and retitled version of a chapter in The Sacred History of Being, which explores  interconnections between earthly and Divine realities in antiquity. A key thing to observe is that the idea of such interconnections is established on logical grounds. The reality of the Divine world is inferred, on the basis of the visible imperfections of profane reality, but the two worlds must be connected in some way if reality itself is not to be necessarily irrational in nature (this also was argued on logical grounds). Establishing the connection between the worlds was a major preoccupation in antiquity: things should ‘meet and agree’. 

The original chapter contained footnotes, which I have removed for ease of reading. I’ve reduced the number of modes of connection which are discussed also. The essential argument of the chapter however remains the same.

TY February 18, 2018.

Since the world of the divine is a transcendent reality, the nature of that reality is not going to conform to our secular understanding of the existent world. This is an important point, which would have been considered in antiquity. Thus, there is no reason to presume that extension is represented or has reality in the same way in which extension exists in normal space. There is also no reason to presume that time is represented or has reality in the same way in which time exists in the secular world (the secular world being, by definition, the world of time, or the world existing in time). 

Almost every aspect of the world of existence will have a different nature in the divine world, to the point where we would find it difficult or impossible to establish the connection between one and the other. We are not accustomed to imagining that the ancients thought in such terms, except perhaps within the Academy, or within Parmenides circle.

There are many conceptions which are associated with the divine reality. This may seem a strange way to understand the world of the divine. But it is no more a species of imprecision to do this than it is to create a pantheon of gods, all of which have something of the divine about them. The problem with the divine is that it is forever beyond our capacity to fully understand, by definition. Therefore we can only say things about it from a particular point of view, at a particular time, and under certain circumstances. All within the limitations of the human understanding. Beyond that our interpretation is more or less imperfect. This means that our understanding of the divine is forever contingent – in essence a species of conjecture rather than full understanding.

This is a difficult idea to communicate, given the last two thousand years of theological speculation, and religious struggle in the world. It may seem an unimaginable idea – that the theological ideas of the ancient world were understood to be conjectural, and ultimately contingent on the limitations of the human understanding.

For us, even before the advent of the empirical approach to knowledge during the European enlightenment, we attempted to construct our notions of the world and what is real on what could be established as far as possible, whether what was established was on the basis of logical inference or deduction, on the basis of experience, or was revealed to us by the divine. Conjecture might have been tolerable (or even encouraged to an extent) within the church school and the seminary, but only in so far as it was desirable that scholars produced by religious institutions should be able to use their critical faculties to the best of their ability, in the service of Church and state. But in the end, conjecture is not something we generally wish to face as an important component of our picture of the world.

In constructing ideas of the gods, and creating images of them, the ancients were engaging in the enterprise of framing their understanding of the divine world. They did this on the basis of the idea that the realm of reality (which we have spoken of as Being earlier in this essay), being unchanging in its nature, must still stand behind the world of appearance and existence. This latter world is an image of it, but is not a perfect representation of it. The realm of reality embraces it, but the world of appearance and existence is necessarily a lesser world. However, because it is a good semblance of it, there must be the possibility of aspects of the realm of the reality being manifest in the world. On the basis of their ideas about the nature of the divine, of the supremely perfect Being, we might ask what they would look for in the world which would represent the presence of the supreme Being, woven all through the world, as the soul is woven all through the world in Plato’s model. They would ask: where is it? What shape does it have? How big is it? What properties does it have? And so on.

This is an incomplete list of items which were identified in antiquity as representing what we might term ‘bleedthrough’ from the divine reality. These were things which were regarded as of great importance – in a sense, of more importance than the gods themselves, in that they were aspects of the divine which had reality in our world, and did not depend to the same extent on human conjecture. They are therefore more profoundly real than the gods.

1. Limit: Before the idea of Being, there is no reason to have a sophisticated attitude to limit. One can have the idea that things are separate from other things, or must be separate from other things, and that there is a point of demarcation which marks off where one thing ends and another begins. It is also possible to have the conception that it might be desirable or even necessary to move from one side of the limit to the other. It is also possible to imagine the divine as having existence on the other side of a limit, without there being anything very sophisticated in the conception. A sophisticated conception of a modus operandi of contact with the divine however will not emerge from this, until an intellectual basis for there being a reason why things should be connected is understood. Before Being, one side of the limit or border is the concern. However, once the idea of Being is in play, then the limit itself becomes the focus of interest. The existence of a sophisticated idea of Being means that what exists is understood to be less real than reality itself (the idea of Being from St Anselm onwards was not very sophisticated).

2. Perfection: Before the idea of Being, talking of perfection is focused on the subjective notion of perfection, and the term is used either rhetorically, or refers simply to quality of workmanship or quality of action. It has no bearing on ideas relating to the divine, or to reality. The idea may however be extended to application to the divine and to the gods. By analogy, something which has great perfection will come to be understood to transcend other objects or works of a similar kind, and this transcendence will come to be applied to the divine. It is however a long step to realizing that a proposed perfection means that the divine is actually unintelligible to us, and that the divine is Being itself, beyond any fixed or rigid attributes. Perfection as a quality which may actually connect with the divine, rather than merely showing transcendence of other lesser perfections, is an idea which is dependent on the concept of the divine as Being.

3. Completion: The idea of completion is related to the idea of perfection, particularly in connection with the nature of the divine. However completion as a concept relates more closely to the idea of limit, in that it is a property of the concept of Okeanos in Greece, and the all-enveloping Apsu in Mesopotamia. It is an interesting concept in connection with the idea of a circle, since it is impossible to determine the beginning or end of a circle, at least when it is unbroken. The concept may be used in a great many ways, from indicated the completion of a form, nature, or the performance of ritual and liturgy, and so on. It might also be used to indicate the end of a life, or a process. What is completed has some property in connection with the divine, some participation with it, in that the realm of the divine must be complete as opposed to the world of existence, which is incomplete in its general nature. I suspect that the idea of completion was one of the first mundane properties in the world to be identified as a potential access point to the divine world.

4. Excellence: Excellence is a concept which the Greeks had a particular interest in, but it is an idea which, like the ideas of completion and perfection, is referred to throughout the ancient world. To excel is to exceed something. So something which possesses excellence transcends the excellence of some other thing. This is its comparative use, but it is also used intransitively, so that something can be said to have a special excellence of its own, irrespective of the qualities of other things. Hence its use by Aristotle in his moral and ethical treatises. Ultimately it is about transcendence, whether of oneself or of other things. The world of the divine is both more excellent than the secular world, but it also possesses a special excellence of its own. Excellence is something which exists in the world of existence which has a connection with the reality which stands behind it.

5. Greatness: the idea of greatness as we have seen an idea which was pressed into service in the Middle Ages to try to prove the existence of the supreme Being. Greatness is naturally something which the human understanding would wish to associate with the supreme Being. It has been in the past associated with the gods – Herodotus refers to the rituals associated with the cult of the great gods on Samos, without going into any detail, which is frustrating. The great gods were known as the ‘Kaberioi,’ which indicates a near eastern origin for this cult, since kbr is the semitic root for ‘great’. Great however is an imprecise term, merely indicating that these gods transcend other gods, or that that their special excellence is their greatness. It is however an appropriate term to describe men who might be classed in this way, who, through the quality of their greatness, on the field of battle, in their wisdom, and a thousand other attributes, might be understood to have some empathy with the gods.

6. Justice: the focus on justice in the ancient world in general, and not simply among the Greeks, might indicate to the cynical modern sensibility only that justice was in short supply. It might indeed be the case that it was much referenced precisely because there was little access to it. However the discussion of the subject in Plato makes it clear that it is an idea which has its place in this exploration of the earthly corollaries of aspects of the divine nature which have some form of existence here on earth. Justice was presumed to be something which was perfected in the divine world, but justice in the secular world is a different matter. The very nature of the world of existence means that justice – true justice is unobtainable. What we can access is a poor copy of something which can only exist elsewhere. It is interesting that both in Mesopotamia and in Greece it was the Sun god (Shamash and Apollo respectively) which were responsible for the dispensation of justice on earth.

The gods might know what is just, but our capacity to discern it is limited, and the dispensation of justice by the gods is sometimes hard for man to understand and accept. One of the images of the dispensation of justice, is of the participation in battle of the sun god. Assyrian reliefs show Shamash hovering above opposing forces in the winged circle. The meaning of this is at least two-fold: the god is involved in the outcome of the battle, which represents a way of dispensing just decision; and the to-ing and fro-ing of battle represents the difficulty of apportioning justice in the world of existence. It also means that the engagement in battle was understood by kings, priests and generals as a legitimate way of establishing right. In Homer, there is a famous passage where opposing forces are described as being bounded by ropes, which are pulled this way and that in the course of the battle.  These ropes are also found in the iconography of Shamash.  The underlying idea is the same.

7. Proportion: aspects of the divine reality can exist in the secular world expressed in terms of proportion. Thus, in a figure, a side which bears a proportionate relationship to another side, can be regarded as an image or representation of it, in a way similar to the understanding that the image of a god bears a relation to the god itself. Proportionate relationships in a structure, object or image could therefore be used as a way of enhancing the meaning of images and representations which bore a relationship with the divine reality. This is an enormous subject, worth a monograph on its own.

8. Purity: Purity is an attribute which might be associated with the idea of perfection, and often was. But purity can be attributed to things in a different way – not everything which is pure is to be regarded as a perfection. Something which is perfect is just that. Purity on the other hand, is an attribute which can be put on and put off in a way which perfection cannot.  This distinction is of great importance in the Assyrian and Babylonian contexts, since in order to create divine statues, the craftsmen required to be given a temporary divinity. Thus the purity, a temporary perfection, can be put on for the purpose of the work. This was achieved through the perfection of the appropriate ritual. Afterwards it was removed by the performance of another ritual.

9. Wholes and Totalities. Things which are whole are regarded as participating with one another, in that they share the property of wholeness, or totality. This idea is a strong pointer to the essentially subjective nature of the model of the world in which these things are important, since the wholeness of something is sometimes attributed, rather than being a property of an entity. There is a doctrine associated with wholes and totalities, which is attributed to Pythagoras. It is also referenced by Plato. The doctrine however is much older than the middle of the first millennium B.C.E.

Those are nine phenomena which can appear in the world of existence, which were understood to allow and enhance connection with the divine reality which stands eternally behind the physical world. This is an edited list, but it is sufficient to illustrate what was in the mind of man attempting contact with the divine.

Other things which we might consider, which were of great importance in the ancient world, include the idea of reduplication, principally of concepts, attributes and properties. The point of reduplication is emphasis. Two collocated symbols, meaning the same, could be understood to double the power of the image and the connection.

Another related idea is ‘collection’, sometimes expressed in ancient texts as ‘heaping up’. This refers to the bringing together, usually of good things (but not always), sometimes in the context of an altar and a priest. There may be several reasons for creating such a collocation, depending on the objects involved, but ‘heaping up’ is a good thing in itself, if the intention of the supplicant is to multiply and reduplicate the offering. It is obvious from the study of ancient iconography that many images are reduplicated directly, in a way which does not amount to a purely aesthetic distribution of images, and in addition, the meaning of symbols and tableau are reduplicated using different images. The effect is of reduplication, and to make such assemblages identifies to the informed viewer, what is the same among what is apparently different. These assemblages are of course addressed to the gods, and the divine.

Another action which was understood to convey an aspect of the divine world in the physical world is ‘division’. This concept is very closely associated with the ideas of justice and of decision, but it is possible for division to be separated from these ideas, in that division can take place without the wish or need for justice, or of decision. At least in terms of our modern understanding of what justice is. Ultimately the connection between the ideas is about ‘good order’, and ‘meeting and agreeing’.

The association of justice and the power of division with kingship is very strong in the ancient near east – the sun god Shamash is often represented as holding a saw, and the Egyptian kings were also represented with the symbol of the Neteru (axes). In both cases, the instrument for deciding the fate of anything is clearly not a weapon but a tool (though weapons of war also were understood as legitimate tools of the gods). If it is possible to understand the creation and generation of the world as a decision of the gods, then the nature of reality has been divided, at least insofar as there is now a world of existence which has descended into secular time, and which is cut down from Being itself. The power of kings to deal justice comes from their participation in the nature of the divine Being, though they live and function in the world of existence.

Division is also important in gaining an apprehension of what is real and what is not, and in understanding how one thing is different from another. Ultimately it is the basis of logic and classification which we find in developed form among the Greeks in the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. Sumerologists were puzzled to find tablets listing things together which to us had no meaningful connection, such as a large list of objects which have the property of ‘being white’. To the Sumerian scribe who assembled this list, the characteristics of whiteness would have determined the worth of the list. The items were separated out from a (hypothetical) list of all known items, and collected together as a classification of items of the same property. These properties are in a sense subjective, but only because we do not know the function of white objects in the Sumerian model of the world.

Another notion of great importance in antiquity is the idea of ‘drawing near’ to a god. This might be represented by proximity to an altar or symbol of the god, or by the device of showing the supplicant being introduced to the god by a third party, whether another god or by a priest of the divine cult. There is however a technical idea behind this concept. The idea is that by being near, you already participate in the nature of the god, to a limited extent. The connection is open, even if transaction with the divine is not in operation. Drawing near can be achieved through a collocation of offerings, through benefactions to the priesthood and the temple, through other good works, the virtue of the individual, and so on.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Reading Thomas Yaeger

Recently I removed a number of papers which were freely available on the website Academia.edu. I did this because the site has become less and less useful, as it transitions to something offering 'premium' services. I also took down the description and metadata for other papers, many of which are chapters in the books listed below.

I saved the descriptions of my three books, however, and together these form a concise overview of what I have written and published so far on historical and philosophical questions.

One thing I might suggest, is that J.G. Frazer and the Platonic Theory of Being  should be read before the other two (if you are considering reading all of them). The argument is fairly technical, but shouldn't be off-putting to someone interested in philosophy. Though it was first published as an eBook in 2016, it was in fact written in London in 1993, the year after I finished my studies at UCL. It illustrates a  great deal about how and why I came to be interested in writing about the significance of the idea of Being in antiquity.


Commercially available books:

 The Sacred History of Being (2015) 

 The discipline of philosophy was not invented by the Greeks, but was in existence elsewhere, and as far back as the middle of the second millennium BCE. It has its origin in ancient divine cult. The detail of its presence can be traced in the civilizations around the ancient Near East, and particularly in Assyria and Babylonia. The Sacred History of Being collects the key evidence together, and examines the idea of the divine as a philosophical concept in Greece, Israel, and ancient Assyria. Published as an eBook by the Anshar Press, November 2, 2015. 113k words. Available from Barnes & Noble, Itunes, Kobo, Blio, Inktera, Smashwords, etc. More information available at:


 J.G. Frazer and the Platonic Theory of Being (2016)

 When he was only twenty-four years old, James Frazer won a Cambridge fellowship with an essay on the development of Plato's theory of the Forms or Ideas (eidos). In this essay he argued that there was no overarching theory of Being in Plato's mind before he embarked on the writing of his dialogues, and that consequently differences in approach and discussion apparent in his work are the result of the development of his thought. He also argued that the very idea of Being is a barren notion, in that nothing can be predicated of Being. As a result Plato made a mistake, effectively conflating an epistemology with an ontology. Though the essay was written in 1879, it was not published until 1930, after much of his later work was done. Frazer became famous for his monumental study The Golden Bough, which explored a vast range of ancient and primitive myth and ritual. Here too he found intellectual processes founded in error. What was Frazer's intention in re-interpreting Plato against what Plato himself said, and his wholesale restructuring of ancient thought by reducing much of it to a pattern of error? Over 23 thousand words, a preface, select bibliography, and extensive notes. Published by the Anshar Press, April 4, 2016.


 Understanding Ancient Thought (2017) 

 'Understanding Ancient Thought' is the third in a series of books which examines how we assess evidence from antiquity, and frame models to make sense of that evidence. The book consists of eighteen essays, which cover a number of subject areas which are in thrall to what Foucault described as an ‘episteme’. In other words, the way the subject areas are understood within the academy is in terms of what our cultural models, language and assumptions will allow us to understand. The actual evidence may suggest an alternative view, but it is not possible to see it, or to think it. At least until the paradigmatic frame shifts to another ‘episteme’ The main thrust of the book is that two hundred years of modern scholarship concerning the past has, for the most part, assembled a fictive and tendentious version of the ancient world. 51 thousand words. Published by the Anshar Press, August 20, 2017. Available via Smashwords, Itunes, Barnes and Noble, Blio, Kobo, etc.



The short bio at Academia.edu:

I'm an independent researcher and a specialist in scholarly communications, who studied the Ancient Near East and the Neo-Assyrian Empire at University College London. I'm particularly interested in the History of Ideas in the context of the ancient world, and in the importance of religion and art in understanding ancient cultures.

 My three ebooks are commercially available from Itunes, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, Blio, Smashwords, Inktera, etc. They are also available to read (on request) in each of the legal deposit libraries in the UK and Ireland. A fourth ebook will be published in the course of 2018. My blog at http://shrineinthesea.blogspot.com contains essays, book chapters and chapter extracts, an RSS feed, and other discussion on philosophical, archaeological and historical subjects. I'm active on Twitter.

TY, February 17 2018,