Thursday, 30 April 2015

Beyond the Ontological Argument: Writing The Sacred History of Being (III)

In late 2009 I started to look again at the project, with a new understanding of what needed to be addressed. There is a new chapter list from that time, and also another from 2010. There was a little writing done in late 2010, but not much. The writing side of the project began again seriously on the 3rd of January 2011, with a strict weekly word count, which I stuck to for most of the year. I still had a day job, so I was writing for several hours, either in the evening, or the early morning.

I wrote about the main subject of The Sacred History of Being, which of course is the understanding of transcendent reality in the ancient world, and its relationship to philosophical thought. But I also wrote about the difficulties and obstacles which make it hard to understand  ancient ideas, and to explain them with clarity. Some of this material remains in the text, but a great deal of it was removed, in the interest of clarity and the avoidance of tedium. This material will be made available separately. Some of it will appear here - the discussion of  Marx and the use of a historicist approach to the understanding of antiquity isn't in the book for example, but it does fill out some of the wider background to The Sacred History of Being.

Pointedly, I did not write about the Ontological Argument. But my new understanding of its severe limitations did inform the discussion of questions about reality in the two parts of the book which were under way, which looked at Greece and Assyria respectively. Once those two parts were largely constructed, I turned to the Ontological Argument  sometime in 2012. Discussion of it and its limitations forms the second section of what is now the first part of the book.

Ontological argument ought to be about the nature of reality itself, rather than a particular aspect of it. Attempting to prove the existence or reality of God on the basis of purely logical and a priori argument is about proof and existence within a known and perceived frame of reality, which is presumed to be real, though we have no knowledge of what it is and why it presents itself to us in the way that it does. So ontological argument for the most part isn't about reality at all, but some part of that reality, and argued in terms of the properties and attributes which that part may or may not have.

The concept of God is discussed within either the reality we know in terms of space and time, or else existing in some other place beyond the limitations of physical reality. In either case the physical frame of space and time is taken as a given.

In classical antiquity this would have seemed to be a barbarous and crude way to argue about the divine. When they talked about reality, they meant reality itself, not some particular representation of it. And that reality was coterminous with Being. In other words, divine Being was presumed to be at the root of all the forms of reality which can be represented. It was reality.

Ancient ideas about divinity therefore need to be understood in their original context, or at least in as much of it as we can muster. A thorough understanding of the varieties of the ontological argument will not tell us much that is useful about ancient conceptions of the divine.

So this part of The Sacred History of Being should be understood as a demolition of the usefulness of the ontological argument, as we understand it. It wasn't the most interesting thing to write. But in the course of writing, I was reminded that there were ancient misunderstandings of the nature of divinity also, on the basis of the way in which the divine was spoken. If the divine is one and indivisible, for example, how is it that there are hundreds of gods, and not one?

I had a workable draft by 2013, which I'd begun to talk about. There were a few things that still needed to be done, and I was overdue with the detailed analysis of three ancient texts. More time for writing became available however, which was good. I decided to move house too: also good. But inevitably it was a massive upheaval, stopping all work from October, and one which meant that the project needed to be suspended for a while, and in a way which would mean that it could be restarted again as soon as possible.

It took three months to pack my books. I separated out everything was relevant to the project, and boxed them first. Four metre-wide shelving units worth. All of these went into one room in the new flat. I moved at the end of December 2013.

I was ready to function again in a rudimentary way by April 2014. Though there were many other distractions for most of the rest of the year. A new house is something you find out lots about during the cycle of the seasons, and sometimes you have to respond: when the dandelions burst into life; when the ants decide to occupy the subterranean spaces beneath the flagstones in front of your door; and  which bits of the house are not easy to work in because of the blaze of sunlight on your laptop screen, etc. I built this blog by the summer. I wrote a new chapter on Plato, 'The Sweet Song of Swans', after discovering an important article by Jacob Howland. I completed a paper draft in November (now long superseded!). I finished the overdue text analyses in December. At around the same time I also re-edited some parts of the argument.

The early part of  2015 saw the electronic text brought into line with the paper edit, where that made sense. Not a straightforward process when the electronic text has moved on! I also spent time experimenting with conversion tools for producing ebook file formats, and checking the footnoting, paragraphing, and special characters in the text.

Parts two and three can be read in a number of different ways. But essentially the discussion is of a common intellectual substrate, shared by Greece and Assyria, which lies beneath the strikingly different cultures. The nature of that substrate is explored initially through the writings of Plato, and the Greeks in general.

The contention is that Plato, in writing about the Forms or Ideas, was actually telling us something of extraordinary importance about Greek theology, and the role and function of divine images. I've referred elsewhere to the fact that Plato explicitly uses a phrase associated with the worship of the gods in the course of discussion of the Forms.

The source of the idea of the nature of reality, of Being itself is referred to by Plato in many places, but never fully explained. And there is a related question he asks, about a most fundamental matter, but does not answer. The answer can be guessed, though professional philosophers are not in the business of guessing. So we have had nearly two hundred years of scholarship devoted to Plato, which has explained very little.

I guessed the answer, though as it turned out, I knew the answer already from a different context. It can be demonstrated that the same question lies beneath Mesopotamian ideas about the nature of reality, as expressed in the liturgy of their New Year Festival, and in other sources. It is the reason why there are two creations - the first chaotic, and the second, rational.

Thomas Yaeger, 30th April 2015

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Language and Concepts: Writing The Sacred History of Being (I)

The draft of The Sacred History of Being which began in January 2011 had the working title of Being and Representation in Greece and Assyria. There are now three parts to the work, but originally there were only two.  The first of the pair explored the idea of Being in the context of Greece and Greek philosophical ideas. The second part was concerned with the culture and thought of Ancient Assyria, and the evidence for the existence of the concept of Being, and focussed mainly on evidence from the reigns of Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal.

I've recounted something of the way my interests in philosophy and religion led me toward the subject of this project. The history of the project also is a subject of interest, which is worth exploring. Not all of it went smoothly. And indeed for three whole years, it ceased altogether, at a time when it should have been moving forward.

The idea of the project was in my head by the time I began studying ancient history and languages in London in 1989. It was very loosely constructed at the that time. Mostly it revolved around a number of key observations and some anomalous data. I knew about the use of philosophical terminology in civilizations earlier than the Greeks. I knew about the significance of the idea of totality, and that it was connected in some way with ideas of divinity. I knew also that ideas of the limit and of extremity were connected with a body of conceptions around the idea of the divine.

The experience at UCL was important in a great number of ways. I was given much wider experience of ancient cultures than I had, and lots of exposure to ancient texts, mostly within a critical framework. There was also a chance to explore iconography in some detail, particularly the Assyrian reliefs in the British Museum. I also had the opportunity to understand the theoretical framework for the study of history, and how it applied to the study of ancient history.

After UCL (I graduated in 1992) it was very difficult to work, simply because my energies were absorbed by the business of daily life, and the running of various projects. While working in Oxford I analysed the structure of Plato's Sophist, which I'd identified as a key document for understanding both Plato, and how his work might relate to both Greek religion, and the religions of other states around the mediterranean and the near east.

I also began to write on the subject of collection and division, which is the essence of dialectical practice in classical philosophy.  But it remained a sketch. I wrote plenty of words during the 1990s, but nearly all of it was related to what I was doing for a living. So I wrote about the internet, and the impact it might make on publishing, and the availability of research materials and text. I also wrote two extensive articles about the future impact of the internet on the distribution of TV and films (all of which has since come to pass). I can't say I wasn't having fun, because I was. But the nineties passed with the completion of only two significant works, and only one of them was related to the project. One of these was about Robert Graves' White Goddess; and the other was an extensive essay on J.G. Frazer, and his early study of Plato's theory of the forms (guess which is which!).

Between 1997 and 2003, I was editor of a regularly published magazine. Over those six years I dealt with and processed some five hundred articles, and was responsible for commissioning. It was a great and rewarding experience which taught me a lot. But it was hard to get anything else done, or even to think about the project at the time. I was also in a relationship with someone who wasn't particularly interested in philosophy, and had no idea at all that I had a project about the history of philosophy running silently in my head. I was happy, but I had a vague notion that I was not moving forwards, and that the project could be swallowed whole by the everyday demands of life.

From 2001 I travelled regularly at weekends with friends around the south, west and east of England, and eventually to some extent, north too, We got alternately sunburned, and very wet and cold.  Over three or four years we took in classic bits of landscape, and also much of the rich archaeology of southwest England.  We saw bronze age tombs with freshly cut flowers, and burning candles (at Wayland Smithy, near the Ridgeway). We also had great pub lunches in market towns in Somerset and Wiltshire, and at Cerne Abbas and in Avebury. We had truly great fish and chips in Lyme Regis and Blandford Forum. I have a rich collection of photographs of archaeological sites from this period.

But nothing much happened with the project. In 2003 I moved on from the magazine into research, which gave me a little more personal time to think once again about the project. I started to collect materials. Having a decent salary meant that I didn't have to think too much about buying books. The university library at Bath reflected the technical basis of the university, so things were a little thin. I bought the State Archives of Assyria series complete (via Abebooks) at this point, and also the State Archives of Assyria Bulletin.

I began to write the first draft of The Sacred History of Being.

Fathoming the Transcendent in Assyria: Writing The Sacred History of Being (II)

There was a fairly advanced draft of the Sacred History of Being under way in 2003-4. Around this time I became aware of Simo Parpola's paper of 1993 on the Assyrian Sacred Tree and its relationship to the Jewish Kabbalah. In late 2004 I wrote to Parpola to ask if I could have an offprint of the article, since I was living and working for the University of Bath at the time, which did not take classical and near eastern journals. He was kind enough to send a copy to me, along with some related materials.

I read the paper thoroughly. It is quite an extensive paper, which may have worked against a successful reception. But it is a landmark paper, exploring its subject in depth. It even includes a useful typology of the appearance of the sacred tree.

I realised  that, if the argument of Parpola's paper was correct, then it was plain to understand that there was an understanding of the idea of Being in Ancient Assyria, and that the presence of the image of the sacred tree was a key marker of its presence. And since the image of the sacred tree can be traced back as far as the 14th century BCE, then it would be likely that the idea of Being existed in Assyria as far back in time.

The reverse engineering Parpola did on the Kabbalistic sacred tree in order to discover its possible relationship to the Assyrian Tree was breathtaking. The chance of the operation working if there was no cultural (if not lineal) connection between them was very small.

In essence, Parpola had provided a proof of abstract thought before the speculations of Plato and Aristotle in classical Greece. And had pushed its existence back into the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE.

I wrote back to Parpola, telling him what I thought he had done. He agreed with the implications, which he hadn't foregrounded in his 1993 paper.

His paper was discussed at an Assyriological conference that year, and was published in the Journal of Near Eastern studies (aka JNES, for the uninitiated). So no classicist or historian of philosophy or ideas was likely to see it, never mind take on board its argument. So a little later, I suggested that I might write another article based on his paper, specifically aimed at philosophers and historians. Parpola agreed that this would be a good idea, but that I shouldn't feel obliged to do it.

We exchanged some email during the course of 2005. I asked if he had written anything else in the same area, and if he could recommend other work which might fill out the background to his approach. Again he provided this information, which resulted in an expensive buying spree on eBay and Abebooks, and a lot of reading.

 This was a critical time, because I was intending to move on. I'd been interviewed for a position in Edinburgh.  I found out I'd been successful when I was standing at the baggage carousel in Bristol, which is the nearest airport to Bath. So from July 2005 I was preparing to pack and move. I had a draft version of the article by the middle of 2005, which I sent off to Helsinki. I forget exactly when I sent it, but it will have been before the end of September, which is when I moved. I also sent a copy of  'Context and Variation in the Representation of the Assyrian Sacred Tree'.

The paper in response to Parpola's 1993 paper had the title 'Ontology and Representation in Assyria and the Ancient Near East' (ORAANE). It was written in two parts. The first of these was unproblematic, and consisted of an analytical summary of what Parpola had done, while drawing out the implications for the history of ideas. The second part was more speculative, and concerned the nature of Mesopotamian theology and how they might have arrived at the notion of a transcendent divinity. I suggested that they might have inferred something of the kind by means of some kind of inductive argument, and drew a parallel with Descartes argument for the reality of the divine.

That was a mistake. Maybe the Assyrians did entertain argument of this sort about a supreme being: at some point, and in some circumstance. But the cartesian conception of the divine was completely opposed in nature to the Assyrian conception of the divine, in that, for Descartes, God existed in a place which did not  have any impact on man and his existence. God was nonetheless important for Descartes, in that he argued he could be sure of his existence and capacity to think only on account of the reality of God.

On the 4th of January 2006 I received a raft of material from Simo Parpola. It contained detailed and useful comments on both ORAANE and the context paper. It also contained a new translation and transliteration of an important and extensive passage in the Annals of Ashurbanipal. I'd seen this some fifteen years earlier in a translation dating back to around 1898, which was at that time the most recent translation into English available. It is the passage in which Ashurbanipal himself discusses the importance of scholarship, skill and excellence in all things related to the practice of kingship. It also indicated the importance of knowledge to the king, and his knowledge of divine things.

I did not completely rewrite the paper, but incorporated some changes. In early 2006 I began an exchange with one of the editors at the Journal of the History of Ideas in Philadelphia. He confirmed that they would be interested in a paper on the proposed subject. The paper was sent off.  The paper was accepted, but the journal wanted some changes to the citation conventions, and a reduction in length (from more than 9000 words).

By now (mid 2006) I realised that the parallels with Descartes' arguments about the reality of the divine were incorrect and actually wide of the mark. So I needed to shorten the article, and provide an alternative line of argument as to how the Assyrians came to have an understanding of a transcendent divinity, which embraced all other aspects of the divine. Though I wrote a lot of drafts during early 2006, I found that I had no satisfactory alternative line of argument. So the paper was abandoned.

Of course I realise now that the problem was the attempt to shoe-horn the Assyrian conception of divinity into a pattern of thought mainly developed during the early modern period, which is what we understand as the ontological argument. I was attempting to do this because that's still the way we tend to think and argue about divinity in the west. I was also looking for a pattern of philosophical or theological thought which might underpin Assyrian conceptions of the divine, because of the importance accorded to knowledge in their understanding of it.

I found the solution, but only after a hiatus of three whole years, and after a great deal of reading and rumination. The first part of the argument contained in the ORAANE paper is more or less unchanged, and appears as one of the chapters in the third part of The Sacred History of Being. In many ways the unsatisfactory second part of the argument in that paper is now replaced by the rest of the book, which emerged as a response to the difficulty in fathoming the Assyrian concept of transcendent deity, and the pattern of thought which underpins it.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Idea of Being in Israel

This is a sample chapter (in draft) from the Sacred History of Being:

'Something paradoxical and intriguing about human religion'

This chapter looks at the body of Mesopotamian ideas about the gods and the divine through the extensive commentary on these ideas present in the books of the Old Testament. It draws extensively on a study published in 1999, Born in Heaven, Made on Earth, edited by Michael Dick.  The chapter also explores how Old Testament ideas about images were understood by the christian writer Tertullian, in the early second century of the common era.

….within the hierarchy of Mesopotamian ritual, the lengthy performance of washing the mouth of the temple statue is the most solemn, most sacred and most secret of rituals. This conclusion is reached from consideration of the special circumstances of the performance of the mis pi, the investment of time and resources, and the goal of the ritual. This ritual calls upon all the knowledge and spiritual know-how of the ritual specialists to transfer the deity from the spiritual world to the physical world. It requires the most expertise in ritual matters and accomplishes the epitome of ritual possibilities actualising the presence of the god in the temple. [1]

 Though not the intention of Born in Heaven, Made on Earth, the book brings together much of the evidence for the case which argues that there was a complex and philosophical metaphysic beneath Mesopotamian religion.

In addition to an introduction by Dick, there are four main sections, covering prophetic parodies of making the cult image contained in biblical sources, authored by Dick; a chapter on the induction of the cult Image in ancient Mesopotamia (concerning the Mis Pi Ritual) co-authored with Christopher Walker; an essay by the Egyptologist David Lorton on the theology of cult statues in ancient Egypt for purposes of comparison, and finally an essay by Joanne Punzo Waghorne on the divine image in contemporary south India, where much of the practice known to the Assyrians and Babylonians is still in existence, though it is a practice which has been maligned in modern times.

The following discussion mainly concerns Michael Dick’s contribution to the book, and principally his study of the prophetic parodies of the making of the cult image found in the Old Testament, which casts light on the intellectual currents of a remote world in which cult images possessed great power, prestige, and life, but were also the focus of theological disputation.

Dick has been interested in the detail surrounding cult statues since 1977, when he worked in this area for a year as a post-doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University, and it has remained a focus of his attention. His research as he says in his introduction to the volume, ‘soon convinced me of the importance of the Mesopotamian Mis Pi ritual used to “give birth” to the god represented by the cult image’. He was introduced to Christopher Walker, who had written his Oxford University dissertation on the Mis Pi rite, by Dr. Jerrold Cooper of John Hopkins University. [2]

The introductory remarks on the cult Image are prefaced with a quotation from James Preston, which is worth repeating here:
Through the study of icons and their construction we are able to perceive some of the most vital impulses underlying religious experience. Sacred images are products of the human imagination – they are constructed according to systematic rules, and then they are infused with sacrality and kept “alive” by highly controlled behaviours intended to retain the “spirit in matter”. An analysis of this process of constructing sacred images, and the corollary process of the destruction, reveals to us something paradoxical and intriguing about human religion. [3]

Some aspects of religion are more religious than others, and the paradoxical aspects of human religion are, as well as intriguing, more religious than we are accustomed to accept.

The normal approach to the academic study of iconic imagery in religion is phenomenological and comparative. The phenomenological approach, as the term suggests, looks at the obvious and the external, and the relationships and patterns which can be discerned. Mainly this is a study of differences and similarities, but of course such a study can be much richer in nature, and a great deal can be discovered in this way. No-one however has been looking for a logical, philosophical and technical basis to the worship of images, either in the ancient past or, as in the case of cult statues in India, in contemporary human societies. This is because the scholarly model in which cult imagery is understood presumes that no such basis is present, and the phenomenological approach does not provide suggestive evidence to the contrary. [4]

Immanence and Transcendence in Divine Images

Born in Heaven, Made on Earth treats of cult imagery as a form of concretization of the divine. Dick argues that

attitudes (positive or negative) toward the concretization of the deity represented by the cult image reveal significant positions about the divine presence, about immanence and transcendence, about the very nature of the deity. [5]

While there have been many struggles in history between iconodules and iconoclasts, the seminal struggle is of course (as things have worked out) the one which is represented in the Old Testament. [6] The Israelites had come into very close contact with the Babylonian iconodule during the exile of the 6th century B.C.E., although it is unlikely to have been necessary for the Israelites to actually live among the Babylonians to understand their culture enough to rebel against its icons. Dick points out that many of the Bible’s ‘most strident’ parodies of making an image of the god date from this period, and that even many of the Deuteronomistic legal prohibitions concerning the making of a cult image probably date from the post-Exilic period. The existence of these parodies within the Bible, which have received little attention outside scholarly circles, will probably come as a surprise to many. But that they are there suggests that the Israelites had at the very least a rudimentary awareness of Babylonian ritual for the installation of cult images. And of course there were long-standing connections with Egypt, a culture which also had rituals for the making and installation of cult images.

Indeed, this problem (how can gods be made?) is still at the heart of our inability to understand the conceptual model which lies beneath the practice of idolatry in the ancient Near East, and, more remotely, beneath the veneration of cult images in modern India. Dick quotes an interesting statement by the Assyrian king Esarhaddon, from the early years of the seventh century B.C.E., in which the problem is directly acknowledged, but also in which Esarhaddon directly ties in the importance of cult images in Assyria with an intellectual outlook and conceptual model of the world which was later familiar to the Greeks. Esarhaddon says:

Whose right is it, O great gods, to create gods and goddesses in a place where humans dare not trespass? 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. [7]

The insertion of ‘images of’ in the last sentence is warranted only by the needs of our own perspective. The text literally says ‘the making of the gods and goddesses is your right…’ [8]

The point which is being made here however is that there is a strange circularity involved in the creation of the gods – a god must create a god, and man cannot do this. So the craftsmen of Esarhaddon can only create gods (as we shall see) if they are technically gods themselves at the moment of their creation and installation, and that they can only function in this way if it is the will and command of the gods, mediated through the king, who is the representative of Assur, the chief of the gods on earth.

This perception of a problem in the creation of something quite ‘other’ is also reflected by the reverse scenario, found in Plato’s Timaeus, in which god created a lesser creature - the Living Animal. But the Living Animal cannot be made directly by the the god – it must be created by lesser gods, or as Plato would say, demiourgoi, otherwise there would be too much of the divine in the world. [9]

Esarhaddon expressly associates divinity with knowledge in this text, in that man is defined as ‘deaf and blind’, and human beings ‘are ignorant of themselves and remain in ignorance throughout their lives.’ It follows that the divine has the opposite characteristics, and that the artisans who build the statues must, at least temporarily in the cultic context, possess the attributes of the divine. Thus there must be a roughly parallel process in the creation of a temporary divinity in the artisan, and the installation of a divine statue.

We have the Babylonian ritual procedures for the installation of cult images, and a parallel rite from Egypt. But we do not have an equivalent from Greece. Early Christian literature ‘often refers to similar Greek and Latin rites (‘dedicatio’)’, but Dick suggests that it is not clear that such rites existed, citing studies by Barasch in 1992, [10] and Walter Burkert in 1985, who says that “there are no magical rites to give life to the cult image as in Babylon”.[11] This is perhaps showing undue deference to the statements of these very eminent scholars. At this stage in this exploration, after the discussion of Plato’s writings on images, the likelihood would seem to be that the Greeks did have magical rites for the dedication and vivification of cult images – though unfortunately they have not survived. It is also likely that the statues were made divine on the basis of a similar (if not identical) notion of the nature of the divine, and that the magical rites bore a resemblance to one another in essential details. After all, both Plato and Esarhaddon equate the divine with knowledge, and ignorance with earthly existence: they are both looking to one thing, [12] the one thing which transcends all categories of earthly existence and the ultimate source of knowledge, and both (it would seem) believed that it may be accessed through the mediation of form (eidos).

A significant reference to the installation of statues in Christian literature is in the Octavius of Minucius Felix, where the importance of the will of the operative is isolated as critical. To Minucius Felix this is an argument against the credibility of the procedure, but in theurgic practice, the will of the operative to sacralise an object, or to work with the gods, is key to the process.

The Babylonian ritual procedures which prepared the statue of a god for functional use were known as ‘mouth-washing’ or ‘mouth-opening’ rituals. [13] We have texts which document both the ritual used, and many Babylonian and Sumerian incantations which were an essential part of the ritual. The Egyptian ritual is known as ‘performing the opening of the mouth in the workshop for the statue of the god’. [14]

Exile and after

Dick’s essay on prophetic parodies of making the cult image emphasises that the parodies are mainly restricted to the Exilic and post-Exilic prophets of the 7th and 6th centuries B.C.E. His essay isolates and treats the three principal characteristics of the arguments against the making of cult images, which were also later discussed in Hellenistic times by Jewish, Christian and Pagan authors. Dick utilises an examination of the Israelite legal prohibition of cult images by Christoph Dohmen, which identifies altogether five types of texts dealing with these images. Of these, three are of principal importance – narratives which mention images, but in which the images are not important to that narrative; texts in the Deuteronomistic History or the Chronicler which relate to cult reform; and prophetic texts which focus their polemic against the making of cult images and their worship. These three types of argument are found in Deutero-Isaiah, Jeremiah, and late wisdom texts; and prophetic texts which mention cult images, but which are focussed on conflict with external religions and gods; and the legal prohibition of cult images. [15]

Dick’s study concentrates on the third category of texts – the polemics against the making of cult images. He says that Dohmen’s ‘careful study of the evolution of the prohibitions against the cult image suggests that they were largely the product of 6th century redaction’, and that the theological stresses of 586 B.C.E. assured both the triumph of Yahwistic monotheism and of aniconic worship; Yahweh’s cult had probably always been aniconic, but now there were no gods but Yahweh, so there was utterly no room for any cult image! The prophetic parodies respond to the same contemporary crises. Although they stem from different traditions, the legal and the prophetic understandings of a monotheistic and iconic Yahwism cope with the same catastrophe. [16]

Some terminology is borrowed from a recent discussion of aniconism by Mettinger, who uses the term ‘aniconism’ to refer to cults lacking iconic representation of the divinity, whether anthropomorphic or theriomorphic, ‘serving as the dominant or central cultic symbol’, whether or not the issue is an aniconic symbol or ‘sacred emptiness’. Mettinger’s term for the former is ‘material aniconism’, and the second he calls ‘empty-space aniconism’. Dick points out that Mettinger also distinguishes ‘de facto aniconism’ and ‘programmatic aniconism’: the former refers to an indifference to the absence of images, and the latter refers to an active antagonism to images. [17] Parodies by the prophets of the making of cult images clearly fall into the second category.

Looking at the archaeological evidence, Dick suggests that ‘the complexity of recent finds reminds us that the biblical prohibitions and the roughly contemporary prophetic parodies are the end result of a long development within Israelite religion and date from the last prophetic and Deuteronomistic phases of the Exilic and post-Exilic periods (7th-5th centuries B.C.E.).’ He also suggests that recent biblical studies tend to indicate that Israel’s monotheism represents ‘the eventual triumph of a small “Yahweh alone” group over the exigencies of the Exile following the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.’ In other words, Dick is suggesting that a cultic group within Israel eventually determined the nature of Israel’s pattern of belief. He reminds us that ‘this victorious group played such a dominant role in editing the Hebrew Bible that their final triumph has been anachronistically regarded as both normative and universal during the entire preceding biblical period from 1200 to 600 B.C.E.’

This is quite extraordinary. If indeed the ‘Yahweh alone’ group did triumph after the destruction of Jerusalem, then we are left with very little idea of the nature of Hebrew beliefs before 600 B.C.E., except what we can infer from the biblical parodies and prohibitions. [18] Probably (says Dick) there were regional Yahwehs, with other deities in the pantheon, though the main deity was probably ‘de facto aniconic from the beginning’. However we have no evidence to explain why this Yahweh would be aniconic. But we can be sure there were other images within the cult of Yahweh, since the later prohibitions indicate this. Eventually the prohibitions excluded most of the earlier iconography. 

Clues about the intellectual context of Divine Images in Israel

The prohibitions are very suggestive about the origin and original intellectual context of the cult of images. Dick cites the classic formulations of the prohibitions, Exodus 20:3-4, and Deuteronomy 5:7-8. The first of these runs:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, and the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

The second is almost identical. We might observe that the Exodus prohibition explicitly forbids the creation of images of what is in heaven above, but does not give any clue that it was ever conceivable to set up gods in heaven by means of the inauguration of cult statues. Dick says that the prohibitions recorded in Exodus and Deuteronomy seem to be ‘the end of a long development and not its beginning’, and so it might be that the prohibition concerns the practice and conceptual model of the time, rather than something long-established. It does however refer to images in the water under the earth, which recalls the very old Mesopotamian image of Ea/Enki in his shrine in the sea, in the sweet waters of the apsu.

The model of the evolution of aniconism in Israel used by Dick is based on that constructed by Christoph Dohmen. Dohmen’s evolutionary model starts with a reconstruction of Exodus 20: 23b and 24a:
Gods of silver and gods of gold you shall not make for yourself; an altar of earth you shall make for me.

This commandment does not forbid image worship, but rather simply the ‘making’ of gods of gold and silver. Dick says the passage forbids ‘the ‘making’ of gold and silver statues’, but, once again, the original does not say ‘images of gods of silver and gods of gold’. The making of gods is exactly what is referred to. Dohmen’s interpretation of the commandment is: ‘rather than cult images let there be sacrifices and blood rites’. Whether or not we are looking at this phenomenon from the point of view of a cultural evolution or as a theological dispute between factions, both of which privilege the aniconic nature of Yahweh, this commandment served to direct the Israelites away from notions of contact with the divine by means of images, and to substitute contact via ritual action rather than the worship of cult statues.

A lot of ink has been expended over the years on this crucial development in the history of the Israelites. Dick quotes Dietrich and Loretz’s summary of several traditional reasons for an aniconic religious culture in Israel. They argue that the culture is
….an expression of primitive aversion to images, a particular preference of the Israelites for “hearing” (over “seeing”), a peculiarly Israelite spirituality in its concept of the deity, the Israelite sense of awe before the divinity, Yahweh’s jealousy of the Caananite gods, the prohibition against other gods, cultural poverty resulting from the desert experience, animosity towards luxury items among prophetic-Levitical circles, the dependence of the Yahwistic religion on the aniconic worship of an early Semitic main god.

Quite why there should be a ‘primitive’ aversion to images is not explained. Likewise, there is no real basis for arguing a ‘a peculiarly Israelite spirituality’, since that explains nothing. ‘Awe’ is not a response confined to aniconic divinity, and to qualify it as an ‘Israelite sense of awe’ simply implies that they responded differently to everyone else. The other reasons given for the Israelite struggle with cult images are equally unhelpful.

However there is another ‘related but distinct’ argument for aniconism in Israel, suggested by the scholar Ronald Hendel in 1988. Hendel documented the ‘close connection between the royal iconography and the portrayal of such main Canaanite deities as El.’  He suggests that, since in the ancient Near East ‘the earthly king, who was at times described as the “image/statue” of the god, was the embodiment of the main god’, it is possible that ‘ancient Israel had such a deep hostility toward the institution of the monarchy that it could consequently have adopted an aniconic representation of its god to reflect that he had no royal counterpart.’ [19]

This is a much more persuasive suggestion, and hostility of this sort was clearly part of the process by which Israel moved towards an aniconic mode of religion, shorn of all religious imagery. But this evolutionary model of the development of an aniconic Yahweh seems to imply an iconic precursor (i.e., a symbol of kingship), which is not supported by the archaeological and textual evidence. If there is no iconic precursor, it is difficult to see this process as evolutionary.

In the time of the Early Monarchy it seems that the Ark of the Covenant symbolised the presence of God, and Dick argues that it was essentially aniconic, though it is clearly a cult image. The Ark was moved to Jerusalem, [20]  in the discussion of the construction of the Temple [21] it was placed in the normal location of the main cult image. Later texts however place the Ark in a position subordinate to that of the Cherubim (often described in conjunction with the Ark), [22] and indeed the Cherubim were understood to represent the throne of Yahweh. Dick suggests that

Solomon made a compromise by combining the Cherub-throne and the empty throne represented by the Ark. In which case, at this period it appears there was no general prohibition against images – other symbols in the cult, such as the bronze serpent (attributed to Moses) and Jeroboam’s bull, were retained.

Dick points out that when Jeroboam ‘wished to establish a rival for the Jerusalem Temple, he set up the bull postament in Bethel, and it probably served like the Jerusalem Cherubim as part of the throne for the invisible Yahweh’.

Dick identifies the prophet Hosea as a critical player at an important stage of Israel’s development of aniconism. Hosea [middle of the 8th century] stood against syncretism, and for the exclusive worship of Yahweh, to the exclusion of all other gods. At Hos. 13:4 there are the lines:
And I am Yahweh your God from the land of Egypt; and you shall not know any gods besides me, and there is no saviour but me.

Here there is no polemic against cult images as are found in later periods, but his criticism of ‘idols’ ‘represents an important step in that direction’. From the time of Hosea onwards, the foreign gods of other nations were ‘idols’.

The 8th and 7th centuries B.C.E. were decisive for the emergence of the proscribers of images. Dick suggests that the ‘seductiveness of Assyrian religion created a further crisis in the South.’ [23] The cultic reforms of Hezekiah and the centralization of the cult under Josiah, led to the prohibition of images. Among the reforms of Hezekiah was the expulsion of the bronze serpent. [24] This action may have been influenced by the fact that the serpent played a role in Assyrian religion. However, there does not seem to have been in place a general antipathy to images even as late as the 7th century. According to Dick, ‘some scholars argue on the basis of seals from the 7th century, which generally prefer inscriptions to images, that there was already a commandment against images.’ However, the son of Hezekiah, Mannasseh, reversed his father’s reforms, and foreign cults were reintroduced. Dick suggests that the Deuteronomic movement may have arisen in response to the reintroduction of syncretism in religion.

Within the Deuteronomistic theology, the view of Hosea about the ambivalence of images developed into the demand that every image or cult object that could point toward another god ‘was to be rejected’. Dick argues that the reform of Josiah [25] had a Deuteronomist agenda, and that the destruction of the Asherahs and Massebahs was not the result of a prohibition of images, but rather out of the demand for an exclusive Yahwistic religion. There are no allusions to a prohibition of images in the accounts of Josiah’s reform, and according to Dohmen, the prohibition at Deuteronomy 5:8 – ‘You shall not make for yourself an image’ – probably stems from the later post-exilic Deuteronomistic movement. Dick reminds us that the earliest form of the prohibition against images was not a broad prohibition against all religious representational art, but only against cult images, quoting the text at Leviticus 26:1 –

You shall not make for yourselves idols, and cult images and massebah you shall not set up for yourselves, and a worked stone you shall not place in your land to bow down to it because I am Yahweh your God.
Thus, the prohibition of images arose originally as a special instance of the commandment against other gods, but the prohibition of images became dominant. Leviticus 26:1 goes further than the dismissal of foreign gods as ‘idols’ found in 19:4 by identifying these gods with their images, and prohibiting their making. [26] The prohibition of the making of cult images thus subordinates the commandment against foreign gods, and emphasises the focus on cult images by means of the specification of the objects meant – cut stone; stone; cult image; and massebah.

The prohibition is in close proximity to the Holiness code found in Leviticus 19-26, which I think is of some significance. The formula found at Leviticus 19:2, “you shall be holy because I Yahweh your God am holy”, implies that worship of the divine Yahweh may confer holiness on earthly individuals: a fact of some relevance to the business of the creation of divine images within religious cult. [27]

The prohibition was expanded to all representation during the late Exilic period. Deuteronomy 4: 16-25 reveals this latest stage in the development of the prohibition:

Lest you worship and make for yourselves a cult image, a representation of any beast on the earth, a representation of any winged bird in the heavens, a representation of anything that crawls on the land, a representation of any fish which is in the waters under the earth….. Lest you forget the covenant of Yahweh your God which he made with you and make for yourselves a cult image, the form of anything…. and bow down, and you make a cult image, the form of anything.
The ‘form of anything’ (it has been suggested) is perhaps an editorial expansion to eliminate any ambiguity about the commandment. [28] Or, perhaps, just possibly, it represents the core of the objection, peeking out, giving us a clue as to the real basis of the objection to cult images.

In any case, the original prohibition was expanded to list various types of likeness, and then extended to cover all types of cult objects, both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic, as well as symbols and posts, etc.

Summarising this discussion, as we have seen, there is no evidence that there ever was a physical representation of Yahweh in Israel – it seems as though Yahweh was never represented as a cult image. The concept of Yahweh seems according to the evidence we currently have to have always transcended the idea of physical representation. It is clear also that artistic representation and even cult images were not prohibited during the pre-Exilic period, and some survived into the post-Exilic period. The cult images which did exist may well have had some important religious functions in relation to Yahweh, and when these cult images were prohibited, it would be necessary to find some alternative way to address these functions. This difficulty was addressed by the legitimising of the use of an altar of earth.

The conventional model argues for an evolutionary development of the cult of Yahweh, in which the deity is progressively isolated from religious iconography and cult images, whether or not Yahweh himself was at any time represented by an image. Eventually of course, not only was all imagery suppressed, but worship (and also the practice of sacrifice) was later centralised in a single cult centre based in the temple at Jerusalem.

Thus the trajectory of the cult was to circumscribe more and more the liberty of the Israelites to engage with their god. Prophecy was forbidden, and superseded by priestly interpretation of the law. Together with the removal of the license to worship and sacrifice at altars of earth, this small caste of iconoclasts managed to remove entirely the personal aspects of the Israelite religion from its adherents. Eventually sacrifice also was abandoned, after the destruction of the temple.

This picture of this development indicates that the adherents of the cult of the aniconic Yahweh were engaged in extending the prohibition of the cult image to all images associated with their religion. That is to say, that in addition to the necessity of avoiding the representation of Yahweh, it became ultimately desirable for them to destroy all the religious images of Israel. This suggests very strongly that, unless they were possessed by some kind of mania which had little to do with their religion, it was the idea of images which was close to the heart of the problem, not simply the representation of the god of the Israelites.

So it might not be the case that the prohibition against the cult image was aimed principally at dissociating the Israelite religion from echoes of the logic of Mesopotamian religion, in which the king was seen as an image of the supreme deity. Nor is it likely to be the result of a ‘cultural poverty’ produced by a desert existence – the objection to imagery was clearly much more fundamental than that. So fundamental in fact, that, ultimately, it gave rise to proscriptions reaching beyond the removal of images. In other words, the target of the iconoclasts was something even more fundamental than the danger which inhered in the Israelites response to images, though part of the same complex of religious ideas.

Idolatry and Iniquity

What could this great danger be? We need to move forward in time by several hundred years, and to another part of the world, in order to find a wider view of the supposed iniquity of idolatry. The clearest existing discussion of the danger of idolatry is found in one of the works of the first of the Christian theologians, Tertullian, who lived in Rome, and who wrote around 200 A.D, some seven hundred years after the codification of Hebrew scripture. He is not popular with modern christian scholars, partly because there is a whiff of the extremist in his writing, which nevertheless has intelligence, wit, and clarity. He is unrelenting about the implications of scripture for the limitations of the engagement of Christians with the world - limitations which the urbane modern christian has left far behind.

He wrote a short book On Idolatry [29] which survives, which tells us a great deal about the underlying objections to idolatry in the ancient world. He suggests that ‘the principal crime of the human race, the highest guilt charged upon the world, the whole procuring cause of judgment, is idolatry’. This is because, apparently, all crimes can be understood as aspects of idolatry. Tertullian acknowledges that ‘each single fault retains its own proper feature, …[and] it is destined to judgement under its own proper name’…. yet he says that: ‘it is marked off under the general account of idolatry’.

Tertullian argues that in former times there were no idols, and that temples and shrines stood empty. Yet even at that time idolatry was practised ‘not under that name, but in that function’. This is because it can be practised outside a temple, and without an idol. He argues that ‘every art which in any way produces an idol instantly became a fount of idolatry…’ since:

it makes no difference whether a moulder cast, or a carver grave, or an embroiderer weave the idol, because neither is it a question of material, whether an idol be formed of gypsum, or of colors, or of stone, or of bronze, or of silver, or of thread.. For since even without an idol idolatry is committed, when the idol is there it makes no difference of what kind it be, of what material, or what shape….

There is not much room for the excuses of the sinner if idolatry is a broader crime than that of making or worshipping idols! But we have here a discussion of a core objection to the cult image, and the model of reality in which the crime of idolatry can reach beyond the use of idols, which may have underpinned the Israelite struggle with the presence of cult images in their religious life.

He argues that the idolater is a murderer, an adulterer, and a fornicator. A murderer, because his idolatry murders not a stranger or a personal enemy, but his own self, through the snares of his own error. His weapon is the offence done to God, and the number of blows are as many as his idolatries. He is an adulterer and a fornicator,

for he who serves false gods is doubtless an adulterer of truth, because all falsehood is adultery. So, too, he is sunk in fornication. For who that is a fellow-worker with unclean spirits, does not stalk in general pollution and fornication? And thus it is that the Holy Scriptures use the designation of fornication in their upbraiding of idolatry.

In exploring the intellectual background of idolatry, Tertullian explicitly refers to the terminology for images found in Plato [eidos, signifying ‘form’, and eidolon for ‘image’]. [30] He suggests there is a cognate pattern of meaning in his own language (Latin) which means that he regards an idol as a ‘formling’. He says that ‘every form or formling… claims to be called an idol’.

He reminds us that the prophet Enoch had predicted that:

the demons, and the spirits of the angelic apostates, would turn into idolatry all the elements, all the garniture of the universe, all things contained in the heaven, in the sea, in the earth, that they might be consecrated as God, in opposition to God…. The images of those things are idols, the consecration of the images is idolatry…. Ye who serve stones, and ye who make images of gold, and silver, and wood, and stones and clay, and serve phantoms, and demons, and spirits…and all errors not according to knowledge, shall find no help from them.

The reference to ‘errors not according to knowledge’ makes it clear that we are here essentially within a quasi-Platonic model of the world in which only apprehension of the ultimate form constitutes real knowledge – everything else represents illusion and error. And Tertullian has no difficulty in placing this interpretative scheme beneath the world view of the prophets and lawgivers of the Israelites who lived before Plato. [31]

The standard scholarly response to this would be to argue that Tertullian is retrojecting into antiquity a theological reading where no such understanding of the world existed. Yet without such a theology being present in the 8th and 7th centuries, we have little to explain the nature of the epochal religious struggles in the development of the religion of the Israelites. The phenomenological analysis of the history of religion in Israel leaves us with a struggle whose motive is essentially unfathomable, and which leaves evidential details unexplained.

So if, like Tertullian, we infer a philosophically based theology beneath the outward form of the religious history of the Israelites and their struggle with idolatry, how well does it fit? Is it broken as a frame, or does it infuse the evidence with life?

First, the question of the aniconic nature of Yahweh ceases to be a difficulty. It is aniconic because the definition of the deity places it beyond all imaging. This it has in common with Plato’s definition of the Good: as we found in the Sophist, the form of forms has no colour, shape – or indeed form. In this the god of the Israelites has the same nature and properties as the transcendent divine among the Assyrians, their principal antagonist to the north-east.

In the early part of the 1st millennium B.C.E., this aniconic divinity held principal place in a cultural context which sanctioned the use of cult images. The use of cult images in Israel might have been closely analogous with the practice in Assyria.

If these images (for example) served as the elements in a chain of images leading to the contemplation of Yahweh (as Plato would say, ‘looking to one thing’; a thing transcendent of all appearance), the removal of the images would necessitate the creation of a new way of worshipping Yahweh, and an alternative way of focussing the minds of the worshippers on the nature and power of the god. The alternative suggested at Exodus 20: 23-24, as already noted, is the altar of earth. In other words, sacrifice to Yahweh was the substitute form of engagement with the god.

There are several possible motives, stemming from the centrality of an aniconic divinity representing Being itself, for the proscription and removal of the images (it is unlikely that the reasons were simple): it could be that it was decided that the role of images in the cult of Yahweh ought to be reduced on the grounds that the proper focus of attention and worship ought to be the unchanging and unfathomable nature of Yahweh. Or, since the nature of Yahweh is to be beyond representation to the ultimate degree, it might have been argued that any representation in a cultic context would offer the danger of misleading the adherents of the cult. Another possibility is that representations within the cult involving the use of form to recall that which is utterly without form, which ought to be represented as a paradoxical phenomenon, might instead be represented as a contradictory practice, and as a species of error. In which case the proper course of action would be to remove all images from the cult.

Another possible scenario is that, given the former importance of the images to the functionality of the cult, those members who understood the point of having images in the cult of an aniconic deity, might have found themselves arguing the undesirability of images in public, but attempting to continue the cultic procedures and the worship of images in private.

It is one thing for a religion to have two views of its icons, however - one for the initiated priesthood, and another for the ignorant and ill-educated - but another altogether to try to remove cult images from all public view and use, yet keep them for private priestly worship. To have attempted this would very quickly have exposed the priesthood to charges of heresy and hypocrisy, and would have threatened the life of the cult. [32]

The likeliest explanation is that some faction of the cult of Yahweh (the one which eventually triumphed) came to believe that images were unacceptable in a cult which had as its focus an aniconic deity. Like statues themselves, which live and think, yet do not move, there was a paradoxical element in a religion which venerated a divinity which transcended form, and yet surrounded it in ritual which utilised a number of images. Unlike the Assyrian religion, the Israelites do not seem to have had a complex of myths around the idea of a trickster god, emphasising that one of the ways in which the transcendent nature of the divinity expresses itself is through actions and judgement which do not make sense to mortals. [33]

My own view is that the Israelites, for whatever reason, lost their understanding of Yahweh as a philosophically based concept, and ditched all cult images, without a consensus understanding of the cultic consequences of this action. The radical faction perceived only contradiction, not paradox, in the proximity of an aniconic divinity, and cult images.

The essential aniconic nature of Yahweh would be (on the face of things) defended by this development, but at the cost of demolishing a significant part of the supporting theology and the cultural model of Yahweh, in that a cult originally using images and forms to point to an aniconic deity would lose its former means of contact and continuity with that deity. The substitution of sacrifice for this continuity would break the connection between the world of appearances and the divinity, and images no longer would be understood as a way of recalling the divinity and its role in the world. [34]

If this interpretation is broadly correct, what we are looking at is not so much an evolutionary process, but a revolutionary one, which has had profound and long-lasting consequences

[1] Boden, Peggy Jean, The Mesopotamian Washing of the Mouth (Mis Pi) Ritual: An Examination of Some of the Social and Communication Strategies Which Guided the Development and Performance of the Ritual Which Transferred the Essence of the Deity Into Its Temple Statue. Ph.D Diss. Near Eastern Studies, The Johns Hopkins University. Pp 1-261, 1998.
[2] Early on Walker and Dick discussed working on two related publications – one (as Dick says) a haute vulgarisation on the making and dedication of the cult image in the Ancient Near East (Born in Heaven, Made on Earth) and also in Egypt, and secondly, a critical edition of the ritual mis pi in its various versions.
[3] Preston, James J. “Creation of the Sacred Image: Apotheosis and Destruction in Hinduism”. Pp. 9-30 in Gods of Flesh, Gods of Stone, ed. Joanne Punzo Waghorne and Norman Cutlet. 1995, Chamberberg, Penn.: Anima.
[4]The Christian struggle with idolatry has been extremely long, and biblical attacks on cult images have had an impact on the relationship between the West and cultures of the East, even in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Dick points out for example that when the East India Trading Company assumed the role of protector of India’s shrines in the mid-nineteenth century, there were denunciations in Parliament about the ‘idolatrous’ expenses for England in giving protection to cult images. Dick also mentions that scholars had difficulty explaining how an urbane and literate society such as India could still practice so-called ‘primitive idolatry’. In Born in Heaven, Made on Earth, Eisenbrauns, 1999 p ix.
[5] Op. cit., ppviii-ix. Citing the apocryphal Letter of Jeremiah, dating to the second or third centuries B.C.E., which ‘attacks the making and worship of the cult image as a mere ‘work of human hands’, which is contrasted with the ‘work of God’. This topos (“How can the product of human hands be a god?”) is at the core of the biblical assault on the cult image. How could the great ancient religions of Babylon and Egypt (and the Hinduism of modern India) explain that a statue crafted by human hands can embody the divine?’
[6] Greek eikonodoulos: "One who serves images"; also iconodulist or iconophile.
[7] Published originally (in German) in Die Inschriften Asarhaddons, Königs von Assyrien. AfO Beiheft. 9. Graz
[8]This is the essence of the practice of theurgy – the making of whatever it is that is essential to the divine, to the gods, and thus the creation of gods and goddesses. The results of the procedure is gods, not merely their images. Dick is of course well aware that Mesopotamian texts often do not distinguish between the god and the image of the god. He says [Born in Heaven, Made on Earth,  p32] ‘There is no question that cuneiform texts from Mesopotamia, both historical and religious, can refer to the statue as if it simply were the god himself/herself. The multiple peregrinations of Babylon’s statue of Marduk due to raids were often phrased as if the God Marduk went on a journey’. He instances a text from the reign of the Kassite king of Babylon Agumkakrime (1602-1585 B.C.E) which talks of Marduk’s return from captivity in Hana:

When the Great Gods told by their pure word Marduk the Lord of Esangila and of Babylon to return to Babylon, Marduk determined to return to Babylon…. I planned and paid close attention and made him ready to take back to Babylon; I supported Marduk who loves my reign. I consulted King Shamash through a lamb of the bārû priest.
[9]This way of thinking is common to both Mesopotamian and Greek models of the creation of man. For the Mesopotamians the world was created by lesser divinities. In the case of Plato’s description of the creation, the world is a copy, a moving image of eternity, and created by the demiourgos, after the pattern of unchanging eternity itself. For both cultures, this reflects the notion that the begotten world could not be created by the unbegotten divine directly.
[10] Barasch, Moshe Icon: Studies in the History of an Idea. New York: New York University Press, 1992.
and I sent to a far country to the land of Hana so that they might take Marduk and Sarpanitu who love my reign by the hand; and so I brought them back to Esangila and to Babylon. In the temple which Shamash carefully fixed (by oracle) I returned them.
[11] In his book Greek Religion, trans. John Raffian. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1985. Of course Greek literature contains many references to divine images. It would be a strange circumstance if divine statues in Greece were uniquely not associated with rituals for installation.
[12]  In Esarhaddon's case, toward the Abzu, which 'determines the destinies'.
[13] The former in Babylonian are referred to as mis pi rituals, and in Sumerian KA.LUH.U.DA. The latter are known as pit pi in Babylonian, and in Sumerian KA.DUH.U.DA).
[14] The Egyptian term for statue is ‘tut’. The name of Tutankhamun is read as ‘Living image of Amun’ – thus the term ‘tut’ for statue may also mean ‘image’.
[15] In Exodus 20:4, 23; 34:17; Leviticus 19:4; 26:1; Deuteronomy 4:15ff; and 27:15
[16]Born in Heaven, Made on Earth, pp1-2. Dohmen’s work was published in 1987 – Das Bilderverbot: Seine Entstehung und Seine Entwicklung im Alten Testament. 2nd. ed. BBB 62. Bonn: Athenäum.
[17] Mettinger, T. 'No Graven Image? Israelite Aniconism in Its Ancient Near Eastern Context.' ConBibOT 42. Stockholm: Alqvist & Wiksell, 1995.
[18] Dick suggests that earlier Israelite religion ‘probably tended toward henotheism or monolatry rather than monotheism.’ However this suggestion depends on the inference that there was an evolution in the pattern of Hebrew belief during the 1st half of the 1st Millennium B.C.E.
[19] Hendel, Ronald S. “The Social Origins of the Aniconic Tradition in Early Israel”. CBQ 50: 365-82.
[20] Psalm 132
[21] 1 Kings 6
[22] 1 Kings 8:7; 2 Chron 3:8ff.
[23] For the reason that images can become quickly more important than the ideas which they represent, and offer the danger of assimilation to other cults.
[24] 2 Kings 18:4.
[25] 2 Kings 22-23.
[26] However this identification may have been implicit in the conceptual model within which cult images made sense. As we have seen, modern translators are reluctant to recognise an ancient identification of gods with their images where their manufacture is concerned. This difficulty was present for commentators in antiquity also.
[27] We might ask how it was understood Yahweh can confer holiness on human beings. It is possible to accept this idea as a religious revelation. But we have already encountered an intellectual idea which provides a logical and rational basis for this kind of statement: the doctrine of wholes and totalities, referenced by both Pythagoras and Plato.
[28] According to D. Knapp in Untersuchungen zu Deut. 4. Ph.D Dissertation. Göttingen [no date]. Cited in Christoph Dohmen’s Das Bilderverbot: Seine Entstehung und Seine Entwicklung im Alten Testament. 2nd. ed. BBB 62. Bonn: Athenäum.
[29] Published in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. iii.
[30] He does not use the more neutral ‘agalma’ which means ‘statue.’
[31] Knowledge has an ancient association with altars as well as statues, since the altar is a point of ritual contact with the divine.
[32] Such things do happen however. For example, Queen Elizabeth I is known to have attended Catholic Mass in private at least once, though she was the head of the Protestant Church of England which forbade them.
[33]The lamentations of Job indicate that the cult was aware that Yahweh necessarily transcended the capacity of its adherents to understand the divinity. Or at least that the nature of divinity was problematic for mortals.
[34] This might explain why the Hebrews came to read the action of Yahweh in the world in terms of events and history. The bibilical texts are however full of images, constantly echoed by those in other books.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Teotihuacan and the river of Mercury

An interesting article has appeared in the Guardian, telling us that liquid mercury has been found underneath a pyramid in Mexico.
Mexican researcher Sergio Gómez announced on Friday that he had discovered “large quantities” of liquid mercury in a chamber below the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, the third largest pyramid of Teotihuacan, the ruined city in central Mexico.
Gómez has spent six years slowly excavating the tunnel, which was unsealed in 2003 after 1,800 years. Last November, Gómez and a team announced they had found three chambers at the tunnel’s 300ft end, almost 60ft below the the temple. Near the entrance of the chambers, they a found trove of strange artifacts: jade statues, jaguar remains, a box filled with carved shells and rubber balls. 

On the 31st October last year, Scientific American reported on the press briefing given at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City:

...archaeologists say that the new rooms contained thousands of objects, including carved statues, rubber balls, jade from Guatemala and a wooden box of shells. Beyond some traces of skin, however, no bodies have been discovered, although archaeologists have hypothesized that the site holds a burial chamber, perhaps still buried in the soil. “Just before the chambers is where we found very important offerings—a lot of them—alongside many objects," says Sergio Gomez.

After reminding us that mercury is toxic and devastating to the human body through prolonged exposure, the Guardian article tells us that:

the liquid metal had no apparent practical purpose for ancient Mesoamericans. But it has been discovered at other sites. Rosemary Joyce, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, said that archaeologists have found mercury at three other sites, two Maya and one Olmec, around Central America.
So what might the impractical purpose of the mercury be?
The mercury may have symbolized an underworld river or lake, Gómez postulated, an idea that resonated with Annabeth Headrick, a professor at the University of Denver and the author of works on Teotihuacan and Mesoamerican art. The shimmering, reflective qualities of liquid mercury may have resembled “an underworld river, not that different from the river Styx,” Headrick said, “if only in the concept that it’s the entrance to the supernatural world and the entrance to the underworld.”

So there is an 'underground river or lake' located beneath the pyramid, which may have had the symbolic function of serving as an entrance to the supernatural world, and/or an underworld. Why was this river represented by Mercury, rather than water?  Annabeth Headrick is quoted as saying that “mirrors were considered a way to look into the supernatural world, they were a way to divine what might happen in the future,” she said. “It could be a sort of river, albeit a pretty spectacular one.” Rosemary Joyce says that the liquid mercury may have been regarded as “somewhat magical … there for ritual purposes or symbolic purposes.”

So, lots of speculation so far. But the divinatory suggestion may well make sense. Two lines from a Neo-Assyrian cuneiform tablet in the British Museum come to mind, where Assurbanipal, in the course of describing his training for kingship, declares that:
14' I am versed with the portents of heaven and earth, I am praised in the assembly of scholars;15' I discuss the liver, the mirror of heaven, with expert diviners.*1
This rather curious passage also reflects the Greek view of the function of the liver, as discussed by Plato. It has always been a rather obscure notion for us to understand, since our modern experience gives us no clue as to why ancient civilizations regarded the liver as a mirror of heaven.

In both Greece and Assyria the heavens were understood to be an image of the divine. And as the divine was understood to be the source of all knowledge, the heavens were the ultimate source of human knowledge. And therefore they were the focus of much priestly and scholarly concern. 

Divination by liver is common to a number of cultures, and the logic of the process may have been similar among them. But beyond what Plato says about it, we have little received knowledge of why the liver was chosen for this purpose. Plato argued that the liver reflected the reason. He also argued that knowledge of the moving image of eternity, the source of knowledge and reason, was held in the soul. That is what the soul is for, and is in a sense a model of eternity. It is what living creatures share in common with eternity.

So, the soul reflects knowledge of the heavens, and the liver reflects the reason and thought. The liver therefore has something of eternity about it also. 

We might imagine that the liver was understood to reflect what was in the human brain, which we regard as the seat of reason. In fact it was a widespread belief in antiquity that the liver was the seat of the soul. In which case the reason which was reflected by the liver was the reason expressed in the heavens. *2

The actual practice of haruspicy involved examination of the form of the liver and its physical detail. We have depictions of the parts of the liver from Mesopotamia, in clay,  and also from the Etruscans - the latter in the form of an annotated bronze model. The perfection and completion of the liver was what was important for the divination. So the analysis of the liver depended on what was normal about the liver, and what was different. 

Documents from the library of Ashurbanipal tell us how the liver was consulted. A question would be framed for the relevant divinity before the removal and examination of the liver from the ram. The condition of the liver would then provide the answer to the question. 

We do in fact know at least one of the reasons why the liver was chosen for this divinatory purpose. Most of us encounter sheep's liver on a butchers shop counter, or in a delicatessen, where it appears red or reddish brown. And we imagine that is how it looks when it is first removed from a sheep's body. This isn't the case. Countless butchers and vets must have seen the liver close to the moment of death over the centuries, but not one of these observations appears ever to reached a historian or classicist.

Thirty years ago the writer Robert Temple was curious enough about haruspicy to arrange with a local farmer to slaughter a sheep, in order to understand the process from the practical side. He wrote about it in Conversations with Eternity: Ancient Man's Attempts to Know the Future (1984). He tell us that:
the liver takes its position in the body from the support it gets from surrounding organs. It more or less 'floats'. But essentially the liver is shaped like a very large plano-convex lens. It the lamb were to stand on its hind legs, the convex surface of the liver would be uppermost. 
Then he tells us what the liver looks like on removal from the body of a sheep or ram:
The liver when removed from a freshly killed animal is extremely shiny and reflective; but it becomes dull as time elapses. This attribute of the liver was not lost on the ancients: there are many references to it as a 'mirror' in their literature. This led to all sorts of esoteric doctrines, and immeasurably added to the reputation of the liver as an arcane and highly special organ. 
Plato gives an extraordinary account of the liver in his discussion of the constitution of the human body... he says that the gods placed it for its function as a mirror down into the bowels so that it might reflect the thoughts and images of the mind, bringing an improvement to the bestial part of man which is placed in the bottom of his guts.
Plato also says that:
the authors of our being... placed in the liver the seat of divination.... Such is the nature of the liver, which is placed.... in order that it may give prophetic intimations. During the life of each individual these intimations are plainer, but after his death the liver becomes blind, and delivers oracles too obscure to be intelligible. 
Of course it is much too soon to say what this fascinating discovery means, and european and near eastern parallels may not hold any water at all in the Mesoamerican context. But it is interesting to speculate that the river or lake in the bowels of the earth beneath the pyramid served a divinatory function as a mirror of the heavens. Which is not to exclude other symbolic and ritual functions it may have had. I will be watching for further developments from this interesting excavation. 

The Scientific American article is at:

Update May 6, 2015.

My attention has been drawn to the description of the mausoleum of the Chinese Emperor Qin, who ascended the throne in 246 BCE. The description of the mausoleum and its construction came from Sima Qian, in chapter 6 of his Records of the Grand Historian, which contains the biography of Qin Shi Huang. 

The mausoleum was begun as soon as the Emperor ascended the throne, when he was only thirteen years old. Full-scale construction began after he had unified China in 221 BCE, after defeating six other Chinese states. 

In the ninth month, the First Emperor was interred at Mount Li. When the First Emperor first came to the throne, the digging and preparation work began at Mount Li. Later, when he had unified his empire, 700,000 men were sent there from all over his empire. They dug through three layers of groundwater, and poured in bronze for the outer coffin. Palaces and scenic towers for a hundred officials were constructed, and the tomb was filled with rare artifacts and wonderful treasure. Craftsmen were ordered to make crossbows and arrows primed to shoot at anyone who enters the tomb. 

That's pure Indiana Jones! This account may be part of the reason why the Chinese archaeologists are leaving the excavation of the mausoleum till last. Immediately following this description by Sima Qian, is the passage relevant to the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, the third largest pyramid of Teotihuacan, where it states that:

Mercury was used to simulate the hundred rivers, the Yangtze and Yellow River, and the great sea, and set to flow mechanically. Above were representation of the heavenly constellations, below, the features of the land. Candles were made from fat of "man-fish", which is calculated to burn and not extinguish for a long time.

So Mercury was used to represent the rivers and the sea. And the heavens were represented above it, as I suggested might be the case in Teotihuacan.The account concludes chillingly by mentioning that many of the concubines 'accompanied the dead', and that after the funerary ceremonies were over, the workers and craftsmen were buried alive inside the complex:

The Second Emperor said: "It would be inappropriate for the concubines of the late emperor who have no sons to be out free", ordered that they should accompany the dead, and a great many died. After the burial, it was suggested that it would be a serious breach if the craftsmen who constructed the mechanical devices and knew of its treasures were to divulge those secrets. Therefore after the funeral ceremonies had completed and the treasures hidden away, the inner passageway was blocked, and the outer gate lowered, immediately trapping all the workers and craftsmen inside. None could escape. Trees and vegetations were then planted on the tomb mound such that it resembles a hill.*3


1.K 2694 + K 3050 (Asb L4). Copy: Lehmann, Šamaš-šum-ukîn pls. 34-39. Edition: Streck, Asb pp. 253-271. RIM siglum: A.0.113.L4 (RIMA 6). Translation by Simo Parpola. 
2.Morris Jastrow: 'The Liver as the Seat of the Soul' pp 143-68, in D. G. Lyon and G.F. Moore, eds, Studies in the History of Religions Presented to Crawford Howell Toy, New York, 1912. 
3 Sima Qian, Shiji, Chapter 6.