Sunday, January 30, 2011


Mehmet-Ali Ataç, The Mythology of Kingship in Neo-Assyrian Art. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xx, 278. ISBN 9780521517904. $99.00.

Reviewed by L. R. Siddall, The University of London (

Version at BMCR home site


This book is derived from a doctoral thesis submitted in 2003 at Harvard University under the supervision of Irene J. Winter. In the opening sentence of the prologue Mehmet-Ali Ataç summarizes his distinctive approach in The Mythology of Kingship in Neo-Assyrian Art: "This study is as much about ancient Mesopotamian philosophy as it is about ancient Mesopotamian art" (p. xvii). Through a series of examinations of Neo-Assyrian palace reliefs, Ataç aims to show that meaning was conveyed in Neo-Assyrian palatial art through semantic and semiotic systems. He attempts to develop a method of iconographic analysis that concentrates on these systems combined with assessments of the philosophical background of Assyrian art. His approach stands in contrast to the more conventional investigations into the sociopolitical meanings of the art. It also leads him to another thesis: that the art of the Neo-Assyrian palaces was part of the wider intellectual endeavors of the Assyrian court, which saw a collaboration of scholars and master craftsmen who were responsible for their design and execution. To develop his thesis, Ataç brings together the study of the palatial art with relevant textual sources (largely the Assyrian royal inscriptions and literary works). At times cross-cultural evidence (mainly Egyptian, Indic and Greek) is also taken into account. The result is a work that presents a number of interesting and original ideas. The book is well illustrated with 130 black and white photographs and line drawings.

Ataç's method of analysis comprises four parameters (pp. 12-13). The first is "proximity", which looks at the arrangement of figures in relation to each other. The second is "analogy", which examines the consistent correlations between the depictions of humans and animals. The third and fourth, "liminality" and "decorum," are more theoretical. Liminality is the state of a figure when it is in a transitional or marginal phase (between life and death, human and animal, etc.), while decorum refers to the manner in which figures are depicted in relation to their nature, ontology, and with other figures.

The study is divided into three parts with each devoted to a particular aspect of the royal art: the ontology of humans and animals, kingship and priesthood in the art of Ashurnasirpal II, and the semantics of sages and "Mischwesen." It should be noted that these divisions do not represent three independent analyses of Neo-Assyrian art, but rather each part builds on the previous chapters and in turn further elucidate the earlier discussions. This is certainly the case with Part I. The reviewer had a better appreciation of some of the arguments advanced in Part I after reading the second and third parts of the book.

Part I comprises five chapters and examines the ontological relationships between humans and animals in the Neo-Assyrian palace reliefs. Each chapter generally covers the reliefs from one particular reign: Ashurnasirpal II (pp. 14-38), Tiglath-pileser III (pp. 39-49), Sargon II (pp. 50-60), Sennacherib (pp. 61-69) and Ashurbanipal (pp. 70-80). Throughout these five chapters, Ataç makes a series of observations on patterns of the arrangement of humans and animals and the rendering of their respective anatomical features. While he demonstrates that there was variety in the representation of creatures during different reigns, there were also particular consistencies which go beyond geometric organizational principles and reveal an understanding on the part of the Assyrian artists of the ontological relationship between humans, animals and, in Ashurbanipal's reliefs, vegetation. A significant conclusion drawn from Part I is the contrast between the king's and the elite's contact with animals and non-exposure of their anatomy, and those of other humans, who were often depicted with animals and with body parts exposed. There is also a division in the relations between humans and animals for it seems that the Assyrian artists tended to depict, through proximity and analogy, a close relationship between everyday people (including deportees and the dead) and herbivores, while the king and elites rarely encounter animals, and when they do it is usually in the context of ritual slaughter or the royal hunt of lions.

Part II forms an excellent contribution to the study of the art of Ashurnasipal II. Ataç examines the reliefs that purport to the two main aspects of Assyrian kingship: the military-political (regnum) and the priestly (sacerdotium). Scholars have long recognized that the Assyrian kings depicted themselves as warriors and priests.1 However, Ataç conducts a far closer assessment of those motifs here than in previous attempts. In the course of the five chapters that make up this part of the book, Ataç analyses the iconography of the royal figure and his association with the people, genii and animals around him, and finds that there are three different representations of Ashurnasirpal: the priestly ruler, the military-political ruler and the "mixta persona", the latter being a combination of the priestly and military-political. The priestly figure and those with him are often adorned with waistbands and bracelets, bear herbivore protomes on their appendages, and are shown in scenes with herbivores, especially bulls. Conversely, the military-political figure bears a sword, and often has lion protomes (pp. 92-108). The recognition of the emblematic aspect of the art enables Ataç to elucidate the covert messages in other depictions of the royal figure, such as the "Sacred Tree" slab from the Northwest Palace at Nimrud, in which the images of Ashurnasirpal and genii flank the sacred tree (fig. 31). Ataç shows that it is not a mirror image, as is often assumed, but rather a depiction of the two major aspects of kingship represented in one frieze, divided by the sacred tree (pp. 125-129).

Part III, "The Semantics of Sages and Mischwesen in Neo-Assyrian Art and Thought," as the title suggests looks at the mystical figures in the palace reliefs. Ataç uses the term Mischwesen for the images of the apkallu (divine sages) and the rebel gods of Tiamat's army in the myth Enuma Elish who were part animal and part human in form (hence "mixed beings" or "hybrids"). Again, Ataç departs from the common typological approach to these figures and concentrates on the semantic and semiotic aspects of their presence in Neo-Assyrian art. In this part of the book, the discussion turns to the textual material and mythology more than in other parts. It is through the integration of text and art that Ataç develops his theory of the role of the intellectual elite in the palatial art. For Ataç, the mythical figures' function went beyond the apotropaic, but also represented a link between the contemporary age and the distant antediluvian period. That link was largely manifest on the one hand in the contemporary scholarly experts (the ummānu) who were the co-creators of the royal art and the upholders of traditional knowledge, and on the other hand in the artistic depictions of the apkallu, who represent the knowledge of the antediluvian age, and the rebel gods who were agents of "initiatic knowledge" and the netherworld (pp. 151-183). Thus, the artists and scribes created a self-referential motif that lasted throughout the imperial period.

The reviewer has a minor quibble regarding a underlying theme present throughout the book, but not directly addressed to the extent that one may expect: the role the court scholars played in regulating the royal image. We know little about who was responsible for the artistic and literary productions of the kingdoms of the ancient Near East. Was the king or the scribe responsible for the content of the royal inscriptions? One may glean from this book that Ataç is in favour of the idea that the court scholars played a significant role in the artistic-literary production of Assyria. However, a more direct treatment of this point would have been interesting.

There is much in this book that ancient and art historians will find of interest. While not everyone will be convinced by all the arguments presented in this work, the method of analyzing Assyrian art in the light of the wide body of textual sources and comparative mythology is most welcome. This reviewer found the second part the most convincing and Part III rather thought provoking. All in all, this book reveals a new method of analyzing Neo-Assyrian art.


1.   See for example P. Albenda, "Expressions of Kingship in Assyrian Art," Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 2 (1969), pp. 41-52; and J. E. Reade, "Ideology and Propaganda in Assyrian Art," in M. T. Larsen (ed.), Power and Propaganda: A Symposium on Ancient Empires (Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag, 1979), pp. 329-343.

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