Review of Tallay Ornan, The Triumph of the Symbol
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Tallay Ornan, The Triumph of the Symbol: Pictorial Representation of Deities in Mesopotamia and the Biblical Image Ban (Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis, 213; Fribourg: Academic Press\Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2005).  Pp. xii + 284.  Cloth, €67.50, US$75.00.  ISBN 3-7278-1519-1\3-525-53007-2.


In common with other ancient Near Eastern cultures from earliest times, Babylonians and Assyrians conceived of their gods as having human form, as is evident from both textual and visual evidence.  But while textual evidence shows that this anthropomorphic conception of the divine endured to the end, there is a marked decrease in human-shaped depictions of divinities in late Babylonian and Assyrian visual art.   In this meticulous study of divine representations in ancient Mesopotamian art from the mid-second to the mid-first millennia, Tallay Ornan clearly documents an increasing reluctance by Mesopotamian artists, beginning in the mid-second millennium and culminating in the first half of the first millennium, to portray divinities—especially high divinities—graphically in anthropomorphic form.  Ornan credits this as an intra-Mesopotamian development grounded in a deepening respect for the sacredness of the divine—a development that ultimately influenced the biblical prohibition against making divine images.

Ornan’s methodology is both genre specific and diachronic.   She systematically analyzes first Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian and then Neo-Babylonian and Neo-Assyrian works of art—from large monumental art to small glyptic art—for representations of the divine, whether in anthropomorphic form or in symbolic or emblematic forms.  Included in this survey are reliefs, architectural decoration, statues, kudurrus, stone vessels, cylinder seals, and more.  Ornan notes a duality in practice, established already by the end of the fourth millennium, for representing the divine.  Commonly, gods and goddesses were depicted in human form; divinities were distinguished from humans both by their bigger size and their horned headdresses.  Alongside, however, was another convention of representing divinities—especially the highest divinities—in non-anthropomorphic form by means of an identifying symbol or emblem, e.g., (sun-)disk, crescent, an animal, an implement.  In particular, the two supreme Mesopotamian deities, Anu and Enlil, lack anthropomorphic renderings and are represented instead by horned tiaras.  Ornan opines that this practice probably reflects from the beginning a “difficulty in visually concretizing the human-shaped image of the divine” (p. 168).   During the Old-Babylonian period there is still a wealth of human-shaped deities.  A tendency to suppress anthropomorphic representations is evident first on stone kudurru monuments of Kassite Babylonia dating from the fourteenth century and soon extended to Kassite art in general.  A similar movement is also observed in Assyria from the thirteenth century onward.  And during the first half of the first millennium in both Neo-Babylonian and Neo-Assyrian artifacts there is a dramatic decrease in anthropomorphic representation of divinities.  Human-shaped gods and goddesses seem to have been confined to the sacred space of temples, on the one side, and to small glyptic art, on the other.   In monumental art, by contrast, anthropomorphic imagery was eschewed, being replaced instead by emblematic representation.  Marduk, for example, was symbolized by his characteristic marru spade, Nabu by a stylus, and Adad by a forked lightning bolt.

Written sources, including inscribed artifacts, reveal that Neo-Babylonian and Neo-Assyrian Mesopotamians continued to conceive of their gods in anthropomorphic form.  So how to account for the eschewal of human-shaped forms in the visual arts?  Ornan speculates that this non-anthropomorphism was motivated by developments in political and theological thinking.  On the one side, reliefs from Neo-Assyrian palaces reveal a new emphasis on the king, such that no other figure, not even the deity, is permitted to vie for the eye of the beholder.  On the other side, the signification of divine presence through symbols and emblems rather than through anthropomorphism suggests a deepening consciousness of sacred status of Mesopotamian deities and their splendor, such that they were not to be viewed by humans. 

Finally, Ornan concludes that the Mesopotamian eschewal of anthropomorphism directly influenced the biblical ban on depicting the deity in visual form.   Contrary to the common view that the biblical ban developed in opposition to Mesopotamian conceptions, Ornan postulates that it was inspired by contemporary tendencies in Babylonia and Assyria, all the more so because the biblical ban was articulated during the period when Assyro-Babylonian hegemony over Judah reached it peak.

The book is richly illustrated with some two hundred twenty drawings from ancient Near Eastern art collected at the end of the book.  Flipping continuously between text and illustrations is tedious but essential to follow Ornan’s well-reasoned argument.  A full index, ample notes, and an extensive bibliography augment the utility of this important monograph, which deserves the attention of biblical scholars and ancient Near Eastern scholars alike.

            While Ornan does an excellent job of compiling visual data from which she draws valid conclusions, her accounting of the socio-political and theological context can be further refined and supplemented.   As she notes, wall reliefs from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud do illustrate a Neo-Assyrian avoidance of anthropomorphic depictions of the divine.  In these reliefs the Assyrian king is the central figure; nothing else is allowed to compete for the eye of the beholder.  Leaving aside for the moment the anthropomorphic bust encased in a winged disk that hovers above the king in a few scenes, divine figures are completely lacking.  Ornan identifies the anthropomorphic figure in the winged disk as the Assyrian national god Ashur, but this is by no means certain.  Others have proposed an identification with Shamash or another god.  Closer to the truth are those who identify the figure as a representation of the divine melammu (awe-inspiring brilliance) believed to surround the king.  Elsewhere I have argued that this anthropomorphic figure represents the divine power invested in the king that makes him the earthly viceroy of the divine sovereign and empowers him to effect divine rule on earth (“The Image of God in the Priestly Creation Account,” in David and Zion: Biblical Studies in Honor of J. J. M. Roberts, ed. B. Batto and K. Roberts [Eisenbrauns, 2004], 143-86, esp. 149-62).  If correct, then there is actually no deity at all portrayed here.  Appropriate for Assyrian royal propaganda, the deity need not be present because the care for and rule of the world has been delegated completely to the divine sovereign’s earthly viceroy.

Moreover, Ornan ignores a “monotheistic” impulse in Mesopotamia that parallels the development of non-anthropomorphism.  A movement to attribute divine sovereignty to the Babylonian god Marduk that began in the Old Babylonian period reached its zenith in the Neo-Babylonian period, as evidenced by a Late Babylonian text (CT 24, 50, BM 47406, obverse) that identifies other gods and their functions as mere aspects of Marduk himself (W. Lambert, “Historical Development of the Mesopotamian Pantheon,” in Unity and Diversity, ed. H. Goedicke and J. Roberts [Johns Hopkins University, 1975), 191-200, esp. 197-98).  A similar situation prevailed in Assyria whereby Neo-Assyrian writers attributed to their god Ashur the role of divine sovereign.  Surely the tendency by both Neo-Babylonian and Neo-Assyrian propagandists to aggrandize each their own national deity cannot be divorced from the simultaneous movement to upgrade the sacredness of the divine through symbolic and emblematic representation rather than through anthropomorphic depictions.  Both practices should be attributed to a common impulse among the ancients toward theological sophistication.  Likely here also, Israel’s increasingly sophisticated theology was in part inspired by contemporary theological developments in Babylon and Assyria.  Ornan’s conclusions are thus substantiated by yet another route. 

Bernard F. Batto
DePauw University