PART II: Lapis in Ancient Mesopotamia
Ram caught in a thicket, fashioned of gold, silver, ornamental stone and shell, and set in bitumen. Lapis comprises the chest, eyes, and horns of the figure. Dated to the 3rd millennium BC. Housed at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia
Perhaps the most famous surviving relic of lapis in ancient Mesopotamia is ‘Ram Caught in a Thicket,” one of a pair of near-identical sculptures that adorned the base of a table in ancient times and was found in a tomb known as the “great death pit” in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur. This sculpture, dating back to the mid-third millennium BC, is made of gold, silver, ornamental stone, shell, and lapis lazuli, set in bitumen. It stands almost half a meter tall, and is currently housed at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, with its twin on display at the British Museum in London. The upper facets of the sculpture, such as the chest, around the eyes, and horns, are all lined with lapis. The figure depicts a markhor goat eating the leaves of a tree, and is thought to be an allusion to the biblical story of Abraham sacrificing a ram in lieu of his son Isaac.
Lapis lazuli was valued as a precious stone in ancient Mesopotamia, and lapis factored into many royal burials, such as the one from which this figure was excavated. Lapis was regarded as a status symbol for the elite; as such, kings would send emissaries to acquire the stone from foreign lands, and would often hoard the stone in their palaces. Perhaps one of the most prominent, and currently famous examples of the political, economic, and spiritual valence that the stone held in ancient Mesopotamian cultures is exemplified in the Epic of Gilgamesh, when the goddess Ishtar attempts to seduce the hero of the story with a chariot made of lapis and gold:
She said, ‘Come to me Gilgamesh, and be my bridegroom; grant me the seed of your body, let me be your bride and you shall be my husband. I will harness for you a chariot of lapis lazuli and of gold.
When her seduction is unsuccessful, she calls on the ‘bull of heaven’ to attack Gilgamesh, whose horns, according to the epic tale, are made of actual lapis lazuli. The bull is defeated, the artisans of Uruk descend upon this bull of heaven, admiring the wondrous quality of the lapis ore, showing how highly valued the material was in these civilizations. In such a vignette, the reader is is not only able to glean the great value in lapis itself, but also the great value that ancient Mesopotamian civilizations took in rendering pieces of lapis that appear in a kind of orbit with divine figures, whether they are part of a chariot fashioned by those figures, or are representative of a kind of biblical image, as is with the case with the ram, as well as the vital importance that craftspeople held in ancient Mesopotamian culture.
As Egyptian scholar Irene Winter writes in The Aesthetic Value of Lapis Lazuli in Mesopotamia, “there was a belief among Mesopotamian people that craftspeople who worked with lapis possessed a kind of supernatural power, derived from the gods.” The physical placement of the lapis on the upper half of the animal figure, both in the ram and in the bull, shows the association between lapis and a kind of heavenly body. The "Ram caught in a Thicket" stands on his hind legs, holding onto a thicket of grasses. His horns, fashioned by these ‘godly’ craftspeople, spiral up towards the heavens.
The Abnu šikinšu
However, lapis held a much greater gravity in ancient Mesopotamian cultures than simply being associated with heavenly figures through their fashioning, their literary context, and the divine craftwork underlying them. In fact, many ancient Mesopotamians believed that lapis lazuli was, in fact, a kind of magical medium in which gods lived and through which divine beings passed through. Perhaps the most prominent example of this belief is in the Abnu šikinšu, one of the most prominent Mesopotamian examples of a lapidary, which highlights the therapeutic or magical use of precious stones, and is one of the ancient world’s earliest stone identification handbooks-- a literary tradition that can be traced all the way forward through to Agricola. The Abnu šikinšu currently exists in six fragments on stone tablets, and describes the differences in stones based on their color. However, stones were also described in deference to a kind of divine charge.
“Extant texts demonstrate that Sumerians and Akkadians understood the universe as consisting of superimposed levels separated by open space,” writes Horowitz in his Introduction to Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography. “From above to below, the levels were: a region of heaven above the sky where the gods of heaven dwelled, the starry sky, the earth’s surface, the subterranean waters of the Apsu, and finally the underworld of the dead.”
The Abnu šikinšu texts reveal that the middle heavens are made of the saggilmud stone, which, at least, bore the appearance of lapis. This ‘middle heaven’ is the heaven as visible from the earth’s surface; in the same text, lapis is described as “multicolored” and “starlike,” and like the neck feathers of ravens and doves. All of these images send the reader’s eyes and thoughts upward.
Indeed, the Abnu šikinšu isn’t the only ancient Mesopotamian text that describes lapis as encapsulating a kind of middle space. Winter outlines the way in which the physical aesthetic of lapis affected ancient entanglements between lapis and the divine: how lapis is reminiscent of a kind of pure, good force in its luster, while simultaneously the dark blue color representing a mysterious, untouchable force. “In the hymns to the temples of Utu in Larrsa and Sippar," Winter writes, "the sungod is said to emerge from a ‘emerge from a lapis lazuli sky” -- i.e. the dark but still bright night sky, from which, precisely, the sun emerges to bring the day.”
Lapis Lazuli Seals in the Neo-Babylonian Period
A divine cylinder seal fashioned from lapis lazuli and set against its modern impression. It derives from the Neo-Babylonian period. It is both inscribed with the image of a divine figure, and was also thought to be owned by the gods themselves (housed at Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin, Germany).
Lapis, in its immense entanglements with ancient Mesopotamian divinity, was thought to possess a divine force in and of itself. There was a tradition, for example, of depositing both worked and unworked stones at temples or city gates. In the ancient Mesopotamian text “Death of Urunamma,” lapis objects were used as gifts to appease the deities in the underworld. One epic outlined how materials from the earth, such as lapis, could be both detrimental and beneficial, depending on whether the mystical powers of the stone were subdued. According to Anastasia Armenheim in her chapter, The Power of Stones: Natural, Artificial, and In-between, the gods also wore lapis adornments on which they relied for power and protection. In the ancient literary text “Inanna’s Descent,” the goddess Inanna dressed herself in a necklace of lapis lazuli beads, and held a lapis lazuli measuring rod and line in her hand to protect herself from malevolent spirits in the underworld. Actual artifacts of lapis, too, were said to have been owned by the god, such as the lapis lazuli seal pictured above and described below by Armenheim:
“Like mortals, the gods also wore adornments and relied on them for power and protection. Frequently, seals with and without imagery, inscribed beads, and eyestones were dedicated to deities and are enumerated in temple inventories among divine possessions. Two large (12 and 20 cm in length) lapis lazuli cylinder seals belonging to gods (dated to the first half of the first millennium BCE) were found as part of a later artisan’s hoard beneath a house at Babylon. They feature imagery carved in relief as opposed to intaglio, suggesting that they were not rolled on clay tablets or closures for administrative or legal purposes, but rather valued as objects in and of themselves. One of the cylinders (FIG. 7-10), according to its inscription, was dedicated to the god Marduk by King Marduk-zakir-shumi I (r. 854–819 BCE), set in gold, and worn around the neck of the cult statue of Marduk in the Esagila Temple.”
Mortals, too, seemed to derive benefits from lapis seals; evidence suggests that if one were to carry the seal of lapis lazuli, they will have protection, and that they will receive approval from their god. Indeed, this use of lapis as protection from the underworld underlines the assertion set forth that in ancient Mesopotamia, lapis isn’t just a stone that symbolizes, connects with, or even calls upon the deities—indeed, lapis seems to have a power of its own, one that renders the wearer, whether magical or mortal, impenetrable from evil forces. In fact, this “magical-medical” function of lapis, as Winter describes it, may help explain the presence of so many lapis seals in the royal cemetery burials. In other Assyrian texts preserving medical incantations, lapis is invoked as a pure, counter-substance to cure conditions such as impotence, and pieces of lapis seem to have been laid on the neck of sick individuals as part of healing rituals, and were even worn to dispel sorcery. Perhaps most importantly for our purposes, lapis seems to also have been entangled with divine notions of conception and fertility, which evokes the earlier image rendered of lapis being present in the sky at the precipice of dawn breaking into day.
Selected Works Cited:
Amrhein, Anastasia. “The Power of Stones: Natural, Artificial, and In Between.” A Wonder to Behold: Craftsmanship and the Creation of Babylon's Ishtar Gate, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2019, pp. 91–103.
“Ram Caught in a Thicket from Ur.” Online Collections - Penn Museum, Penn Museum, https://www.penn.museum/collections/videos/video/963.
Winter, Irene. “Chapter Twenty-Seven. the Aesthetic Value of Lapis Lazuli in Mesopotamia.” On Art in the Ancient Near East Volume II, 2009, pp. 291–306., https://doi.org/10.1163/ej.9789004174993.i-542.46.
Jones, Philip, and Wayne Horowitz. “Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography.” The Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 91, no. 3/4, 2001, p. 485., https://doi.org/10.2307/1455570.
Sandars, N. K. The Epic of Gilgamesh: An English Version, with an Introduction. Rev. ed. Penguin, 1972.