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13. Relief£­carved Plaque with Lion£­headed Bird of Prey and Human£­faced Bison

[2008-10-09 18:43]

H. 14 cm; W. 14 cm
Tell al-Ubaid (Iraq)
Early Dynastic III
B15606 (T.O. 288)

Limestone plaque with relief-carved depiction of a human-faced bison, with its front hooves on a plant sprouting from a rocky outcropping or mountain. A lion-headed (eagle-like) bird of prey on the bison¡¯s back--the mythical anzû--bites its haunch.

The bison¡¯s body is in profile, its face forward. The stylization of the animal¡¯s shoulder as an undulating band and the inward-curving tufts of hair on the fetlocks are typical of the late Early Dynastic period. The three overlapping semi-circles that form the rocky outcropping or mountain are reminiscent of the cuneiform sign signifying both mountain and foreign land and suggestive of a natural setting for the action depicted in the distant highlands. The lion-headed bird of prey¡¯s folded wings, neck and tail are rendered with a grid of incised lines.

The square plaque described here is from Woolley¡¯s 1923-24 excavations in front of Tell al-Ubaid¡¯s late Early Dynastic temple platform (see INTRODUCTION: Tell al-Ubaid). Woolley focused his efforts on the northwest side of the central stair ramp. The plaque was relatively high in the mudbrick debris from the collapse of the platform¡¯s superstructure and in close proximity to an inlay panel depicting milking scenes and rows of cattle. In fact, B15606 was just under and against a section of the frieze with shell figures of five bulls facing right and may have originally been attached to it. With the plaque (but detached from it), were the remains of a copper border similar to that of the inlay panels. The background of the plaque had been painted black to match the dark color of the bituminous limestone background of the inlay panels.

The human-faced bison, Sumerian (gud) alim or Akkadian kusarikku, is associated with the sun-god Utu/Shamash, perhaps in part because it inhabited the eastern mountains from which the sun rose. An Akkadian cylinder seal from Susa in fact depicts the sun god rising above two addorsed recumbent human-faced bisons in place of the stylized mountains that normally mark his abode. And in a hymn the sun god is likened to a bison, ¡° Lord, bison, striding over the mountain, Utu, bison, striding over the mountain.¡±

The mythical anzû, who nests in the high mountains, is a seemingly benevolent creature, at least in early texts and imagery. For example, in the mythical narrative Lugalbanda and the Anzû -bird, composed in the late 3rd millennium BCE, when the anzû-bird returned from hunting to find his nest embellished like a god¡¯s dwelling, with his chick adorned and fed, the anzû exulted in his own role as intermediary to Enlil

I am the prince who decides the destiny of rolling rivers. I keep on the straight and narrow path the righteous who follow Enlil's counsel. My father Enlil brought me here. He let me bar the entrance to the mountains as if with a great door. If I fix a fate, who shall alter it? If I but say the word, who shall change it? Whoever has done this to my nest, if you are a god, I will speak with you, indeed I will befriend you. If you are a man, I will fix your fate. I shall not let you have any opponents in the mountains. You shall be 'Hero-fortified-by-Anzû'.

Anzû was Enlil¡¯s symbol, and depictions of the anzû with wings outstretched over antithetical animals symbolic of other deities probably reflects Enlil¡¯s all-encompassing power. The anzû -relief from Tell al-Ubaid, then, would depict Enlil over the stags associated with Ninhursag. Anzû¡¯s close association with Ningirsu, Enlil¡¯s son and warrior and Lagash¡¯s tutelary deity, is evident at Tello (Girsu), both in texts and imagery in Early Dynastic-Ur III periods. On Eannatum¡¯s Stele of the Vultures, for example, Ningirsu¡¯s battle net is held closed by the anzû and antithetical lions, Ningursu¡¯s animals, while a macehead, currently in the British Museum (BM 23287), dedicated to Ningirsu for the life of Enannatum shows the anzû grasping lions. In Gudea¡¯s Cylinders Ningirsu¡¯s temple Eninnu had the epithet ¡°white anzû,¡± perhaps a reference to some significant architectural embellishment such as Urnamma affixed to the gates of Enlil¡¯s Ekur.

But the anzû was a complex creature and one portrayed as more troublesome in later literary compositions. The Epic of Anzû, which exists in copies dating to the early 2nd millennium BCE, tells the tale of a malevolent anzû who steals the ¡°tablet of destinies¡± and is eventually slain by Ninurta. Though Akkadian seals, showing a bird-man brought before Enki, may depict excerpts from this story, suggesting that at least in certain traditions the anzû was thought of as a creature with a dual¡ªbenevolent and malevolent--character already at the end of the 3rd millennium BCE, their reading remains a matter of controversy.

Whatever the complexity of the mythology regarding the anzû, the imagery of B15606, on which the anzû is shown in overtly aggressive behavior toward an animal of the mountains, associated with the sun god, remains perplexing. Similar scenes occur on shell inlays from Tello and Ur, as well as Tell Mardikh (Ebla) in western Syria. For example, one end panel of the Royal Standard of Ur shows the anzû attacking recumbent human-faced bisons on each side of a mountain from which a plant grows. Such scenes may reflect the menacing behavior of the anzû to men and gods, but more likely depict the anzû¡¯s normal behavior in its natural habitat. B15606¡¯s juxtaposition with scenes of herding and milking cattle, then, could be read as contrasting the settled conditions of a ¡°civilized¡± floodplain with life in the mountains, where, as Lugalanda and the Anzû describes, bulls ran wild and the anzû hunted to feed its offspring.

Richard L. Zettler


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Source: Beijing World Art Museum
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