Week 3 Blog: Ideology and Power in Early Mesopotamia

Pick one of the following, and write a short response essay.  Due by 6 p.m. Wednesday, January 26

1.  Ruler image in text:

Read and analyze the “Sargon Birth Legend,” a literary composition about the ruler, who remained legendary throughout the ages in the Near East (download a translation of it with introductory notes here:  sargon birth legend).  You will no doubt find that some of this story rings a bit familiar.  The original date of both the composition and the legends included is unknown (presumably they go back to near the time of Sargon); the version we have was found on tablets in the archives of Assyrian and Babylonian palaces from the early-mid 1st millennium BC (Sargon ruled at the end of the 3rd millennium BC, ca. 2340).   In your analysis you may want to consider what this text says about ancient ideals of kingship, the Mesopotamian view of the world, and the significance of the circulation of this legend a good 1500 years after Sargon’s rule.  How would this legend have complemented the image of Sargon as presented in the various stele he erected?

2.  The Treatment of Enemies

Captured, defeated, and deceased enemies feature prominently in nearly all the examples of art found in your readings for this weak.  Look at this aspect of these objects; what are the similarities and differences in how the enemies are represented in the various stele? If there are differences, are they significant, and what accounts for them?  What function (narrative, symbolic, or otherwise) do they serve in these works of art?  Who is the intended audience, what is the intended message, and what is the expected reaction?

3.  Sex and Power

How convincing do you find Irene Winter’s argument about the “alluring” figure of Naram-Sin?  Do you agree that Naram-sin has been “sexed up” in order to further promote his image of a virulent, powerful ruler?  Assuming it was effective, what does that say about Akkadian culture?  Generally speaking, is sexual attractiveness typically a helpful attribute in creating a politically/militarily powerful image?  Or does it depend on culture and context?  Think about it this way – during the 2008 presidential campaign, many commented on Sarah Palin’s general attractiveness.  Did this help or hurt her efforts to present herself as a viable candidate for high national office?


6 responses to “Week 3 Blog: Ideology and Power in Early Mesopotamia

  • Lili Dodderidge

    In her article “Sex, Rhetoric, and the Public Monument: The Alluring Body of Naram-Sin of Agade,” Irene Winter argues that an alluring sexuality of a political figure can suggest a strong and dominant authority. This argument is a compelling one, and one that connects the past to the present in relevant, modern ways.
    Last week, we discussed in class how political art was often employed to depict a ruler in a certain light, one that would spread a message of his mission as ruler and set an inspirational and authoritative figure upon which citizens could model themselves. Keeping this theory in mind, it is reasonable to accept Winter’s idea. The Mesopotamian culture sought out specific characteristics in their political leaders, including good breeding, auspiciousness, vitality, and sexual allure (11). Two aspects of the Naram-Sin Stela depict these values quite clearly. Mesopotamian omens have taught that the right side of a leader must not be deformed in any way, as if any defect exists, destruction of the country and its ruler will ensue (12). In the Stela of Naram-Sin, his right side is completely exposed. To an untrained eye, his stance looks purely sexual in nature; yet, for the Mesopotamian people, seeing a perfectly sculpted and built right half of the body signifies a vigor and dominance in their ruler. Similarly, the Stela of Naram-Sin depicts the ruler with a full beard. Mesopotamian people would have seen this beard as a sign of the full manhood of their ruler; his secondary sexual characteristics inflate his masculinity and therefore his vitality as an authority figure in the country (13).
    Seemingly raw sexuality in the Stela of Naram-Sin does not connote a highly sexualized Akkadian culture. As we have seen in Greco-Roman art and architecture, the art is formed to connect to the people. In the Akkadian culture in Mesopotamia, sexuality was construed not as something perverted, but rather, a manifestation of biological signs of manliness and virility. To see Naram-Sin depicted in a sense of sensuality, with “well-rounded buttocks, muscled calves, elegantly arched back, and luxuriant beard” (as Winter so describes it), was to see a manly, dominant ruler; the Mesopotamians did not take this in a sexual way, but rather an authoritative sense. It is our modern-day, hyper-sexualized culture that could construe the depiction of Naram-Sin as a reflection of a society’s value of sexuality.
    In general, sexuality is taken as a positive addition to marketing and campaigning, no matter the cultural context. The sexual components of Naram-Sin’s portrayal resulted in a stronger footing in his authority over his Mesopotamian people. For a more modern example, look to Barack Obama. His attractiveness was noted by many, increasing his media attention. From playful videos aimed at younger voters (remember Obama Girl?) to comments made by key political figures (Dick Cheney’s description of Obama as “an attractive guy”), Obama’s image as a sexy, strong, young, and vibrant leader brought him much support and the eventual presidential win. In his case, his sensuality brought him the same type of prestige as Naram-Sin experienced thousands of years earlier.
    One key exception to this idea of sexuality’s positive influence on figures of authority is gender. Women in leadership positions cannot help but be prone to comments about their sexuality—too much sexuality and they are seen as incompetent and incapable of holding authority; too little, and they are seen as “butch” or anti-feminine. Both Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton have been subject to such suppositions, respectively. This sketch (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXVIwo5fLYs&feature=related) from Saturday Night Live makes fun of this disparity in sexism issues in campaigns. Both of these women face sexism in determining their success in their roles as government leaders. In the case of women, cultural norms still need to be reevaluated before sexuality can play as helpful of a role in political authority as it does for men.

  • Danielle Lee

    While I found Winter’s argument compelling and well reasoned, I’m not sure I was entirely convinced. Rather than the sexuality of the image, to me (at least), the most prominent characteristic of Naram-Sin’s depiction is his larger proportions compared to the rest of the people in the image. That is not to say, however, that his virulence and health (or at least the appearance of it) did not play an important part in the illustration of the god-king. Instead, the perfection of the king’s image and his larger-than-life stance and proportion seems to indicate a message of the king’s divinity. Though the king may have the same basic physical features as the common people, he was much more than an average human being and should be venerated as such.

    Of course, my perspective is likely skewed by the contemporary cultural background from which I am viewing this image. Sexually charged images tend to include nudity and the emphasis on the reproductive organs and their size. Even the ancient Greeks used such displays of genitalia to give off images of strength and masculinity. The statue of David comes to mind. The closest thing in Winter’s argument is the reference to the “well-rounded buttocks” (11). Even then, I don’t seem to see what Winter sees there; Naram-Sin’s posterior seems no more rounded than any of the other depicted figures. But then again, the Mesopotamian culture may have seen other body parts, like the full beard, as erotic images rather than illustrations of genitalia.

    Another thing that I had issue with is the size of the image and its location (which has not been precisely determined). I wonder what the citizens’ exposure to the image was. Could the passing women really have found this rather small image sexually attractive? Though scholars today have the leisure of taking the time to closely inspect every detail of the image, would the citizens have cared enough to stop and stare at another image of military victory? It could be argued, nonetheless, that the image was so well crafted and packed with sexually appealing attributes that the people did not need to look at it longer than a second to understand the image as one of a sexual nature.

    While I don’t believe that this particular image is indicative of a sexual nature or culture among the Akkadians, sexual attractiveness does indeed emanate a sense of power and potential. Though I don’t remember whether or not my thoughts on Governor Palin’s general attractiveness affected my opinion of her, I do remember my opinions being influenced by Senator McCain’s not as attractive image. It seemed that every time I was watching him speak, the senator was gripping tightly to the podium. Perhaps that was simply the way he was comfortable speaking; but, for me, it made me worry about the senator’s age and whether he would be healthy enough to lead our nation. Seeing that McCain’s agedness caused worry, I suppose that by the same logic, I would probably be more inclined to trust and follow someone who seemed strong and healthy.

  • Danny Rivera

    Understanding the analytical strategies used by Winter in her essay on the Stele of the Vultures helped me accept the conclusions drawn by Nigro in his essay on the two steles of Sargon. We discussed in class how the literal blanks left in fragmentary pieces of art from this period are filled in by other sources, sources to supplement what is present in the art. Winter examined other art sources from the period to get a sense of how gods were depicted, and from there, because those depictions matched the depiction in the Stele of the Vultures, drew the conclusion that a god was being depicted, and named that god based on the cultural information of the people in the area.
    Nigro, in his essay on the steles of Sargon, makes several references to the Stele of the Vultures because of the similarities in composition. The Stele of the Vultures presented a template of a god smiting enemies in the presence of a goddess. This template was very much in tact in the first stele of Sargon, but the depiction of the god differed, looking more like a king than a god. Again, like Winter, Nigro went to other depictions of kings and saw that the facial hair and headdress and clothing were all specific, and matched that depicted in the Stele of Sargon. The conclusion Nigro drew was that Sargon believed himself to be a city-god. Not better than a god, or a replacement, but acting with divine power, and divine endorsement. When cross-referenced with the birth legend of Sargon, this interpretation is entirely plausible: the birth legend of Sargon describes what is essentially patronage from the goddess Ishtar–present in both the Stele of the Vultures, and the stele of Sargon discussed here–“Ishtar loved me / and I reigned as king…” His presence at the top of the Stele, endorsed by Ishtar, and smiting enemies with a mace much like the god Ningirsu wielded in the Stele of the Vultures places Sargon in a significant standing as king. This was also done in good faith as Sargon was the name bestowed upon him as king, which means “the king is legitimate”. There is nothing sacrilegious about Sargon’s placement in the place of a god, or at least he believed so, evidenced by the blessing at the end of his birth legend that blesses those kings that come and follow in his footsteps.

  • Ryan Day

    Sargon’s birth legend bears a strong resemblance to the legend of Moses’ birth. This appears to be a tale that is told to emphasize the importance of the person. Sargon was placed in a reed basket and floated down a river. This seems to have been an act of desperation by his mother, who presumably thought he would die if he stayed with her. Being floated down a river isn’t necessarily a better fate but it is possible that he might be saved before he drowns. Being saved from an almost certain death could be seen as an act of divine intervention by the gods. Clearly they must have great things in store for him if they plucked him from his fate.
    The rest of the legend talks mostly about how Sargon was a powerful leader who appears to have travelled, and conquered many places. This is also represented in the many stele that he erected. However, another interesting point is that Sargon states that his successors should be just as powerful as he was. This statement says that Sargon wanted very much for his kingdom to remain powerful even after he died, and he wanted everyone to believe that as well.

  • Sarah Murphy

    The majority of the steles that we read about for class contain the depiction of enemies of the Akkadians. In all of these depictions, the enemy figures are in positions of inferiority or humiliation. Not one enemy figure is attacking a soldier; instead, all the enemies are either dead or captured. The absence of any dead or wounded Akkadians also demonstrates the powerlessness of the enemy. The fact that no enemy wears clothing indicates that they are inferior and less civilized than the victorious Akkadians. The viewer of the various steles also notices similarities between individual steles. For example, both the Stele of the Vultures and Stele of Sargon Sb 2 depict enemies contained in a net. In both steles, a victorious figure holds the next in one hand and a mace in the other as he strikes the head of one of the enemies. There is another similarity between the Stele of the Vultures and the Stele of Sargon Sb 1; in both steles, wild animals consume the dismembered bodies of the slain enemies.
    Although the similarities among the depictions of the enemies are immediately evident upon observation of the steles, the viewer also notices significant differences. While both the Stele of the Vultures and the Stele of Sargon Sb 2 depict god figures interacting with the captured enemy, the Stele of Sargon Sb 1, contains no such image. In fact, this Stele makes no explicit reference to any god. This omission may simply indicate that the intention of the Stele was not to emphasize the role of the gods in the Akkadians’ victory.
    Another difference the viewer notices is the inclusion of the enemy leader in the Stele of Sargon Sb 2. In this stele, Sargon is striking the head of the enemy leader. The inclusion of the enemy leader and Sargon’s dominance over him indicate that the victory over the enemy has been complete, since the chief himself is in a position of submission. Another difference among the steles is the style in which the enemies are depicted. In the Stele of the Vultures, the enemies are in chaotic heaps or are being squashed under the Akkadians. This depiction indicates the enemy’s total obliteration. In contrast, the enemies in the net in the Stele of Sargon Sb 2 are methodically depicted and seated. This shows the Akkadians’ complete control over the enemy. The depiction of the enemy in the Stele of Sargon Sb 1 is vividly brutal; the enemy is in various positions of defeat and injury in the upper register, and their carcasses are providing food for wild beasts in the lower register. On the other side, the enemy is thought to be sent off in a kind of chain gang. The depiction on this stele shows the Akkadians recognize that different types of treatment are suitable for the enemy; the Akkadians will not waste lives that can be put to good use, but they will not be weak, either.
    It can be argued that these enemies serve both a narrative and symbolic function. The depictions on the steles probably refer to specific events, but they can also signify the Akkadians’ attitude toward their enemies. Anyone viewing these steles, be they citizens of the city-state, conquered peoples, or even other enemies, are meant to recognize that the Akkadians are not a people that can be easily manipulated or defeated. Citizens will thus feel safer and enemies, both defeated and potential, will think twice before attacking.

  • Ena Dekanic

    In “Sex, Rhetoric, and the Public Monument: The Alluring Body of Naram-Sin of Agade,” Irene J. Winter presents a compelling argument. She convincingly argues that the “eroticized body” (11) of King Naram-Sin visually highlights the direct link between sexuality and authority and dominance in its representation of four ideal attributes: good form, auspiciousness, vitality, and allure. Winter then connects this representation to the common rhetoric of the time, describing the stele of Naram-Sin as a “visual quote” (16) that served to elevate the king to divine status in the tradition of Gilgamesh. Finally, Winter addresses the role of the specific representation of Naram-Sin in public space, arguing for the image’s socializing value “within a lexicon of cultural value” (22). In this final section, then, Winter indicates that the sexualized representation of Naram-Sin functioned in the way it did due to a specific Akkadian cultural context. Because, as Winter claims, “within the Mesopotamian lexicon of value, sexual allure has been associated with potency and desirability, linked to ideal maleness (21),” the image of Naram-Sin facilitated processes of identification and socialization. As Winter aptly summarizes, “The attributes identified as positive signs of value inscribed in the ruler’s body – good conformation, grace, vitality, and allure, – had to exist within a lexicon of cultural value before they could be deployed as part of a politicized aesthetic. They could be deployed precisely because they had a prior value” (22).

    Because of this, I don’t think that the image of Naram-Sin, although it is undoubtedly sexual, has necessarily been egregiously “sexed up;” rather, I think that it simply sought to monopolize on a preexisting Akkadian cultural understanding. If some other set of representative characteristics had resonated more profoundly within Mesopotamian society to portray the image of an ideal ruler, then the artist would have ostensibly identified Naram-Sin with those instead. At the same time, however, I believe that the link from sexuality to potency to male vigor to authority and dominance has nearly universal appeal, perhaps due to some sort of innate biological imperative to seek the most fertile mate. Many regions of the world that are considered traditionally sexually conservative, for instance, simultaneously have extremely hierarchical gender roles that align with Winter’s argument (on p. 21).

    Nevertheless, it is still crucial to recognize the role of the individual viewer in interpreting an image. To use the Palin example, while most commentators agreed on her general attractiveness, there was significant disagreement on the effect it had on her candidacy. Some labeled her attractiveness a liability, for it contributed to her characterization as a “bimbo.” Conversely, to others, Palin’s attractiveness was an asset. Whereas women had previously only succeeded in politics by downplaying their womanhood (e.g. female Members of Congress only wearing pantsuits), Palin’s attractiveness was considered a positive move towards breaking the glass ceiling, in that it proved a female politician could succeed precisely because she was a woman and not in spite of it. This example illustrates the difficulty in determining the “projected response” of the viewer, because even in a single cultural context, the responses of individual viewers can be widely divergent.

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