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The Mythology of Kingship in Neo-Assyrian Art, by Mehmet-Ali Ataç

Reviewed by L. R. Siddall

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.

Read the original article at: Bryn Mawr Classical Review

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