The Mythology of Kingship in Neo-Assyrian Art
Tugendhaft, Aaron, The Journal of the American Oriental Society
The Mythology of Kingship in Neo-Assyrian Art. By MEHMET-ALI ATAC. Cambridge: CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2010. Pp. xx + 278, illus. $99.
The Mythology of Kingship in Neo-Assyrian Art--a revision of the author's 2003 doctoral disserta-tion--consists of three major parts in which Atac pursues two principal objectives. The three parts are entitled "Human and Animal Ontology in the Neo-Assyrian Palace Reliefs," "Kingship and Priesthood in the Art of Ashurnasirpal II," and "The Semantics of Sages and Mischwesen in Neo-Assyrian Art and Thought." Despite its title, the book is not primarily about mythology in any strict sense of the term and only its second part focuses particularly on kingship. As for the book's objectives, these are 1) "to lay out and attempt to interpret a visual ... language encoded in the art of the Neo-Assyrian palace reliefs" and 2) to "hypothesize the involvement of a scribal-sacerdotal elite ... in the design and production of this corpus of sculpture" (p. xvii). These two meet, ultimately, in Atac's assertion that the visual language of Neo-Assyrian art expresses the esoteric worldview of an elite circle of scholars. This review will focus on the first of Atac's stated objectives.
As implied in the phrase "visual language," Atac employs a method of visual analysis inspired by linguistics--specifically, the tradition of structural linguistics initiated in 1916 by Ferdinand de Saussure's Cours de linguistique generale. The approach considers imagery as a system of communication that operates analogously to language. Like language, visual representation requires familiarity with a conventional code in order to be comprehensible. Furthermore, and this is where the insights from structural linguistics are particularly valuable, images can be broken down into constituent units that, like words, are subject to two forms of organization: syntagmatic and paradigmatic (Atac uses the terms "proximity" and "analogy" [pp. 12-13]). Syntagmatically, the visual unit belongs to a chain of signs that together constitute the artistic composition--the individual unit's meaning being defined by its relation to the other units on the picture plane. At the same time, paradigmatic associations, which occur in the consciousness of the viewer, connect any given unit of signification with certain other absent figures on the basis of similarity, dissimilarity, or equivalence. For example, arrows signify one thing when held in the hand of a royal figure flanked by two genii and another when embedded in the body of a lion as part of a hunt scene. Likewise, paradigmatically, the significance of the held arrows is colored by knowledge of what could be interchanged for them--such as the libation cup or the staff that can also appear in the king's hand. Used properly, this method of reading images can aid in cracking the code of an unfamiliar iconographical system--free from reliance on texts and without succumbing to the naive notion that imagery signifies naturally.
With respect to the ancient world, this linguistic approach to visual representation has been most strongly associated with the study of Greek art, especially vase painting. Since the landmark exhibition La cite des images--organized in 1984 by scholars at the Centre Louis Gernet in Paris and the University of Lausanne--and its attendant volume of essays, this vast corpus of images has been profitably "read" so as to provide access to ancient Greek ideas about such diverse matters as sex, wine, and war. The vases have thereby become a major source for the study of Greek society, complementing what we can learn from the extant texts. In the United States, Gloria Ferrari Pinney--who sat on Atac's dissertation committee at Harvard--has been a powerful voice championing the linguistic approach to Greek iconography, and her aptly named book Figures of Speech (released in 2002) is a model for how to apply the method. Within ancient Near Eastern art, the Neo-Assyrian relief sculptures suggest themselves as a promising corpus to study with the method that has proved so fruitful for the Hellenists. …