Gudea (Piety & Power) (Ancient Sumer)

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The first thing I noticed was the ancient ruler Gudea’s large headed and calm disposition, I misread the wall label. It said he was a “governor” so I assumed he was a mere courtier, ready to receive supplicants and supplications. He wears his generosity and piety on his sleeve, as it were. In a modest seated position, but not too modest, the inscriptions etched onto his robe testify to powerful beneficence. It turns out that what we’re looking at is piety and power. Given their antiquity, I’m still surprised slightly by the strong verisimilitude that characterizes these sculptural representations of him. He looks modern, like a cross between the Buddha and Mussolini. You can find statues of Gudea here at the Met and at the Louvre.

Everything I know about Gudea I got from the Met and Wikipedia, from which I quote below. No mere court figure, he was a ruler (ensi) of the state of Lagash in Southern Mesopotamia who ruled ca. 2144 – 2124 BC. Lagash was an important Sumerian city in the late 3rd millennium BC located just a bit north from the point in southern Iraq where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet.

“[H]is inscriptions emphasize the building of irrigation channels and temples, and the creation of precious gifts to the gods. Materials for his buildings and statues were brought from all parts of western Asiacedar wood from the Amanus mountains, quarried stones from Lebanoncopper from northern Arabiagold and precious stones from the desert between Canaan and Egyptdiorite from Magan (Oman), and timber from Dilmun (Bahrain) Lagašite rulers, including Ur-Ningirsu and Ur-Bau, whose reigns predated Gudea, referred to themselves as énsi, or governor, of Lagaš, and reserved the term lugal only for their gods or as a matter of rank in a relationship, but never as a political device. The continued use of lugal in reference to deities seems to indicate a conscious attempt on the parts of the rulers to assume a position of humility in relation to the world—whether this was honest humility or a political ploy is unknown.”

Reflecting a violent historical era, Gudea was particularly devoted to “Ningirsu the war god, for whom Gudea built macesspears, and axes, all appropriately named for the destructive power of Ningirsu—enormous and gilt. However, the devotion for Ningirsu was especially inspired by the fact that this was Gudea’s personal god and that Ningirsu was since ancient times the main god of the Lagashite region (together with his spouse Ba’u or Baba)… [T]he common intimation that Gudea was a peaceful ruler, who funded his projects through trade, ignores the attention paid to Ningirsu, as well as the martial nature of Southern Mesopotamia in general. While Gudea was not likely an autocrat who ruled over all of Southern Mesopotamia, this part of the world was full of religious fervor and universal conflict.”

These and other like statues were installed in the temples he built. As for the material constitution of the statue, it is made of diorite, a “grey to dark-grey intermediate  intrusive igneous rock composed principally of plagioclase feldspar (typically andesine), biotitehornblende, and/or pyroxene.” This is the hard stuff of sovereign power sponsoring religion and taking its place in the temple. As physical objects, these things were were made to last, and have held up well. That’s why they look so good.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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