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Problems with Divine Kingship at Ugarit

June 13, 2008

As I mentioned before, I’ve been working through Religion and Power: Divine Kingship in the Ancient World and Beyond, ed Nicole Brisch (available here). There are some serious implication for divine kingship at Ugarit posed by Irene Winter’s arguments in “Touched by the Gods: Visual Evidence for the Divine Status of Rulers in the Ancient Near East.”

Winter works through images of kings and gods from the entire history on Mesopotamia. Her basic proposition is that

even when not explicitly accorded divinity per se, rulers nevertheless could be represented verbally and visually as if they occupied a place in society that merited divine attributes, qualities, and status… (p. 75).

Hammurapi and ShamashA fine example of such a visual representation is the depiction of Hammurapi on his law stele (image from here). While Hammurapi is not being depicted in the blatantly divine manner that we find in the victory stele of Naram-Sin, Winter argues that there are subtle indication that Hammurapi still is being accorded divine status. Note that Hammurapi is on eye level with Shamash. Indeed, he stands slightly taller than Shamash in this depiction. While scholars have tended to see here the aspects of the king’s subservience to the deity, Winter thinks that the stele actually portrays parity.

Baal SteleThis called to mind the quite different depiction of divine relations with the king one finds at Ugarit. On the Baʿlu Stele (image found here) the deity is depicted as gigantic as opposed to the tiny human to the right. Conventional exegesis hold that this figure is in fact the king. The mighty god standing behind (literally) the earthly monarch.

This representation has been marshaled as proof of the divinity of the king at Ugarit; but in light of Winter’s argument, I find this interpretation unconvincing. Granting that the king is the most likely candidate for the figure, I don’t see divinity at play. Yes, the king rules by divine rite, but that does not indicate that he is, himself, divine. Using Winter’s methodology from this article, it would seem that the visual representation in now way implies that the king holds “divine attributes, qualities, and status.”

The king is to be feared and followed (least the wrath of Baʿlu be unleashed), but he’s still a mere mortal.

  1. June 13, 2008 4:03 pm

    Her study is fascinating and helpful in many respects, however, I’m not sure I follow her treatment of the Hammurapi depiction. It’s true that Shamash and Hammurapi are at eye level, but this is only because Shamash is seated, a trope that indicates a sign of superiority to the person standing in front. Futhermore, Shamash has the typical divine head gear while Hammurapi does not.

  2. Rochelle Altman permalink
    June 14, 2008 12:26 am

    Well, I have studied the imagery of pictorial “inscriptions” as well. I think that she has missed one very important aspect of the divine rite (and right) of kings. The king is the chosen of the god (as shown so clearly in the Ugaritic example); he is not himself divine. The king is the mortal *hands* of the god. As such, he is backed by, and protected by, the god.

    As far as the Hammurapi imagery goes, Charles is absolutely correct; Shamash is seated. If he were standing he would tower over the king. In this image, as Charles duly noted, Shamash is to the front. Hammurapi is depicted as the humble mortal who receives his right to issue laws from the god.

    And don’t be so quick to assume that Naram-Sin is claiming divinity; he is not. This is a pictorial “inscription.” You have to show WHY the major figure has the right to dedicate a public votive inscription. In this case, Naram-Sin is not wearing a crown of many rounds of horns; he is wearing a plain helmet with two horns sticking out from the sides (like a Viking helmet — and there is an interesting aspect to the choice of style for the Viking helmet that possibly incorporates the same concept of protection from a god). The imagery fulfills the entitlement formula and shows that he is the chosen of the god who is entitled to dedicate this offering. Naram-Sin, himself, is staring upwards at the towering pinnacle and the three suns that represent the god. (You do have to look at the whole.)

    Indeed, the Naram-Sin pictorial is a victory-dedicatory votive offering — including the entitlement formula.

    After all, I do discuss all this this in my article in AO 5.

  3. Rochelle Altman permalink
    June 14, 2008 12:34 am

    Oh, dear, part got deleted

    “In this image, as Charles duly noted, Shamash is to the front. ”

    Should read, “In this image, as Charles duly noted, Shamash is to the fore front in the plane of the composition and Hammurapi is standing in front of the god.”

  4. June 15, 2008 9:00 pm

    Rochelle and Charles, thanks for the comments.

    Like I said in the post, I’m rifting off of Irene Winter’s article. Specifically on Hammurapi she says the following:

    On the Law Stele, Hammurapi is depicted making direct eye contact with (the image of) the deity as he receives the authority to promulgate his laws. His head is actually higher than that of the seated sun-god, and the compositional balance suggests a relationship born not of subservience but of almost parity (p. 83).

    Her overall point is that there is a large overlap between sacral and divine kingship. It is only at specific points and for specific necessities of state that the kings pushed the cultic envelope and laid claim to deity; but the ritual, iconographic and ideological underpinnings are always there, just below the surface.

    Winter might be wrong in this summation, but her discussion is at least providing some fruitful discussion on the issue.

  5. June 18, 2008 4:27 pm

    two comments by Rochelle Altman were removed at her request


  1. Problems with divine kingship at ugarit « Heart Issues for LDS

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