Shamash, Ishtar and Igigi – Floater structures in ancient Mesopotamia

Shamash, Ishtar and Igigi - Floater structures in ancient Mesopotamia
Shamash, Ishtar and Igigi - Floater structures in ancient Mesopotamia

[dropcap]In[/dropcap] Western culture, the phenomenon of eye floaters (or muscae volitantes) is primarily understood in line with modern ophthalmology as “vitreous opacities”. However, the review of mythical and spiritual visual arts from former and non-Western cultures discloses abstract symbols that resemble the typical structures of shining structure floaters (cf. Tausin 2012a). This suggests that floaters have been widely interpreted as a mythical or spiritual phenomenon; and that there might be a perceptual dimension of floaters that is hardly known to modern man. This article provides a trip to the visual worlds of Mesopotamia and suggests that floaters have found their way into the art and imagination of this ancient civilization. 10‘000 years ago, Neolithic man gradually went over from nomadic lifestyles to sedentary farming. In doing so, they laid the basis for the first known civilizations in history. Among the earliest civilized areas was the “land between the rivers” (Ancient Greek: Mesopotamia) in modern Iraq. From the 4th millennium BC to 500 BC, this land between and around the rivers Euphrates and Tigris was a melting pot of peoples with different cultures – Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, Hurrians and other peoples. They cultivated plants on irrigated fields, did trading and craft, sacrificed to the gods, founded cities and dynasties, and built empires through conquering expeditions. The remains of their buildings, steles, clay tables, cylinder seals, paintings, ceramics and metalwork of bronze and iron witness a moving history – and sometimes contain shapes and symbols that resemble entoptic phenomena. Could parts of the Mesopotamian cultures be influenced by entoptics like shining structure floaters?

Shamans in Mesopotamia?

The perception of geometric entoptic phenomena is intensified and deepened by consciousness altering techniques of ecstasy (Tausin 2012b/2011). Such techniques may exist since Upper Paleolithic times (from 40‘000 BC), as geometric rock painting in Stone Age caves and rock shelters suggests (Dowson/Lewis-Williams 1988; Clottes/Lewis-Williams 1997). In Mesopotamian religions, there is little evidence of mind-altering practices. As in ancient Egypt (Tausin 2012c), religion consisted of the priestly and individual ritual worship of gods. They were represented in cult images and statues in the temples and were part of myths and legends. The relationship of man to the gods was distant; the gods were approached with feelings of awe and humility. By the means of divination and the discovery of omens in nature, Mesopotamians learned the intentions of the gods regarding the fate of particular human beings or the state (Hrouda 1997; Ringgren 979). All of this does not fit the character of shamanic practices for knowledge and healing. However, some of the magical acts, mythical accounts and depictions in Mesopotamian art could testify to an ancient oriental shamanism which also influenced Central Asian and Siberian shamanism (Eliade 1957; cf. Walter/Fridman 2004). For example, the underworld journeys of some mythical figures like goddess Inanna or the wild Enkidu; the performance of healing rituals including drum rhythms and whirling dance; and the ritual and medical significance of consciousness altering plants like cannabis, incense, mandrake, deadly nightshade and henbane, possibly mirrored in the “herb of immortality”, which was searched by king Gilgamesh in the famous epic of Gilgamesh – all of this indicates kinds of shamanic practices in Mesopotamia (Hrouda 1997; Walter/Fridman 2004; Rätsch 2004; Ringgren 979; cf. Lawson 2004; Bryce 2002).

Floaters as cosmic pillar and tree of life

Shamanic ideas of the center of the world (axis mundi) – a cosmic mountain, pillar or tree linking the three cosmic spheres of heaven, earth and underworld – are widespread in many cultures and probably stem from prehistoric times (Eliade 1957; cf. Mahlstedt 2010). There are abstract symbols in architecture and visual arts of Mesopotamia that may relate not only to these shamanic notions, but – because of their representation – also to floaters. For example, freestanding columns, pillars, posts or poles are repeatedly depicted on reliefs and cylinder seals. Their tops consist of spearheads, heads of animals, but also circular symbols. While all of these types of pillars represent gods (cf. Handcock 1912), those with spheres or circles are associated with astral gods (cf. Cochrane N/A a, N/A b) (see figures 1-3):

Shamash, Ishtar and Igigi - Floater structures in ancient Mesopotamia
Figure 1: A distinctive feature of the columns flanking entrances of cities or temples are the concentric circular disks attached to them in pairs (Sitchin 1999).
Figure 2: A believer stands between two gods. Pillars with spearheads, crescent moon and spheres are erected behind the gods. The spheres seem to be connected to the gods who are themselves performing acts with objects of strings and spheres. Unknown origin, ca. 8th century BC (Uehlinger 2000).
Figure 3: Syro-Hittite cylinder seal: The Canaanite gods of dusk and dawn, Shahar and Shalim, stand around a cosmic column consisting mainly of spheres (Du Mesnil du Buisson 1973).

The Mesopotamian tree of life (kishkanu) is described as having roots that reach down to the underworld, its trunk symbolizes the earth, while the crown extends to the heavenly sphere (cf. Baum, heiliger, in: RIA; cf. Stutley 2003; Eliade 1957). The tree as a whole represents the seat of god, the guardian of the temple of the sun, or the tree of life whose fruits contain the liquor of immortality (Perrot 1937). Some of the images of the tree show similar structures as the pillars (figure 4):

Figure 4: Cosmic tree as an abstract network of strings and spheres (cf. Parpola 1993), flanked by kings and gryphon-like guardian spirits (Uehlinger 2002).

Generally, both the cosmic pillar and the cosmic tree are concepts associated with shamanism and consciousness altering practices. The pictures shown here suggest that the pillar and the tree are not only imagined figuratively, but also as networks of strings and spheres. These strings and spheres convey meaning of their own: they are associated with, or represent, celestial bodies, deities and immortality. Seeing and experiencing shining structure floaters (cf. Tausin 2009) opens the way to an entoptic explanation of such associations: Floaters are threads filled with isolated or complete rows of spheres. Most are curved like branches; a few are straight like a pillar or a trunk. They are “celestial bodies” or deities insofar as they can be seen as bright lights at the sky. Finally, they appear or intensify in the shamans’ or seers’ central visual field during energetic states of consciousness, i.e. states of awe and wonder which contribute to the feeling of “sacredness” vis-à-vis the perceived. It is reasonable, then, to consider that the tree and the pillar have been inspired by floaters which were experienced as “sacred” and as the “world’s center” by those seeing them.

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