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Work Cylinder seal of the priest-king
Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Mesopotamia
Cylinder seal of the priest-king
© 1987 RMN / Pierre et Maurice Chuzeville
Near Eastern Antiquities
The image on this cylinder seal shows a 'priest-king' participating in a liturgical ceremony in honor of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of fertility. This figure, who occupied the highest rank in the city-states of the Uruk period, combined both military and religious functions.
The appearance of the cylinder seal
Seals of cylindrical form appeared in Mesopotamia in the second half of the 4th millennium BC, rapidly replacing the stamp seals employed since the 5th millennium to authenticate the sealings that guaranteed the integrity of goods in storage or in transport. These small stone cylinders, carved all over, could easily be rolled in fresh clay to produce complex motifs, arranged in symbolic compositions. Reproducible at will, these impressions could thus serve as marks of ownership.
The appearance of such cylinder seals was not, however, an isolated phenomenon, but rather an integral part of a decisive transformation of society as a whole. The most important expression of this was the birth of the first cities, accompanied by the discovery of writing. The iconography of these cylinder seals thus reflects the new form of social organization prevailing in the cities, in which the dominant figure was the 'priest-king.'
The cult of the goddess Inanna
The 'priest-king' appears on this fragmentary cylinder seal in his cultic function, presiding at a ceremony in honor of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of fertility, whose most important sanctuary was in the city of Uruk. Dressed in a long skirt and wearing a cap or headband denoting his status, the priest-king seems to be making an offering, probably of a wheat-sheaf, in front of the sanctuary of the goddess, symbolized by the bundle of reeds tied with a streamer. He is followed by an assistant also bearing a sheaf of wheat: their offering being symbolically intended to feed the sacred herd of Inanna. The truncated cone at the top of the cylinder is also decorated in relief with a group of sheep, the property of the goddess and of her temple.
The offering of wheat testifies to the emblematic significance still attached to cereals, the first plants to be selected and grown. It is to be presented to Inanna, the great goddess of fertility, who governs the annual cycle of nature's regeneration. Her performance of this fundamental role depends in particular on the intensity of the worship addressed to her, and it is the responsibility of the priest-king - first among the humans who depend on her - to ensure the regularity of this worship and so guarantee the prosperity of the country.
BibliographyDelaporte Louis, Musée du Louvre, catalogue des cylindres, cachets et pierres gravées de style oriental, Hachette, 1920-1923, p. 106, pl. 69-8.
Amiet Pierre, La glyptique mésopotamienne archaïque, CNRS, 1980, pp. 75-77, pl. 44.
Cylinder seal of the priest-king
Uruk period, circa 3200 BC
Iraq, findspot unknown
H. 6.2 cm; Diam. 4.3 cm
Ancient Mesopotamia, from the earliest times to the 3rd millennium BC
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