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Work Mace head of King Mesilim

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Mesopotamia

Masse d'armes vouée par Mesilim, roi de Kish

© 1998 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Near Eastern Antiquities
Mesopotamia

Author(s):
Pouysségur Patrick

This large mace head was dedicated at a shrine in the Sumerian city of Girsu by Mesilim, king of Kish. It is decorated with a lion-headed eagle, emblem of Ningirsu, patron deity of the city, holding six rearing lions in its talons.

A votive weapon

Decorated with a lion-headed eagle dominating six rearing lions, this mace head is exceptional both for its size and for the quality of its decoration, carved in relief. It is a votive object, as indicated by the Sumerian inscription in archaic script: "Mesilim, king of Kish, builder of the temple of Ningirsu, brought [this mace head] for Ningirsu, Lugalshaengur [being] prince of Lagash." In Mesopotamia the mace, which made its first appearance towards the end of the fourth millennium BC, was not only a weapon of war but also a symbol of power. Generally made of luxury materials such as stone or metal, mace heads have been found in great numbers in Sumerian temples.

The supremacy of the Kings of Kish

The Mesilim (or Mesalim in another possible reading) identified in the inscription as having dedicated the object was the ruler of the city of Kish around 2550 BC. His gesture seems to indicate that he exercised some form of authority over the prince of Lagash. Kish, a powerful city in the north of the land of Sumer, would have enjoyed political and religious supremacy over several Sumerian city-states in the period 2700-2500 BC. Mesilim thus found himself in a position of arbitration in a conflict between the city-state of Lagash and neighboring Umma, establishing the line of their common border and marking it by the erection of a stele.

The symbolism of the lion-headed eagle

The dedication of the mace head bears witness to the desire of the king of Kish to honor the local gods, and in particular Ningirsu, patron deity of Girsu, whose temple he claims he has rebuilt. This massive mace head is decorated on its upper surface with the lion-headed eagle, symbol of the storm cloud that accompanies thunder and emblem of Ningirsu, guardian of the city's prosperity. Wings outspread, it clutches in its talons six rearing lions, each holding the hindparts of the next around the mace head.
With their bodies viewed in profile and their heads presented full face, these lions seem to leap out from the mace head as symbols of the savage forces of nature. The impression of power is accentuated by their dilated eyes, hollowed out and originally inlaid, which lend their expression a striking intensity. In becoming an emblem of kingship (as on the votive spear-point dedicated at Girsu by one of Mesilim's predecessors), the lion symbolized the submission of natural forces to the social order imposed by the sovereign. The latter was merely the representative of divine power, however, which is why the lions are overcome by the lion-headed eagle, that is to say by the god Ningirsu, true sovereign and protector of the people of Lagash.

Bibliography

Amiet Pierre, L'Art antique du Proche-Orient, Paris, Mazenod, 1977, fig. 302, p. 364.
Parrot André, Tello, vingt campagnes de fouille (1877-1933), Paris, Albin Michel, 1948, p. 72.
Sarzec Édouard de, Découvertes en Chaldée, Paris, Leroux, 1884-1912, pp. 223-6.

Technical description

  • Masse d'armes vouée par Mesilim, roi de Kish

    Dynasties archaïques III, vers 2550 avant J.-C.

    Tello, ancienne Girsu

  • Calcaire

    H. 19 cm; Diam. 16 cm

  • Fouilles de Sarzec, 1881 , 1881

    AO 2349

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Ancient Mesopotamia, from the earliest times to the 3rd millennium BC
    Room 1a
    Vitrine 5 : Epoque des dynasties archaïques de Sumer, vers 2900 - 2340 avant J.-C. Antiquités de Tello, ancienne Girsu.

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