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Work Table decorated with serpents and deities bearing vessels spouting streams of water

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Iran

Table ornée de serpents et de divinités aux eaux jaillissantes

© 2004 RMN / Franck Raux

Near Eastern Antiquities
Iran

Author(s):
Herbin Nancie

This table, edged with serpents and resting on deities carrying vessels spouting streams of water, was doubtless originally a sacrificial altar. The holes meant the blood would drain away as water flowed from the vessels. Water was an important theme in Mesopotamian mythology, represented particularly by the god Enki and his acolytes. This table also displays the remarkable skills of Elamite metalworkers.

A sacrificial table

The table, edged with two serpents, rested on three sides on five figures that were probably female deities. Only the busts and arms of the figures survive. The fourth side of the table had an extension, which must have been used to slot the table into a wall. The five busts are realistic in style. Each of the deities was holding an object, since lost, which was probably a water vessel, cast separately and attached by a tenon joint. Water played a major role in such ceremonies and probably gushed forth from the vessels. Along the sides of the table are sloping surfaces leading down to holes, allowing liquid to drain away. This suggests that the table was used for ritual sacrifices to appease a god. It was believed that men were created by the gods and were responsible for keeping their temples stocked and providing them with food. The sinuous lines of the two serpents along the edge of the table mark off holes where the blood of the animals, sacrificed to assuage the hunger of the gods, would have drained away.

The importance of water in Mesopotamian mythology

In Mesopotamia, spirits bearing vessels spouting streams of water were the acolytes of Enki/Ea, the god of the Abyss and of fresh water. The fact that they figure in this work reflects the extent of the influence of Mesopotamian mythology in Susa. Here, they are associated with another Chtonian symbol, the snake, often found in Iranian iconography. The sinuous lines of the serpents resemble the winding course of a stream. It is thought that temples imitated the way streams well up from underground springs by the clever use of underground channels. Water - the precious liquid - was at the heart of Mesopotamian religious practice, being poured out in libations or used in purification rites.

Objects made for a new religious capital

Under Untash-Napirisha, the founder of the Igihalkid Dynasty, the Elamite kingdom flourished. He founded a new religious capital, Al-Untash - modern-day Chogha Zanbil - some 40 kilometers southeast of Susa. However, the project was short-lived. His successors soon brought large numbers of religious objects back to Susa, the former capital. This table was certainly among them. Its large size and clever drainage system reflect the remarkable achievements of metalworking at the time.

Bibliography

Amiet Pierre, Suse 6000 ans d'histoire, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1988, pp.98-99 ; fig. 57.
Miroschedji Pierre de, "Le dieu élamite au serpent", in : Iranica antiqua, vol.16, 1981, Gand, Ministère de l'Éducation et de la Culture, 1989, pp.16-17, pl. 10, fig.3.

Technical description

  • Table ornée de serpents et de divinités aux eaux jaillissantes

    14th century BC

    Tell of the Acropolis, Susa, Iran

  • Bronze

    H. 19.5 cm; W. 15.7 cm; L. 69.5 cm

  • Jacques de Morgan excavations, 1898

    Sb 185

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Iran, Susiana (Middle Elamite period)
    Room 10

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Additional information about the work

Ekta (slide) Ali Meyer (CD Rom, OA interactive terminal)