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Work Vase depicting a leopard fighting a snake

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Iran

Vase tronconique représentant un affrontement entre une lionne et un serpent

© 2002 Musée du Louvre / Christian Larrieu

Near Eastern Antiquities
Iran

Author(s):
Agnès Benoit

This vase in the shape of a truncated cone is decorated with a motif often found on steatite recipients from the 3rd millennium BC: a leopard fighting a snake. The fight certainly refers to an episode in trans-Elamite mythology. Chlorite vases were luxury objects produced for export.

The production of chlorite objects for export

Chlorite, also known as steatite or serpentine, is a soft stone that is easy to carved and usually green but sometimes black or grey. It was frequently used between 2600 and 1700 BC in workshops mostly in southeast Iran, in the province of Kerman where veins of this stone are found. The reference site for this production has to date been Tepe Yahya, but the recent discovery of chlorite workshops in the Iranian province of Jiroft will provide further information about this craft. The objects were exported throughout the Near East, which explains their presence not only in Iran but also in Mesopotamia, Syria, and the Gulf region.

The leopard and the snake

The commonest chlorite objects have geometrical patterns of curls, braids, scales, or bricks. Plant motifs are common, especially date palms, which were grown locally. Architectural representations show curved lintels over doors and windows. The animal repertory is reduced to scorpions, snakes, felines, and birds repeated several times. The fights most commonly shown on chlorite vases are between leopards and snakes. For a long time, one of the only vessels to offer a full version of this struggle was that found in the temple of Ishtar at Nippur, Iraq. The inscription engraved on the truncated conical vase reads: "Innana and the Snake."
This vase is remarkable for the beautiful black color of the steatite and the almost complete scene, repeated twice. The leopard is standing on its hind legs so its front paws are free; it has thus twice seized the body of the snake that is rising up behind it. The adversaries' heads are at the same level, both with snarling open mouths. Although they belong to two very different species, the animals are treated in much the same way: with wrinkled muzzles. Both have ears, although the snake's are interlocking S-shapes. This is a surprising detail since it attributes to the animal with a sense of hearing, which is does not have in real life.
The theme of the fight is the snake's submission to the grip of the leopard, a mythological spirit that regulates the forces of nature.

Objects inlaid with materials of different colors

The hollows in the snake's body are almond-shaped cups; those in the leopard's body are round. They are meant to receive inlays of different materials, which have now partly disappeared. Each animal seems to have had its own material, but later analyses will settle this question. However, it is already clear that the inlays were in a contrasting color.

Bibliography

Benoit Agnès, "Acquisitions", in Revue du Louvre, n 3, juin 2003, p. 87.

Technical description

  • Vase tronconique représentant un affrontement entre une lionne et un serpent

  • Chlorite noire

    H. 14.5 cm; Diam. 8.5 cm

  • Don de la Société des Amis du Louvre, 2001 , 2001

    AO 31595

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Iran and Bactria
    Room 305
    Vitrine 1 : Tepe Giyan IV et III. Iran du sud-est : province de Kerman et désert de Lut.

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