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image of Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions

There is found in the ancient art of Mesopotamia an enigmatic bearded hero who appears in several attitudes, but often wrestling wild animals. An analysis of the art demonstrates that this figure is a guardian of the natural order. It is now known that the figure is not Gilgameš, as was once thought, but a ''lahmu'' (singular), and that the lahmū (plural) as a class, are the servants of the god Enki.

The material considered here reveals a consistent outlook wherein the universe is viewed as being in a dynamic, but not invulnerable, equilibrium. Everything has a place, or better, a latitude, and when it lives and dies within its latitude, balance is maintained. Paradoxically, the appetite of creatures to dominate and prevail over other forms of life was admitted as a legitimate factor in the equation of the universe. Every striving has both a natural scope and a natural limit. The art work in question comprises, as it were, a prayer in pictures that the limits be maintained. From all this a concept of nature implicitly emerges: it is the field wherein gods, demi-gods, humans, animals and plants all struggle to sustain their existence. It is, among other things, where animals and human consume, and protect their own resources from being consumed.

The wrestling motif is significant in these art works. With few exceptions, the bearded hero wrestles, rather than stabs, wild beasts attacking domestic animals. Implicitly, it propagates the view that struggle is necessary to maintain the natural balance. Wrestling (checking), not slaying, represents the appointed way to maintain order against the threat of the wild. The wrestling hero thus maintains a ''co-existence of contraries''. Wrestling an opponent allows for the opponent to be subdued without being destroyed.

The topic is large, and naturally opens onto other questions. It is necessary to limit the paper, and I have done so in three ways: in time, geography and artistic material. In time, and geographically, I concentrate on Early Dynastic Sumer. I restrict my consideration of the artistic material to the art of cylinder seals, and even then discuss only a selection of the available seals.


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