Monday, August 19, 2013

Esoteric symbolism in the tablet of Shamash


The Tablet of Shamash,  a Babylonian document dating from the mid-early 800s BC, gives us another example of a complex spiritual cosmology in what appears to be a fairly simple image supposedly depicting the supreme power of a particular king. The inscriptions specifically say that that's what the image is; yet there is much more going on in this image than just a reiteration of the king's power. The king was a symbolic representative of sacred forces which were universally believed to be in operation in these societies; and every one of his actions, successes, and achievements had to be cast in the light of the inner, or spiritual, significance of man's nature and his existence on the planet.

The inner and outer aspects of Being and society were, in other words, nowhere near as separated in ancient times as they are today; and, as in the classic example of the much later temple decorations at Angkor Wat, public imagery served a dual purpose; first of all, it depicted external events, and second of all, a stylized iconography communicating well known and long-standing inner truths, which are still available to us today, although our own societies and iconography have largely forgotten them.

 I'm bringing this particular example to the attention of readers because there is so much information in this apparently simple bas-relief. Let's begin with the three figures on the left:


These three figures represent the three centers, in order, from left to right, moving center (movement of the hands), emotional center (devotional prayer) and intellectual center (technical tools in the right-hand.) The figure of intellectual center is grasping the base of the altar that holds the solar disk, indicating that the intelligence, along with the other two centers, seeks union with a higher principle. That union has not yet been achieved, because the base of the altar is significantly empty.


 To the right of the three men — ensconced in a unique space representing a higher level — sits a much larger figure, representing Being, or real "I."


 Above the altar, we see a circle representing the solar disk — the influence of a higher energy, which is necessary in order to unify the three centers and bridge the gap between them and a higher level of being.


 The disc represents the law of octaves, and its relationship to Gurdjieffs' enneagram is apparent.


 The disc itself is dangled by angelic forces from above.


An interesting detail is introduced with the tree that reaches from earth to heaven, separating the King, or master, from the three centers. The column has the same base that the solar disk rests on at both the top and the bottom, effectively showing the transmission of energy from higher to lower levels. Both are pointed in the same direction, upwards, indicating that they receive energy from above and transmit it to a lower element which also receives it.



 This represents the descent of a higher energy onto the earth from the level above it. It's important to note that the angelic figures supervising the dissent of this higher energy are holding emblematic representations of chakra energy familiar from other esoteric babylonian art.


 Compare these chakra elements to those found on the bas relief at the temple of Ashurnasirpal in Nimrud, which dates from about the same period:



 The figure on the right side of the diagram, representing a developed master, or a higher level of being, sits on a throne which is occupied by two heraldic elements. Typically, the heraldic beasts in a mural show a man between these two beasts with the beasts facing him; this represents a man who is still struggling to situate himself between two levels. In this case, the beasts are beneath the man and turned away from one another, clearly symbolizing that he has mastered the art of standing between two levels.



 The master holds two instruments, a measuring rod and a coil of rope. Both of these instruments represent mastery and an ability to discriminate. They are the direct precursors of the crook and the flail held by Egyptian kings; I'll cover that subject in a future post. In all of the iconographic appearances, holding these tools represents a higher level of responsibility and understanding, one that confers upon the holder the sacred duty of caring for those beneath him.


 The entire scene has a river flowing under it, represented by rippling water. This has multiple meanings, among others, the unconscious or subconscious forces in man.


 This also represents the underworld, a lower level.  Man stands between two levels; this represents the lower one, which is usually the case with water, and a higher level is represented by the angelic forces.


 The inclusion of tiny representations of the solar disk in this confluence of water at the lower level is a representation of the fractal nature of the cosmos, an iteration of the teaching, "as above, so below."

 You'll taken note that the master has the same water engraved as a pattern on his garment. The water is flowing both upwards and downwards, representing  and exchange of energies between the two levels, mediated by the master.


 Another detail worth mentioning is that of the three planets represented in the room with the master: the moon, the sun, and Venus.

 This indicates that even the master is under planetary influences, those from a lower level (the moon), those from a higher level (the sun), and those from the planetary or astral level (Venus.) We can thus infer that the master is a master of the astral level: a man who has formed his astral body.

 We can see from this analysis that fairly simple, ordinary looking pieces of artwork from this culture actually embody a great deal of sacred teaching, all of which would have been familiar to the priesthood and esoteric societies of that civilization. Again, like the Hindus at Angkor Wat, esoteric spiritual practice was so deeply interwoven with ordinary cultural understandings that depicting it publicly in murals and other art was considered to be routine.

Modern archaeologists and art historians have little or no understanding of the esoteric teachings that came out of these ancient societies, so they are generally unable to understand the specific significance of images as interpreted above; yet the images faithfully and exactly depict esoteric spiritual practices and understandings that have managed to survive throughout thousands of years of civilization. 

It's only in the last thousand years or so—mostly since the Renaissance began—that the extinction of esoteric meaning in art began, an extinction that has accelerated and very nearly completed itself in the last two centuries. We can, however, see that artwork of this kind was undoubtedly an example of what Gurdjieff called "objective" art, since it codifies and specifically conveys universal truths about the nature of man and his place in the universe.

May your soul be filled with light.













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