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Composite Beings in Neo-Babylonian Art


An examination of all the extant, provenanced depictions of composite beings, Mischwesen, in Neo-Babylonian iconography sheds important new light on the worldview of the last great Mesopotamian civilization. The types of hybrids that are portrayed include such disparate forms as the apkallu and the genius in human form, as well as creatures based on bulls, lions, canines, winged quadrupeds, fish, birds, scorpions, and snakes. Each composite being is analyzed in terms of its physical components, its context within scenes, its historical development, and its interpretation in NB texts.

Within the hierarchical cosmic community, some lower deities and sub-divine beings appear in composite form. These play a key role in the cosmos by interacting with gods, with each other, with humans, and with natural animals. Their behavior parallels dynamics found in natural life, such as in competition, conflict, predation, protection, and in the service of others who are more powerful. In hybrids the capabilities of natural animals and humans are heightened by the selective addition of features derived from other species. There is no consistent correlation, however, between the strength of a natural creature and the relative power of the superhuman being that it symbolizes, or between its physical complexity and its placement in the cosmic hierarchy. In fact, the transcendence of high gods is often emphasized by their simple representation through attribute animals in natural form.

Portrayals of composite beings often express the need for protection from malevolent powers by beneficent beings, some of whom can be accessed only through human mediators, such as ritual functionaries. Special relationships between supernatural beings and elite humans, especially the king, make such humans indispensable and therefore support their roles in the existing social order. It appears that the choice of a particular being portrayed on a given object could be influenced by factors such as its owner's profession, religious and/or political affiliations, and especially by the apotropaic function(s) of specific composite beings.

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