Divine Matter-Energy In Mesopotamia: Visualizing The Numinous In Political Context Ca. Ninth–sixth Centuries Bce

Anastasia Amrhein, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation investigates the conceptions and experiences of the divine in the socio-political context of the Neo-Assyrian empire through two medium-based case studies: clay, and the figurines and plaques molded or modeled from this substance, and NA4 materials (i.e., natural and artificial stones) that were carved into cylinder and stamp seals. Informed by new materialism, the close study of objects, and the careful scrutiny of the ancient Mesopotamian textual record, this dissertation argues for the innate divinity and agency of matter as independent of human ascription. I demonstrate that the entire universe was understood by the Mesopotamians as divine matter-energy—an ambiguous, mutable, partible material force that lacked innate or consistent visual form. Various minerals were thus tangible fragments of the greater divine that extended beyond the visible lived human world. Specific technological-cum-ritual human acts, however—including the articulation of iconic visual form—could fix, quicken, focus, or direct divine matter-energy to specific ends. Clay was a ubiquitous material utilized by all social strata—it was the very stuff of (pro)creation, and thus social geo-political identity. Distinguishing between official and vernacular figurine traditions based on archaeological context, iconography, manufacture techniques, and textual evidence (or lack thereof), I argue that the clay-based magico-medical practices originated in the folk sphere by women were appropriated—along with female labor—by male scholar-priests in the service of the king. Nonetheless, vernacular figurines constituted resistances to imperial hegemony. I interpret early Neo-Assyrian seals of light and dark soft local stones—deeply associated with the land of Assyria—as belonging to the landed aristocracy that came to be at odds with the imperial enterprise. Coterminously with imperial restructuring, colorful, brilliant quartzes from the edges of the human world—acquired by Assyrian force—became the preferred medium for signaling one’s loyalty to the crown. Differences in carving techniques and iconographies between the two groups of seals further evince shifting conceptions of the divine as it was encountered in these portable objects that served administrative and amuletic functions.