The Sumerian Tile

PICT2610Well before Old Testament times in the Middle East, there was Sumeria whose largest city was Ur, the traditional home of Abraham, and this tile dating from about 2500 BC.  The tile is unimpressive, only about five inches square and is now at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.  It is easily overlooked sitting in a glass case surrounded by other artifacts.

The tile appears to be some sort of cartoon showing a silly, smiling bull with a giant bug biting his back, but it is actually a symbolic picture of the moon and sun and the cycle of life and death they represent.

We know the bull is not a natural bull by the comets on his legs and a human face with a square beard.  He is clearly a symbolic, cosmic bull, and we know the tile is telling a story.  But what?

The cosmic bull represents the moon, partly because his horns resemble the crescent moon, but more importantly, both the bull and moon were seen as stimulators (but not creators) of life.  The bull stimulates the cow to produce calves.  The Sumerians knew nothing of a sperm combining with an egg, but they did know a herd of cows would not produce calves without at least one busy bull, who logically got all the credit.  Similarly, the moon brought the cool of the night and the dew, restoring the plant life wilted almost to death each day by the hot desert sun.  In desert cultures, the sun is seen as the enemy of life.

The monthly phases of the moon were a powerful representation of the temporal cycle of birth, growth, decline, and death, but one in which death is always followed by rebirth and renewal,  here symbolized by the moon-bull.  Rebirth, however, is not immediate.  Once the waning moon disappears, it is dark three nights before reappearing as a new moon.  Christianity reflects this ancient observation as Christ remains dead for three days before his resurrection.

The sun, on the other hand, never changes and represents permanent spiritual life that requires continuing destruction of temporal life, just as the sun destroys the stars each morning and destroys exposed life in the heat of the desert.  The sun is represented on the tile as an eagle with a lion’s face and paws, both predatory animals.  It is taking a bite out of the bull just as each passing day takes a bite out of the waning moon.

The cosmic moon-bull, however, is unconcerned, even smiling.  He is a willing victim, knowing he will die, but also knowing he will be reborn to continue to stimulate the plant and animal life that humans need for food.  Thousands of years later, Christ is presented as a similar willing victim, willfully dying, knowing he will be reborn so man might live.  This is also true of our own lives as we willingly accept our death as necessary for future generations to be born.

The bull is pressing down with his one leg on stylized mounds that in Sumerian art represent the mystic mountains of mother earth.  He is pressing his life stimulation into the earth, but with his other leg he is lifting up the spirituality of life.  He is pressing on something that appears broken from the original, but my guess is it is the firmament, the imagined separator of heaven and earth, the eternal and temporal, mentioned in Genesis.

In summery, the tile shows the sun and moon together, representing both the temporal and spiritual aspects of life and their important relationship where death is a necessary step for new life to continue.  It is symbolic, a method of telling a story.  The Sumerians clearly did not believe such a scene actually existed.

Life and death, creation and destruction, are connected.   Everything we eat was once alive.  Bread was once grain growing in a field, an apple was once developing on a tree.  They were once alive and now they are not.  Many things have to die each day for us to live.  Prayers before a meal began in prehistoric times as giving thanks to the life given up for us to eat, to live.  All life lives on the death of other life, all of us in turn are both victors and victims, slayers and slain.  All of us daily feast on other life, symbolized by the blood and body of Christ, and in our acceptance of death all of us are Christ, the willing victim.

These amazingly profound insights are shown on this insignificant tile only a few inches square, made by an unsophisticated craftsman in a small civilized corner of a primitive world 4,500 years ago.  (The tile is pale orange in color. I darkened the background on the photo so the imagery would stand out.)


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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