Heaven on Earth: Temples, Ritual, & Cosmic Symbolism in the Ancient World

Organizer, Deena Ragavan
The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago
1155 East 58th Street, Chicago, IL 60637
March 2-3, 2012


Claus Ambos (Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg)
Title: “Temporary Ritual Structures and Their Cosmological Symbolism in Ancient Mesopotamia”
Abstract: In ancient Near Eastern rituals, temporary structures and installations which existed only for the duration of the respective ritual performance played an important role. Such ritual space was composed of buildings or structures made of perishable materials as, for example, reed, flour or dust, and (loose) earth. Both by their architectural design as well as by the movement and actions of the ritual’s participants performed in them, these buildings expressed essential features of Mesopotamian world view and cosmic geography.

This topic is discussed in detail with examples from various rituals which served to get rid of impurity. The ritual handbooks that form the base of this study are from the first millennium BCE. The focus of this talk is on the written sources, since pictorial representations of these rituals are not extant.

John Baines (University of Oxford)
Title: “Sources of Egyptian Temple Cosmology: Divine Image, Ritual Performer, King”
Abstract: The aim of this paper is to address a gap in interpretations of ancient Egyptian pictorial compositions and of the architectural form of temples. From predynastic times (late 4th millennium) onward, cosmological elements can be identified in the design and imagery of objects dedicated in ritual contexts. The most powerful of these objects, the palettes, relate to ritual use of pigments, presumably for painting the body of the deity, a ritual performer, or both. The vital mediating figure in these compositions is the king, who is presented as the sole or prime performer. The earliest examples show rituals outside temples, while later sources, first attested from the late Early Dynastic period (ca. 2600), represent the interaction of king and deity in an abstract, consecrated space. The ultimate aim of the king’s depicted actions and of the decoration of sacred objects and temples is to assert and to celebrate order against disorder. The fruits of order are dedicated to the gods, who must be enticed to dwell in consecrated spaces and to bestow their benefits on the world.

What is little understood in this configuration is the relationship between the figure of the deity and the architectural form of the temple. The latter is much studied for the Graeco-Roman period, which provides the richest evidence, and similar ideas can be traced back to earlier times. The deity and temple cosmology are bound together essentially by rituals that enliven the deity’s presence. Two principal sets of questions emerge. How did ritual enact order, who performed the ritual, and how did the performer’s role relate to the crucial symbolic figure of the king? And can we improve interpretations of the relationship between the rituals performed and the configuration of the spaces in which they took place?

Gary Beckman (University of Michigan)
Title: “Intrinsic and Constructed Sacred Space in Hittite Anatolia”
Abstract: As a society well adapted to its environment, the Hittite kingdom paid appropriate attention in its state religion to the powers perceived to be responsible for the thriving of nature and humans. Prominent among these forces in second-millennium Anatolia was water — provided by rivers and springs as well as by precipitation sent by the Storm-gods resident upon mountain peaks. While the cosmic forces immanent in these components of the world as experienced by men and women could be — and were — worshiped on the spot in the countryside, they were also represented by built elements in and around the Hittite capital. This paper discusses the role within Hittite cult of both cosmic features reconstructed within Hattusa (e.g., the Sacred Pool complex) and natural places architecturally modified to serve as shrines (e.g., Yazılıkaya and Gavurkalesi).

Matthew Canepa (University of Minnesota)
Title: “The Transformation of Sacred Space, Topography, and Royal Ritual in Persia and the Ancient Iranian World”
Abstract: This paper explores the development of Iranian sacred space, topography, architecture, and royal ritual from the Achaemenid through the Sasanian era (550 BCE–642 CE). It analyzes the impact of the Seleukid Empire on Iranian cultures and religions (broadly defined) and the subsequent emergence of new traditions of sacred architecture and cult under the Arsacids, Kushans, and Sasanians. In addition to considering the transformation of Iranian traditions, it investigates the impact of these new traditions on the Mediterranean and the lands in the interstices, such as Armenia, Pontos, and Commagene, which selectively appropriated Greek, Iranian, and Mesopotamian traditions. As an important subtheme, this paper considers the introduction of new sacred topographies within the context of royal competition and active manipulation of patrons who inhabited and competed in multiple religious, architectural, and royal idioms.

Elizabeth Frood (University of Oxford)
Title: “Egyptian Temple Graffiti and the Limits of State Religion and Personal Piety”
Abstract: The late second and early first millennium BCE in Egypt is characterized by broad changes in non-royal display in temples. Included among these developments is an increase in the frequency of graffiti inscribed on the exterior and interior walls of temples, including prayers, images of gods, and records of involvement in festivals. These inscriptions, particularly the scenes of gods, have been widely interpreted as expressions of popular cult practices and personal piety. The graffiti in these contexts require a critical reassessment, particularly in light of restrictions on access imposed in temples, the diversity of motivations for and styles of graffiti, and, more generally, problems with their dating. This paper uses clusters of graffiti in the state temple complex of Karnak in Thebes (modern Luxor) as case studies to reassess perceived distinctions between personal and state religion in temple environments. This paper explores preliminary sets of criteria for dating and establishing the different styles, based, in part, on context, content, and the media used to inscribe the graffiti. These considerations begin to reveal how the inscription of some graffiti was an institutional practice that created alternative topographies of sacred space, appropriating potent inner areas and intensifying the significance of exterior and secondary spaces. The deities selected for display may also generate distinct cosmologies — new patterns of divine relation and action — which overlay, complement, or extend traditional temple decoration. Graffiti as a devotional and ritual act intersects, and perhaps mediates, personal and institutional agency, structures, and practices in temples; this paper examines the implications of such potential mediations for priestly power structures and changing meanings of sacred space in the first millennium.

Uri Gabbay (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
Title: “‘We Are Going to the House in Prayer’: The Cultic Topographical Context of the Emesal Prayers in Ancient Mesopotamia”
Abstract: Prayers written in the Emesal register of Sumerian were known to have been part of the temple cult of ancient Mesopotamia from the end of the third millennium BCE up to the end of cuneiform culture in the last centuries BCE. The content of these prayers was lamentful, mourning the destruction of cities and temples. But the prayers were not intended as memorial rites. They were intended for the pacification of the divinity, recalling past or potential destructions, and asking the god to stay calm and not bring such destruction again.

There is internal evidence from the content of the prayers themselves and external evidence from ritual texts for the cultic topographical context of the prayers. They could be performed in the cella of the god or elsewhere in the temple, very often during processions. A close look at the prayers reveals that the theology expressed in various parts of the prayers fits the topographical context in which these parts were performed. For example, the image of the god abandoning his own temple in rage was reflected by processions which escorted the cultic image out of its temple.

Similarly, the final sections of various prayers, which asked the god to calm down, were closely connected to a recitation in front of the seated deity in his or her cella after the procession. This emphasizes the theological perception that the seated god in his cella is the place where he is most calm. When a section asking for the pacification of the god does not occur in prayers, it can be shown that this is to be connected to the cultic topographical context of that specific prayer, which occurred outside the cella. Thus, a close connection could be found between the cultic topographical context of the Emesal prayers and their theological content and perception.

Susanne Görke (Johannes Gutenberg-Universität, Mainz)
Title: “Hints at Temple Topography and Cosmic Geography from Hittite Sources”
Abstract: As the title of this paper indicates, its main focus lies in “temple topography” and “cosmic geography.” “Ritual practice,” the second focus of the conference, is rather disregarded; Hittite cult inventories and festival texts provide some information about the veneration of gods and rituals in temples. Some short examples will be presented. More attention is drawn to temple topography: the first part of the paper focuses on hints of Hittite texts concerning temples, their physical appearance, their position in town, and divine journeys. The second part takes account of Hittite cosmic geography. Volkert Haas, in his 1994 Geschichte der hethitischen Religion, gave an overview of Hittite(-Hurrian) creation myths, Hittite conceptions of heaven and earth and genealogies of gods. Already Heinrich Otten and Jana Siegelová suggested that, besides the tri-partition of the world known from Mesopotamia (heaven, earth, underworld), a second concept might have existed in Anatolia that opposed heaven to earth (and) the underworld. Irene Tativili was recently able to underline the existence of two different cosmological concepts in Hittite Anatolia, already distinguished by Itamar Singer: a Hurrian-Mesopotamian one that explains the world being divided into three vertical zones: heaven, earth, and underworld, and a Hattian-Hittite one, that consists of two zones: heaven and earth.

This paper aims at analyzing to what extent — if at all — concepts of Hittite cosmos or the perception of a Hittite world are mapped in Hittite sacred space.

Ömür Harmanshah (Brown University)
Title: “The Cattle Pen and the Sheepfold: Cities, Temples, and Pastoral Power in Ancient Mesopotamia”
Abstract: The construction of cities, their monumental structures and ceremonial spaces, and their cultural life occupy considerable space in the early literary compositions from southern Mesopotamia. The scholarship on Mesopotamian cities has been limited to questions of the emergence of urbanism, social complexity, state formation, labor organization, craft specialization, population estimates, and settlement hierarchies during the Late Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages. This paper contributes to these debates through the discussion of a series of concepts concerning the city and urban life drawn from the early Mesopotamian corpus of poetry in Sumerian, with special emphasis on the so-called city laments. This is, on the one hand, an attempt to bridge the gap between the archaeological accounts of early cities in the ancient Near East and the literary representations of urban space. On the other hand, the goal is to move toward understanding the poetics of urban space in Mesopotamia, to read cities as places of human experience, everyday practice, political discourse, and cultural imagination. The paper focuses on two frequently encountered metaphors concerning the city in early Mesopotamian poetry: the cattle pen and the sheepfold (Sumerian tur and ama), which takes us to the Mesopotamian conceptualization of the king as shepherd and the society as his flock. This paper suggests that early Mesopotamian economy and political structure presents an intriguing case of what Michel Foucault has termed “pastoral power.”

Considering Foucault’s notion of “pastoral power” as a technology of governance and royal rhetoric, This paper discusses the cattle pen and sheepfold as spatial metaphors that define the Mesopotamian city between movement and settlement, between economies of pasturage and agriculture. Here, the city appears as a site where the king’s ideals of beneficence and pastoral power find expression, while royal power is characterized not so much as governance over a territory but over a “multiplicity” (the “flock”). This rhetoric of power based itself on a regime of beneficence and care, rather than on violence and terror.

Julia A. B. Hegewald (University of Bonn)
Title: “Images of the Cosmos: Sacred and Ritual Space in Jaina Temple Architecture in India”
Abstract: The Jainas, a relatively small but ancient religious group in India, have developed a particularly complex picture of their religious cosmos. A correct and detailed understanding of the nature of the universe is considered by the Jainas necessary to enable the practitioner to attain enlightenment and to break out of the continuous circle of rebirth by departing from the human areas of the cosmos. Due to the high status that cosmography gains in a Jaina context because of its religious and ontological significance and as a means to gain enlightenment, Jaina art and architecture regularly depict cosmic formations.

Highly intricate and convoluted textual descriptions of the Jaina universe have been translated into visual and concrete physical shape and through this they have been made easier to understand. Paintings, carved panels, sculptural representations, and architectural models illustrating aspects or views of the universe are commonly put on display in Jaina temples throughout South Asia. They are educational tools but at the same time they are also objects of veneration.

The Jaina community also constructs entire temple structures that form three-dimensional architectural interpretations of cosmic components. Particularly widespread are temples inspired by the shape of sacred mountains and certain cosmic continents, to which human beings in reality have no access. Through this, the temples offer devotees the opportunity to enter sacred extraterrestrial space, to participate in cosmic events and to anticipate their own enlightenment.

However, ritual practices carried out in Jaina temples, which have no immediate visual connection with cosmic structures, also relate to and re-enact mythical and cosmic events by transforming the space around ritual objects and ceremonial activities into cosmic space and time.

Clemente Marconi (New York University)
Title: “Mirror and Memory: Images of Ritual Actions in Greek Temple Decoration”
Abstract: This paper addresses one critical issue about ancient Greek temple decoration, namely, the representation of rituals. It is traditionally assumed that the figural decoration of Greek sacred architecture was mostly devoted to deities and heroes, and to scenes with a mythological content. Within this approach the representation of rituals, such as the Panathenaic procession on the Parthenon frieze, has generally been regarded as exceptional. However, a systematic look at the evidence for figural decoration of temples and other sacred buildings, from the Archaic to the Hellenistic period, shows that rituals such as processions, parades, and dances played a significant role in this tradition. Besides reassessing the significance of depictions of rituals on buildings, this paper explores the meaning and function of such images, highlighting their double role as mirror and memory.

Michael W. Meister (University of Pennsylvania)
Title: “Seeds and Mountains: The Cosmogony of Temples in South Asia”
Abstract: A widely shared origin myth in South Asia, the “golden germ” (hiranyagarbha), commonly found in popular texts and imagery — the calyx of the ripe lotus supporting deities and divine emblems — can also be traced in early architectural constructions, from Mauryan-period pillars to early prototypes of Indic temples. The purpose of this paper is to question and problematize those material remains. By the first century BCE, the lotus had been joined (and later replaced) by the amalaka-seed as emblem of cosmic parturition, then used to crown stone temples by early in the fifth century CE. Development of ‘amalaka-crowned’ temples is one of the themes of this paper.

Kramrisch pointed out a “construction” described in the cosmology of the Arthava-veda that for her foreshadowed the form of the Hindu temple one-and-a-half millennia later: “creation of the Sole Vratya […] has three phases: the birth of a god, the vision of that god, and the building of his monument […] built up by the words of hymns. […] The sole Vratya arises as the lord of the space-time universe […] the central pillar of a four-sided pyramid.”

That “earth” was the base, deity the seed, and mountain the form is a symbolism worked out in significant ways in later temple architecture. The first “amalaka-shrine” may have been an altar; “flat-roofed” temples, constructed “caves”; towering temples sheltering “mountains” — an evolution visually preserved. In the early fifth-century Gupta period, symbolic structures were placed on pyramidal platforms imbued with royal symbolism. Through many centuries of social changes, transformation of rituals, and shifting patronage connection to this deeply intuited cosmogony remained.

Tracy Miller (Vanderbilt University)
Title: “Naturalizing Buddhist Cosmology in the Temple Architecture of China”
Abstract: This paper addresses the manner in which a new cosmology, that of Buddhism, was adapted to the environment of the Yellow River valley during the first centuries of the Common Era. By deconstructing a single monument from the sixth century CE, I illustrate the how concepts of ritual space developed within the religious traditions of South Asia were transmitted and translated for the sake of an indigenous audience in northern China.

Prior to the introduction of Buddhism, ritual architecture of the Yellow River valley consisted of temples for worshiping ancestors (zu 祖) and more abstract deities such as those of grain and soil (she 社). As spirits of the deceased, ancestors were worshiped in temple/palace halls (tang 堂), whereas rites to deities of grain and soil took place on altars (tan 壇). Both types of architecture were constructed from indigenous materials readily available in the Yellow River valley and organized into walled building complexes emphasizing bilateral symmetry and a north–south axial alignment.

When Buddhism was introduced into East Asia in the early centuries CE, we see indigenous populations naturalizing the forms of ritual architecture by translating concepts of altar, palace, and temple from South Asia into the local architectural language. By focusing on a single monument, the stone Yicihui Pillar (ca. 567 CE), I show how the ritual diagrams associated with the vāstupurusha mandala were applied and adapted to an architecture emphasizing different geometries than those in the homeland of the Buddha. The use of the mandala to reorganize morphemes like the tang palace/temple hall allowed for the creation a new, and symbolic potent, architecture — one that could encompass the space and time of a cultural tradition as rich as that of early medieval China.

Deena Ragavan (The Oriental Institute)
Title: “Entering Other Worlds: Gates, Rituals, and Cosmic Journeys in Sumerian Sources”
Abstract: The doors and gateways of Sumerian temples and cities were visually distinctive, monumental structures, marking and enabling the passage between one space and another. Their appearance in the mythological tradition and their occurrence in cult practice suggest that movement through the gate may symbolize the transition from one part of the cosmos to another. This paper addresses the function and meaning of gates in the Sumerian tradition, in particular, the literary and administrative texts from the late third and early second millennium BCE.

There is substantial evidence in Mesopotamian cosmological tradition for the idea of cosmic gates, situated in the east and west, through which the celestial gods, particularly the sun god, would pass to enter and exit the visible sky. Several Sumerian literary sources which describe the journeys of the gods through the cosmos, most notably Inana’s Descent to the Netherworld, feature gates as the key starting or stopping points as part of the divine itinerary. Both archaeological remains and textual evidence indicate that the gates of Sumerian cities, sacred precincts, and temples were often massive, imposing constructions, while administrative records of sacrificial offerings and other cult practices reveal that gates could function as the locus of ritual activity. Through close examination of these various sources, this paper questions the extent to which these mythological journeys may correlate with ritual movement, similarly punctuated by stops at the actual gates that permitted access through city, precinct, and temple walls. Furthermore, the significance of this ritual usage for the cosmological symbolism of these structures, and the spaces which they connect, is considered.

Betsey A. Robinson (Vanderbilt University)
Title: “Airs, Waters, Places: Mountain Sanctuaries and Mythic Itineraries in Ancient Greece”
Abstract: The aerial perspectives of divine beings articulated complex realities of space, identity, and ideation. Mountain views, from Olympian and Idaean omniscience to Apollo’s purview from Parnassus, reflected and reified the sacred charisma of such places. Aerial itineraries like Pegasus’s transits among the peaks around the Corinthian Gulf emphasized their intervisibility and linked them in ancient imagination. Springs, caves, and other marks of divine presence drew deities and humans in admiration and reverence. While the dangers of flight for lesser beings (Bellerophon, Icarus, Phaethon) were well known, sacred mountains offered highly affective climbs and climactic revelations. Focusing on Hellenistic and Imperial evidence, this paper considers setting, monuments, and rituals on the slopes of Helicon and Parnassus, places to be seen and from which to gaze as with the eyes of gods. The nature of such sacred landscapes is viewed through the imagery of two mountain reliefs, one — of Helicon personified — found in the Heliconian Valley of the Muses, the other — the “Archelaos relief,” with poets depicted within ranks of inspiration — from the suburbs of Rome. Contrasting one another in representational strategies and epigraphic modes, the two reliefs provide insights into perceptions and experiences of place and divine agency. This paper thus examines interplays of narrative itineraries, pictorial and poetic imagery, and cultic topography.

Yorke M. Rowan (The Oriental Institute)
Title: “Sacred Space and Ritual Practice at the End of Prehistory in the Southern Levant”
Abstract: Dynamic and continuously renegotiated, religion is often expressed through ritual performance. In the archaeological record, ritual paraphernalia, iconography, and sacred built or natural space provide evidence for understanding the human need to materialize the ethereal nature of religious belief. During the late prehistoric periods in the southern Levant, an apparent increase in ritual practice suggests a dramatic change during a time of demographic expansion and economic intensification. In this paper, the spaces for ritual practice are examined in relationship to the larger community and society, concentrating on the Chalcolithic period (ca. 4500–3600 BCE). Specifically, the identification of sacred ceremonies and the built or natural space for their performance is contrasted to earlier Neolithic and later Bronze Age practices. Comparative analysis allows for some insight into continuity and changes during this period of high ritual density and some possible reasons for this intensification.

Karl Taube (University of California, Riverside)
Title: “The Classic Maya Temple: Centrality, Cosmology, and Sacred Geography in Ancient Mesoamerica”
Abstract: With their elaborate sculptural programs and often-detailed texts, Classic Maya temples have dominated our understanding of the ancient Maya. Indeed, for too long we have described their communities as “ceremonial centers,” as if the monumental structures were hollow edifices only used for occasional, calendrically timed events. Although during the past fifty years Maya archaeological field research generally has turned away from the monumental architecture in favor of daily human existence, still they remain. Oddly, few studies have investigated what the “pyramids” meant to the people who created and sustained them for centuries. This presentation focuses on some of the underlying meanings of these structures, including the basic symbolic significance of being humanly created and ordered structures replicating the four-cornered house and the maize field. From this basic model, temples also encapsulate the world center framed by the inter-cardinal points. As such, ancient Maya temples often evoke imagery pertaining to the three-stone hearth of the household as well as the pivotal world tree as another form of the axis mundi. In addition, pyramid temples are also symbolic mountains. As such, many evoke Flower Mountain, a paradise realm of honored ancestors. Appearing as zoomorphic mountains, many such structures have entrances in the form of a toothy maw, with the dark interior being a symbolic cave. At the sides of these doorways are breath scrolls, frequently elaborate, denoting the temples as living entities providing vital soul essence, probably in the form of aromatic incense in ritual practice.