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Neo-Assyrian Shock Troops

Neo-Assyrian Shock Troops

The Assyrians were one of the great palace civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia. As one of the first known civilizations, their culture came of age along the upper Tigris River in tandem with Sumer, Ur, and Babylon (Semitic kingdom states which blossomed along the pattern of ancient Eridu).  The old Assyrian empire was an early Bronze Age empire which lasted from 2025 BC-1393 BC.  The Middle Assyrians were united under a series of politically powerful king priests and flourished until the great Bronze Age Collapse—a century of chaos and horror which lasted from 1055–936 BC.  After this cataclysm, the shattered remnants of Assyrian society rebuilt along the same lines—but now they had a technological breakthrough—iron.  With strong political leadership they were well-positioned to utilize this innovation, and the Iron Age Neo-Assyrians were charioteers and conquerors.  Their armies set about building the greatest empire the world had ever known based around iron, axels, horses, and ruthless political hegemony.

Neo-Assyrian Gypsum wall panel relief showing Ashurnasirpal II hunting lions, 865BC – 860 BC.

Neo-Assyrian Gypsum wall panel relief showing Ashurnasirpal II hunting lions, 865BC – 860 BC.

Into this picture came Ashurnasirpal II, who ascended the Assyrian throne in 883 BC. Ashurnasirpal II was a great builder, thinker, and a reformer.  He moved the capital of the empire from Assur to Nimrud and erected a series of new walled cities.  He collected zoological and botanical specimens from all around the known world in hopes of furthering agriculture and fostering a deeper understanding of living things (presumably).  Alas, he was also a political theorist and he realized he could utilize horrifying violence as a political tool.  He reasoned that if he tortured and killed the entire population of one rebel city, other cities would not rebel (a theory which pretty much worked after the first vivid demonstration). History remembers him as a ghastly butcher, but he was also famed in his day as a mighty conqueror and an innovator.

Bas relief from the palace of King Sennacherib: Assyrian soldiers flay the captives of the conquered city of Lachish in 701 BC.

Bas relief from the palace of King Sennacherib: Assyrian soldiers flay the captives of the conquered city of Lachish in 701 BC.

Anyway, the Neo Assyrians in general, and Ashurnasirpal II in particular feature in this week’s blog because they wanted their violence to be as gruesome as possible.  Threats and executions worked best if people were truly & utterly terrified.  Far beyond merely killing their enemies, the Neo-Assyrians needed to kill them slowly, painfully, and with real flair.  Their favorite methods for accomplishing this were spitting and burning (which is how they are remembered in the Bible). However their most hated enemies were flayed alive—which we know because we have pictorial evidence in the form of horrible bas reliefs.  Not only that, we have a direct quote from Ashurnasirpal II, who ponderously (but chillingly) said:

I have made a pillar facing the city gate, and have flayed all the rebel leaders; I have clad the pillar in the flayed skins. I let the leaders of the conquered cities be flayed, and clad the city walls with their skins. The captives I have killed by the sword and flung on the dung heap, the little boys and girls were burnt.

It is not exactly an idealistic political statement, but it has a real visceral power. And it did have real power: the Neo-Assyrians conquered the rest of Mesopotamia, and then the Near-East, and then Egypt itself.  They kept on moving using fast chariots to sweep away armies and terror to keep control. However, like so many conquerors they were trapped by their lifestyle.  The Assyrian kingpriest’s power came from building great temples to the Assyrian gods, he accomplished this with booty from conquest. When the conquest stopped the whole nightmarish system came tumbling down, and the enemies of Neo-Assyria quickly learned ways to defeat chariot armies. By the 7th century the victories began to dry up, and the empire collapsed in 627 BC. Today the Neo-Assyrians are remembered, not as cutting edge innovators, but as monsters—the first masters of the blitzkrieg and of mass terror sponsored by the state.

1280px-Map_of_Assyria

A Flayed man holding his own skin (Gaspar Becerra, 1556, Etching)

A Flayed man holding his own skin (Gaspar Becerra, 1556, Etching)

It’s Halloween week already: the time when the spirit realm comes closest to the mortal world (well, according to ancient lore, anyway).   This is always a “theme week”, which Ferrebeekeeper devotes to a single topic which is sinister, magical, disquieting, and macabre.  In past year’s we have taken on dark subjects like the children of Echidna, the Flowers of the Underworld, the undead, and the realm of nightmares, but this year we are going back to the roots of civilization to examine an ancient horror.  Sadly, this ghastly topic is not a dark myth or an accursed dream, but an all-too real invention of human savagery.

flaying-alive_1078

Flaying is a method of torture and execution, which was used in ancient times (and not-so-ancient times) to kill a person in the most terrible and painful way.  Of course hunters and animal farmers are familiar with flaying as stripping the skin off of a dead animal so that the hide can be cured as a pelt or a leather, and so that the animal’s meat can then be butchered for consumption (although this is more commonly known as “skinning” in English).  This is done with a knife or similar sharpened implement and farmers/hunters/chefs generally try to keep the hide as intact as possible. At some point in the depths of prehistory, some evil person first realized the same method could be used to cut the skin off of a living person.   Skinning more than a portion of a person is fatal.  Wikipedia blandly cites Ernst G. Jung, a famed dermatologist, writing:  “Dermatologist Ernst G. Jung notes that the typical causes of death due to flaying are shock, critical loss of blood or other body fluids, hypothermia, or infections, and that the actual death is estimated to occur from a few hours up to a few days after the flaying.”  How did Jung know that?  We want to know and yet clearly we also do not want to know. I found a lot of arguments online about whether modern medicine could rescue a flayed person.  I will summarize the upshot of lots of nightmarish dumbassery as “maybe… in perfect circumstances, but probably not.”

lelli-collection

At this point, if you are like me you are probably saying “GLAAARGH! What the hell? Why would anybody ever do such a thing? And why write about it? Why should I even think about such monstrous savagery? I am going to go look at pictures of cute little songbirds.”  That is a good point and those questions/sentiments are very pertinent, but you should not go to the cute animal site yet.

Here is a cute little bird to break the tension.

Here is a cute little bird to break the tension.

Flaying keeps cropping back up in human history, art, and myth.  It reveals something about us in a dark tale which stretches across millennia.  Mostly, of course, it reveals that we are very tragic and cruel animals, but that is a truth well worth remembering (assuming you can somehow not see it within the daily news).  Flaying also reveals some of our stagecraft for manipulating and controlling each other–which I will get into tomorrow with the story of the Neo-Assyrians.  Additionally there is a mysterious and otherworldly hint of true transformation within this topic—a suggestion of the butterfly, the cocoon, and true transcendence from the body—although admittedly this miracle which did not quite come off properly. We will get to this as we look at flaying in art and religion.

High Fashion by Jean Paul Gautier

High Fashion by Jean Paul Gautier

If you can stay with me, this week ends with a fun surprise on Halloween (which I have been working on for a long time and saving for you)…but there is some pretty dark territory to get through before then.  Gird up your loins (no seriously, you may want to tie something protective around your flesh), tomorrow we are going back to the age of chariots and horror to spend some time with the neo-Assyrians.  Aaaagh!

l'Écorché

l’Écorché “The Flayed Man” ( Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1767, cast)

The Triumph of Death (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1562, oil on panel)

Next week, as a lead-up to Halloween, Ferrebeekeeper will feature a week’s worth of dark harrowing spooky posts about…um, flowers.  However, just in case botany, herblore, and gardening are not terrifying enough for you, today’s disturbing subject should provide ample horror to fill up your Halloween nightmares [He isn’t kidding, this is a grim subject and squeamish readers should go look at kitten pictures-ed].  I first encountered this subject when I was looking at The Triumph of Death, an epic painting by Pieter Bruegel which portrays an army of skeletons erasing all life from a sweeping sixteenth century landscape.  The painting is a bravura combination of surrealist fantasy and extreme harrowing realism: the abstract and alien wave of death is sweeping away the realistically painted living humans .  Among Bruegel’s most nightmarish inventions are the high torture wheels dotted around the landscape which feature tiny sad carcasses suspended and spinning in the sky–except it turns out this was not some invention of Bruegel’s dark imagination.  The Catherine wheel or breaking wheel was in fact a common form of capital punishment from late antiquity up through the early modern era.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1598, oil on canvas)

The Catherine wheel was named after Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a beautiful (and probably fictional) martyr who spurned the courtship of Emperor Maximinus and was then sentenced to die on the wheel. Fortunately Jesus intervened on her behalf. As soon as Catherine touched the wheel it broke to apart and the Romans were forced to merely behead her (sometimes I wonder if divine intervention could be more wholehearted in these sorts of stories).

The college shield of St. Catharine's College, Cambridge. Is a torture wheel their mascot?

Catherine’s wheel appears on a great many heraldic devices including the crest of Catharine’s College Cambridge and the coat of arms of Goa.  With its metal spikes and hooks it looks rather different from the wagon wheels in Bruegel’s artworks and it seems like it might be a more fanciful interpretation of the actual torture device.  Additionally Catherine’s wheel has given its name to a jaunty spinning firework!

Weeee!

The breaking wheel as historically known was a rather crude implement of torture.  It was reserved for the lowest and most debased criminals—commoners who had killed their families, committed murder during the course of theft, betrayed their lords, or otherwise outraged the community with excessive crimes.  The condemned prisoner was lashed to a large stout wagon wheel (or to a sturdy restraint if the available wagon wheel looked fragile) and then an executioner broke all of the prisoner’s limbs and joints with a cudgel or metal bar. Then the broken limbs were secured to (or threaded through) the spokes of the wheel and the prisoner was hoisted into the sky atop a pole. If the criminal was a gifted briber or a likeable person, the executioner would make sure the beating was fatal. If however the victim was despised or came upon a particularly sadistic torturer (what are the odds of that?) he would probably end up hopelessly maimed but still alive to contend with dehydration and birds. In fact there is an unhelpful looking bird perching on the wheel in the corner of that Bruegel painting (see the detail below).

This grisly punishment was popular throughout Northern Europe during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries (although apparently Russian overuse of the practice during the Great Northern War rather turned people off of it). The breaking wheel lingered for long enough in continental Europe that it dark left shadows lying across many different languages.  To quote Wikipedia:

In Dutch, there is the expression opgroeien voor galg en rad, “to grow up for the gallows and wheel,” meaning to come to no good. It is also mentioned in the Chilean expression morir en la rueda, “to die at the wheel,” meaning to keep silent about something. The Dutch phrases ik ben geradbraakt, literally “I have been broken on the wheel,” the German expression sich gerädert fühlen, “to feel wheeled,” and the Swedish verb rådbråka (from German radbrechen), “to break on the wheel,” all carry a meaning of exhaustion or mental exertion.

Additionally the word roué, a French word which has made it into English as a borrow word, originally indicated someone so dissipated that they were destined to end up executed on the wheel.

"Remember me as an obscure idiom!"

Ugh enough of that.  The moral of this story is to be thankful for the Eighth Amendment. Next week—the flowers of the underworld!

The Feast of Herod (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1533. Oil on limewood)

Every artist has favorite themes which they revisit again and again throughout their life.  Rembrandt painted and repainted his own face as he went from young student to successful portraitist to sad old man. Watteau’s works often feature lovers in the lingering twilight.  Picasso was drawn again and again to the Minotaur whom he painted variously as a beast, a poet, a sensualist, a murderer, and a murder victim.  To some degree each artist can be swiftly summarized by his or her favorite images.  These artistic leitmotifs are the touchstone to an artist’s life and work.  When looking over an artist’s entire canon, one can watch certain themes wax and wane or see how the artist’s favorite subjects overlap each other.  It is rather like the category cloud to the left: except played out over a lifetime and with images only (indeed, when I finally launch my art website you can compare how my blog’s categories match those of my painting).

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1515, oil on canvas)

My favorite gothic painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), had several recurrent themes. Cranach’s preferred subject was sumptuous young maidens with triangular faces who are wearing nothing but a few pieces of jewelry and the occasional wreath or transparent veil (beautiful naked people top nearly every artist’s topic list: but each artist brings his or her own unique twist!). Cranach also enjoyed painting Adam and Eve and their fall from paradise.  Like me, he loved to paint animals and his works are a veritable menagerie (only a handful of his canvases lack creatures, most notably paintings in which…well we’ll get to it below). On a darker note he painted women stabbing themselves: there are several “Lucretia” paintings in his oeuvre.  Cranach was from Saxony and the Saxon landscape of vivid forests punctuated by fortresses perched on crags is another major component of his work.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes (Lucas Cranach the Elder, c.1530, Oil on wood)

Most disturbing to modern sentiments, Cranach loved to paint beheadings or, more commonly, pretty women carrying severed heads. There are so many paintings like this by Cranach that it is hard to keep them separate (so please forgive any mistakes or misattributions in the following grisly gallery).

It is unclear why Cranach loved this subject so much.  Many painters have portrayed the subject of Judith and Holofernes–which speaks to nationalism, bravery, and feminism.  Even more artists are captivated by the death of John the Baptist with its martyred religious hero and its wanton villainess (whose incest-tinged struggle so strangely mirrors the travails of the goddess Ishtar).   A fair number of medieval artists painted beheadings (which were after all much more common events back then) and Théodore Géricault sometimes painted heads fresh from the guillotine.

Salome (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530, Oil on Wood)

But nobody that I know of carried this obsession as far as Cranach. Perhaps he is evoking the ancient theme of death and the maiden: the beautiful young women in their finery with their unknowable expressions certainly contrast dramatically with the slack ruined horror of the dead heads.  Cranach lived in a dark era when terrible deeds were common: these beheading paintings, like his symbolic masterpiece Melancholia might speak to the grim state of Europe as it plunged towards all-out religious war. Or maybe Cranach had a dark and troubled side. Was he afraid of women? Did he revel in the charnel house? Art provides a funhouse mirror of the human soul and who knows what monstrous yearnings can be spotted wriggling in that mysterious edifice?

Salome with the Head of St John the Baptist (Lucas Cranach the Elder, ca.1530s)

Judith with the Head of Holofernes and a Servant (Lucas Cranach the Elder)

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, (Lucas Cranach the Elder, c.1530)

Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist (Lucas Cranach the Elder, oil on wood)

Judith with the Head of Holofernes (Lucas Cranach the Elder, ca.1520-1537, oil on wood)

Judith With The Head Of Holofernes (Lucas Cranach, 1530)

Maybe a better question is why I am posting about this facet of Cranach’s art.  Hmm, well for one thing I love Cranach’s painting and, even after writing about Melancholia earlier,  I wanted to address his work further.  Also despite their ghastly subject, these strange paintings are singularly beautiful and dramtic: I wanted to draw your attention into their haunted depths.  The fact that an incredibly talented painter spent nearly a decade painting nothing but pretty young women holding severed heads is worth remarking on for its own right(also I have also always thought that Freud might have something with his theories of Eros and Thanatos). At a more primitive level, I hoped some sixteenth century violence and horror might drum up ratings during the summer doldrums.  Most of all I want to use the paintings as memento mori (and I believe this was Cranach’s most pronounced intention also). Cranach and John the Baptist are long dead and turned to dust. Such is the fate of all flesh, but you are still alive and it’s a lovely June day.  Stop looking at troubling art and go revel in the sunshine!

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