15 December 2010

The Secret Language of Palmyra (Part II)

(Click here for Part I)

My soul is in this stone

I, Kuttamuwa, servant of [the king] Panamuwa, am the one who oversaw the production of this stele for myself while still living.  I placed it in an eternal chamber [?] and established a feast at this chamber: a bull for [the storm-god] Hadad, a ram for [the sun-god] Shamash and a ram for my soul that is in this stele.

So spoke Kuttamuwa, a high official in Sam'al (modern Zincirli near the Turkish-Syrian border), the capital city of a Neo-Hittite kingdom which was ruled during his lifetime -- late 8th century BCE -- by kings of a native dynasty, among whom was his lord Panamuwa.

The well preserved basalt stele (95 x 70 cm [ca. 3' x 2']) shows Kuttamuwa enjoying his own future funerary banquet.  He sits before an offering table laden with loaves of bread, a big meatball, and a cooked duck.  In one hand, he grasps a pine-cone -- symbol of eternity -- and, in the other, a fluted metal cup from which he will either drink or libate to his gods.  The words he uttered were recorded in Samalian Aramaic, the local West Semitic dialect of the language spoken throughout northern Syria and parts of Mesopotamia at this time.  

The stele was discovered in 2008.  What caused the most excitement (and was even written up in the New York Times) was the extraordinary line saying that he offered up a ram 'for my soul that is in this stele', a totally unexpected insight into the purpose of this -- and presumably similar -- funerary monuments: Kuttamuwa's soul is thus not only independent of his body but resides within the stone.  Professor David Schloen of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute and director of excavations, explains that this idea results from the fusion of two different traditions:
... a fascinating mixture of non-Semitic and Semitic cultural elements including a belief in the enduring human soul  -- which did not inhabit the bones of the deceased, as in traditional Semitic thought ... [but that] the soul of the deceased inhabited the monument on which his image was carved and on which his final words were recorded.
 Semitic religions traditionally held that a person's soul adhered to the bones of the deceased (which is why, to this day, Jews may not be cremated).  But, in north-Syria in the Iron Age, elite Samalians clearly believed that an individual's identity, his personal soul, resided apart from the bones -- and held court within his funerary monument.

The word used for 'soul' in Kuttamuwa's inscription is nebesh, which, as Schloen points out, is a variant of the same word for soul used in the Bible, nephesh.  This  Hebrew word, however, broadly describes the tomb as the house of dead souls (a widespread belief in the Semitic Near East).  There is a world of difference between that belief and the notion that a soul lives on, if I may put it so, in the commemorative stone.

The Palmyrene nefesh

Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Copenhagen (2nd C CE)
Palmyrans certainly shared the Semitic view of the tomb as the place of the souls of the dead.  In Palmyrene, naphsa (related to Hebrew nephesh and Samalian nebesh) refers to the 'spirit' or 'soul': two inscriptions on early tower tombs describe these tombs as nps, the same word used to describe funerary sculptures or reliefs.  So naturally, I am wondering if, so many centuries after Kuttamuwa, Palmyrans, too, believed that the soul of the dead person resided in his or her funerary monument.  In short, is the individual portrait not merely an enduring image and memorial of the dead but, in fact, the actual residence of the soul of the person portrayed on the stone?

Such a possibility will affect the way we think about these portraits and, inevitably, their poses, attributes, and gestures.  It would make them, at least to some extent, no longer monuments of a 'visible absence' but rather 'visible presences'.  

As such, I think, they are actively directing our gaze.

My soul is in my stone?

Atenatan Gurai (133 CE) 
In the first part of this post, I discussed the different hand and finger gestures shown by women on their portrait busts.*  Most commonly (70%), a woman raised one hand, usually the right hand, to her face, chin, or to collarbone level, often touching her veil -- a gesture highly reminiscent of the Roman female pudicitia pose.  Men, on the contrary, never lift a hand to face or chin, although they do sometimes touch the area of the collarbone (upper left).  The great majority of men (78%) hold their right arms across the chests, resting in a sling created by the draping of their cloaks, with the right hand extended over the fold; this pose, too, is well-known on male funerary reliefs in Rome.

Yet, as we saw with the women, even those who pose their hands in more or less identical positions do not necessarily display the same finger gestures. 

Rather, it seems that, for both sexes, fingers are free to speak for themselves.

Boy Talk

Here are some numbers for what males are 'saying' with their fingers*:

Portrait of a man, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
Gesture of Right Hand in Male Relief busts

195     All fingers clenched or extended
 60      Index finger extended
 50      Index and middle fingers extended
   3      Index and little fingers extended
   2      Index, middle, and little fingers extended.

Gesture of Left Hand in Male Relief Busts 

 89      All fingers clenched or extended
 81      Index finger extended
 63      Index and middle fingers extended
 48      Index and little fingers extended
 26      Index, middle, and little fingers extended.

Portrait of a priest, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
For reasons unknown the left hand displays more varied finger gestures than the right hand -- even though the left hand is very often holding an object as well.  Although it can be argued that the norm for both hands is for fingers to be extended or clenched,* the word 'norm' perhaps gives the wrong impression: these are, in fact, merely the most common gestures.  In my opinion, this does not make either clenched or extended into a 'default' gesture. It would be a mistake, I think, to imagine that when the hands are clenched (right: right hand) or spread (below left: both hands of the man pictured with his camel), the fingers are any less expressive than in the variant finger arrangements.   It may not be that he hasn't anything to say, he's just repeating what the majority of men are saying.

Holding on for dear death

Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Copenhagen
Just as the ladies are regularly portrayed holding an object in their hands, so are men -- for both sexes, almost always in the left hand.  The most common masculine object is the book roll, although no one really knows what the good book means; more rarely, they hold a stylus and writing tablet, a leaf, jug, or the pommel of their sword.  Men are, in any case, pictured in ways that sometimes suggest either their profession (a sword for a desert warrior; a camel for a caravan merchant, as left) or their status (the tall cylindrical cap of a priest, as above right).  When a woman holds an object, it is inevitably related to the domestic sphere, underlining her life (and death) as wife, housewife, or mother.  There is more variety in how men are portrayed: if one were to think in axioms, one might say 'male social identity is often constructed; whereas a woman simply is'.   

So, it seems natural that the sexes rarely share the same hand poses in death, and that most such poses are strongly gender-specific.

Why, then, do they so often share the same animated finger gestures? 

Yarhai son of Elahbe (late 2nd C CE)
This magnificent bust of Yarhai son of Elahbe (late 2nd century CE) is distinguished by the unusual opulence of his dress: the cloak has two bands of embroidered vine-shoots, amongst which a vigorous naked male is gathering the grapes -- an exuberance that contrasts with the simplicity of costume of so many other funerary figures at the time.  Quite unusually, Yarhai's head and eyes are not frontal, but show a somewhat Graeco-Roman naturalism.

His chest, however, is fully frontal.  Despite the richness of the garment and relative realism of his face, his large hands have the typical Palmyran swollen, undifferentiated look (which we talked about in Part I), with fleshly details omitted.  The fingers of his right hand are  extended in a comfortable pose, fingertips slightly curled; the left hand, which holds a palm frond -- perhaps a symbol of victory over evil powers -- has an over-long index finger pointing nowhere in particular;  three fingers are folded back but not held under the visible thumb.

Yarhai is clearly from the top-drawer, probably of a priestly family, though not himself a priest (priests are clean-shaven and identifiable by their special caps).  His finger gestures compare closely with those of the ladies Aqimat and in the Vatican portrait (lowest right) in Part I.  Just as close --  once one allows for the different placement of their right hands -- are the gestures of the gentleman now in the Hermitage Museum (third Palmyran portrait down) and those of Lady Haliphat (in Part I): the right hands show two fingers extended, two partly folded; and the left hands make the mano cornuta gesture.  We could make the same argument, one by one, for each group of finger gestures, but you get the idea.

So, why do men and women display the same finger gestures?  There may be a straightforward answer: both sexes face the same dangers (or utter the same postmortem wishes).  There does not seem to be a specific -- or at least not a stereotyped -- Palmyran mourning gesture so it seems likely that most (if not all) gestures are essentially protective.  If we add this simple idea to our earlier speculation -- that the naphsa, the soul, lives on in the portrait stele -- then it makes sense, I think, to situate the need for protection right there in the tomb and not in a distant underworld.  

Of course the souls of the dead want your dutiful food and drink offerings but, every time the door to the tomb is opened, dangerous elements may enter, too.

"Blessings! May evil eyes not be cast here."

I warned you. It is you who are disturbing the dead in their 'house of eternity'. 

They are just reacting to your gaze. 

* As in Part I, all statistics and many arguments are from the new study by Maura K. Heyn, 'Gesture and Identity in the Funerary Art of Palmyra', AJA (October 2010): more information in Part I. I hope I've made clear which are her ideas and which are mine.  You may be sure the crazier ones are mind but, if in doubt, kindly send me a comment.  There are, of course, also double funerary reliefs as well as the  large, elegant banquet scenes.  Hayn did discuss the double portraits (as well as the few 'duplicates') and they are certainly interesting.  But I won't have anything to say about them this year, perhaps sometime in 2011.

A paper (available online) by Harold Craig Melchert, 'Remarks on the Kuttamuwa Inscription'  really started me thinking about the possible migration of Kuttamuwa's beliefs to the farthest reaches of Syria over the centuries.  Further valuable discussions of the meanings of the word nefesh in M. Mouton, 'Les tours funéaires d’Arabie: nefesh monumentales', Syria 74 (1997) 81-98; and A. Henning, Die Turmgräber von Palmyra, diss. Köln (2001) 147-49.  Obviously, none of these scholars are responsible for my speculations on a naphsa-in-the-stele at Palmyra.

On Kuttamuwa, I've made use of discussions on Kris's Archaeology Blog; Eti Bonn-Muller, 'Insight into the Soul', in Archaeology magazine; and John Noble Wilford, Found: An Ancient Monument to the Soul, New York Times, 17 November 2008.


Top left: Kuttamuwa stele.  Photo credit: Eudora Struble, University of Chicago.

First Palmyran man: Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Via Wikimedia. Photo credit: © 2006 David Monniaux.

Second Palmyran man (Atenatan Gurai ): Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek,  Via Wikimedia. Photo credit: Wolfgang Sauber.

Third Palmyran man: State Hermitage Museum. Via Palmyra Tombs . Photo credit: Prof. Michael Fuller, St. Louis Community College.

Palmyran priest (right): State Hermitage Museum. Via Palmyra Tombs . Photo credit: Prof. Michael Fuller,  St. Louis Community College.

Palmyran man with camel:  Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Via Wikimedia.  Photo credit: Wolfgang Sauber.

Bottom left: Yarhai son of Elahbe, Photo credit: © Musée du Louvre/C. Larrieu.

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