Shamash, Ishtar and Igigi - Floater structures in ancient Mesopotamia
In Western culture, the phenomenon of eye floaters (or muscae volitantes) is primarily understood in line with modern ophthalmology as “vitreous opacities”. However, the review of mythical and spiritual visual arts from former and non-Western cultures discloses abstract symbols that resemble the typical structures of shining structure floaters (cf. Tausin 2012a). This suggests that floaters have been widely interpreted as a mythical or spiritual phenomenon; and that there might be a perceptual dimension of floaters that is hardly known to modern man. This article provides a trip to the visual worlds of Mesopotamia and suggests that floaters have found their way into the art and imagination of this ancient civilization.
10‘000 years ago, Neolithic man gradually went over from nomadic lifestyles to sedentary farming. In doing so, they laid the basis for the first known civilizations in history. Among the earliest civilized areas was the “land between the rivers” (Ancient Greek: Mesopotamia) in modern Iraq. From the 4th millennium BC to 500 BC, this land between and around the rivers Euphrates and Tigris was a melting pot of peoples with different cultures – Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, Hurrians and other peoples. They cultivated plants on irrigated fields, did trading and craft, sacrificed to the gods, founded cities and dynasties, and built empires through conquering expeditions. The remains of their buildings, steles, clay tables, cylinder seals, paintings, ceramics and metalwork of bronze and iron witness a moving history – and sometimes contain shapes and symbols that resemble entoptic phenomena. Could parts of the Mesopotamian cultures be influenced by entoptics like shining structure floaters?
Shamans in Mesopotamia?
The perception of geometric entoptic phenomena is intensified and deepened by consciousness altering techniques of ecstasy (Tausin 2012b/2011). Such techniques may exist since Upper Paleolithic times (from 40‘000 BC), as geometric rock painting in Stone Age caves and rock shelters suggests (Dowson/Lewis-Williams 1988; Clottes/Lewis-Williams 1997). In Mesopotamian religions, there is little evidence of mind-altering practices. As in ancient Egypt (Tausin 2012c), religion consisted of the priestly and individual ritual worship of gods. They were represented in cult images and statues in the temples and were part of myths and legends. The relationship of man to the gods was distant; the gods were approached with feelings of awe and humility. By the means of divination and the discovery of omens in nature, Mesopotamians learned the intentions of the gods regarding the fate of particular human beings or the state (Hrouda 1997; Ringgren 1979). All of this does not fit the character of shamanic practices for knowledge and healing. However, some of the magical acts, mythical accounts and depictions in Mesopotamian art could testify to an ancient oriental shamanism which also influenced Central Asian and Siberian shamanism (Eliade 1957; cf. Walter/Fridman 2004). For example, the underworld journeys of some mythical figures like goddess Inanna or the wild Enkidu; the performance of healing rituals including drum rhythms and whirling dance; and the ritual and medical significance of consciousness altering plants like cannabis, incense, mandrake, deadly nightshade and henbane, possibly mirrored in the “herb of immortality”, which was searched by king Gilgamesh in the famous epic of Gilgamesh – all of this indicates kinds of shamanic practices in Mesopotamia (Hrouda 1997; Walter/Fridman 2004; Rätsch 2004; Ringgren 1979; cf. Lawson 2004; Bryce 2002).
Floaters as cosmic pillar and tree of life
Shamanic ideas of the center of the world (axis mundi) – a cosmic mountain, pillar or tree linking the three cosmic spheres of heaven, earth and underworld – are widespread in many cultures and probably stem from prehistoric times (Eliade 1957; cf. Mahlstedt 2010). There are abstract symbols in architecture and visual arts of Mesopotamia that may relate not only to these shamanic notions, but – because of their representation – also to floaters. For example, freestanding columns, pillars, posts or poles are repeatedly depicted on reliefs and cylinder seals. Their tops consist of spearheads, heads of animals, but also circular symbols. While all of these types of pillars represent gods (cf. Handcock 1912), those with spheres or circles are associated with astral gods (cf. Cochrane N/A a, N/A b) (see figures 1-3):
Figure 1: A distinctive feature of the columns flanking entrances of cities or temples are the concentric circular disks attached to them in pairs (Sitchin 1999).
Figure 2: A believer stands between two gods. Pillars with spearheads, crescent moon and spheres are erected behind the gods. The spheres seem to be connected to the gods who are themselves performing acts with objects of strings and spheres. Unknown origin, ca. 8th century BC (Uehlinger 2000).
Figure 3: Syro-Hittite cylinder seal: The Canaanite gods of dusk and dawn, Shahar and Shalim, stand around a cosmic column consisting mainly of spheres (Du Mesnil du Buisson 1973).
The Mesopotamian tree of life (kishkanu) is described as having roots that reach down to the underworld, its trunk symbolizes the earth, while the crown extends to the heavenly sphere (cf. Baum, heiliger, in: RIA; cf. Stutley 2003; Eliade 1957). The tree as a whole represents the seat of god, the guardian of the temple of the sun, or the tree of life whose fruits contain the liquor of immortality (Perrot 1937). Some of the images of the tree show similar structures as the pillars (figure 4):
Figure 4: Cosmic tree as an abstract network of strings and spheres (cf. Parpola 1993), flanked by kings and gryphon-like guardian spirits (Uehlinger 2002).
Generally, both the cosmic pillar and the cosmic tree are concepts associated with shamanism and consciousness altering practices. The pictures shown here suggest that the pillar and the tree are not only imagined figuratively, but also as networks of strings and spheres. These strings and spheres convey meaning of their own: they are associated with, or represent, celestial bodies, deities and immortality. Seeing and experiencing shining structure floaters (cf. Tausin 2009) opens the way to an entoptic explanation of such associations: Floaters are threads filled with isolated or complete rows of spheres. Most are curved like branches; a few are straight like a pillar or a trunk. They are “celestial bodies” or deities insofar as they can be seen as bright lights at the sky. Finally, they appear or intensify in the shamans’ or seers’ central visual field during energetic states of consciousness, i.e. states of awe and wonder which contribute to the feeling of “sacredness” vis-à-vis the perceived. It is reasonable, then, to consider that the tree and the pillar have been inspired by floaters which were experienced as “sacred” and as the “world’s center” by those seeing them.
Floater structures in Mesopotamian notions of the cosmos and the world
A closer look at the Mesopotamian notions of the organization of the world and the cosmos reveals patterns similar to the concentric circles of floaters. Like other ancient and shamanic cultures (Eliade 1957), the people of Mesopotamia imagined a cosmos that is divided into three parts: Heavenly spheres, earth and underworld (figure 5):
Figure 5: The three-part Mesopotamian cosmos: 1) The heavenly spheres (H-1,2,3). 2) The earth known to the Mesopotamian people, including the central mountain house (Ekur) (E-1), the ocean (O), the dam wall (D), and the mountains of sunrise (M) and sunset (A). 3) The spheres of the underworld (E2-3), including the bottom of the mundane ocean (G) and the city of the death protected by seven walls (TR). The cosmos swims in the heavenly ocean (HO) (BHH; cf. Trenkwalder 2005, Bryce 2002, Haas 1986).
Seen from above, the earth disk consists – like a floater sphere – of a core (Mesopotamia including the mountain house), a surround (the ocean) and the border of the surround (the dam). A similar, but more complex picture is provided by a Neo-Babylonian map. The known lands appear as transparent rectangular shapes and as designated or dotted circles which remind again of shining structure floaters (figure 6):
Figure 6: The Mesopotamian world with Babylon as central rectangular, surrounded by other places like Elam and Assyria, depicted as circles. An ocean ring separates the known world and the islands of distant countries in the triangles (Somervill 2010; cf. Contenau 1951).
An interesting detail about the sun and the circadian rhythm, already indicated in figure 5, is described in the epic „Gilgamesh“: In the morning, the sun rises from a cave-like tunnel in the mountains of sunrise. It crosses the sky during the day and finally sets in another tunnel in the mountains of sunset. King Gilgamesh has to pass through these pitch-dark tunnels in order to reach the land of light on the other side where he hopes to speak to the sage Utnapishtim about the secret of death and life. This image of a tunnel through which a shining sphere or sun periodically traverses (cf. Cochrane n/a a), may be inspired by entoptic phenomena – e.g. the shining structure floaters with strings containing bright spheres, or the “blue field entoptic phenomenon”, i.e. luminous corpuscles or starlets rapidly moving in tracks (cf. Tausin 2012a).
The male and female deities of Mesopotamia were not only associated with plants, animals or mythic accounts of agriculture and craft, but also with stars. In the Akkadian creation myth called Enuma Elisch, god Marduk paints the stars as the “images” (tamshilu) of the gods. Some of the gods are explicitly astral deities, e.g. Inanna / Ishtar, the goddess of Venus and the morning and evening star; sun god Utu / Shamash; as well as the moon god Nanna / Sin. The general symbol for “heaven” and “god” is the prominent cuneiform sign “An” that figuratively depicts a star with eight rays (Trenkwalder 2005; Ringgren 1979).
It is reasonable, then, to interpret the many circular signs on the reliefs, cylinder seals and paintings as representations of stars and planets, as well as their associated deities. However, if we take the concentric forms seriously, then either these “stars” are depicted not in a realistic, but stylized way. Or they do not represent stars at all, but other celestial phenomena that are a better visual match. Fact is that the early Mesopotamian astronomers, in their search of omens for predicting the future, attentively observed and catalogued the sky at day and night. But they hardly differentiated between the stars and meteorological events: both were understood as phenomena of the “lower heaven” (Beck 2007; Rochberg 2004; Lawson 2004; Ferngren 2000). Thus, it is conceivable that entoptic images too have been incorporated into the canon of Mesopotamian “celestial phenomena”. For example, concentric or dotted circles which represent “light” since Neolithic times or earlier (cf. Cochrane N/A a) are frequently associated with the mundane sun. Such “sun” symbols are wide spread in Mesopotamian art: Most prominent is the winged sun disk on reliefs and seals. This protective symbol and representation of the sky and the sun god is spread throughout the Near East in manifold designs (cf. Tausin 2012c; Bryce 2002; Uehlinger 2000; Parpola 1993) “Sun” symbols also decorate clothes, kingly insignia (cf. Handcock 1912), amulets, jewelry, and even board games (see figures 7-10).
Figure 7: An Assyrian praying to the god Assur (Ashur). On the top, a winged sun disk between the star of Ishtar and the crescent moon (BHH).
Figure 8: Marduk the Babylonian city god, creator god and king of gods. He wears a feather crown decorated with concentric circles (BHH).
Figure 9: Headdress of a wealthy Sumerian woman. Part of the headdress are the round pendants made of Lapis lazuli set in golden metal (Somervill 2010).
Figure 10: Board game found at the royal cemetery of Ur, around 2600 BC (Somervill 2010).
Groups of circles or disks are thought to represent the stars of the night sky. If their number is seven, they may also represent the planets (see figures 11-13). According to Handcock (1912), a group of spheres might be the representation of the Igigi, a collective of anonymous male and female heavenly gods. In the myths, their number varies from seven to six hundred. The Akkadian myth Atrahasis characterizes the Igigi as lower gods who have to perform works of creation for the high gods Anu, Enlil and Enki. In the creation myth Enuma Elish, the Igigi are said to reside in the two uppermost heavenly spheres (Nardo 2007; Trenkwalder 2005; McIntosh 2005; Snell 2005; Rochberg 2004). Following this idea, groups of entoptic circles or spheres – like the shining structure floaters – might have been understood as the epiphany, or divine appearance, of Igigi dwelling in the highest heavenly spheres. If so, then this correlation of entoptic phenomena, heavenly visions and mundane scenes that is shown in much of Mesopotamian art, may be well understood in terms of shamanic visual experiences during altered states of consciousness.
Figure 11: Cylinder seal impression of the Akkadian period: While king Etana of Kish ascends to the heaven on an eagle’s back (left), a bearded figure flies to, and interacts with, a number of heavenly circles (McIntosh 2005).
Figure 12: Possibly the naked goddess Ishtar strangling the bulls that represent the heat of the day. The goddess is surrounded by dotted spheres (Du Mesnil du Buisson 1973).
Figure 13: Assyrian cylinder seal: The worshiper standing in front of the table presents offerings to the bearded god sitting on the throne. Behind: a star-emanating goddes. Seven circles float in the sky. The offering table and the god’s seat seem to be made out of such circles linked by lines – a possible hint to the creative power of Igigi? (Handcock 1912).
The concentric circles representing astral deities and stars or planets also appear as more complex forms, e.g. rosettes and wheels (figure 14). This may allow for the fact that the visual perception of light sources reveals radiating rays in certain circumstances – be it external light sources seen through the eye lashes, or entoptic lights radiating energy fields, as in the entoptic phenomenon of form constants (cf. Tausin 2012a). In addition to different (entoptic) perceptions, also artistic freedom and conventions might have contributed to the abstract representation of astral deities (cf. Cochrane n/a a; Campbell 1960).
Figure 14: Abstract representations of the Akkadian sun god Shamash (left) and the sky goddess Inanna / Ishtar (middle, right) (Cochrane, N/A a).
A recurrent motif of the Mesopotamian visual arts are the circles, concentric, dotted or plain, isolated or in groups, free floating or in rows or empty tubes. I have argued that these circles may be inspired by the entoptical phenomenon of shining structure floaters. The thesis is based on the neuropsychological approach to geometric figures in Stone Age rock art, on the seers’ teaching on shining structure floaters, as well as on my own visual experiences. I have related the Mesopotamian circles and the floaters on the basis of their common visual features, as well as their common association with cosmic and divine forces and processes. The latter might be the result of experiences of intense states of consciousness, linking entoptics and shamanism. However, even if shamanic rituals were performed regularly in Mesopotamia, and shamanic visions inspired the art, it is equally possible that much of the depiction of mythic entities is shaped by artistic convention. This convention – which may reach back to Neolithic and older times – could, in turn, be the result of shamanic visionary experiences (Tausin 2010).
BHH – Biblisch-historisches Handwörterbuch, cf. Reicke/Rost (2003)
RIA - Reallexikon der Assyriologie und vorderasiatischen Archäologie, cf. Meissner (1932-2011)
The pictures are taken from image hosting websites, from scientific publications (online and print) and/or from my own collection (FT). Either they are licensed under a Creative Commons license, or their copyright is expired, or they are used according to the copyright law doctrine of ‘Zitatrecht’, ‘fair dealing’ or ‘fair use’.
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The name Floco Tausin is a pseudonym. The author is a graduate of the Faculty of the Humanities at the University of Bern, Switzerland. In theory and practice he is engaged in the research of subjective visual phenomena in connection with altered states of consciousness and the development of consciousness. In 2009, he published the mystical story “Mouches Volantes” about the spiritual dimension of eye floaters.
‚Mouches Volantes. Eye Floaters as Shining Structure of Consciousness‘.
(Spiritual Fiction. ISBN: 978-3033003378. Paperback, 15.2 x 22.9 cm / 6 x 9 inches, 368 pages).
Floco Tausin tells the story about his time of learning with spiritual teacher and seer Nestor, taking place in the hilly region of Emmental, Switzerland. The mystic teachings focus on the widely known but underestimated dots and strands floating in our field of vision, known as eye floaters or mouches volantes. Whereas in ophthalmology, floaters are considered a harmless vitreous opacity, the author gradually learns about them to see and reveals the first emergence of the shining structure formed by our consciousness.
»Mouches Volantes« explores the topic of eye floaters in a much wider sense than the usual medical explanations. It merges scientific research, esoteric philosophy and practical consciousness development, and observes the spiritual meaning and everyday life implications of these dots and strands.
»Mouches Volantes« – a mystical story about the closest thing in the world.