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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

Sumerian Standing Male Worshiper (MET)

Sumerian Standing Male Worshiper

Sumerian Standing Male Worshiper

This “Standing Male Worshiper” carved from gypsum alabaster is shown with clasped hands and a wide-eyed gaze. It was placed in a temple and dedicated to a Sumerian god, to pray perpetually on behalf of the person it represented. This statue is one of twelve figures known collectively as the “Tell Asmar Hoard” with artefacts dating back to 2900–2550 BC. The hoard was discovered in 1933 at Eshnunna in eastern Iraq. It is historically unique because it is one of a few definitive examples of the abstract style of Early Dynastic temple sculpture.

This figure derived from the Sumerian culture and was created to worship an early Mesopotamia god. The  Sumerians believed that gods were physically present in nature and experiences of daily life. Enlil was considered the most potent Mesopotamian god when this statue was created. Enlil, later known as Elil, was the ancient Mesopotamian god of wind, air, earth, and storms. He was the chief deity of the Sumerian pantheon and was later worshipped by the Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians.

Enlil plays a vital role in the Sumerian creation myth. According to Sumerian religion, he separates heaven from earth, making the world habitable for humans. In the Sumerian Flood myth, Enlil sent the flood to exterminate the human race, who made too much noise and prevented him from sleeping.

Sumerian Religion

The religion practised by the people of Sumer was one in which they regarded their divinities as responsible for all matters of the natural and social orders. The Sumerians, who were the first literate civilisation of ancient Mesopotamia, believed that the universe had come into being through a series of cosmic births. The primaeval waters gave birth to the sky and the earth who mated together and produced a son who separated heaven from earth and claimed the earth as his domain. Humans were then created, but heaven was reserved exclusively for deities.

Before the beginning of Sumerian kingship, the city-states were ruled by priests and religious officials. Kings supplanted this role, but priests continued to exert influence on Sumerian society. Early Sumerian temples were simple, one-room structures, sometimes built on raised platforms. Towards the end of Sumerian civilisation, these temples evolved into ziggurats which were tall, pyramidal structures with sanctuaries at the tops.

Sumerian religion profoundly influenced the religious beliefs of later Mesopotamian people and was retained in the mythologies and religions of many Middle Eastern culture groups. Scholars of comparative mythology have noticed many parallels between the stories of the ancient Sumerians and those recorded later in the early parts of the Hebrew Bible.

Tell Asmar Hoard

The Tell Asmar Hoard is a collection of twelve statues unearthed in 1933 at modern Tell Asmar in Iraq. The hoard was found during an excavation beneath the floor of a temple dedicated to the god Abu. The statues were neatly stacked in a rectangular cavity beside an altar in the sanctuary. They were buried intentionally for unknown reasons. It has been suggested that priests periodically buried old or badly damaged statues to make room in the temple for their replacements.

The statues range in height from 21 cm (8.2 in.) to 72 cm (28.3 in.). Of the twelve statues found ten are male, and two are female. Eight of the figures are made from Gypsum, two from limestone, and one from alabaster. All the figures, except for one that is kneeling, are rendered in a standing position. The males wear kilts with a patterned hem that covers the midsection and thighs. Their broad shoulders and thick, circular arms frame the bare chest, which is partially covered by a black, stylised beard.

All the males, except for one that is bald and clean-shaven, have long hair rendered in two symmetrical halves that frame the smooth surfaces of the cheeks and forehead. The large eyes, the stylistic feature that the statues share in common, are made from inlays of white shell, and black limestone and one figure has pupils of lapis lazuli. These additions are secured with bitumen. Bitumen was also used as the pigment to give the beard and hair its characteristic black colour.

Some of the statues are inscribed on the back and bottom with a name and personalised supplicatory message, while others state “one who offers prayers.” The figures functioned as a surrogate for worshipers who wished to leave their prayers with the god.

Sumerian Standing Male Worshiper

  • Title:               Sumerian Standing Male Worshiper
  • Date:              2900–2600 B.C.
  • Period:           Early Dynastic I-II
  • Geography:   Mesopotamia, modern Tell Asmar
  • Culture:         Sumerian
  • Medium:        Gypsum alabaster, shell, black limestone, bitumen
  •  Dimensions: 11 5/8 x 5 1/8 x 3 7/8 in. (29.5 x 12.9 x 10 cm)
  • Museum:       Metropolitan Museum of Art – MET

Sumerian Culture

  • Capital:         Sumer
  • Geography:  Near East, Middle East
  • Period:          Late Neolithic, Middle Bronze Age
  • Dates             4500 – c. 1900 BC

A Tour of Mesopotamian Art

Reflections

  • “When righteousness is cut off, injustice is increased.” – Sumerian Proverb
  • “Righteousness” – the quality of being morally right, or “Pleasing to God.”
  • “Strength cannot keep pace with intelligence.” – Sumerian Proverb
  • Was this worshiper created to worship the god of the Sumerian Flood story who sent the flood to exterminate the human race?
  • Were the first sculptures created by humans, as expressions of religious impulses?
  • If religion was pervasive in Sumerian religion, how did Kings supplanted the ruling priests and religious officials?

A Tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

MET European Paintings Collection

MET Modern and Contemporary Art Collection

MET Greek and Roman Art Collection

MET Egyptian Art Collection

MET Asian Art Collection

MET Ancient Near Eastern Art Collection

MET American Wing Collection

MET Islamic Art Collection

MET Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas Collection

MET European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Collection

MET Medieval Art Collection

MET Drawings and Prints Collection

MET Costume Institute Collection

MET Arms and Armor Collection

MET Photograph Collection

MET Musical Instrument Collection

Explore

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“When righteousness is cut off, injustice is increased.”
– Sumerian Proverb

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Photo Credit: [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

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