Arts, languages and reality in the Mesopotamian and Indo
Arts, languages and reality in the Mesopotamian and Indo-European worlds
Paul-Louis VAN BERG
Université Libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, Belgium
Since the Palaeolithic onwards, despite interactions and contacts during the Late Holocene,
archaeological cultures north and south of the Black Sea and the Caucasus are and remain radically
different. In historical times, one of these differences concerns the conception of reality. The
Mesopotamian historical world, for instance, is a stable and objective world. Since the second half of
the 3rd millennium onwards, it is considered as created by the gods, once for all, and written like a clay
tablet so that the one able to read it can also decipher the will of the gods. Hence the value of
observation and the possibility of Mesopotamian sciences like applications of mathematics, astronomy
and astrology, medicine, mantics and so on. Likewise, even if the use of metaphors is not absent,
Mesopotamian literature is characterized by a rather objective style. This sense of objectivity seems to
be present in Near Eastern arts since the Early Neolithic and to have spread with it. Actually,
objectivity and stability of the world are the basement of Mesopotamian economic, political and
religious institutions. An unstable world would deny the possibility for gods and kings to experiment
an exhaustive control of the universe as well as of societies. Thus, the visible world must be highly
Moreover, human beings have been created by the gods as clay images of themselves ; divine
statues are inhabited by the gods that they represent, while statues of kings and priests can intercede or
pray eternally for those who dedicated them. This kind of chain linking gods, mankind and images
implies that the latter also represent an objective reality and must obviously be somewhat naturalistic.
Now, if we look at the Indo-European archaic world, we find the opposite situation. Creation
looks like a kind of auto-organisation. The various aspects of reality are not separated and classified
like they are in Mesopotamia. The world has no ontological stability, while alliances and vendettas are
permanently reshaping the political world, making any global strategy impossible. Gods, humans and
animals may exchange their forms at any time. Who is this woman I see near the well ? A woman, a
goddess, some trickster or evil-minded sorcerer ? Who knows ? The visible world is far from reliable.
Hence, archaic Indo-Europeans sciences are often based on divine inspiration rather than on
observation. Even specialists seem to ignore the form of the gods and, of course, do not make images.
Later, at various periods, they borrowed figuration from Elam (Luristan), Mesopotamia (Hittites), and
Phoenicia (Greeks) or, through Greece or Rome (La Tène and Vikings). And, when interactions have
not been too strong, they transformed it according to the requisits of their own cultures. The most
evident distortions applied to objective reality are shown by Luristan bronzes, Scythian, La Tène and
Viking arts. No wonder if these interpretations seem to lack the objectivity we find in the
Mediterranean or Near Eastern world and exhibit a manipulated anatomy or some mixture of
figurative and geometric arts.
To understand more precisely these artistic choices made by these northern cultures, we must
have a look at Indo-European literature. As Renou, Bader, Campanile, Guyonvarc’h, Boyer, Watkins
and others have shown, poet-seers compose in the « language of the gods », a very complicated poetry,
reversing the order of the words, playing with alliteration, making extensive use of metaphor and of
deliberate ambiguity and so forbidding access to non initiated people. I think that, when those people
came in contact with imagery in the Near East or in the eastern and central Mediterranean, they did
with graphic and plastic arts what they where used to do with their own poetry, transferring their
know-how to graphic and plastic creations, differences depending on regional preferences and on the
people with whom they interacted.
If this hypothesis is correct, then, walking up time, we can possibly retrace contacts between
people of northern and southern origin in various artistic traditions known only by prehistoric
archaeology and exhibiting the same kind of distortions we find in historical times. It appears to be the
case for some Chalcolithic steles and monumental compositions from Valcamonica and Alto Adige,
where body parts may be replaced by weapons and other objects, for Transcaucasian decorated
ceramics of the third millennium or for the Middle Bronze age Cîrna culture (Romania and
Yugoslavia) where figuration and geometry are inextricably mixed. Thus, if we cannot detect the
presence of Indo-European languages in the archaeological record, we can at least observe interactions
between two large cultural basins and so answer some questions about possible ways of dispersion of
the Indo-European speakers.
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