November 5, 2013

M is for Sirrush

        If you’ve been following this blog long, you know that I love alphabets and I love imaginary animals.  (To get an idea how much, click the links for “ABC” and “mythical creatures” under the Labels in the side bar!)  So it will come as no surprise that the possibility of an alphabet of mythical animals has crossed my mind.  Repeatedly.  It’s actually pretty unlikely that I’ll ever finish such a collection, but in the past few weeks while searching for ideas for blocks to carve at all my shows, I looked to my list of creatures for inspiration.  And on Saturday I carved this marvelous monster.
        This beast hails from Babylon, where it can be seen on the famous Ishtar Gate, among many places.  It’s often called a sirrush, but it turns out that that word derives from a mistransliteration of the Sumerian, and the proper word is mushussu.  (Mushussu ought to have assorted marks over the s’s and under the h so that its pronunciation would be something like mush-choo-shu-shoo, but I can’t make my computer do it.)  On the Ishtar Gate the beast stands regal, stately, and stiff, but I didn’t want to simply copy an image that the Babylonian artists had already made.  I wanted to imagine this animal as less heraldic and more alive.  And I thought that his big, round eye made him look, unlike most monsters who guard kingly gates, rather happy and almost puppyish.  So I decided to show my mushussu playfully chasing his own tail.  After all, everyone needs a break from standing at attention through the millenia.
        As for this particular species, some cryptozoologists suggest that it is (or was) in fact a real animal.  Their arguments are based primarily on two facts.  Firstly, the other two animals depicted on the the Ishtar gate, the lion and the aurochs, were real.  Moreover, they’re portrayed very realistically, not stylized as if they were meant to be merely symbolic.  Secondly, the depiction of the mushussu, like that of the lions and other real animals, stayed consistent over centuries, while the Babylonian/Sumerian depictions of frankly mythological creatures changed over time.  Cryptozoologists have therefore proposed a number of candidates for the real animal the Babylonians were dealing with.  These include the ornithopod iguanadon and the sauropod mokele-mbembe, a giant monitor lizard, and the sivatherium, an extinct giraffid like a large okapi.
        Alas, dearly as I’d love to believe that the world really has (or had) mushussus roaming its Mesopotamian landscapes, there’s a serious lack of logic in these claims.  After all, if your evidence that the creature is real is based on the exactitude of its depiction, then you can’t turn around and claim that it’s some sort of animal that looks only vaguely like those same detailed depictions.  No, if the mushussu were to be real, it would really have to be a creature with a snakelike head, feline front paws, avian back talons, and scales.  It would really have to have long, lean proportions, a thin, lithe neck, horns both straight and curled, and a tail that’s skinny its entire length.  So far we know of no other animal that’s ever lived on Earth that combines these traits.  But if we ever do discover actual evidence of such a beast, I will most certainly bake a cake and join the celebration!

[Pictures: Mushussu, rubber block print by AEGN, 2013;
Ishtar Gate (reconstruction), Babylon, 6th century BCE (Image from Staatliche Museen zu Berlin).]

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