Now you see him, now you don’t: anthropomorphic representations of the Hittite Kings

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Journal of Near Eastern Studies
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University of Chicago Press
287 - 306
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Hittite kings lived as mortals and became deified only after death. Beyond mere flesh and blood, the identities of the kings were encapsulated in their office, title, and the idea of kingship. Their representations were also divergent, ranging from figural renderings of royal bodies to the writing of names and titles in hieroglyphic Luwian,1 mainly on rock reliefs and seals. Starting with the 14th century BC,2 anthropomorphic representations of Hittite kings3 were incorporated into a very small corpus dominated by seals and rock reliefs, with the name of the king often accompanying the image. Similarly, royal names and epithets in the hieroglyphic script started in the Hittite Old Kingdom with the reign of Tudhaliya I/II (early 14th century BC)4 and were standard features of reliefs and seals in the 14th–13th centuries,5 as represented by numerous examples. The pervasiveness of hieroglyphic Luwian is visible in the fact that almost all the preserved anthropomorphic representations contain a hieroglyphic element, while there are many more inscriptions which are not accompanied by figural imagery. As such, the written and the anthropomorphic illustrations of the Hittite kings represent a contrast in terms of quantity: royal names and titles in the hieroglyphic script were liberally used, while anthropomorphic depictions were reserved for select examples.6 In this article, I argue that the adoption of anthropomorphic representations by Hittite kings were a selective phenomenon. Signifying power and presence through rendering royal titles in hieroglyphic Luwian signs flanking individual names was a conscious preference to visually emphasize the office of kingship more than the individual kings. Starting with the 14th century BC, however, Hittite kings started commissioning anthropomorphic representations explicitly identifying themselves, and continued this practice until the fall of the empire at the start of the 12th century BC. The reign of Muwatalli II in the early 13th century was the most active period of royal patronage of anthropomorphic illustrations executed on seals and rock reliefs. The triggers for the accelerated use of this iconography in the 13th century, I suggest, rested mainly on two phenomena. First, Hatti was under a lot of pressure from the borderlands of the empire as well as the neighboring states. Second, the royal succession in Hattuša was rife with conflict, disrupting the continuity of kingship, and forcing the rulers to emphasize their individual relationships with the divine realm as legitimate kings. In an attempt to articulate the power bestowed upon them by gods as legitimate and able rulers, the Hittite kings started to commission more anthropomorphic depictions of themselves, albeit scrupulously.7 In these figural royal representations, the connection between the anthropomorphic manifestations and divinity was emphasized and reinforced. The king’s body was depicted in only three ways: when he was facing a deity; when he was in the protective embrace of a god; or when the king was a god himself. Thus, in all the examples I discuss below, the manifestation of the king in human form is conditioned by his absorption by, and encounter with, divine energy.8 In other words, a divine element (either a god or a deified king) was a mandatory prerogative for the depiction of the body of the Hittite king. Contrary to other Near Eastern traditions of representing kingship in a culturally-coded way signifying both the king and his office at the same time,9 specific depictions of both kingship and individual kings were both sought after in the Hittite examples. The hieroglyphic signs for Great King (MAGNUS.REX),10 often doubled with the winged sun disc positioned above the name of the king, emphasized the importance of the office of kingship as a continuous institution. In contrast, anthropomorphic representations intended to articulate the relationship of the individual king with the divine realm and emphasized his right to rule as the king supported by the gods. In comparison with other eastern Mediterranean traditions, especially the Neo-Assyrian and Egyptian examples, anthropomorphic representations of Hittite kings are conservative in terms of both quantity and content. The few images of the Hittite kings depict them either facing, pouring libations to, or being in the embrace of a god; or deified themselves.11 The body of the king in Hittite iconography, therefore, was visible only when he was in contact with the divine realm, as if the body of the king was a culmination of divine energy.

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