Mušḫuššu dragon from Neo-Babylonian Babylon, ca. 600 BCE
So, how can we examine the value of a colour in a culture from approximately 4000 years before our own time?
Another handy pointer was the use of qualifiers on the term ZA2ZA.GIN3 to identify whether the ‘stone’ was from the mountains (real lapis lazuli) or from a kiln (glass). But the subtleties of identifying synthetic lapis are still disputed and they only apply to the period after glass became a common royal technology in the ancient Near East, so after about 1500 BCE. It is also worth mentioning that the sign ZA2 ‘stone’ is also not within our modern value range and included not just glass, faience and frit, but also amber, mussel shell and pearls. Again, our narrow translation is an awkward substitute for the ancient value.
Plaque of the thunderbird Imdugud, from the so-called 'Treasure of Ur' found in
the pre-Sargonic palace at Mari. Early Dynastic. Image frontispiece to Parrot 1968, Mari IV.
The only exception to this comes from two myths. One employs zagin to describe the colours of a peacock of the goddess Nanshe and the other is a description of the cattle herd of Nanna, which were ‘dark like translucent zagin and white like moonlight’. And once again a text associated with the moon god uses a play on dark and light. However, both these examples contain animals that arguably do not belong to the natural world.
Zagin was similarly not used to describe human hair (stop right now, Gilgamesh does not count, he was semi-divine). Human hair was instead always described using MI/GI6, Akkadian ṣalmu, ‘dark brown – dark – black’. To reinforce this value, the Sumerians often referred to themselves as the black-headed people. So, instead lapis lazuli is most visible in mythological texts as a personification of divinity or otherworldliness, sometimes the stone, sometimes a hue, sometimes an abstract idea, but none of these are necessarily mutually exclusive, the signs remain the same. It was reserved for the hair and beards of kings, of heroes like Gilgamesh and of gods alone, and of course for their magical objects.
Zagin hair on warriors from the palace of Darius I at Susa,
in 1500 BCE it was equally magical and powerful as the stone.
Detail from the statue of Ebiḫ II from the temple of Ishtar at Mari,
Image © British Museum (Creative Commons Licence).
The cult stand from UR, Early Dynastic III, ca. 2400 BCE. The 'ram in the thicket' name
British Museum: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/search.aspx
George, A.R. 1993. House most High: The Temples of Ancient Mesopotamia. Winona Lake.
Horowitz, W. 1998. Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography. Eisenbrauns.
Shuster-Brandis, A. 2003. ‘Tupfen und Streifen: Erkenntnisse zur Identifikation von Steinnamen aus der Serie abnu šikinšu ‚Der Stein, dessen Gestaltung ...’. Altorientalische Forschung 30: 256–268.