Handbags of the Gods: Emblems of Cosmic Power

Apr 16, 2024

From the sun-drenched plains of Mesopotamia to the windswept steppes of Central Asia, there emerges a peculiar motif in the iconography of the gods – the "handbag." These mysterious objects, carried by deities and their attendants, have captured the public's imagination and been a fascinating topic of research in academia. What do these handbags represent? Are they mere symbolic accessories, or do they hold a deeper significance, linking the divine realm to the material world of mortals?

The internet brims with juxtapositions of these mysterious handbags and the modern tools carried by astronauts. While humorous, these memes symbolize humanity's enduring quest to traverse and understand the celestial. Such comparisons evoke images of ancient deities carrying tokens of cosmic origin, wrapping the ancient and modern in a shared narrative of celestial exploration and reverence.

 

 

The term "handbags of the gods" was coined by author Zecharia Sitchin, who first noted the peculiar presence of bag-like objects in the hands of divine figures in ancient Sumerian and Mesopotamian art (Sitchin, 1976). These handbags, often held by deities or mythical heroes, appear in various forms, from simple pouches to ornate, decorative satchels. What are these objects and could they have held sacred objects, powerful talismans, or even advanced technological devices?

Similar depictions of handbags can be found in ancient Egyptian art, where deities like Osiris and Isis are often portrayed holding ankh symbols and small bags (Wilkinson, 2003). These bags, known as "sa," were believed to contain magical or divine objects that granted the gods their power and authority. Intriguingly, the handbag motif is not limited to the ancient Near East and Egypt. In the ancient Andean civilizations of South America, figures holding bag-like objects can be found in various artistic representations (Stone-Miller, 2002). The Inca god Viracocha, is often depicted holding a small bag, which some researchers believe may have contained sacred coca leaves or other ceremonial items and there was a stone stele found at the archeological site of La Venta, depicting the ancient Mesoamerican god Quetzalcoatl, holding in his hand a similar bag we see in ancient Sumerian depictions.

 

The presence of these handbags across such diverse and geographically distant cultures has led to numerous theories and speculations about their true nature and purpose. Some researchers, like Sitchin, have suggested that the bags may have contained advanced technological devices or even nuclear weapons, pointing to the immense power and influence wielded by the gods who carried them (Sitchin, 1976). Others have proposed more mundane explanations, arguing that the handbags may have simply held everyday items of value, such as seeds, herbs, or precious stones. Still, the consistent association of these bags with divine or mythical figures suggests a deeper, more mysterious significance.

One of the most intriguing clues could come from the ancient Iranian plateau, where recent discoveries in the Jiroft region have shed new light on the iconography of divine handbags. The Jiroft civilization, which flourished in the late 3rd millennium BCE, left behind a treasure trove of intricately carved objects made of chlorite—a group of phyllosilicate minerals that are a part of the mica group, typically greenish due to their iron and magnesium content, and indicative of low to moderate-grade metamorphic processes.

These chlorite artifacts, including vessels, ceremonial weights, and the so-called handbags (Perrot, 2008), were adorned with iconography depicting animals, mythical creatures, and geometric patterns, provide a possible glimpse into the beliefs and cosmology of this forgotten culture. 

 

This soft, easily worked stone was abundant in the mineral-rich region around Jiroft, which also boasted deposits of copper, gold, and even meteoritic iron (Kohl, 1975). Could it be that these handbags were more than just symbolic accessories, but rather served as containers for sacred substances imbued with celestial power?

The idea is not as far-fetched as it may seem. In Mesopotamian art, divine figures are often depicted holding a "purifier" (mullilu) in one hand and a "bucket" (banduddû) in the other (Wiggermann, 1992). These ritual implements were used in purification ceremonies, where the mullilu, a type of conifer cone, was dipped into the banduddû, which held sacred water or other holy liquids. The parallels to the Jiroft handbags are striking – both in form and potential function, but the connection goes deeper still. The iconography adorning the Jiroft artifacts hints at a complex cosmology, where the natural and supernatural realms intersect. Hybrid creatures, part human and part animal, cavort alongside realistic depictions of local flora and fauna (Perrot & Madjidzadeh, 2005). These images suggest a worldview in which the boundaries between the mundane and the mystical were fluid, where gods and mortals could commune through the medium of sacred objects and substances.

This idea of divine intermediaries is further reinforced by the depiction of "sages" or apkallÅ« in Assyrian art. These mythical beings, often shown with the heads of birds or other animals, served as conduits between the heavenly and earthly realms. Their association with the mullilu and banduddû suggests that these ritual implements were not mere tools, but rather powerful talismans that allowed the sages to bridge the gap between the gods and humanity (Black & Green, 1992). Intriguingly, the sages are sometimes depicted carrying handbags remarkably similar to those found at Jiroft and elsewhere in the ancient Near East. This further underscores the idea that these objects were not just symbolic accessories, but rather served a vital function in the religious and ritual practices of the time.

The discovery of chlorite objects in Jiroft, which may have been used to store meteoritic fragments, adds another layer to our understanding, potentially linking these handbags to celestial phenomena and reaffirming humanity's long-standing veneration of the stars (Kohl, 1975). Such objects were likely symbols of identity and status, with the act of carrying them signifying one's affiliation and role within the society's social and religious structure. The mythical creatures and abstract patterns that adorn these objects may not represent gods per se, but rather the forces of nature and the cosmos that humans could harness and control through the use of sacred substances and rituals (Eliade, 1964). This idea of human agency in the face of cosmic forces is a recurring theme in the iconography of ancient Iran. From the heroic exploits of legendary kings to the cosmic battles between good and evil that would later form the basis of Zoroastrian dualism, Iranian mythology is replete with stories of mortals who dared to challenge the gods and shape their own destinies (Kellens, 1989).

 

 

This perspective on the handbags as markers of identity is affirmed by their symbolic presence in global mythologies, from the medicine bags of Native American shamans to the treasure sacks of Chinese Daoist immortals (Eliade, 1964). The recurrent motif of sacred containers across civilizations suggests that the handbags were part of a broader lexicon of cultural and cosmological meanings, transcending their functional use to embody the spiritual aspirations and practices of ancient societies. What, then, are we to make of the Jiroft handbags and their Mesopotamian counterparts? Are they mere coincidences of form and function, or do they reflect a deeper pattern of cultural exchange and adaptation?

The answer, as with so much in the study of ancient iconography, is likely a bit of both. On one level, the similarities between the Jiroft and Mesopotamian handbags may simply reflect the practical needs of ritual and ceremony in the ancient world (Casanova, 1991). In a time before mass-produced containers and synthetic materials, the use of stone vessels and woven bags to hold sacred substances would have been a logical choice for religious practitioners and elites alike. On a deeper level, however, the recurrence of the handbag motif across time and space suggests that these objects tapped into something more fundamental in the human psyche – a desire to connect with the divine, to harness the power of the cosmos, and to assert one's place in the grand drama of existence (Eliade, 1964). The Jiroft handbags, with their exquisite craftsmanship and enigmatic iconography, offer a glimpse into this ancient and enduring fascination with the sacred and the supernatural.

As we move forward in the 21st century, looking to the stars with the same wonder as our ancestors, the handbags of the gods stand as a symbol of the unbroken chain of human curiosity. They remind us that, despite the passage of millennia, our quest for the sacred and the profound remains undiminished—a quest to elucidate the mysteries of the past. The Jiroft discoveries, along with the parallel evidence from Mesopotamia, Egypt, and even Göbekli Tepe, remind us that the study of ancient iconography is more than just an academic exercise. It is a window into the hopes, fears, and aspirations of our ancestors – a way to connect with the timeless human quest for meaning and transcendence (Muscarella, 2005; Potts, 2008). By considering these diverse artifacts and their shared symbolism, perhaps we can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the complex web of cultural exchanges and shared beliefs that characterized the ancient world.

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

References:

Black, J. A., & Green, A. (1992). Gods, demons, and symbols of ancient Mesopotamia: An illustrated dictionary. University of Texas Press.

Casanova, M. (1991). La vaisselle d'albâtre de Mésopotamie, d'Iran et d'Asie centrale aux IIIe et IIe millénaires avant J.-C. Paris: Editions Recherche sur les Civilisations.

Eliade, M. (1964). Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton University Press.

Kellens, J. (1989). Zoroastre et l'Avesta ancien. Peeters Publishers.

Kohl, P. L. (1975). Carved Chlorite Vessels: A Trade in Finished Commodities in the Mid-Third Millennium. Expedition, 18(1), 18-31.

Kramer, S. N. (1963). The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character. University of Chicago Press.

Muscarella, O. W. (2005). Jiroft and "Jiroft-Aratta": A Review Article of Yousef Madjidzadeh, Jiroft: The Earliest Oriental Civilization. Bulletin of the Asia Institute, 15, 173–198.

Perrot, J. (2008). Jiroft iv. Iconography of Chlorite Artifacts. Encyclopaedia Iranica, XIV(6), 656-664.

Perrot, J., & Madjidzadeh, Y. (2003). Découvertes récentes à Jiroft (sud du plateau Iranien). Comptes Rendus des Séances de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 147(3), 1087-1102.

Perrot, J., & Madjidzadeh, Y. (2005). L'iconographie des vases et objets en chlorite de Jiroft (Iran). Paléorient, 31(2), 123-152.

Perrot, J., & Madjidzadeh, Y. (2006). À travers l'ornementation des vases et objets en chlorite de Jiroft. Paléorient, 32(1), 99-112.

Potts, D. T. (2008). The Archaeology of Elam: Formation and Transformation of an Ancient Iranian State. Cambridge University Press.

Sitchin, Z. (1976). The 12th Planet. Stein and Day.

Stone-Miller, R. (2002). Art of the Andes: From Chavín to Inca. Thames & Hudson.

Von Däniken, E. (1999). Chariots of the Gods: Unsolved Mysteries of the Past. Berkley Books.

Wiggermann, F. A. M. (1992). Mesopotamian Protective Spirits: The Ritual Texts. Styx Publications.

Wilkinson, R. H. (2003). The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.

 

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