A massive bronze statue of a demoness now adorns the roof of the Courthouse of the Appellate Division, First Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York. The work of the sculptor Shahzia Sikander, it (and an accompanying figure in nearby Madison Square Park) consists of an unsettling, chimerical figure featuring ram’s horns and tentacular snake arms, but unclothed—apart from late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s trademark Liberace-esque collar. It is a sculptural expression of the age of #MeToo, a symbol of new forms of power—and cruelty.
Sikander’s monstrous bronzes are arguably the most interesting public art pieces to appear in some years. They ditch the flat classical references employed by Luciano Garbati’s “Medusa with the Head of Perseus”—a statue of a woman holding a man’s severed head that was installed in lower Manhattan in the wake of the Weinstein trial—and instead draw on Babylonian religious iconography. Specifically, Sikander’s figures are versions of the Burney Relief, the “Queen of the Night” currently held in the British Museum. Believed to represent the love goddess Ishtar (namesake of the Biblical Esther), or perhaps the earth goddess Ereshkiga, the figure is also the basis for the Hellenic Medusa, via the Cretan “woman with the snakes.”
The story of Perseus’s mythical defeat of Medusa is also the story of what 19th-century archeologists called the Dorian invasion, when Mycenaeans replaced the Pelasgian population of Greece and subsumed their Near-Eastern beliefs into their Olympian pantheon. Ishtar, who had previously been a goddess, was now demoted to a demon in line with the civilizing mission of Greek religion as a whole.
The Olympian Gods, unlike their titanic predecessors, were conceptual and representational, as opposed to energetic and chthonic. Each of the 12 major deities that composed the Greek pantheon embodied a distinct set of ideas, and the mythological stories connecting them expressed conceptual contents. Accordingly, the goddess of desire was betrothed to the crippled god of technology but pursued a long term affair with the god of war: What is at stake here is a conceptual thesis about the relationship between technology, war, and desire, which would ultimately lay the foundations for Greek philosophical thought.
In marked contrast, as S.H. Hooke points out in Babylonian and Assyrian Religion, pioneering Assyriologist Knut Leonard Tallqvist’s standard work Akkadische Götterepitheta (1938) includes a descriptive list of Akkadian gods running to more than 240 pages that mostly defy all efforts to recover their meanings: To paraphrase Hegel, the secrets of the Assyrians also were secrets for the Assyrians. Their meanings can’t be recovered, because they depended on specific political stratagems, and the elaborate, arbitrary systems of rules and superstitions they codified—similar to incoherent and arbitrary ideology that reigns over the planet today. What is the conceptual meaning, for example, of the contemporary deity Ruth Bader Ginsburg, say, or the deity George Floyd?
Like voodoo Lwa or the ancient Mexican deities, the half-humanoid, half-animal Ishtar is a representation of psychic energy in a cosmos conceived as a contest of animist forces that must be placated, as opposed to a rationally knowable, harmonious whole. Her meaning derives from the channeling of those energies into ceremonial and magical rites, as opposed to philosophical and theological abstractions available for analysis by the mind.
All of this allows us to view Sikander’s intervention not as a progressive feminist revision of the concept of justice, but a symbolic regression to more primitive forces, and specifically the force of the scapegoat mechanism, the ur-ritual underpinning all others. As the philosopher René Girard showed, the justice system originally derives from this mechanism and its ritualized forms, but domesticates it by submitting it to higher, theoretical principles. When the neutrality of this system is called into question—as it has been in recent years, not least by #MeToo—the primal impulse to discharge psychic violence through sacrificial propitiation resurfaces from the underworld to wander through the world in search of blood.