8.Sumerian seals and Bengt Hemtun


There are many similarities between ancient Middle Eastern cultures and south Indian culture. Bengt Hemtun who has been studying the ancient religious symbols of Baltic nations and their connection with ancient cultures of Middle East and Egypt noticed similar parallels. Bengt Hemtun was born in Finland a few years before the World War II. He was sent to Sweden during that period in order to escape the Nazi regime. He became an orphan and was brought up by the local guardians. He studied agriculture and forestry for three years and after that he studied economics. He developed some health problem, when he was 41 and was forced to retire. After that he had put in more than 20 years full time study of history and culture as a hobby. His area of interest is making synthesis of "ancient ideas" with special studies in symbolism and ancient scripts. 
His ideas on ancient symbols are highly informative. Basically he is interested in searching for the roots of civilisation of Sweden. Those processes have lead him into the conclusion that civilization of Middle East and Egypt were the sources of all civilisations of Asia and ancient Europe.(Or) Other way it can be said that the Middle Eastern civilisation was mother of all known civilisations. It is important to note that he classifies Indus civilisation as one among the three important ancient civilisations of the old world. His observations on the symbols of Middle East are very accurate and informative. Hemtun states that the symbols used in Sumeria, Egypt and Indus are interrelated and explain each other. Some of his ideas are reproduced here, because these ideas explain the Indus seals much better than any other explanation seen so far. 

Universal language and symbols 

The term "lingua franca" originally meant a mixed language of Italian with French, Greek, Arabic and Spanish words used in Levant. Lingua franca is a language, which serves as a medium between different nations whose languages are different and unintelligible to each other. This idea of lingua franca is much older than what we know (Latin is the first known lingua franca) and also that Sumerian cuneiform was used as lingua franca script until last millennium BC. 
We can see the Astro-symbolism as "lingua franca symbolism" of the establishment and not only in the three big cultures but also as far as in Scandinavia from the very beginning of Ritual Age in 4200 BC. The symbolisms on these seals generally reflect on the religious ideas of priest-kings and commercial utility ideas of nobles and traders of the ancient time. Some seals are furnished with cuneiform script that tells us about the owner of the seal. Bengt Hemtun states that the scripts on these seals often used god-names or part of a god name. He further states that scripts of ancient time were not written along with verbs as in modern scripts. Only syllables were written without any verb, and the reader of that time could understand the meaning of that sentence. The problem for the present day linguist is that he is not able to understand their script and language without proper verbs and sentences. This kind of syllable script was the model of that time and was commonly used by all languages of that time. (Hemtun, Sumerian heritage, 2009) 

The ancient cultures knew everything about algebra in symbolism. They made icons that were common in large parts of the world. One clever symbol could be icon for a process, a treaty or whatever they needed to picture. We need imagination if we want to understand. Another thing is that maybe these terms are much older than the time period to which they are assigned to now. New finds show that many cultures developed in parallel to the three big cultures from 5000BC onwards. In middle of second millennium BC (i.e.2500BC) the usage of Anatolian Neolithic language was not new, it was already in existence from 5000BC onwards (as per Hemtun’s observation). Recent genetic study shows that the Neolithic farmers were spreading their technology (Agricultural technology) and language from 10,000BC onwards. Too often, the historians and archaeologists talk only about the heydays and not about the roots of development. The pinnacle of Mitanni people achievement is visible in 2500 BC, whereas the root of their culture and language lies in 7500 years of combined developments of agriculture and cattle-rearing besides the growth of small cities and trade. 

Maybe there was a "Universal language and Sumerian cuneiform was used like Latin in Middle East until last millennium BC. So they used these gods as "international" terms. Too often we underestimate the logic and manners of ancient times. The Sumerian texts show how they defined things precisely in their texts. Outside the three great cultures we find another more reliable source. It is the seals of kings and traders from the Hittite, Hurrian and Mitanni kingdoms as good examples. Their kingdoms extended from Anatolia and Ugarit at the Mediterranean coasts to the Zagros Mountains and included at the time Assyria and Babylon. The seals show similar culture from Ugarit in Levant to Nuzi in Iran (and of course the rest of Mesopotamia and to some extent even in India). We know that these cultures were much alike the former Sumerians with a lot in common with Indian culture. These kingdoms and their rule varied in time of course. 

On the issue of Aryan invasion of India, Hemtun states that there is no proper evidence for arising of Aryan civilisation as suggested by Marija Gimbutas. His argument is that small band of some nomadic Aryans could not have destroyed such a big culture like IVC , which was spread over 2600 settlements consisting of 3,00,000 inhabitants. The facts available so far do not show any evidence that IE were in such large number at their time of entry into India to destroy all the centres of Indus culture. The next significant argument of invasion theory supporters is that few Indian god names appear in the Mitanni treaty from middle of second millennium BC. The Aryan theory supporters believe that the Indo-Aryans god names Mitra, Varuna, Nasatyas in the Mitanni and Hurrian pantheon are evidence of invading people. Hemtun’s hypothesis is that it is more likely that the words could have come to use by cultural influence and could not be taken as evidence for Aryan invasion theory. 

Naked goddess 

Some interpreters think that the Sumerian seals are decorated with demons from underworld, but Hemtun identifies that most of the portrayals are icons from zodiac and are telling about their world order. Later Zodiacs were modified to keep the hero figure in the centre fighting the animal, two lions or two bulls, which is a common motif in Middle Eastern seals. Many of the Middle Eastern seals show worship of the naked goddess. Hemtun concludes that this naked goddess (Inanna) is representing asterism Auriga, because in one seal, she stands on the ‘oxen’ in ‘Indian style’. Note the similarity between this Sumerian seal and the Indus seal depicting “deity of tree” in the “goat seal”. This seal illustrated here is from Syria (circa 1800 BC) and the naked goddess was the symbol of rain and fertility in Levant.


Figure 13: Naked Goddess. 

(Adapted from seal presentation in Hemtun web site- Catshaman) 

The endless screw in upper corner stands for the River in sky, but it also stands for treaty, tolerance and perhaps the seasons. Compared with some other seals it could also mean the time running in quarters, because in some seal the “time-wave” is depicted as four circles with a dot inside. The endless screw (time-wave) is very abstract and much like present day infinity symbol (∞). In fact, both the symbols look so similar, it looks like that the present day infinity symbol had developed from the old Sumerian time-wave symbol. Normally, wavy lines are named as serpentine (snake) design. But that is not correct explanation for the portrayal on this seal, because no serpent head is seen on the wavy lines. Waved lines are more likely to express flow and often the time flow. In some Sumerian seals there is a symbol like a fork with wavy legs. That symbol consists of the Serpent and the "harvest" in end of season. Inanna sometimes have it in her hand and the Phoenicians made this symbol equalent to the asterism Crab. The time-wave is indefinite and expresses the indefinite time at the wavy rock. That leads to an idiomatic expression picturing life as a journey on the River of Time. 

Hemtun observes that the style of seals vary with different kings. The languages also vary and sometimes mixed languages are used. Best example for use of mixed languages is the seals from the time of Sargon and that of the Hittites period. However, the point here is that even though there were minor differences in the presentations in the seal, the overall idea was the same in all the seals, heavenly ideas were depicted on the seals to reflect on the earthly events or ideas, and was fully understood by the people of the ancient time. Hemtun says that the iconography was used as a Lingua Franca of Middle East in the ancient times. There are many differences in the myths explaining a single phenomenon. These differences in myths are because much time had passed (3000 years) and many independent cultures had evolved in the Middle East. 

Much of these cultural ideas in the form of myths mixed with the earlier heritage from the leading Sumerian order (3000BC). This cultural lingua franca was prominently in use in Mesopotamia, Levant, Anatolia and the Aegean world. The world order of that time was a kind of federal society. It begins with independent city-states in Sumer probably. As long as there were space and fertility enough the ritual order kept the societies peaceful except for the "mountain people" in the Sumerian legends. The mountain people attacked settled cities of Mesopotamia and were the main threat to the civilised life of plain people. Sargon of Akkad was the first to unite many cities and reached the Levant around 2300 BC. It is not clear, how much cultural imperialism of Sargon influenced the people of conquered lands, but trade and intermingling of people from different cultures over a period of time had much greater influence on spreading of cultures. 

The Hittite kingdom consisted of small city-states lead by the high priest-king. The duty of priest-king was primarily to lead the seasonal rituals in the same ways as the pharaohs of Egypt were leaders of rituals. Pharaohs of Egypt acted like a “Calendar man”, all the rituals and ceremonies carried out by Pharaohs corresponded with various agricultural seasons. Common people were reminded of the ploughing season and planting season through different festivals at different seasons. The farmers who followed the rituals of pharaohs could carry out agricultural operations successfully within the scheduled time and reaped benefits (better harvest). The role Hittite priestly king was something similar to the Egyptian Pharaohs. This role of kings as “calendar man” reflects on the spread of cultural ideas and uniformity of ideas throughout Middle East and Levant. 
Hittites conquered Babylon around 1600 BC and soon influence of Sumerian symbolism could be seen on the symbolism of Hittite, since usually the stronger culture influences the weaker. The Hittite world order seems to have influenced Europe very much as we see in the symbolism during Bronze and Roman Age. We should not forget that Sumerian language and cuneiform script became what Latin has been for Europe. General estimate of historians is that the Sumerian dictionary contained around 65000 words. Scribes and writers of nearby areas freely borrowed and used the words from old Sumerian documents and word lists. This resulted in spread of Sumerian language and adaption of the same as lingua franca of Middle East, Anatolia and Levant. 

Indus astronomy and calendar symbols 

Every culture needs some kind of calendar for time planning. That also means they need symbols and conventions that at least some people understand and can use the same symbolism and conventions. Hemtun observes that all three big cultures of ancient time had many things in common. The best example is that of calendar symbols. The calendar symbols of three big cultures are given below for comparison. The first two symbols are from Sumer and Egypt respectively and the third symbol is a seal is from Indus valley.

Centaurs of Three big cultures 

(Adapted after Bengt Hemtun, Website-Catshaman) 

In Sumer and Egypt, these symbols designate five seasons of a year. The Gemini constellation identify the first season (spring season), which is shown as front toes of the horse. Constellations Cancer, Lynx and Ursa Major put together makes the archer, and this archer indicates the second season of Sumerians. The other seasons are marked by other constellations like Scorpio and rear portion of the horse. The constellation Scorpio is explicitly shown in the first seal and still is the popularly used zodiac symbol. In Indus symbolism there is a change because the spring starts with Bull constellation (Auriga constellation) for Indus people. This Auriga constellation is shown as human portion of the female centaur like creature. The hind portion of this centaur is shown like a tiger not a horse. Hemtun is of the opinion that even though there are variations in image, the basic theme is that it is a composite picture indicating various seasons. All the three old civilisations had used the same idea, which shows the cultural link that existed among these cultures.
Analysis of symbols as per Bengt Hemtun

The female centaur symbolism is possibly out of inspiration from Sumerian ideas. Observe the animal body of a tiger and the Markhor goat horns. It was originally a merged asterism for the five moon season from Leo to Scorpio. With passage of time this concept has been simplified. In this case of Indus symbol, it covers only four-month period, symbols for Markhor-goat (Aries constellation) to Virgo constellation.

There were no tigers with horns at any time in the existence of this world and Indus people definitely knew about that. It is more likely that this symbol was indicating a “two month” symbol. In one seal we see the horned hero in battle with a tiger. Maybe we could associate to the Bullfight as in Sumer between Gilgamesh and the Bull (or) between the Bull and brothers Enkidu and Gilgamesh. That Bull was perhaps the asterism Taurus below the hero Perseus. The two symbols should be read as "period in the angle" that was a corner of the month-wheel / sun square.

Hemtun states that there are several ideas, which have been directly taken from Egypt and used in Indus valley civilisation. The Bull at the tray is similar composition as on the Narmer palette (Egypt, ca 3000 BC). It was symbol of Pharaoh as the "Big Bull", defender of the two lands. The bull was symbol for Horus also.

We see the "meen" (fish) symbol in front of Gharial the crocodile that surely was an asterism near Sagittarius. According to the symbolism a Crocodile eat the months of the year and it was replaced with a little one.



Here we see the Rhinoceros together with ritual ship symbol that we normally see with Unicorn. Hemtun suggests that these two symbols were opposite and would mean May and October. That could have been the "sailing season".


But Mahadevan says that the symbol before the unicorn looks like the ‘soma filter” and it looks like symbol of ritual vessel is more apt than the explanation of “boat symbol.”

Table 5:  Analysis of symbols as per Hemtun


Humanised symbols

                In dynastic period (2900BC-2300BC) the scribes of Sumeria started humanising the zodiac symbols as well as symbols of Gods. The high priests of Sumeria wanted a direct link to the gods, because that would give them more power. In Egypt, this phenomenon of humanising could be seen in the story of Horus. God Horus was the “calendar-man” as well as “time”. The Egyptian priests used the metaphor that he was the Bull that defended the symbolic fenced world. In Sumeria there was a period in which the mythological characters were half-human and half-animal. Best examples for this kind of half human characters are Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu, who were often portrayed with bull-legs and tail.


In Mesopotamia Sargon of Akkad (ca 2300 BC) seems to have brought a new style into the seals. In the seal the asterism are represented by nearly fully human like figures. Corresponding to this were the specialised priestesses and priest in the different shrines and temples. There are finds of Indus type seal, amulets and tokens in Mesopotamia and that proves that there was inter change of culture. In the Sumerian texts we find even that they used the idea of Seven Sages. There are many cartoons like pictures depicting the combined constellations. For example take the case of centaurs used in all three cultures. It has variety of combinations; like horse body, bird wings and human face. Such kinds of creatures are called chimeras. These chimeras like creatures are at middle stage of development in the evolution of zodiac symbols. (There are three different stages). In the final stage of zodiac development, human characters are preferred by priestly class than animal symbols. This model of zodiac picturisation is being labelled as “humanised symbols” by Bengt Hemtun. 

One of the examples for this kind of humanised symbol is the representation of amulet shown here. This amulet was found in Sumer and it is influenced by the Indus Symbolism as per observation of Hemtun. This image of water carrier represents a deity but generally these kinds of depictions are not there in the Sumerian style. Because of that reason, Bengt Hemtun concludes that this design of this amulet has been influenced by Indus culture. The "Waterman" is Aquarius and symbolises the water carriers and period of inundation (rainy season). This amulet portrays a normal every day scene of street life. It would have been common in those days to carry water to houses, which were not provided with wells of their own. 

This above said assumption of “waterman” of Hemtun does not really explain the character in the amulet. This symbol has to be analysed in the light of some religious practices of Dravidian societies. Carrying a “Kavadi” is a religious practice associated with worship of god Murugan in Tamil society and it is very popular and regularly practiced even now. Kavadi is a kind of small decorated palanquin-like structure carried in honour of god Murugan. The small palanquin, which is being carried today, looks like a modified form of water carrier pole. The water carrier is not a deity, but a devotee, who carries the Kavadi containing offerings to god. Most probably, the worshippers of that time might have carried some offerings like newly harvested grains and some homemade sweets as an offering to the temple of god. 

It is likely that he was carrying those offerings to the temple of Aries (goat constellation). This association is being made because goat constellation and Aquarius constellation are side by side, and a relationship between these two constellations had to exist, to make it lively and easier to remember. Further goat is the first god worshipped by Sumerians and is later termed as a form of Zeus worship by Herodotus. Further careful observation of seal reveals that the devotee is carrying an additional third bag in his left hand like a railway porter; this additional bag coincides with Capricorn constellation. On the right side of the devotee there is an animal like figure which coincides with Cetus constellation. In addition to that two stars are presented on both sides of his head very prominently. The overall conclusion is that this amulet is not merely illustrating a single constellation but group of constellations.


Indus seal - unicorn


Bengt Hemtun observes that figures of unicorn and ritual vessel are deceptive and indicates something else other than what is portrayed. The vessel before the bull is generally explained as ritual utensil. Hemtun is of the view that the sign before the bull looks like a representation of a sailing ship, probably used by the traders of that time. His conclusion is that this seal points toward the sailing time. There is a possibility that this assumption is right because the sailing season in Arabian Sea is a specialized knowledge. During the south west monsoon the trade winds blow from the direction of Arabia towards India, after some time the reverse monsoon (North East monsoon) sets in and the winds start blowing from Indian coast toward Arabia. What the Arabian and Indian sailors had was special knowledge of this wind movement and they sailed through this big sea in a jiffy. So there is a point in the observation of Hemtun that this seal represents the sailing season. 

Many of the seals are found in Mohenjo Daro that must have been an important port to the international trade. Unicorn and the "ship" in the corner could be the symbol of the fellowship of traders. But Iravatham Mahadevan is of different view; he is of the opinion that the ritual vessel looks like a filter which could have been used for extracting the soma juice mentioned in the Rig Veda. Mahadevan belongs to “Dravidian school of scholars” on the subject of origin of Indus culture; such a conclusion that the vessel was a filter for extracting soma juice contradicts his own stand. Hence he is not able to come out with a conclusive statement on this matter. Now, the view taken in this book is that authors of IVC were farmers from Sumeria, and they were speaking IE language at the time of entry into Indian sub continent. This conclusion leads to further postulation that the Sumerian priests were the authors of Vedas also. If such a hypothesis is adopted there is no contradiction in Mahadevan’s statement. His suggestion of soma filter perfectly explains this symbol. 

Conclusions of Bengt Hemtun 

The final conclusion of Bengt Hemtun is that there is great similarity between Scandinavian ancient symbolism and ancient cultures of Middle East and Egypt. He is tracing back the roots of ancient European civilisations to the source at Middle Eastern and Egyptian civilisations. He further observes that the calculation of calendar year was based on many agricultural myths (rural myths) in the beginning and gradually it changed with the introduction of city culture. In course of time the source of ancient rural knowledge is forgotten and bonds to fertility and environment has faded out. Myths and legends try to sort out and find a model out of the ancient myths for solving new problems. In this process number of myths grow and comes to a chaotic level. Finally, the confusion of myths come to such a level that help of priests is needed for sorting it out meaningful myths from worthless ones and to convey the same to ordinary people.