Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Cyrus Cylinder

The Cyrus cylinder has been housed at the British Museum in London since its discovery in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) in 1879. Adopted as a symbol by the Shah of Iran's pre-1979 government, it was on loaned display in Tehran in 1971 to commemorate 2,500 years of the Iranian monarchy. 

The baked clay tablet which measures 22 centimetres in length has an Akkadian cuneiform inscription upon it is disputably the first ever declaration of human rights which includes the lines-

I am Cyrus, king of the world, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world.

Cyrus the Great, the ruler of ancient Persia who lived circa 580-529 B.C was the first Zoroastrian Persian Emperor and the founder of an empire without precedent— a world-empire of major historical importance.

The Persian King who defeated the Greeks is praised in the Bible and by the Greek historian Xenophon in his Cyropaedia, an idealized account of his education. To the Greek historian Xenophon (circa 431-355 BCE) writing over a hundred years after the death of Cyrus, King Cyrus was a model ruler and an ideal 'philosopher King' who possessed the triple merits of Warrior-Ruler, Priest and Philosopher.

The religious tolerance of Cyrus is demonstrated by the fact that under his rule he freed the Jews and allowed the temple at Jerusalem to be re-built. He is mentioned in the Biblical books of Ezra, Ezekiel and Daniel, but it was the prophet Isaiah who developed the role of Cyrus as a messiah-figure. In Isaiah 45: 1-4 one reads-

The Lord has chosen Cyrus to be king! He has appointed him to conquer nations;.... to Cyrus the Lord says "I myself will prepare your way...I will give you treasures from dark, secret places, then you will know that I am the Lord, and that the God of Israel has called you by name. I appoint you to help my servant Israel...I have given you great honour, although you do not know me...I will give you the strength you need, although you do not know me. (Good News Translation).

Cyrus is the only non-Semite in the Old Testament to be called the Lord's Anointed and the Lord's Shepherd. A more prosaic reason why Cyrus liberated the Jews may simply be because as a follower of the monotheistic religion of Zoroastrian he was naturally sympathetic to the monotheism of the Hebrews.                                                              

Few literary critics have ever asked this question - why was Cyrus of such significance to Sir Thomas Browne as to entitle his 1658 Discourse The Garden of Cyrus after the Persian shah? Remembering historically that in 1649 Oliver Cromwell had ordered the execution of King Charles and abolished the rights of Kings, Royalists such as Browne believed England to be devoid of true, enlightened government; Browne's nomination of Cyrus to entitle his Discourse represents his own ideal of the perfect Ruler and is a thinly-disguised critique of Cromwell and his proto-Republic. To Browne's deeply-held Christian faith King Cyrus was a Redeemer figure who restored tolerant, God-given rule and freed those oppressed from the rule of tyrant or unjust government. This is the primary reason why Cyrus, alongside Solomon, the patriarchs Moses and Abraham, Alexander the Great and the Roman Emperor Augustus are named in The Garden of Cyrus  - as examples of the archetype of 'the wise ruler'. For Browne, living in the uncertain times of the Lord Protectorate of Cromwell, (1649-1658) King Cyrus embodied the ideals of the enlightened ruler. Thus the garden of delights rapturously discoursed upon by Browne is one which anticipates the return of an enlightened, humanitarian government; an aspiration which many in British society hold at present.

The Garden of Cyrus (1658) is in many ways a highly experimental and unique literary work. Among its varied motivations is an attempt to demonstrate the existence of the archetypes. Indeed one of the first examples of the word 'archetype' along with 'prototype' in English language can be found in the Discourse.

Alchemical authors such as Browne often found inspiration and amplification of their proto-psychology through Greek and Roman myths. In fact the very opening page of The Garden of Cyrus cites an alternative Creation myth to the Bible, the Greek myth of the Creation as recorded in the Fabulae by Hyginus.[1]

That Vulcan gave arrows unto Apollo and Diana the fourth day after their Nativities, according to Gentile Theology, may passe for no blinde apprehension of the Creation of the Sunne and Moon, in the work of the fourth day; When the diffused light contracted into Orbes, and shooting rayes, of those Luminaries.

Astute scholars of comparative religion such as Browne constantly stressed the shared common heritage and harmony which originally existed between world-religions. Though little acknowledged Browne was in fact the first western author to make note of the religion of Zoroastrianism. There can be little doubt that the Cyrus cylinder would have fascinated the worthy Norwich physician-philosopher, both as an archaeological discovery and as a significant artefact of world religion. In addition to strictly adhering to its tenets, Browne, as his highly original proper-name Biblical symbolism suggests, recognised the Bible as a rich source of psychological and archetypal material. As C.G. Jung reminds us-

We must read the Bible or we shall not understand psychology. Our psychology, whole lives, our language and imagery are built upon the Bible......The statements made in Holy Scripture are also utterances of the soul....they point to realities that transcend consciousness. These entia are the archetypes of the collective unconscious.

Books consulted

The Bible and the Psyche - Individuation Symbolism in the Old Testament by Edward F. Edinger 1986 Inner City books

Xenophon - Cyropaedia Forgotten Books 2008

Jung quote cited by Edinger from 'The Visions Seminar'  vol. 1 p.156

[1] 1711 Auction Sales Catalogue page 13 no. 35  Hyginus Fabulae Paris 1578

Wiki-Link  Cyrus Cylinder

Translated text of the Cyrus Cylinder


Laurie M. said...

Very interesting! Thanks. I hope we can get down to see it when it is at the Getty Villa!

Rise said...

Happy new year, Kevin! This is a great yearstarter post. It would be interesting to read the Bible as a secular (literary) text. On my wish list for some time now is Robert Alter's translation of The Five Books of Moses.

Melanie-Pearl said...

Would love to see this artifact. I came to your blog following the portrait of Browne and left with more to think about! Thanks-

teegee said...

The Cyropaedia, which I downloaded to re-read it, was not put forth as a "mere" accurate history, as we would say. It ascribes to Cyrus what Xenophon professed to know about the Achaemenid Persians. It is an ideal and political treatise and it was as such that the post-Medieval world embraced it, even those who thought it was fairly historical. Wasn't Browne himself most interested in the ideals?
Another detail, which doesn't affect your essay, which in invoking the Cyropaedia does cast much light on the Garden of Cyrus, I wondered to which Cyrus the British Museum ascribes the cylinder itself. I was just interested.