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Elisa Palomino

Elisa Palomino
Smithsonian Institution Arctic Studies Center
Fish Demi-Gods in the Aquatic Landscapes of Ancient Anatolian Civilizations

Since prehistoric times, fish have been a symbol in the religions, myths, and legends of mankind. Ancient Anatolian civilizations were intimately linked to the aquatic element and fish divine powers. Demi-god Oannes, a part man and part fish priest, was represented in the clay tablets of ancient Mesopotamia as an intermediary between gods and men. For ceremonial purposes, he wore a cloak made from a giant carp that lived in the Tigris River. He possessed healing powers, and the fish skin worn on his back was placed on the bed of patients during rituals. There is no archaeological evidence of fish skin garments being made in ancient Mesopotamia or the use of fish skins in prehistoric Europe, but their depiction may have had some real basis for inspiration.

This project looks at fish skin artistic traditions and the divine powers held by fish in both ancient Mesopotamia and early modern Arctic societies. Both cultures believed that humans, fish, and nature shared spiritual qualities and provided protection for the soul. The research analyzes the origins of fish-god-men, tracing back to the Sumerians. A comparison with the fish skin customs of Indigenous Arctic peoples and their sacred meaning follows.