2001. A Space Odyssey, and Zoroastrianism

6 September 2008

It is probably one of the best-known and most impressive images from movie history: the spectacular rise of the sun and the earth over a moonscape, in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. A Space Odyssey. Kubrick seems to have liked the image, because he repeated it several times, with minor variations like the sun rising over a strange monolith or the sun rising over a crescent-shaped earth (video).

Of course, it is not just the image that makes this scene unforgettable. It is the splendid music that really matters and makes the experience, in a word, sublime. This is what makes cinema great, and this is why I went back to see 2001 at least five times.

Nabonidus; stele from Harran (British Museum)

Nabonidus; stele from Harran (this monolith is in the British Museum)

Kubrick’s movies are usually full of little, intellectual jokes. To offer an example from his wicked Doctor Strangelove: if in one scene a group of soldiers is ordered to bomb the “Laputa Missile Complex”, it comes as no surprise that in another scene a Soviet leader is visiting a brothel. And yes, la puta is not only Spanish for “prostitute”, but also a reference to Gulliver’s Travels. I said Kubrick was a bit of an intellectual, didn’t I?

Perhaps, the intellectual joker in Kubrick also accompanied the artist when he created the sunrise in 2001. The impressive music is from Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra (“Thus spoke Zarathustra”), and belongs to a part of that symphonic poem that represents a sunrise. Well-chosen, but there is more to be said.

Strauss’ tone poem was in turn based on Friedrich Nietzsche’s book with the same title. The philosopher was not particularly interested in the Iranian prophet Zarathustra, but merely needed a hero that was older than Judaism and Greek philosophy, and lived at the dawn of history.

Nabonidus, stele from Harran (Archaeological Museum of Sanli Urfa)

Nabonidus; stele from Harran (this monolith is in the Archaeological Museum of Sanli Urfa)

It seems that Kubrick did some research into Zoroastrianism, the religion founded by the real Zarathustra. The alignment of a lunar crescent and the sun is a common theme in eastern art. It can be seen, for example, on every Achaemenid royal tomb, and I would not be surprised if Kubrick knew it. An even closer parallel can be found on two monoliths from Harran, which can be seen in any book on ancient eastern art: the Babylonian king Nabonidus venerating the moon crescent, a planet, and the sun.

Perhaps some of you will object that Babylonian art has little to do with Zoroastrianism, or remark that it is debatable whether the Achaemenids adhered to the teachings of Zarathustra. Of course that’s fair criticism, but as I said: Kubrick was an intellectual and an artist – he was not an Iranologist.


Sasanian Rock Reliefs

30 August 2008
Investiture of Ardašir I (from Naqš-i Rustam)

Investiture of Ardašir I (from Naqš-i Rustam)

The Sasanian Rock Reliefs belong to the most beautiful monuments I have ever seen in Iran. Unlike Achaemenid court art, which is dignified and static, Sasanian art is dynamic and almost expressionist. And where the Achaemenids wanted to express that their monarchy was eternal and therefore refrained from individualism, the Sasanian sculptors show us particular kings and noblemen, who can be identified from their crowns and badges.

The reliefs can be found on several places in Iran: for example, in Bishapur, Sarab-i Bahram, Taq-e Bostan, Barm-e Dilak, Naqš-e Rajab, Guyum, Firuzabad, and especially Naqš-i Rustam. The standard book on the subject is Louis Vanden Berghe’s Reliefs rupestres de l’ Iran ancien (1983 Brussels).


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