Take an odyssey into ancient history brought to life in contemporary illustration by our new resident creative partner, Illustrating History.
A close member of the Psychic Garden family, this amazing project was launched in May 2020 by Alex Stillwell (https://www.instagram.com/alexstillwelldesign). The aim was to share knowledge of ancient history in a digestible way, bringing mystical spiritual figures of the past alive and presented to contemporary audiences through geometric illustrations.
We took a deep dive into this incredible world of lost knowledge from ancient times and what we can learn from the wisdom of past civilizations.
What about ancient styles of art inspires you?
The level of craftsmanship is what inspires me by ancient art. Take for example the human-headed winged bull’s (The Lamassu) from ancient Mesopotamia – some of them sit at over 4 meters high and wide carved from singular blocks of stone. The level of craft and skill needed to create these highly detailed sculptures is truly astonishing. And these are far from isolated examples of expert craftsmanship. Wherever you look the theme is present, be it the Mesoamerican Maya or the Ancient Egyptians. I have travelled to Cambodia and explored Angkor Wat, where I have been blown away by seeing the incredibly intricate and detailed bas reliefs that stretch 1,200 meters around its grand architecture. (Illustrating History)
"This land, that was a spiritual teacher to all humankind, which loved the gods with such devotion that they deigned to sojourn here on earth — this land will exceed all others in cruelty. The dead will far outnumber the living, and the survivors will be known as Egyptians by their language alone, for in their actions they will be like men of another race. O Egypt! Nothing will remain of your religion but an empty tale, which even your own children will not believe. Nothing will be left to tell of your wisdom but old graven and stones." (Thoth)
(Source: The Hermetica, The Lost Wisdom of the Pharaohs)
Enki (also known as Ea, Enkig, Nudimmud, Ninsiku) was the Sumerian god of wisdom, fresh water, intelligence, trickery and mischief, crafts, magic, exorcism, healing, creation, virility, fertility, and art. Enki was the son of Anu, the sky god, in Sumerian and Akkadian mythology and the son of Apsu, the primordial father, in Babylonian texts. He is also referred to as the son of the goddess Nammu, a primordial mother goddess who gave birth to the earth and heavens."
(Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia)
What can people learn from ancient art?
I think ancient art helps to give us an understanding of how cultures once flourished as well as the stories and beliefs that were prevalent in those societies. If you look at for example the newly discovered Pinwheel Cave painting in Southern California depicting the Datura plant, well known for its psychoactive effects, it teaches us about the relationships our ancestors had with plant medicines and the respect held for them. This is incredibly relevant to our society as we are starting to learn about the powerful effects plant medicines and altered states of consciousness have in helping us understand ourselves. This can be seen in the work studying the effects psilocybin has to help battle depression and other mental illnesses that are plaguing our society. (Illustrating History)
Apsaras appears on the temple of Angkor Wat dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu who is one of the three principal gods in the Hindu pantheon (Shiva and Brahma are the others). Among them he is known as the “Protector.” The major patron of Angkor Wat was King Suryavarman II, whose name translates as the “protector of the sun.” Many scholars believe that Angkor Wat was not only a temple dedicated to Vishnu but that it was also intended to serve as the king’s mausoleum in death. There are 1,200 square meters of carved bas reliefs at Angkor Wat, representing eight different Hindu stories."
(Source: Dr. Melody Rod-ari, Angkor Wat, available on Khan Academy)
The fullest account we have of Oannes is found in surviving fragments of the works of a Babylonian priest called Berossos who wrote in the third century BC. [...] Oannes did not do his work alone but was supposedly the leader of a group of beings known as the Seven Apkallu--the "Seven Sages"--who were said to have lived "before the flood" (a cataclysmic global deluge features prominently in many Mesopotamian traditions, including those of Sumer, Akkad, Assyria and Babylon). Alongside Oannes, these sages are portrayed as bringers of civilization who, in the most ancient past, gave humanity a moral code, arts, crafts and agriculture and taught them architectural, building and engineering skills."
(Source: Graham Hancock, Magicians of the Gods)
Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, [...] came to teach [the ancient inhabitants of Mexico] the benefits of settled agriculture and the skills necessary to build temples. Although this deity is frequently depicted as a serpent, he is more often shown in human form--the serpent being his symbol and his alter ego--and is usually described as "a tall bearded white man" ... "a mysterious person ... a white man with a strong formation of body, broad forehead, large eyes and a flowing beard." Indeed, [...] the attributes and life history of Quetzalcoatl are so human that it is not improbable that he may have been an actual historical character ... the memory of whose benefactions lingered after his death, and whose personality was eventually deified. The same could very well be said of Oannes--and just like Oannes at the head of the Apkallu (likewise depicted as prominently bearded) it seems that Quetzalcoatl traveled with his own brotherhood of sages and magicians. We learn that they arrived in Mexico "from across the sea in a boat that moved by itself without paddles," and that Quetzalcoatl was regarded as having been "the founder of cities, the framer of laws and the teacher of the calendar."
(Source: Graham Hancock, Magicians of the Gods)
What is you favourite mystery / story / character from ancient history?
A story that I have recently learnt about is that of Ninurta and the Anzu bird from ancient Sumer. The Anzu – a beast like creature, part eagle and lion, stole from lord Enlil the clay tablet of destinies. The tablet gave the holder power to control the universe and it became Ninurta, Enlil’s son’s, mission to retrieve it. A spectacular battle commenced which saw “Death clouds pour rain, [and] arrows flash as lighting”i before Ninurta finally slayed the Anzu by piercing a javelin through its heart and regaining the Tablet of Destinies for Enlil. I’m fascinated by this story because it can be used to reflect and communicate the struggle and desire for power and the importance of control in this world that we have seen repeated since time immemorial. It was of vital importance for Enlil to retrieve the Tablet of Destinies from the Anzu because he thought it was his right to rule over Humankind. Likewise, the Anzu who was unsucceful wanted to do that same. At the heart of the story I see the desire for power as the prevailing theme. (Illustrating History)
Born of God Enlil & Goddess Ninlil, in Sumarian and Akkadian tradition Ninurta is the hero God of war and hunting. It is said in myth that Ninurta slayed the evil God bird Anzu, who was part eagle & lion, to rescue the Tablet of Destinies for lord Enlil. The Tablet of Destinies was a clay tablet that acted as a legal document, stating Enlil's claim and supreme authority as ruler of the universe. "[Ninurta] drenched the midst of the mountains when he had slain the evil Anzu."
(Source: The Babylonians / Book)
Isis, born of Geb (the Earth God) and Nut (the Sky Goddess), is one of nine deities of the Egyptian Ennead. She was the ancient Egyptian goddess of marriage, fertility, motherhood, magic and medicine. Isis married her brother Osiris when he ruled over Egypt and together they conceived the child God Horus. It is thought that some aspects of Isis' motherhood might have influenced early Christian ideas about the Virgin Mary as the cult of Isis spread throughout Egypt into some parts of Europe. In the cult she was worshiped as the ideal fertile mother.
Why did you start illustrating history?
I found myself naturally gravitating to illustrator to help myself understand relief art’s and sculptures that I was reading about in my spare time. Ancient history has always been a personal interest of mine and it was great discovering that I combine this interest with my design practise. Studying Graphic Design, I have been taught about the importance of simplicity in my work for the goal of clear communication. I found that using this approach to re-create ancient relief artworks and sculptures helped myself to understand the stories and messages being depicted by ancient artists in their imagery. The relief artworks and sculpture’s I focus on have helped inspire and shape our understanding of ancient cultures around the world and I would hope for my designs to inspire more people get fascinated in the ancients by sparking conversations and curiosity.
King of the ancient city of Uruk, Gilgamesh was rumoured to be two-part God and one-part man making him a Demigod. Gilgamesh was known for his superhuman strength and is a major hero in ancient Mesopotamian mythology. In the Epic of Gilgamesh (written 2100 BC) he is said to undergo a quest to find the secret of eternal life after the death of his friend Enkidu. Gilgamesh is depicted to have humongous form. His ability to detain a lion with his left hand only is a gesture to his tremendous strength. However, this is also speculated to align with the biblical stories of the Nephilim, a race of giants born of Angels, as told in The Book or Enoch.
The Assyrian god Nisroch was depicted as an eagle-headed diety with wings and exaggerated muscles. In the Midrash, (in Hebrew legend) "Nisroch" is said to be derived from the Hebrew word "neser." Neser was the name given to a plank of wood discovered by Sennacherib (the king of Assyria) on his return to Assyria from his campaign in Judah. The sages write that this plank was originally part of Noah's Ark, and that Sennacherib worshiped it as an idol.
Did the ancients know something we don’t?
“A species with Amnesia” is a phrase I hear a lot today when talking about the ancients. The phrase was first introduced by Russian scholar Immanuel Velikovsky in 1981 with his book titled: “Mankind in Amnesia”. It refers to the many ways as a species we quickly forget our history and make the same or similar mistakes. I believe this phrase can be used to question the idea of how we perceive our identity in our current society versus how the ancients may have. In Hermetic teachings Thoth tells us about the “Supreme Mind” and “Atum” the “One God” the centre of all creation. He talks about being able to share Atums identity by letting go of the material world and imagining yourself as immeasurably expansive, all that has been and ever will be. I ask the questions then: did at some point the ancients have a sense of identity that reflected creation and in turn consciousness rather than materiality? And could this sense of identity have enabled them to live in a state of equilibrium with each other and the natural world? If the answer were yes it would force us to think about how a shift in our identity towards a similar way of thinking would affect our society. It is very compelling therefore that written in the Hermetica is a prediction from Thoth as to how we could come to forget this idea. “Spirituality, the greatest of all blessings, will be threatened with extinction, and believed a burdened to be scorned.”
You can support this profoundly inspiring project by visiting Illustrating History's Etsy Shop and Instagram, supporting independent design.
- PSYCHIC GARDEN