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Goddess Athena witnessing the Duke of Zhou praying to the deceased ancestors pleading for the recovery of King Wu, ca. 1026 B.C.


Oil on canvas
30 x 23 inch
March 2002

An inscription panel goes with this piece. Please click here.


For the greater part of the second millennium B.C., the political landscape of north central China was dominated by a tribal kingdom called the Shang, whose people originally came from the eastern coast. During their last years of political predominance another tribe from the west who addressed themselves as the Zhou gradually rose above their status of vesselage to the Shang and in a decisive battle, leading an alliance army of some 800 other tribes, defeated the Shang's army, thus taking over the leadership among the tribal confederacies in north China at the time. In the second year after the battle, however, the king of the Zhou tribe, King Wu, who had led the Zhou people to political ascendancy just the previous year, suddenly fell ill. His brother, the Duke, is recorded to have performed a ritual on this occasion, during which he prayed to the deceased tribal ancestors, the father, grandfather, and great grandfather of King Wu, asking to substitute himself in lieu of the king, and offering two pieces of jade to them. This painting depicts the moment of this prayer, with Goddess Athena passing as witness. After the ritual, the king is recorded to have recovered. (In reality, the king died the following year.)

There has been quite a scholarly debate as to the exact date of the said battle. The consensus is that it took place some time between 1122 and 1027 B.C. Taking the latter date would put the event of the prayer at 1026 B.C. (Steven Marshall, in his Mandate of Heaven, dates the conquest to June 20, 1070 B.C., using the astronomical evidence of an eclipse mentioned in the description of one of the hexagrams in Yijing.)

The background in this painting (the temple complex) is a reconstruction of the archaeological site at Shao-Chen, at the plain of Zhou. It is unlikely that the actual event took place here, since the complex was built and used several generations before king Wu. A professional archaeologist would recognize most of the materials represented in the painting, but would also criticize the unlikely simplicity of the layout of the ritual.

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