Category: Stories from Mesopotamia

The Evil Eye

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The belief in the magical powers of the Evil Eye is among the most ancient and universal of all beliefs. Virtually “every language, both ancient and modern, contains a word or expression which is the equivalent of ‘Evil Eye’.”(1) The powers of fascination often mentioned in connection with the Evil Eye are the powers that irresistibly attract, bewitch, or enchant by a motionless glance. In ancient times, the ability to fascinate was traditionally attributed to female figures. Thus, throughout history, the possessors of the power of the Evil Eye were women, goddesses, and witches. The eye-womb correlation is given further credence by the fact that so many goddesses endowed with the powers of fertility and generation – most notably Venus, Aphrodite, Isis, Ishtar, and Artemis – are regarded as “protectresses of fascination.”(2) It is therefore not surprising to find a connection between the eye-cult and these goddesses of death and rebirth.(3) The association is of such ancient origin that it receives mention in the earliest cuneiform clay tablets of the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians. 

The eyes are the most exclusive feature of the hundreds of votive figures found in the excavation of the Syrian “Eye Temple” of Tell Brak, a temple that was exclusively “dedicated to the worship of Ishtar (Inanna).”  Bildergebnis für tell brak idolBildergebnis für tell brak idolThe eye-idols, as they are known, are representations of Ishtar.  The variations on their single iconographic form are almost without end. Some of the figures don headdresses, some wear necklaces, others are decorated with chevrons suggestive of breasts, and there are others whose necks and heads are abstracted phallic or vulvar forms.  Each is unique and yet they are the same.  These fascinating eye-idols, which date from about 3500-3300 B.C.E., are more ancient “than the pyramids of Giza and the whole of [the] Minoan culture of Cnossus.” 

It seems reasonable to suggest that the images of Ishtar served a prophylactic function.  In later times, and with much the same intent, the Great Goddess was invoked under a variety of names in prayers against the Evil Eye of jealousy and envy. Bildergebnis für sumerian eye stone

The ancient Sumerians thought that blue eyes were a sign of the gods. The Sumerian nobility were blue eyed and fair haired, as most of their busts show.

One of the earliest mentions of the Evil Eye is in a Sumerian text dating to the 3rd–4th millennium BC.

Taking advantage of the stone’s natural banding, agates were carved to resemble an eye. The votive inscriptions indicate the placement of the object on an altar or in a temple as a gift to a deity. The stones were thought to have some inherent power that would help protect the life of the person named in the inscription. These amulets probably adorned the cult statue of the god inscribed and were most likely worn in precious gold settings.

 

 

1. Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, Amulets and Talismans. (New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1968), p. 358.

2. Frederick Thomas Elworthy, The Evil Eye: The Origins and Practices of Superstition. (New York: The Julian Press, Inc., 1958), p. 132.

3. O. G. S. Crawford, The Eye Goddess, op. cit., p. 98.

Eye Idol Plaque

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Mesopotamian Eye Idol Plaque, Euphrates Valley, Late Uruk Period, Late 4th ML BC

This type of carving is known as an ‘eye idol’, and may have been an offering left at a temple. Eye idols were also made in the form of free standing statuettes (example). Wide eyes are believed to have been a demonstration of attentiveness to the gods in much of Mesopotamian art.

The Uruk period (c. 4000 to 3100 BC) existed from the protohistoric Chalcolithic to Early Bronze Age period in the history of Mesopotamia, following the Ubaid period and succeeded by the Jemdet Nasr period. Named after the Sumerian city of Uruk,  this period saw the emergence of urban life in Mesopotamia. It was followed by the Sumerian civilization. The late Uruk period (34th to 32nd centuries) saw the gradual emergence of the cuneiform script and corresponds to the Early Bronze Age; it may also be called the Protoliterate period.

The code of Hammurabi

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Hammurabi standing infront of Shamash

The Code of Hammurabi refers to a set of rules or laws enacted by the Babylonian King Hammurabi (reign 1792-1750 B.C.). The code governed the people living in his fast-growing empire. By the time of Hammurabi’s death, his empire included much of modern-day Iraq, extending up from the Persian Gulf along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

There are as many as 300 lows that discuss a wide range of subjects, including homicide, assault, divorce, debt, adoption, tradesman’s fees, agricultural practices, and even disputes regarding the brewing of beer.

The code is best known from a stele made of black diorite, more than seven feet (2.25 meters) tall, that is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris. The stele was found at the site of Susa, in modern-day Iran, by excavators who were led by Jacques de Morgan at the beginning of the 20th century. Scholars believe that it was brought to Susa in the 12th century B.C. by an Elamite ruler who subsequently erased a portion of it in preparation for creating an inscription of his own.

Originally, Hammurabi would have displayed the stele at the site of Sippar, in modern-day Iraq, likely in a prominent temple. In ancient times, Sippar was the home of the sun god Shamash, and the top of the stele shows an image of Hammurabi before this god, with rays coming from Shamash’s shoulders. Scholars widely believe that other, now lost, steles would have existed in other cities in Babylon that were controlled by Hammurabi.

After Hammurabi’s death, his system of laws became something of a classic in the ancient world, and scholars have found examples of them written on tablets, which were copied as late as the 5th century B.C., more than a millennium after Hammurabi’s death.

The term “Code” of Hammurabi is a modern one, so named after the 19th-century “Code Napoleon.” Scholars today debate the meaning behind the stele that is now in the Louvre and whether the rules Hammurabi enacted truly represent a full law code.

Regardless of the answers to these questions, Hammurabi himself states in the prologue to his laws that his right to make them was one given by the gods themselves.

“Anu and Enlil ordained Hammurabi, a devout prince who fears the gods, to demonstrate justice within the land, to destroy evil and wickedness, to stop the mighty exploiting the weak, to rise like Shamash over the mass of humanity, illuminating the land …” (Translation from “The New Complete Code of Hammurabi,” by H. Dieter Viel, University Press of America, 2012)

Each law consists of a potential case followed by a prescribed verdict. The verdicts could be very harsh indeed, and Columbia University professor Marc van de Mieroop notes in his book “King Hammurabi of Babylon” (Blackwell Publishing, 2005) that the death penalty is listed as punishment no fewer than 30 times. It was the punishment given even for “the theft of temple or palace property or when a runaway slave is given refuge,” van de Mieroop writes.

Furthermore, the punishments ordered were by no means uniform but rather depended on the social status of the accused and the accuser. The punishments were only “eye for an eye” if the two individuals involved were socially equal.

For instance, van de Mieroop notes that if a member of the elite blinded a commoner or broke the commoner’s bone, that elite person had to pay one pound of silver as penalty. On the other hand, if a person struck someone who was of a higher social status, then that person can expect severe punishment:

“If a member of the elite strike the cheek of a member of the elite who is of a higher social status than him, he shall be flogged in public with 60 strikes of an ox-whip,” reads one law (translation from van de Mieroop’s book).

Women could not necessarily expect equal treatment either. One law reads, “if a finger has been pointed at a man’s wife because of some male but she has not been caught copulating with another male, she shall leap into the River for the sake of her husband,” (translation by H. Dieter Viel).

On the other hand a woman could, depending on the circumstances, get an inheritance. There were laws protecting a woman in the event that her husband was taken captive in war and had to live with another man when her food ran out. There were also laws that governed the support a temple-woman should receive from her brothers after her father had died.

In the laws, it is clear that not only is there a burden on the accused but also on the accuser should they be unable to prove their case.

For instance, the penalty for homicide states that “if a man has made allegations against another man, and he has laid a charge of homicide against him but is unable to substantiate his guilt, the one who made the allegations against him shall be killed.” (Translation by H. Dieter Viel)

Judges were also held to a certain standard in the laws. Hammurabi ruled a vast empire and would not have been able to rule on every case himself. Van de Mieroop notes that in the king’s absence, a committee of men from the communities involved could act as a judge in Hammurabi’s place.

The penalties for a judge trying to change a sealed verdict was severe, “he shall pay 12 times the amount of the loss which had occasioned the trial,” reads the law in question.

Hammurabi was not the first ruler in the Middle East to write down laws. Dominique Charpin, a professor at École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, writes in his book “Writing, Law and Kingship in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia” (University of Chicago Press, 2010) that scholars know of the existence of three law codes, set down by kings, that preceded Hammurabi.

The oldest was written by Ur-Nammu, a king of Ur, who reigned 2111-2094 B.C., about three centuries before Hammurabi. “These older codes obviously inspired that of Hammurabi,” Charpin writes.

In addition, Hammurabi would probably have drawn on his own personal experiences in putting together his laws, basing them in part on past cases that he had ruled on.

Scholars have noted problems in reading Hammurabi’s laws as a full law code in the modern sense. For instance, van de Mieroop notes that the code does not cover every dispute that could have arisen and contains inconsistencies.

“One law demands the death penalty when something is accepted for safekeeping without a proper document, because the recipient is a thief,” van de Mieroop writes. On the other hand, a related law simply states that “if a man gives goods for safekeeping without witnesses or a contract and they deny that he gave it, that case has no basis for a claim.”

Van de Mieroop also notes that “in the extensive documentation of court cases judged in Hammurabi’s reign and afterwards there is no reference to a collection of laws that was the basis for a decision.”

Another problem that researchers face is what was the purpose of the stele, now in the Louvre, that originally would have been displayed at Sippar? Charpin notes that, even if one could read, the stele would be difficult to use as a reference to look up a law.

Van de Mieroop writes that the answer to this mystery appears to lie in the stele’s epilogue, a section of writing after the laws were given. In it Hammurabi makes two main points, one is that anyone in his kingdom could come to the statue, see (or hear) the words on it and “understand his problem, and may he be content in his heart.” In other words it was a monument to the king’s sense of justice and a way to make his subjects feel better when they felt they had been wronged.

The second point the epilogue makes is that the kings who succeed Hammurabi should not change or disregard these laws or try to alter the identity of the person who made them.

If any future ruler does try this Hammurabi puts a lengthy curse on them. “Anu, the father of the gods, the one who designated me to rule, will surely remove from him the splendour of sovereignty, whether that man is a king or a lord or a governor or a person appointed to some other function, and he will smash his staff and curse his destiny…” part of Hammurabi’s curse reads (translation by H. Dieter Viel). In other words the stele was also a monument stating that Hammurabi’s sense of justice should rule over the land forever.

Statue of Ningal

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Statue of the Sumerian reed goddess Ningal found at Ur (in modern day Iraq), 1953-1935 B.C.

Diorite, Penn-museum                    


Ningal was the daughter of Enki and Ningikurga and was the mother of Inanna, Utu, and Ereshkigal.

The statue contains an inscription on the side (picture to the right) from a priestess named Enannatumma, the daughter of Ishem-Dagan, possibly a Sumerian king.  The inscription says that the statue itself is dedicated to the goddess Ningal.

The drinking God

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God/Ilu seated on his throne, as depicted on a Ugaritic stele. Note the horns on his head. (Museum of Aleppo)

 

The following text is from ancient Ugarit (located in modern Syria), a city whose textual archives from the 15th-13th centuries BCE have provided a huge trove of literary epics, mythic lore, and linguistic data.

Ever wonder where the phrases “hair of the dog” and “he looks like hell” first appeared?  Look no further.  This is the epic saga of how God (Ilu/El, the father god in Levantine religion) got so drunk that his sons had to carry him to bed, while their lady friends cooked up a hangover cure.  Really.


I. The Gods Feast

God slaughtered venison in his home, [1]
       livestock within his palace,
       and welcomed the gods to the feast.
The gods ate and drank;
       they grew tipsy on wine,
       drunk on beer.

Moon-God Yarihu prepared his goblet;
       like a dog, he clambered [2]
       underneath the table.
Each god who recognized him
       prepared him scraps of meat —
but each god who did not recognized him
       hit him with a stick, [3]
       underneath the table.

When Astarte and Anat arrived,
       Astarte offered him a rump steak,
       and Anat a shoulder cut. [4]
The gatekeeper of God’s house scolded them:
       “Hey! Why are you offering a dog rump steak,
       offering a shoulder cut to a mongrel?
He scolded God, his father: “He is sitting (there)!” [5]

II. God Over-Indulges

God invited in the drinkers;
       God sat down in his saloon.
He grew tipsy on wine,
       drunk on beer.
God headed back to his house
       and entered his chambers.
They loaded him onto Thukamunu and Shunamu, his sons,
       and the two chastized the groaning man, [6]
       he who had horns and a tail.
He soiled himself with shit and piss,
       and God fell down as if dead;
       God (looked) like someone descending to Hades.

Anat and Astarte began to hunt.

[The next several lines are nearly unreadable; the only legible phrases are “holy,” “Astarte and Anat,” and “and with them, she brought back.”  Most scholars assume that the women are hunting down the ingredients for their cure.]

As soon as she treated (him), he was suddenly revived.

III. The Medical Treatment

The following should be placed:
on his forehead, the hairs of a dog, [7]
and (on) the head, colocynth, and (on) his navel. [8]
At the same time, he should drink green olive juice. [9]

Source: The Marzeah in the Prophetic Literature: References and Allusions in Light, by John L. MacLaughlin (2001). pp.24–6. ISBN 9004099956. Quoted as fair use.


[1] “Venison” is used in the archaic sense of “any animal hunted for meat.”  The exact species of animal being eaten is unclear.

[2] Scholars are divided here; this verb may mean one of several dog-like activities: crawling, digging, or even swishing a tail.

[3] Alternately, Yarihu could be the subject: “if a god doesn’t notice him, [Yarihu] hits [the other god] with a stick.”  That alternative makes a bit more narrative sense, to be honest.  However, this version works better with my theory about the dog hair (cf. note 7): for whatever reason, the gods give a painful hangover to drinkers whom they don’t recognize.

[4] Again, the meat identifications are a bit tentative.  But if they are accurate, they may be allusions to the goddess’s associations; Astarte’s domain included sexuality, connected to the thigh (cf. Enkidu throwing the Bull of Heaven’s thigh at Ishtar [=Astarte]), while Anat was associated with warfare and the strength of arm and shoulder.

[5] Most translations include “He is sitting” with the next stanza; either this line continues the direct speech (“Scold God, his father!”) or adds an addendum (“He [also] scolds God, his father.”).  The problem with that line division is that it creates an odd redundancy: Ilu is sitting, then calls for his fellow drinkers, then sits again.

[6] Here I follow Noegel, who reads the Ugaritic ḥabayu as an epithet for Ilu, mumbling and groaning like a mooing cow in his intoxication.  Since Ilu is frequently described as a bull, the horns and tail are not surprising attributes; they may emphasize that while drunk, he resembles a strong but unthinking animal.  (Fun fact: Ilu’s title is specifically ṯôru Ilu, “Bull God.”  Ṯôru is probably one of the rare words so ancient that it’s shared by Semitic and Indo-European languages — so it’s ultimately related to “taurus” and “steer.”)  The other alternative, which was the mainstream translation for many years, translates Habayu as a demonic figure who appears on the scene, frightening Ilu until he soils himself.  (If this reading is accurate, an allusion to the horned Habayu may also appear in the Hebrew Bible in Habakkuk 3:4.)

[7] Placing dog hairs on the forehead clearly has no modern medical value; while the motives behind ancient magico-medical treatments are not always straightforward, the fact that a dog is mentioned twice earlier in the story is likely no coincidence.  (A dog may have appeared a third time in the textual gap if it was the women’s prey; their verb does normally refer to animal hunting, not vegetable harvesting.)  There’s no scholarly consensus about the purpose of the ingredient.  My very tentative guess is that the dog hairs ritually place the patient in the role of Yarihu, who acted “like a dog” in the first section of the story.  Despite the chastising of Ilu’s gatekeeper, the gods feed Yarihu scraps of meat and allow him to enjoy his drink — unless they don’t recognize him, in which they beat him, perhaps causing the headache of a hangover.  In contrast, Ilu’s attempt at maintaining dignity leaves him unconscious in his own excrement.  By humbling himself to the role of a dog, the patient will receive divine pity.

[8] There is some dispute over the meaning of this line, although “head” and “his navel” are pretty straightforward.  The term in between (PQQ) could be two words — “mouth (and) throat” — or a single name, perhaps for a plant.  In Akkadian, peqqūtu/peqû is a name for the colocynth, a bitter melon that’s widespread in the Middle East.  The colocynth was used extensively in medical concoctions in the ancient world, and its notoriously bitter flavor might further have shocked an unconscious patient into wakefulness, so I have gone with this translation.  If the term means “mouth (and) throat,” it could refer either to applying the dog hairs to those locations on the patient, or to sacrificing a dog and literally placing its head, mouth, and throat on the patient.

[9] “Green olive juice” is, more literally, “the blood/juice of an olive of autumn.”  Since ripe olives are harvested in November/December, an “autumn olive” may have been a green (i.e. unripe) olive, as contrasted to a ripe “winter olive.”  The oil from unripe olives is especially bitter and grassy, so it could have assisted the colocynth in waking the patient.  However (contra most translations), I don’t think that this necessarily refers to oil, since Ugaritic has another perfectly good word for oil.  Amurca, the liquid byproduct of olive oil production, is bitter-tasting and dark-colored, and it inhibits food-borne pathogens.  The dark color would explain the term “blood” (not the normal term for juice, let alone oil), and the bitter flavor and antibiotic properties would explain its medical use.

 

Customer Complaining Letter

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A complaint letter to a merchant named Ea-nasir from a customer named Nanni. Written in cuneiform, it is considered to be the oldest known written complaint in history.

Ea-Nasir travelled to the Persian Gulf to buy copper and return to sell it in Mesopotamia. On one particular occasion, he had agreed to sell copper ingots to Nanni. Nanni sent his servant with the money to complete the transaction. The copper was sub-standard and not accepted. In response, Nanni created the cuneiform letter for delivery to Ea-nasir. Inscribed on it is a complaint to Ea-nasir about a copper ore delivery of the incorrect grade, and issues with another delivery. He also complained that his servant (who handled the transaction) had been treated rudely. He stated that, at the time of writing, he had not accepted the copper but had paid the money.

“Tell Ea-nasir: Nanni sends the following message:

When you came, you said to me as follows : “I will give Gimil-Sin (when he comes) fine quality copper ingots.” You left then but you did not do what you promised me. You put ingots which were not good before my messenger (Sit-Sin) and said: “If you want to take them, take them; if you do not want to take them, go away!”

What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt? I have sent as messengers gentlemen like ourselves to collect the bag with my money (deposited with you) but you have treated me with contempt by sending them back to me empty-handed several times, and that through enemy territory. Is there anyone among the merchants who trade with Telmun who has treated me in this way? You alone treat my messenger with contempt! On account of that one (trifling) mina of silver which I owe(?) you, you feel free to speak in such a way, while I have given to the palace on your behalf 1,080 pounds of copper, and umi-abum has likewise given 1,080 pounds of copper, apart from what we both have had written on a sealed tablet to be kept in the temple of Samas.

How have you treated me for that copper? You have withheld my money bag from me in enemy territory; it is now up to you to restore (my money) to me in full.

Take cognizance that (from now on) I will not accept here any copper from you that is not of fine quality. I shall (from now on) select and take the ingots individually in my own yard, and I shall exercise against you my right of rejection because you have treated me with contempt.”

The tablet was acquired by the British Museum in 1953. It was originally found in the ruins of Ur. It was translated in 1967 by Leo Oppenheim and was published in his book Letters from Mesopotamia. It dates from 1750 BCE. It is 11.6 centimetres (4.6 in) high, 5 centimetres (2.0 in) wide, 2.6 centimetres (1.0 in) thick, and slightly damaged.

Ningirsu Son of Gudea

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Ur-Ningirsuensi of Lagash, circa 2120 – 2113 B.C.

Ur-Ningirsu was the son of Gudea, the ensi (ruler, governor) of Lagash. Gudea reigned during difficult and dangerous times. The Akkadian Empire, which had ruled Sumer for 200 years, had been overrun by the Gutians, nomadic tribesman from the north. The Gutians also conquered parts of Sumer. Despite the political instability of the region, Gudea managed to give his citizens twenty years of peace and prosperity. The people of Lagash also enjoyed an artistic renaissance during his reign.

In 1924, the Louvre Museum acquired the body of this statuette from clandestine excavations in Telloh; the head, which entered into a private American collection, was bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1947. Since 1974, an agreement between the two museums allows the sculpture to be displayed in its entirety in Paris then in New York alternately, for a period of five years.
 The base of this statue of the Prince of Lagash is engraved with kneeling tribute bearers.
It illustrates these words of the psalmist that the Apostle Paul was to apply to Jesus Christ: “The utterance of Jehovah to my Lord is:“Sit at my right hand until I place your enemies as a stool for your feet.” – Psalm 110:1

 

The “years names” of Ur-Ningirsu’s reign:

The Sumerians did not have a single comprehensive calendar for the entire nation. Instead, each city-state had its own individual calendar based on the reign of its monarch. The years were not numbered (e.g., 2013). Rather, each year was named for an important event that occurred within it.

The year Ur-Ningirsu became governor

The year after Ur-Ningirsu became governor

Year in which the šita-abba priest was chosen by means of the omens

Year in which the lumah priest of Baba was chosen by means of the omens

Year in which the high priestess of Iškur was chosen by means of the omens

Year the throne bearer of the god Ningirsu was chosen

Year in which the city of Uruk was destroyed

The first thing noticeable about this list is the second year of Ur-Ningirsu’s reign, “the year after Ur-Ningirsu became governor”. Although it wasn’t unusual for a Sumerian year name to be titled “the year after” an important event, this suggests there were no accomplishments in Ur-Ningirsu’s second year that were worthy of mention. By contrast, Gudea’s second year was named “the year in which the canal Ningirsu-ushumgal (‘Ningirsu is a dragon’) was dug.” Ur-Namma’s second year was “the year in which Ur-Namma the king put in order the ways (of the people in the country) from below to above.” The lack of any major accomplishments in Ur-Ningirsu’s second year may be due to his youth and inexperience. He was quite young when he became a king.

The second thing noticeable about the year names is the preponderance of religious themes. Although Sumerian year names frequently mention religion, in Ur-Ningirsu’s reign there is little mention of anything else. There is no political agenda, such as “the year Ur-Namma made justice in the land” or the year that he built a defensive wall around the city of Ur. Notably absent from the year names of Ur-Ningirsu is a reference to major building projects, like the digging of a canal, the construction of a new temple, or the completion of a city wall. Also missing is any reference to war. He was named for the god of war (Ningirsu), and his statue shows humble emissaries at his feet offering him tribute, but there is no record of him being involved in wars of foreign conquest or civil wars against other Sumerian city-states. Although the year names indicate that Ur-Ningirsu was deeply religious like his father, it seems likely that Ur-Ningirsu would have added other non-religious year names (that dealt with war, politics, and justice) had he lived longer.

This leads to the third thing noticeable about the list. It is a very short list. Ur-Ningirsu reigned for only seven years. He was quite young when he died.

There is some debate about the final year name, “the year in which the city of Uruk was destroyed” (by the Gutians). Some scholars think it occurred during the reign of Gudea rather than Ur-Ningirsu. In either case, it is a significant event. Uruk was the city of Utu-hengal. His seven year reign is roughly contemporaneous with that of Ur-Ningirsu. Along with his young military governor, Ur-Namma, Utu-hengal won a major victory over the Gutians, capturing
their king Tirigan and two of his generals. This was the beginning of Sumerian independence
after two centuries of foreign domination. Even so, the Gutians continued to be a threat.
Ur-Namma fought them again after he became the king of Ur; one of his year names was
called, “the year Gutium was destroyed”. He would later die in combat in yet another battle
with the Gutians.

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Ningishzida

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Ningishzida: is a Mesopotamian deity of the underworld. His name in Sumerian is translated as “lord of the good tree”

Ningishzida, in Mesopotamian religion, Sumerian deity, city god of Gishbanda, near Ur in the southern orchard region. Although Ningishzida was a power of the netherworld, where he held the office of throne bearer, he seems to have originally been a tree god, for his name apparently means “Lord Productive Tree.” In particular, he probably was god of the winding tree roots, since he originally was represented in serpent shape. When pictured in human form, two serpent heads grow from his shoulders in addition to the human head, and he rides on a dragon. He was a son of Ninazu and Ningirda and was the husband of Ninazimua.

In This drawing we see Ningishzida (middle figure) bringing Adapa of Eridu to God Anu (on throne at right)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ningishzida is portrayed as either a serpent with the head of a man, or, more frequently, as a double-headed serpent coiled into a double helix.  It is believed that the Greeks also made use of this symbolism in their myth of the caduceus, the wand of Hermes/Mercury which is associates with theft, deception, and death.  Of course contemporary people are familiar with the double helix as well.  We know that DNA, the fundamental blueprint of life is latticed together on a double helix.  It is strange that the first use of this symbol is a mysterious Sumerian tree/snake god who apparently also appealed to Jewish scholars during the Babylonian captivity.

The Vase of Gudea

On exhibit in the Louvre is a green libation vase, which was excavated from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Lagash.  The inscription on it, from King Gudea of Lagash circa 2025 BC, is a dedication to Ningizzida.  Also on the vase is an image of two entwined snakes on a rod.  Some have dated the vase as far back as 4000 B.C. The rod is most likely to be Axis Mundi, the world tree, Yggdrasil, the tree of life.  Ningizzida, a fertility god, was also known as ‘Lord of the Tree of Life’.  He was often depicted as a serpent with a human head, and later became a god of healing and magic.  His companion was Tammuz/Dumuzi, who personified the creative powers of spring.

The Tree of Life had also been linked with the serpent or dragon (winged serpent) for over 1,000 years before Genesis was written. In 2025 BC the cup of the Sumerian King Gudea of Lagash (see Chapter 5, Fig. 22) showed two winged dragons holding back a pair of opening doors to reveal a caduceus of uniting snakes, the incarnation of the god Ningizzida, one of the names given to the consort of the mother goddess, to whom the cup is inscribed: ‘Lord of the Tree of Truth’.

Associated with his role in agriculture, Ningišzida is said to travel to the underworld at the time of the death of vegetation (in Mesopotamia – mid-summer to mid-winter). This journey is recorded in both Sumerian and Akkadian myths (Ningišzida’s Journey to the Netherworld, ETCSL 1.7.3 and Lambert 1990: 293). In the Adapa legend, Ningišzida, under the name Gišzida, is one of the two deities who are said to have disappeared from the land.

In northern Babylonia the goddess of the Tree of Life was called the ‘divine Lady of Eden’ or Edin, and in the south she was called the ‘Lady of the Vine’, an understandable change of name given that the Sumerian sign for ‘life’ was originally a vine leaf. However, in the myth of Eden, where there is no unifying image of a goddess, there is significantly also not one tree but two trees, or, it could be said, the one tree has become two, and now the fruit of both of them is forbidden. In earlier mythologies the one tree offered both ‘knowledge’ and ‘life’, or ‘wisdom’ and ‘immortality’. Here, knowledge of good and evil is split apart from eternal life, so that a perception of duality is rendered absolutely antithetical to a perception of life’s unity. Campbell comments that: ‘The principle of mythic dissociation, by which God and his world, immortality and mortality, are set apart in the Bible is expressed in a dissociation of the Tree of Knowledge from the Tree of Immortal Life.