Tag: Ishtar

The oldest love poem in history

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The oldest poem in history
Museum of Archaeology, Istanbul

‘Bridegroom, dear to my heart; goodly is your beauty, honeysweet; lion, dear to my heart’. These are the passionate words of a lover to a king, from more than 4,000 years ago, in the oldest known love poem ever found.

The loving words were passed down over generations, eventually inscribed on an 8 th century BC Sumerian cuneiform tablet small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand. It was uncovered in the 1880s in Nippur, a region in what is now Iraq, and has been held by The Istanbul Museum of the Ancient Orient ever since.

Historians say the words were recited by a bride of Sumerian King Shu-Sin, fourth ruler of the Third Dynasty of Ur, who reigned between 2037 and 2029 BC, and used as a script for a ceremonial recreation of the sacred marriage. It would have been sung at the New Year festival, and at banquets and festivals accompanied by music and dance.

The full translation of the poem is as follows:

 

Bridegroom, dear to my heart,

Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet,
Lion, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet.

Bridegroom, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey,
In the bedchamber, honey-filled,
Let me enjoy your goodly beauty,
Lion, let me caress you.

My precious caress is more savory than honey.
Bridegroom, you have taken your pleasure of me,
Tell my mother, she will give you delicacies,
My father, he will give you gifts.

You, because you love me,
Give me pray of your caresses, 

My lord god, my lord protector,
My SHU-SIN, who gladdens ENLIL’s heart,
Give my pray of your caresses

Uruk Vase, with procession of naked priests carrying gifts to Inanna’s shrine. Inanna greeting them at its door marked by her gateposts. Alabaster. 3′. Uruk, Mesopotamia. Fourth millennium BCE.

According to the Sumerian belief, it was a sacred duty for the king to marry a priestess every year in order to make the soil and women fertile. The ritual of sacred marriage involved the re-enactment of the union of two deities, usually Inanna/Ishtar and Dumuzi/Tammuz. Thus, the priestess represented Inanna, the goddess of fertility and sexual love, while the king represented Dumuzi, on the eve of their union.

J. Stuckey (2005) describes the ritual of the sacred marriage:

From extant hymns, we can piece together what happened in the ritual. First, Inanna was bathed, perfumed, and adorned, while Dumuzi and his retinue processed towards her shrine.

The famous Uruk vase may represent this procession. All the while, temple personnel sang love songs, many of which are extant. Resplendent Inanna greeted Dumuzi at the door, which, on the Uruk vase, is flanked by her signature standards (gateposts), and there he presented her with sumptuous gifts. Subsequently, the pair seated themselves on thrones, although sometimes the enthronement took place only after sexual consummation. The deities entered a chamber fragrant with spices and decorated with costly draperies. Lying down on a ceremonial bed constructed for the occasion, they united in sexual intercourse. Afterwards, pleased by and with her lover, Inanna decreed long life and sovereignty for him and fertility and prosperity for the land.

Muazzez Hilmiye Cig, a retired historian at the Museum, who worked with Professor Samuel Noah Kramer in 1951 to identify and translate the text, explained that the Sumerians “believed that only love and passion could bring them fertility, and therefore praised pleasures”.

In the agriculture-based Sumerian community, she said, lovemaking between the king and the priestess would have been seen as a way to ensure the fertility of their crops, and therefore the community’s welfare, for another year.

The Ishtar Gate

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The Ishtar Gate was the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon. It was constructed in about 575 BCE by order of King Nebuchadnezzar II on the north side of the city. It was excavated in the early 20th century and a reconstruction using original bricks is now shown in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

History

Dedicated to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, the gate was constructed using glazed brick with alternating rows of bas-relief mušḫuššu (dragons) and aurochs (bulls), symbolizing the gods Marduk and Adad respectively.

The roof and doors of the gate were of cedar, according to the dedication plaque.

The gate was covered in lapis lazuli, a deep-blue semi-precious stone that was revered in antiquity due to its vibrancy. These blue glazed bricks would have given the façade a jewel-like shine. Through the gate ran the Processional Way, which was lined with walls showing about 120 lions, bulls, dragons and flowers on enameled yellow and black glazed bricks, symbolizing the goddess Ishtar. The gate itself depicted only gods and goddesses. These included Ishtar, Adad and Marduk. During celebrations of the New Year, statues of the deities were paraded through the gate and down the Processional Way.

The gate, being part of the Walls of Babylon, was considered one of the original Seven Wonders of the World. It was replaced on that list by the Lighthouse of Alexandria from the third century BC.

Excavation and display

A reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way was built at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin out of material excavated by Robert Koldewey and finished in the 1930s. It includes the inscription plaque. It stands 14 m (46 ft) high and 30 m (100 ft) wide. The excavation ran from 1902 to 1914, and, during that time, 14 m (45 ft) of the foundation of the gate was uncovered.

An aurochs above a flower ribbon

Claudius James Rich, British resident of Baghdad and a self-taught historian, did personal research on Babylon because it intrigued him. Acting as a scholar and collecting field data, he was determined to discover the wonders to the ancient world. C.J. Rich’s topographical records of the ruins in Babylon were the first ever published, in 1815. It was reprinted in England no fewer than three times. C.J. Rich and most other 19th century visitors thought a mound in Babylon was a royal palace, and that was eventually confirmed by Robert Koldewey’s excavations, who found two palaces of King Nebuchadnezzar and the Ishtar Gate. Robert Koldewey, a successful German excavator, had done previous work for the Royal Museum of Berlin, with his excavations at Surghul (Ancient Nina) and Al-hiba (ancient Lagash) in 1887. Koldewey’s part in Babylon’s excavation began in 1899.

The method that the British were comfortable with was excavating tunnels and deep trenches, which was damaging the mud brick architecture of the foundation. Instead, it was suggested that the excavation team focus on tablets and other artefacts rather than pick at the crumbling buildings. Despite the destructive nature of the archaeology used, the recording of data was immensely more thorough than in previous Mesopotamian excavations. Walter Andre, one of Koldewey’s many assistants, was an architect and a draftsman, the first at Babylon. His contribution was documentation and reconstruction of Babylon. A small museum was built at the site and Andre was the museums first director.

One of most complex and impressive architectural reconstructions in the history of archaeology, was the rebuilding of Babylon’s Ishtar gate and processional way in Berlin. Hundreds of crates of glaze brick fragments were carefully desalinated and then pieced together. Fragments were combined with new bricks baked in a specially designed kiln to re-create the correct color and finish. It was a double gate; the part that is shown in the Pergamon Museum today is the smaller, frontal part. 

Parts of the gate and lions from the Processional Way are in various other museums around the world.

Ishtar gate, Pergamon Museum, Berlin

Only four museums acquired dragons, while lions went to several museums. The Istanbul Archaeology Museum has lions, dragons, and bulls. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, Denmark, has one lion, one dragon and one bull. The Detroit Institute of Arts houses a dragon. The Röhsska Museum in Gothenburg, Sweden, has one dragon and one lion; the Louvre, the State Museum of Egyptian Art in Munich, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Oriental Institute in Chicago, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut, each have lions. One of the processional lions was recently loaned by Berlin’s Vorderasiatisches Museum to the British Museum.

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.