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"Going to the Dogs": Healing Goddesses of Mesopotamia

The goddess Gula with her dog. Detail from a boundary stone dated to the reign of Babylonian king Nabu-mukin-apli, 978-943 BCE.
Drawing © Stephane Beaulieu, after Black and Green 2003: 101.

Great healer whose incantation is life (health), whose spells restore the sick man,
Mother of the nation, merciful one, . . . (Hallo 1976: 215, 217).

So prayed Sin-iddinam, king of Larsa, ruler from 1865 to 1843 BCE, in a letter-prayer addressed Nin-Isina, "Lady of (the City of) Isin." She was one of the goddesses of healing,[1] whose ranks included Bau or Baba, Gula, and Nin-karak.

The alter ego of healing goddesses was the dog (Black and Green 2003: 70). In iconography, such goddesses and dogs go together, and the dog alone can represent them (Fuhr 1977: 137-138). Why these goddesses were associated with dogs is unclear. Perhaps the ancients noted that dogs' licking of their wounds promoted healing. Possibly, as some have suggested, dog saliva contains medicinal elements. In addition, ancient healers might have used body parts of dogs in their treatments (Fuhr 1977: 143-144).

A fascinating cylinder seal shows a healing or exorcism ritual. Inside a reed hut, a patient on a bed is attended by physicians/priests. The dog on the roof signifies the presence of a healing goddess (Henshaw 1994: 281). During excavations at the goddess's cult city Isin, archaeologists found bronze plaques scratched with images of dogs, a statue of a kneeling figure embracing a dog, and a number of small clay dogs, one of which was inscribed with a prayer to the goddess (Fuhr 1977: 136). Protective figurines of dogs were often deposited in the foundations of buildings; one bore the injunction: "Don't stop to think-- Bite!" (Black and Green 2003: 70).

A healing ritual taking place in a reed hut. with the healing goddess's dog on the roof along with other deity symbols. The sick person is stretched out on a bed, two priests carry out the rite, and, on the right, a figure stands with raised arms, while the figure on the left holds weapons. Cylinder seal from Tel Halaf. Dated to the first half of the first millennium BCE.
Drawing © Stephane Beaulieu, after Fuhr 1977: 138, fig. 9.

Bau/Baba seated on a throne which seems to resting on water and is supported by water birds, perhaps geese. Holes at the side of the head suggest that decoration was added to the headdress. Nose separate and now lost, eyes originally inlaid. Diorite. Dated around 2060-1955 BCE.
Drawing © Stephane Beaulieu, after Pritchard 1969b:173 #507.

Possibly the goddess Bau/Baba, seated on a throne flanked by palm trees and with two creatures, possibly water birds, at her feet. Terracotta. 2017-1595 BCE. From Ur.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Leick 1998, figure 6.

Bau/Baba, whose name sounds onomatopoeic (bow-wow), was principal goddess of the Lagash area, with its three cities, Girsu, Lagash, and Nimen. As "Lady of Abundance," Bau/Baba controlled the fertility of animals and human beings (Leick 1998: 23).[2] By the time of the famed Lagash governor Gudea (twenty-second century BCE), who called himself Bau's son (Frankfort 1978: 300), the goddess had become the daughter of An (Semitic Anu), the head of the pantheon. In Lagash, she was consort of the warrior Nin-Girsu, "Lord of Girsu"; he had charge of irrigation and the land's fecundity. In other places, her spouse was Zababa, a northern warrior.

At Girsu, of which she was protector, Bau had a large temple, the E-tar-sirsir (George 1993: 148 #1085, 157 #1198), also the name of Bau's temple at Lagash (George 1993: 149 #1086). The "Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur" recounts that Bau/Baba was forced by outside invaders to leave her city:

Bau has abandoned Urukug, her sheepfold (has been delivered) to the wind;
The holy Bagara, her chamber, she has abandoned … (Kramer in Pritchard 1969: 456).

In another lament, "Mother Bau" bemoaned her city and her temple (Kramer in Pritchard 1969: 614).

Bau's temple and its lands were administered by the wife of the ruler of the city (Jacobsen 1976: 81). She was identified with Bau, as was her husband with Nin-Girsu. The Lagash temple, re-built by Gudea (Jacobsen 1976: 156), was served by between one thousand and twelve-hundred people, and the goddess's estate constituted about six thousand acres of land, (Frankfort 1978: 222). Among the employees were twelve fishermen for sea-fishing (Meek in Pritchard 1969: 217). At both temples, kings and ordinary folk received oracles from the goddess and presented her with many offerings, mostly votive, to fulfill a vow made for services rendered (Leick 1998: 23).

The four-day Festival of Bau/Baba at Lagash took place in the autumn, when pilgrims from other towns came bearing offerings. During the Festival, common folk and royalty made sacrifices to their ancestors, thus feasting the dead. Afterwards, they dined on the leftovers (Cohen 1993: 53-54, 470-471). Since mediating between angry gods/ demons and their human prey was a task that often fell to healing goddesses, they needed to have close connections with the Underworld (Cohen 1993: 149).

At the New Year, there was also a festival of Bau/Baba at Girsu, when a "Sacred Marriage" rite involving Nin-Girsu and Bau took place (Cohen 1993: 67, 75). According to Frankfort, Bau was dominant in the ceremony (1978: 297).

The end of the Babylonian story of Adapa, likened to Adam for losing humans their immortality, decreed:

. . . what ill he [Adapa] has brought upon mankind,
[And] the diseases that he brought upon the bodies of men,
These Ninkarrak [sic] will allay (Speiser in Pritchard 1969: 103).

On the other hand, the famous Law Code of the Hammu-rapi (Hammurabi), king of Babylon (about 1792-1750 BCE), curses anyone distorting the law or flouting it:

May Ninkarrak [sic], the daughter of Anum . . .,
inflict upon him in his body a grievous malady,
an evil disease, a serious injury which never heals,
whose nature no physician knows
which he cannot allay with bandages,
which like a deadly bite cannot be rooted out,
and may he continue to lament (the loss of) his vigor
until his life comes to an end! (Meek in Pritchard 1969: 180).

Undoubtedly the goddess was not only beneficent, but could also inflict the miseries which, normally, people asked her to allay. Like the other healing goddesses, Nin-karak had Underworld associations, as her title demonstrated: Nin-E-ki-siga "Lady of the House of Offerings for the Dead." This refers to a ritual for honoring the dead, a ritual to which the goddess might have had a special relationship.

In Mesopotamia, not only did the dead receive proper burial, but they got regular funerary rituals and food-and-drink offerings. A "caretaker," normally a family member, had to ensure that the family fully remembered the dead not only by feeding them, but by having their names ritually intoned. Sharing of feasts with the dead reinforced family — ancestors, living, and descendants formed a long chain of interdependence. Similar cult practices were found elsewhere in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean. Indeed, the spectacular remains of a funerary feast were recently unearthed by German archaeologists working in Syria.[3]

Nin-karak temples are attested for, among other places, Babylon "Pure Mountain," Borsippa "House which Gives Life," and Sippar "House of Rejoicing," (George 1993: 102 #488, 150 #1095, 155 #1167). Probably centers of healing, as well as sources of divinations and oracles, the temples would have been staffed by personnel trained in healing rituals, dream interpretation, and divination techniques.

Detail of boundary stone, showing Gula with feathery crown attached to her conical headdress and a scorpion-man with bird feet.
Drawing © Stephane Beaulieu, after Pritchard 1969b: 176, #519.

Mesopotamia's goddess of healing par excellence was Gula, patron of physicians, whose name, actually a title, means "The Great One" (Black and Green 2003:101). Obviously the epithet displaced the original and now-lost divine name. She was also known as "Great Mother," "Mother Gula," and "Lady of Life." She was the daughter of An/Anu. Her consort, depending on the city, was the storm god Nin-urta, the warrior Nin-Girsu, or Pabil-sag, Lord of Isin. Her seven children included the healing god Damu, who was worshipped at Isin, and Nin-azu, god of both healing and the Underworld. Like other healing deities, Gula also inflicted disease.

Gula was much invoked in healing rituals and incantations, by which those who were ill begged her assistance. They also used prayer-letters. Honored in hymns, she was sometimes invoked in law codes and treaties. At least one treaty addressed her as the great physician (Reiner in Pritchard 1969: 534). Babylonian king Nabonidus (Nabu-na'id) who reigned 555-539 BCE, dreamed of the goddess "who restores the health of the dead(ly sick) and bestows long life." He prayed for "lasting life for [him]self and that she might turn her face towards [him]." Then she "looked steadily upon [him] with her shining face (thus) indicating (her) mercy" (Oppenheim in Pritchard 1969: 310). Gula's worship certainly lasted a long time, its longevity undoubtedly indicating her efficacy in helping people.

Her main cult center was Isin, where she was identified with Nin-Isina, and resided in the great healing temple E-gal-makh "Exalted Palace" (George 1993: 88 #318). She also had temples in most other cities, with three at Babylon! Festivals of Gula are attested for a number of places. At Umma, Gula received an offering of a sheep, and her statue was carried in a procession. Throughout the land in Assyrian times, celebrations of Nin-urta's victory over the monster Anzu bird were marked by foot races. One document identifies a dog running about as "a messenger" from Gula (Cohen 1993: 333-334).

Boundary stone (kudurru). On the left of the fifth register from the top, the goddess Gula sits enthroned with her alter-ego dog. The rest of the symbols represent various other deities. Limestone. Found near Abu Habbah. Dated by inscription to 12th. century BCE.
Drawing © Stephane Beaulieu, after Pritchard 1969b:176, #519.

Both Gula and Nin-urta were protectors of boundaries, and her name and image appeared often on kudurrus or boundary stones. Seated regally on a throne, she had her sacred dog beside her.

Nin-Isina's city must have been a kind of Mesopotamian Lourdes, a place of pilgrimage for the sick, maimed, and dying. The temple also provided midwives (Leick 1998: 133). The precinct of the E-gal-makh must have been an extremely busy and noisy place, with sufferers seeking treatment, priests performing rituals and incantations, and dogs barking. Like Lourdes, it would have been crowded with votive and dedicatory objects. During festivals in the goddess's honor, her statue would have been carried through the city to the sounds of music and rejoicing. Nin-Isina's precinct also housed a sanctuary called "Dog-House," probably a "sacred dog kennel" (George 1993: 156 #1182). There the goddess's alter ego would have enjoyed a luxurious life, until, perhaps, it became a sacrifice. During excavations, many dog burials were unearthed in the cult area (Fuhr 1977: 136),[4] probably remains of votive and ritual sacrifices. A very important deity, Nin-Isina was worshiped all over Mesopotamia and had temples or shrines in most major cities (George 1993: 88 #320-321, 152 #1123).

As goddess of healing, "Great Doctor of the Black Headed (Ones) [the Sumerians]," Nin-Isina was nearly identical with Gula (Black and Green 2003: 140). At a later time, she also took over some of Inanna/Ishtar's warlike traits (Leick 1998: 132): "I, woman and hero, I, the mighty warrior, I go against ["a rebellious country"]" (quoted by Jacobsen 1977: 193). She was daughter of the goddess Urash, a name understood in ancient times to mean "Earth." In some traditions, Urash was the spouse of the head of the Mesopotamian pantheon, the sky god An (Black and Green 2003: 182). Pabil-sag, son of En-lil, was Nin-Isina's consort, and their son was the healing god Damu (Black and Green 2003: 57).

Like Bau, Nin-Isina makes her appearance in Sumerian laments. The "Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur" wailed:

Isin, no longer a `quay-shrine,' was deprived of water.
[Nin]isinna [sic], the mother of the Land, wept bitter tears,
'[Oh] her [destroyed city] destroyed house,' bitterly she cried (Kramer in Pritchard 1969: 614).

In another lament, "She who is of Isin" abandoned her city and "her shrine Egalmah [sic]" (Kramer in Pritchard 1969: 455).

Nin-Isina would certainly be weeping today over her beloved Isin. The site, south of Baghdad in Iraq, is being subjected to indiscriminate looting. Taken there by German archaeologist Susanne Osthoff, who was recently released by hostage-takers, Edmund Andrews of The New York Times was utterly shocked by the scene: "What we saw was unforgettable." Several hundred men were digging artifacts out of "dozens of newly dug holes," most of which were quite wide and deep. Guns were everywhere, but "the atmosphere was almost festive."

As we stood at the edge of one hole, we watched a teenager extract a large unbroken urn from the clay and then prance with it on his head before our cameras. At another hole, I watched a young man gently dig out part of the statue of a calf.

During about an hour, looters unearthed sculptures, vases, cylinder seals, and clay tablets bearing cuneiform writing. According to Andrews, many objects "dated back 3,000 years to the Sumerian era" (Andrews 2005).

Indeed, the Lady of Isin would be weeping, but she would also sympathize with the desperately poor people "swarming like ants" over her sacred precinct, even if she could not condone their ravages. Let us hope that she does not retaliate by releasing the demons of disease that she controls or loosing her dogs on the looters. Rather might she carry out the Hammu-rapi [Hammurabi] curse against the antiquities market, especially the collectors.

Although likely separate deities originally, these goddesses were so regularly identified with each other as to be hard to tell apart. All were patrons of "the art of medicine," and the Sumerians appealed to them for help against demons causing human diseases (Black and Green 2003: 67-68). Still, these goddesses of healing are not mentioned in the oldest medical document from Mesopotamia, dating to the third millennium BCE (Kramer 1981: 64).


  1. There were many: Gula was identified with no fewer than nine (Fuhr 1977: 136)
  2. A very old deity, she is attested in documents dating from the period 2900 -2350 BCE.
  3. The discovery appeared, with rich illustrations, in National Geographic (Lange 2005). ). Some photos viewable as of 1/25/2006 at <>
  4. The remains of thirty-three dogs, a discovery which constituted the first time that a ritual burial of animals in a cultic area had been discovered in the Sumerian heartland (Fuhr 1977: 136).

Selected Bibliography

  • Andrews, Edmund L. 2005. "A Trip to the Desert with the Raging Angel of the Artifacts, The New York Times (Sunday, December 18) 7
  • Assante, Julia 2003. "From Whores to Hierodules: The Historiographic Invention of Mesopotamian Female Sex Professionals," 13-47 in Ancient Art and Its Historiography, edited A.A. Donahue and Mark D. Fullerton. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University
  • Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green. 2003 (1992). Gods, Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. Austin, TX: Texas University Press
  • Cohen, Mark E. 1993. The Cultic Calendars of the Ancient Near East. Bethesda, MY: CDL Press
  • Frankfort, Henri 1978. Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • Fuhr, I. 1977. "Der Hund als Begleittier der Göttin Gula und anderer Heilgottheiten," 135-145 in Isin Ishan Bahriyat. I. Der Ergebnisse der Ausgrabungen 1973-1974, ed. B. Hrouda. Munich.
  • George, Andrew. R. 1993. House Most High: The Temples of Ancient Mesopotamia. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns
  • Hallo, William W. 1976. "The Royal Correspondence of Larsa: I. A Sumerian Prototype for the Prayer of Hezekiah," 209-224 in Cuneiform Studies in Honor of Samuel Noah Kramer, ed. Barry L. Eichler, with Jane W. Heimerdinger and Åke Sjöberg. (Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany): Kevalauer/Butzon and Bercker
  • Henshaw, Richard A. 1994. Female and Male. The Cultic Personnel: The Bible and the Rest of the Ancient Near East. Allison Park, PA: Pickwick Press
  • Jacobsen, Thorkild 1977. "Mesopotamia," 123-219 in The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East, by H. and H.A. Frankfort, J. A. Wilson, T. Jacobsen, and W.A. Irwin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • Kramer, Samuel N. 1981.History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Recorded History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press
  • Lange, K. 2005. "Unearthing Ancient Syria's Cult of the Dead," National Geographic Magazine February: 108-122
  • Leick, Gwendolyn.1999. Who's Who in the Ancient Near East. New York: Routledge
  • Leick, Gwendolyn. 1998 (1991). A Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Mythology. London/New York: Routledge
  • Pritchard, James B., editor. 1969a. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament: Third Edition with Supplement. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
  • Pritchard, James B., editor. 1969b. The Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament: Second Edition with Supplement. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

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