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Goddess, Whore, or Both? Kilili, the "Woman at the Window"


An example of the so-called "Woman at the Window" motif. As is usual with these images, the face fills the opening, here a balustraded balcony/window in a building wall. The ornate ringlets are topped by what appears to be a jewelled hair ornament. Ivory plaque, almost certainly a furniture appliqué. Might originally have been painted. From Arslan Tash, Syria. Late ninth century B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Hardin 1963: Plate 61.

Was the beautiful, enigmatic "Woman at the Window" a goddess, a prostitute, or both? Many ivory carvings of her have been found in the Near East, and they date to the first millennium B.C.E. Scholarly interpreters have been quite clear about her: she was a prostitute displaying her wares at an inn. Further, they have often identified her with the Sumerian great goddess Inanna, the Babylonian Ishtar, whom they see as, among other things, patron deity of prostitutes and herself a prostitute.

Feminist scholar Julia Assante questions this generally accepted scholarly position. From her meticulous research, she argues that earlier scholars misunderstood certain documents in which the names of several types of priestess were regularly listed along with the word usually translated as "prostitute."[1] Rather than assuming, as most scholars have done, that the priestesses were prostitutes, albeit sacred ones, Assante makes a strong case that these lists describe a category of woman to which both certain priestesses and "prostitutes" belonged, that is, women who were not dependent on men. Fiercely independent and dangerous Inanna/Ishtar was no exception but, Assante suggests, she might have been patron not of prostitutes alone, but of self-supporting women, to which category many prostitutes must have belonged.[2]

Certainly the "Woman at the Window" was an aspect of Inanna/Ishtar, whatever else she might have been. Her name was Kilili, and she was a minor Babylonian goddess.[3] "Kilili" probably meant "Garlanded One."[4] The Sumerians called her Aba-shushu "(One) Who Leans in (or Looks out of) the Window." Abta-gigi, another of her names, has been translated as "(One) Who Answers (or Commands) from the Window."[5] Kilili was considered wise in the sense of "skilled" or "knowing": "You are Kilili, the wisest of the wise, who concerns herself in the matters of people." In this wisdom and also window-posing, she and Ishtar were alike: "… at a window of the house sits wise Ishtar" (Quoted by Lapinkivi 2004: 234). Kilili was often invoked in incantations and litanies, where she was addressed as, for instance, "Kilili, the queen of the windows, Kilili, who leans into/from the windows" (Quoted by Lapinkivi 2004: 233 note 1147). She might also have been associated with the kililu, "the mural crown" worn by Assyrian queens and often by goddesses.[6]


The "Mona Lisa" of Nimrud. The beautiful face of what was a "Woman at the Window," but separated by time from her window. Her elegant and ornate coiffure is topped by a hat which might be that of a high priestess. The rich golden ivory carving was probably a furniture appliqué. From ancient Nimrud in Babylonia, Mesopotamia, though almost certainly made in Phoenicia. Eighth century B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Boardman 2006: Plate 202.


Enthroned goddess holding a lotus and a ring. She wears necklaces and bracelets, and her heavy ornate ringlets are held back by a headband. Above her is an Egyptian style of winged disc. She has been identified as probably being Kilili, usually seen in a window (Frayne 2006: personal communication). Ivory found at Nimrud in Babylonia, but almost certainly carved in Phoenicia. Eighth century B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Mallowan and Herrmann 1974: Plate 46.


Another carved furniture inlay from Nimrud. Probably Kilili, according to Frayne, (2006: personal communication). The goddess holds a lotus and has wings. Her heavy ornate ringlets are contained by a headband. Eighth century B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Mallowan and Herrmann 1974: Plate 67.

Kilili is best known from many beautiful ivory images of the "Woman at the Window," the most famous of which has been dubbed the "Mona Lisa of Nimrud." The pieces were carved mostly in Phoenicia and were probably furniture inlays, especially for beds. They have been found in three Mesopotamian sites and also in the Levant, for instance, at Samaria in Israel. In the ninth century B.C.E., Samaria was the capital of the northern realm of the Israelite divided monarchy.[7] Its most famous or infamous ruler was Ahab, husband of the Phoenician (Canaanite) princess Jezebel (I Kings 16: 31).

Usually, Kilili stood full face in a window or balcony, which seemed situated somewhat above the ground. At a temple she would probably have been embodied by a priestess ritually showing herself to devotees in full ceremonial regalia, as in a possible "Window of Appearances" in a wall of the building.[8] Her hair was usually dressed in heavy, ornate ringlets, and she sometimes wore a necklace. Her prominent eyes looked directly out at the observer; the eyes of deities were large to indicate that they saw everything and their large ears heard everything.

However, at least one ivory shows a goddess, probably Kilili, in profile. In it, she was seated on throne, accompanied by lily plants, and facing a god enthroned opposite her.[9]

Though Phoenician artists were carving images of Kilili primarily for the Mesopotamian market, the goddess might have had a counterpart in the Levant, perhaps Asherah or Astarte,[10] for the palace of Ahab and Jezebel in Samaria was the source of at least one such carving. It might indeed have been an inlay in the royal bed of Ahab and Jezebel. From a distinguished family, Jezebel was daughter of Eth-Baal, king of Sidon, and her great-niece was Elissa (Dido in Vergil's Aeneid), legendary founder of Carthage (royal family tree).


Small figure of a Phoenician lady or priestess. She wears a long tunic and a cloak, part of which she holds in her left hand. Her jewelry consists of necklaces and bracelets, and she is shod in sandals. Her ornate hair style is controlled by forehead bands. Limestone. Likely an ornament or handle of a large ceremonial vessel. From Golgoi, Cyprus. Seventh century B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Harden 1963: Plate 71.


Kilili, the "Woman at the Window." Phoenician ivory from Nimrud in Mesopotamia. Dated to the end of the eighth century B.C.E,
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Moscati 1999: Plate 79.


Female figure, a relief sculpture from a coffin. She wears a tunic and is wrapped from her hips down with folded wings, as Egyptian Isis and Nephthys are in funerary contexts. A veil, topped by an hawk's head, an Egyptian motif, almost covers her hair. In her right hand she holds a small dove-shaped incense burner and in her left a bowl. Everything about her suggests that she was a priestess. From Carthage. Dated to the end of the fourth/beginning of the third century B.C. E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Moscati 1999: Plate 9.

From the Hebrew Bible, we know that Jezebel was a devotee of the Canaanite deities, especially the goddess Asherah, the main female deity of her Phoenician home state.[11] Like most royalty of the area, she would have been a high religious functionary of Sidon's city deities, particularly Asherah. After her marriage, according to the Hebrew Bible, Jezebel influenced Ahab to become a worshiper of Baal (I Kings 17: 32). As queen of the northern kingdom of Israel, she supported functionaries of Canaanite polytheistic religions and fed four hundred prophets of Asherah at her table, as well as a large number of priests and, according to the Bible, "prophets" of Baal (I Kings 18: 19). The Bible also reports that she persecuted the prophets of the Israelite deity (I Kings 18: 4).

Opposition to Canaanite religion and to Jezebel was led by the prophet Elijah (I Kings 18: 17). On Mount Carmel, Elijah defeated the Baal prophets in a contest between their deity and his, and all the Baal prophets were killed (I Kings 18: 20-40). Jezebel then threatened Elijah with death, and he had to flee (I Kings 19: 1-2). Eventually Ahab was killed in battle (I Kings 22: 35), and later his son and successor, Joram, was treacherously slain by his ambitious general Jehu (II Kings 9: 22-24). Thus, Jezebel was left alone and vulnerable in Samaria, at the mercy of Jehu, now king of Israel (II Kings 9: 1-14), and a man who blamed her "countless harlotries and sorceries" for most of the problems of the land (II Kings 9: 22).

When Jehu arrived in the city, Jezebel must have known that she was close to death. So the Phoenician queen painted her eyes, dressed her hair, and stood at a window in the palace (II Kings 9: 30). Were the writers of the tale deliberately invoking the well-known motif of the "Woman in the Window"? Or is it possible that Jezebel was greeting her death proudly and defiantly, not only as a queen but also as a priestess of her goddess? It seems very likely.

Thus, the last Biblical picture of Jezebel, defiantly and bravely confronting her enemy from a window, might over time have added to negative interpretations of the "Woman at the Window" or vice versa. As Jezebel's name later came to signify the worst kind of female depravity, so the goddess Kilili became a prostitute offering herself from a window.

Notes

  1. Assante also questions whether the word normally translated "prostitute" actually meant that.
  2. See her important discussion of prostitutes in the ancient Near East (Assante 2003: 33; 1998: 55, 57, 73-82).
  3. Or a priestess of the goddess, who would, for ceremonial occasions, would have incarnated her deity.
  4. My thanks to Professor Douglas Frayne of the University of Toronto for these translations and for giving me access to the results of his research on Kilili.
  5. Kilili was also a female demon who could cause diseases, as well as cure them.
  6. The mural crown represented city battlements on top of a wall and was the normal headdress of tutelary or protector goddesses of cities. Of course it was the model for the modern royal crown.
  7. The southern kingdom was Judah, where, after the fall of Israel, the Hebrew Bible took its final shape. This fact in part explains the Bible's negativity towards the northern kingdom.
  8. "Windows of Appearances" were preserved in the excavated remains of Akrotiri on the Aegean island of Thera/Santorini (Marinatos [1984]: 12, plate 3).
  9. Probably Dumu-zi, Inanna/Ishtar's lover, or an aspect of him. My thanks to Professor Douglas Frayne of the University of Toronto for information on this material.
  10. One of the epithets of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, who was identified with Astarte, was Parakyptousa, "Peeping Out (of a Window/Door)."
  11. Her name is theophoric or "god-bearing," with the bel part referring to the storm god Baal.

Bibliography

  • Assante, Julia. 1998. "The kar.kid/[k]harimtu, Prostitute or Single Woman? A Reconsideration of the Evidence." Ugarit-Forschungen 30: 5-96
  • Assante, Julia. 2003. "From Whores to Hierodules: The Historiographic Invention of Mesopotamian Female Sex Professionals." Pp.13-47 in Ancient Art and Its Historiography. Edited by A.A. Donahue and M.D. Fullerton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Boardman, John. 2006. The World of Ancient Art. London: Thames & Hudson
  • Hardin, Donald. 1963. The Phoenicians. Second edition. New York: Praeger
  • Lapinkivi, Pirjo. 2004. The Sumerian Sacred Marriage in the Light of Comparative Evidence. Helsinki: University of Helsinki Press. State Archives of Assyria XV
  • Lipinski, Édouard, editor. 1992. Dictionnaire de la civilization phénicienne et punique. [Turnhout, Belgium]: Brepols
  • Mallowan, (Sir) Max E.L. and Georgina Herrmann. [1974]. Furniture from SW.7 Fort Shalmaneser: Commentary, Catalogue, and Plates. London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq
  • Marinatos, Nanno. [1984]. Art and Religion in Thera: Reconstructing a Bronze Age Society. Athens: Mathioulakis
  • Moscati, Sabatino.1999 (1965). The World of the Phoenicians. London: Phoenix
  • Seibert, Ilse. 1974. Women in the Ancient Near East. New York: Schram
  • van der Toorn, Karel, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, editors. 1999. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible: Second Extensively Revised Edition. Leiden: Brill and Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans
  • Winter, Irene. 1987. "Women in Public: the Disk of Enheduanna, the Beginning of the Office of EN-Priestess, & the Weight of Visual Evidence," 189-201 in Durand, J.-M., editor. La femme dans le Proche-Orient antique: Compte rendu de la XXXIIIe Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale (Paris, 7-10 Juillet, 1986). Paris: Editions Recherche sur les Civilisations

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