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Of Omegas and Rhombs: Goddess Symbols in Ancient Mesopotamia and the Levant[1]


Omega symbol as main motif on small scarab-shaped seal amulet. Often amulets of this kind were found in graves of infants. Faience. Probably made in Syria around 1750 B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Keel and Uelinger 1998: 25.


Head of the Egyptian cow goddess Hathor, with obvious cow ears and the Hathor hairdo. Faience. Twenty-first Dynasty, tenth century B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Dee 1998: 55.


Mesopotamian divine symbol connected with birth goddesses. Often occurs on Babylonian boundary stones.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Black and Green 2003, p. 146.

Ancient Mesopotamia boasted many goddesses whose main, but not only function was birthing.[2] They were regularly identified with each other. Dingir-Makh "Exalted Deity" was the Sumerian birth goddess par excellence.[3] Other Sumerian birth goddesses included Nin-khursag "Lady of the Mountainous Areas," Nin-makh "Exalted Lady," Nin-tu[4] "Lady of Birth," Nin-mena "Lady of the Crown," and Nin-sikila "Pure Lady." Dingir-makh's Babylonian equivalent was Belet-ili "Lady of the Gods." The name of Erua, also a Babylonian birth goddess, possibly originated from the Semitic Akkadian word eru "to be pregnant." The Assyrians adopted Erua as Sheru'a . Sumerians addressed the birth goddess as Ama, while Babylonians called her Mama, "Mother" (Black and Green 2003: 132-133; Dijstra in van der Toorn et al. 1999: 603-604; Leick 1998: 119-121).

Many of these goddesses have multiple names or variants. See Goddesses of Many Spellings.

The best known of these birth goddesses was Nin-khursag , a great earth deity (Black and Green 2003: 140; Leick 1998: 132). Among her titles were "Mother of the Gods" and "Mother of All Children." In the pantheon, she ranked as equal to the sky god An, the god of executive power En-lil, and the god of water/wisdom En-ki (Jacobsen 1976: 104-110). The Sumerian myth "En-ki and Nin-khursag" made it clear that the goddess had power of life and death even over great deities. The wisdom god En-ki impregnated his and Nin-khursag's daughter Nin-mu, then their granddaughter, and finally Uttu, their great-granddaughter. When Uttu gave birth to eight plants, En-ki ate them all. At this point, Nin-khursag demonstrated not only her anger but her power. She cursed En-ki with death, and soon eight of his body parts began to die. Eventually, when the goddess's anger cooled, she "seated En-ki by her vulva" and gave birth to eight deities, each assigned to heal a particular part of the god (Kramer in Pritchard 1969: 36-41). A great deal of Nin-khursag's power was obviously situated in her vulva and womb.



Birth goddess, probably Nin-tu(d), Seems to be carrying two infants on her back. On each side of her under omega symbols, naked new borns. Terracotta plaque from Mesopotamia, dating somewhere between 2000 and 1600 B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Black and Green 2003: 132.

Appropriately, Nin-khursag and other birth goddesses were represented by what has been interpreted as a womb symbol. It took the approximate shape of the Greek capital letter omega () and occurred often on seals dating from around 2000 B.C.E. to the seventh century B.C.E. The earliest known example dates to the Early Dynastic period (2900-2350 B.C.E.). Scholars have explained the symbol variously as weighing scales, a wig, swaddling bands, or — to me the most compelling interpretation — a stylized womb.[5] This last interpretation is supported by a clay plaque showing a goddess with an omega on either side of her and, under the symbols, "human forms resembling newborn babies," possibly stillborn infants (Black and Green 2003: 146; Keel and Uelinger 1998: 26). The symbol might also have been connected with the great goddess Inanna/Ishtar (Black and Green 2003: 146). It was also occasionally associated with gods.[6]


Clay figure of a birth/mother goddess made from a "pressed mold." Her hair is in an elongated omega shape. Around her neck she wears a necklace with a pendant shaped somewhat like an omega. She is suckling babies at her breasts. On each thigh there is a "sacred tree" with a goat-like animal reaching up to it. Her hands hold open her almost rhomb-shaped vulva. Found in Israel. Dated c.1550-c.1150 B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Keel and Uelinger 1998: 7.

The birth symbol, which probably originated in Mesopotamia, had a very long life in the Eastern Mediterranean area. It spread to the Levant (modern Syria, Lebanon, and Israel), where it was in evidence from around 1500 B.C.E. well into the fifth century B.C.E. It seems likely that the shape retained the meaning of birth/womb (Keel and Uelinger 1998: 26, 53, 74, 367). It is even possible that the head supports found in sixth-century B.C.E. graves from Judah are examples of the symbol (Keel and Uelinger 1998: 367-368).



A large Israelite (Judahite) multiple tomb in Israel, with head and sometimes foot rests in the omega shape. Possibly indicating a memory of a symbolic connection between womb and tomb/earth. Dating from around 720/700 to around 600 B.C.E., a period that, according to the Hebrew Bible, saw continued attacks by prophets and kings on Canaanite polytheism. Inset shows enlarged head rest.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Keel and Uelinger 1998: 368.

The omega shape also appeared in the Levant as the hairdo of many female images. Scholars often refer to this as the "Hathor style of locks," resembling the hairdo of the Egyptian love/sex goddess Hathor (Keel and Uelinger 1998: 66-67). (See Hathor image at top.) Hathor, who was often depicted as a cow, was worshipped in the Levant, and Levantine goddesses were often identified with her (Keel and Uelinger 1998: 69-70). Whether Hathor locks were a womb/birth symbol is unclear.



Goddess figure from Israel, wearing a tall hat possibly with horns on either side. Her hairdo is in the Hathor style. She supports her breasts with her hands and has an exaggerated vulva area or perhaps pubic covering. Made of lead. Dated to around 1300-1150 B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Keel and Uelinger 1998: 34.

Another symbol that appears on many Mesopotamian seals is the rhombus or lozenge. This venerable sign goes back well into Mesopotamian pre-history (Goff 1963: 2, 17) as well the European Palaeolithic (Marshak 1991: 239, 313) and Neolithic (Gimbutas 1989: 143, 145). As Marshak and Gimbutas have demonstrated, in many instances the rhomb was closely associated with figures normally interpreted as goddesses, and it depicted the vulva, often quite realistically (Marshak 1991: 292-297; Gimbutas 1989: 100-103). Obvious vulva or pubic triangles in images going back to the Paleolithic are common in Mesopotamian and other Eastern Mediterranean goddess iconography (Aruz 2003: 163 plate 106; Black and Green 2003: 152; Keel and Uelinger 1998: 27).



A healing ritual with deity symbols including the dog of the healing goddesses Gula/Nin-Isina/Nin-karak and, above the dog, the rhomb symbol of the birth goddess. Clearly a life-or-death case, so that the birth goddess needs to be present, for she supervises such situations. Cylinder seal dating to the Neo-Babylonian period, 625-539 B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Black and Green 2003: 67.
larger view of image



A rhomb-shaped vulva image in clay with holes for suspension on the body. From the temple of the goddess Ishtar at the Assyrian capital city Ashur. Dated 1350-1000 B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Black and Green 2003: 152.

Rhombs occur on many Mesopotamian seals, sometimes together with dogs, the animal of the healing goddesses Gula, Nin-Isina, and Nin-karak (Göhde 2000). Göhde argues that the rhomb was primarily a symbol of the healing goddess Gula, and that it represented the constellation Lyra, with which Gula was identified (Göhde 2000:406). Since clay models of the symbol were also found in at least one temple of the goddess Ishtar, Göhde explains this by understanding Ishtar to have been a healer at that site (Göhde 2000:405). However, the usual scholarly interpretation of the rhomb, with which I agree, is that it was a vulva symbol, and thus entirely appropriate for Inanna/Ishtar as goddess of sexuality (Black and Green 2003: 153). On some seals the symbol was even depicted inside Ishtar's shrine, thus making the identification quite explicit (Black and Green 2003: 146). Clay rhombs, as well as images of penises and scenes of sexual intercourse, were unearthed in Mesopotamia, often in temples of the goddess Inanna/Ishtar. It is likely that they were objects used in rituals. They might have been connected with the "Sacred Marriage"[7] rite or used as amulets to ensure sexual potency and fertility[8] (Black and Green 2003: 152 figure 154).

On seals, cult equipment, and other objects, then, the birth goddess was often represented by a symbol alone. Usually it was the rhomb; in specialized situations it was the omega symbol. Interestingly, as Barbara Walker points out,[9] a modern symbol of luck, the horseshoe, resembles the omega, although to bring luck, it must have its opening turned up. If it is a remnant of the ancient birth symbol, one wonders what the lucky horseshoe's normal positioning signifies.

Goddesses of Many Spellings

Several of the Goddess names in this article have one or more variant spellings. Rather than repeat them in the text, I've listed them here:

Erua/Aruru
Mama/Mami
Nin-khursag/Nin-khursaga/ Nin-hursag/Nin-hursaga (The last two are the usual spellings, but the first two are correct. There is no "h" sound in Sumerian.)
Nin-mu/Nin-mud
Nin-tu/Nin-tud
Shasuru/Shasurum
Sheru'a/Sheruya

Note also that rhomb is the same as rhombus.

Notes

  1. In my last column for MatriFocus, I mentioned "the Hathor style locks" worn by some of the female figurines found at the Nahariyah shrine and used a capital Greek omega () to illustrate what I meant. Somehow the Greek letter got changed into a capital O (since corrected). Since this problem has occurred before, I intended to write an erratum note for this issue, but realized that goddess symbols would make a good topic: hence, this article. I should also record here my thanks to Professor Douglas Frayne of the University of Toronto for his scholarly assistance in my research into this and other Mesopotamian topics.
  2. Much has been written on the concept of the Mother Goddess. For discussion and bibliography, see Stuckey 2005.
  3. This name was the first and primary designation of forty-four names of birth goddesses appearing in the great Babylonian god list An=Anum (Litke 1998 (1958): 66).
  4. The Babylonian god list An=Anum identified Nin-tu with the Babylonian goddess Shasuru whose name meant "Womb" (Litke 1998 (1958): 78).
  5. The suggestion has been made that it is shaped like the womb of a cow. In this regard, it is possibly relevant that the charming "cow-and-calf" motif, showing a cow suckling a calf, was very common in the Ancient Eastern Mediterranean area. It probably refers to Nin-khursag and other birth/mother goddesses. A beautiful carving of the motif was part of groups of ivories found at Nimrud and now on display at the British Museum (Mallowan 1978: 56 figure 65).
  6. The symbol stood in for the deity, and so it is likely that, when the symbol occurred with a male deity, it represented an absent female deity.
  7. See my piece on the "Sacred Marriage" ritual in MatriFocus Vol 4-2 (Imbolc 2005).
  8. In this respect Inanna/Ishtar could have acted as a healing goddess - treating impotence and infertility.
  9. Barbara Walker discusses the "horseshoe," the omega shape, as a female symbol in The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988, page 9.

Bibliography

  • Aruz, Joan, with Ronald Wallenfels. 2003. Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art Press and New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
  • Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green, eds. 2003. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press
  • Dee, Jonathan. 1998. Chronicles of Ancient Egypt. Toronto: Prospero
  • Gimbutas, Marija. 1989. The Language of the Goddess. NY: Harper and Row
  • Goff, Beatrice L. 1963. Symbols of Prehistoric Mesopotamia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
  • Göhde, Hildegard E. 2000 (2001). "The Rhomb, A God's Symbol." Pp. 395-415 in Studi sul Vicino Oriente antico dedicati alla memoria di Luigi Cagni. Volume I of four volumes. Edited by Simonetta Graziani. Naples, Italy: Istituto universitario orientale/ Rome: Herder
  • Jacobsen, Thorkild. 1976. The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
  • Keel, Othmar and Christoph Uelinger. 1998. Gods. Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress
  • Leick, Gwendolyn. 1998 (1991). A Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Mythology. London/New York: Routledge
  • Litke, Richard L. 1998 (1958). A Reconstruction of the Assyro-Babylonian God-Lists, AN:dA-Nu-Um and AN: ANU ŠÁ AMELI. (A reprint of 1958 Ph.D. dissertation). New Haven: Yale University Press
  • Mallowan, (Sir) Max. 1978. The Nimrud Ivories. London: Colonnade Books, British Museum Publications
  • Marshak, Alexander. 1991. The Roots of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginnings of Man's First Art, Symbol and Notation. Revised and Expanded. Mount Kisco, NY: Moyer Bell
  • Stol, Marten. 2000. Birth in Babylonia and the Bible: Its Mediterranean Setting. Groningen, Netherlands: Styx
  • Stuckey, Johanna H. 2005. "Ancient Mother Goddesses and Fertility Cults." Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering 7: 32-44
  • van der Toorn, Karel, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, eds. 1999. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible: Second Extensively Revised Edition. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill and Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans

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