Nin-shata-pada, Scribe and Poet, Princess and Priestess
Mask of goddess
or, more likely, priestess. Carved from alabaster. Originally eyes
and eyebrows inlaid. Hair perhaps covered with gold leaf. Found
in Uruk, near the E-anna, the great temple of Inanna in the center
of the city. Dated ca. 3300-3000 BCE.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu,
after Aruz 2003: 25 and figure 11a; Seibert 1974: Plate 7)
daughter of Sargon the Great, was princess, priestess of the moon god
Nanna at Ur in Mesopotamia, now Iraq, earthly embodiment of his spouse
and the first poet whose name we know.
We know the names of many high priestesses (en-priestesses or
entu), a number of whom probably also wrote hymns and other literature
for the temple. We can also tentatively identify en-priestesses
from the rolled cap which they often wore.
However, not until 400 years after Enheduanna can we identify another
priestess as author of a particular piece of writing.
An offering scene
to a bearded and horn-crowned god enthroned before his temple. One
offering might be the musical instrument (a bull lyre?) between
the god and the male worshipper. The priest holds a spouted libation
vessel. Behind and larger to show her importance is an en-priestess
wearing the distinctive roll-brim hat (Winter 1987). Greenish translucent
stone cylinder seal. Dated around 2400 BCE.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu,
after Collon 1990: 45 #30
Nin-shata-pada, too, was the daughter of a ruler, Sin-kashid, who first
governed Durum, then became king of Uruk in 1860 BCE. He married Shallurtum,
a Babylonian princess, daughter of Sumu-la-El (1880-1845 BCE), thus cementing
an alliance with that growing kingdom (Hallo 1991: 380).
Like many other kings in Mesopotamia, Sin-karshid followed the then-accepted
policy of appointing close relatives to high posts in dependent or conquered
Kings regularly assigned provincial governorships to their sons and made
their daughters high priestesses of cities whose tutelary or guardian
deity was male. Thus a son could get experience in ruling a city state,
and a daughter, as spouse of a god and so the embodiment of a goddess,
wielded considerable religious power and extensive political influence
(Hallo 1991: 378-379).
When a queen or princess was installed as a priestess, she usually took
a religious name with religious meaning. Nin-shata-pada's name means "Lady
Chosen by [means of] the Heart [Omens]."
Particularly for the city of Ur, scholars know the official names of a
large number of high priestesses and, often, how long they lived (Sollberger
1954-1956: 24-46). For instance, Queen Pu-abi of Ur, whose remains
and grave goods were found in the great Royal Cemetery at Ur (2550-2400
BCE), was probably also a priestess.
Another royal woman who was both a princess and a priestess was Tuta-napshum.
She was installed as en-priestess of the high god En-lil during
the reign of Sargon's grandson Naram-Sin (2260-2223 BCE) (Frayne
1993: 122-124, 175).
on a cylinder seal found in the great royal Cemetery at Ur, near
the body of Queen Pu-abi. The top register shows a woman with an
elaborate hairdo seated on a throne-like chair and holding a cup.
Female servants stand on either side of her. Opposite her is a bald
male (a priest?) flanked by bald male servants, one of whom seems
to be about to strike a hand bell. The scene below is an all-male
one, featuring bald men who are probably priests. The inscription
beside the upper register reads: Nin Pu-abi "Lady Pu-abi." So the
enthroned lady is likely to be Pu-abi, the second wife of King Meskalamdug.
She seems to be dressed as a priestess and taking part in a ritual
(Collon 1990: 19). Lapis lazuli. Dated 2550-2400 BCE.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu,
after Aruz 2003: 109 figure 60a
The headdress and
jewelry of Queen Pu-abi, made from gold leaf, lapis lazuli from
Afghanistan, and carnelian from the Indus Valley. The circlet with
spiral trim is draped with willow and beech leaves and topped with
small, blue-and-white-filled, gold rosettes. The huge gold comb
is surmounted by larger rosettes, also originally filled with blue
and white paste. All the rosettes have eight-petals, usually a symbol
of the goddess Inanna. Her enormous earrings are double crescents.
Clearly the crown and its parts are symbolic, and some scholars
suggest that they represent fertility (Pittman in Aruz 2003: 111).
Dated 2550-2400 BCE.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu,
after Aruz 2003:110 Plate 61a
to a female servant of the princess and priestess Tuta-napshum,
who served as entu of the high god En-lil of Nippur. Her
Semitic name probably means "She Has Found Life" (Frayne
2007, personal communication).
The priestess, wearing the flounced robe of deity, sits on a dais
with a sacred tree behind her. She wears an odd, pointed crown.
Standing before her, a servant, probably the seal owner, holds what
looks like a musical instrument. The inscription reads: "Tuta-napshum,
entu priestess of the god En-lil: Aman-Ashtan, the deaf woman,
the prattler, (is) her female servant" (Frayne
1993: 175). As entu
of En-lil, Tuta-napshum embodied his spouse Nin-gal "Great Lady."
Tuta-napshum was daughter of Naram-Sin, king of Sumer and Akkad
(2260-2223 BCE) and great-granddaughter of Sargon the Great (Frayne
Drawing © S. Beaulieu,
after Frayne 1993: cover illustration
Priestly office was for life, and for most women it was an unusually
long and interesting life.
When the priestess's city was conquered, however, she could be ousted
from her temple and even exiled.
In Nin-shata-pada's time, the southern cities of Isin
and Larsa made numerous attempts to control Mesopotamia.
The large and flourishing kingdom of Larsa had three principal neighbors
and rivals, Babylon, Isin, and Uruk. In 1804 BCE Rim-Sin, king of Larsa,
captured Durum, the dependent city of Uruk where Nin-shata-pada lived,
and in 1803 BCE he took Uruk, still ruled by Nin-shata-pada's father's
dynasty. Uruk's 60 years of independence were at an end. Rim-Sin would
have the longest recorded rule (1822-1763 BCE) in Mesopotamia's history
(Leick 1999: 135).
According to Nin-shata-pada, Rim-Sin treated Uruk and its population
with great clemency (Hallo 1991:387),
and this fact likely persuaded her to plead her own cause to the conqueror,
as well as that of her city Durum.
In a letter-prayer addressed not to a deity, as was more usual, but to
a king, the writer describes herself:
This is what Nin-shata-pada the woman scribe,
Priestess of the divine Meslamtaea,
Daughter of Sin-kashid king of Uruk,
Your servant girl, says
Nin-shata-pada's letter-poem tells us that, at time of writing, she had
been living away from Durum for over four years. Clearly, for her, as
for Enheduanna centuries earlier, this situation was unbearable: "
they make me live like a slave. I have none who understand me." She
continues: "I am changed in my appearance (and) whole being; my body
being dead, I walk about bowed down."
When Rim-Sin took Durum, Nin-shata-pada was already an old woman: "Though
vigorous, I am abandoned in old age like a day which has ended" (Hallo
1991: 388). Nin-shata-pada makes it clear that she was used to
living a very comfortable life, in a pleasant house with slaves and servants
to do her bidding. On the other hand, she had her own temple work to do:
attending and conducting rituals, supervising and appearing at festivals.
Most of all, she was the visible embodiment of the god's wife, the goddess
Her spouse Meslamta-ea was a god of the Underworld and one of the Great
or Divine Twins, his brother being Lugal-Erra. Meslamta-ea was tutelary
or protector deity of Durum, and the city was the foremost cult center
of the combined worship of the Twins (Hallo
1991:379). Representing the astral sign Gemini, they guarded entrances.
Visually they were identical, each wearing a horned
hat, bearing a mace, and brandishing an axe. Meslamta-ea's spouse,
the goddess whom Nin-shata-pada incorporated or embodied, was Mamitu(m),
Mama, or Mami, a mother goddess and deity of childbirth.
Her foremost title was "Mistress of All the Gods" (Black
and Green 2003: 123-124, 133, 136; Leick 1998: 114). Neither Meslamta-ea
nor Mami was among the first rank of deities, but neither were they minor.
Both were identified with major deities: Meslamta-ea with the great god
of the Underworld Nergal; and Mami, with the great earth goddess Ninhursag
(Nin-hursaga). So Nin-shata-pada, though bereft of her city and her temple,
was still a significant high priestess.
Nin-shata-pada's prayer-letter was preserved as part of the curriculum
of scribal schools, and its "very language was that of the royal
" (Hallo 1983: 17).
This is not surprising, given that, in the letter, she identifies herself
as a scribe. It is arguable that scribes were the most important persons
in ancient Mesopotamia (Saggs 1965: 72).
To be a scribe was to be the cream of the cream.
Few men, and even fewer women, achieved that height. A person needed both
the connections to get admitted to a scribal school and determination
to survive long, hard, and expensive years of rigorous training. Despite
her elite status, Nin-shata-pada still had to overcome the limitations
imposed on her sex. So becoming a scribe was no mean achievement (Hallo
1983: 17). Then she became a high priestess, a position for which
her training had fitted her. And then, from exile, she wrote her famous
Whether Rim-Sin greeted Nin-shata-pada's plea favorably we do not know.
Certainly her scribal training was a great asset, in that she was able
to employ the language normal in hymns and inscriptions to draw a very
flattering picture of the conqueror. I like to think that Rim-Sin responded
positively to her prayer by restoring her to her place in the temple at
Durum and that she lived out the remainder of her life as Mami, the goddess
of birth and motherhood.
- I should like to thank
Prof. D. Frayne of the University of Toronto for suggesting this topic
to me and for providing me with references and translations.
- The name she took when
she became a priestess. Means "Priestess, Ornament of Heaven."
We do not know what her birth name was.
- See my article "Inanna,
Goddess of Infinite Variety" in MatriFocus, Samhain
2004, for some discussion of En-hedu-anna and a drawing of the disk
in which she is depicted. See also Frayne 1993: 35-36.
- According to Irene Winter,
the rolled cap was the headdress of the high priestess. See Winter
- Eventually Hammu-rapi
the Great of Babylon invaded and conquered the south and included
all the city-states there in his short-live kingdom of Sumer and Akkad
(Frayne 1989: 28). He conquered Rim-Sin and Larsa in 1783 BCE.
- Perhaps as crown prince,
he himself had previously held the governorship of Durum. See Hallo
1991: 379 and Hallo 1983: 14.
- The word sha refers to
innards, here particularly to the innards of a sacrificial animal,
the reading of which by a specialist priest would produce an omen.
Undoubtedly the omens confirmed the choice of the king's daughter,
who was already pre-selected.
- The inscription on a seal
found near Pu-abi's body reads: Nin Pu-abi "Lady Pu-abi"
(Aruz 2003: 110).
- Perhaps explained by the
fact that some priestesses, especially the highest-ranking ones, were
forbidden to bear children. Childbirth was one of the leading causes
of death for women in ancient times.
- See Meador 2000: 171-180
for a translation of the poem Enheduanna wrote about her exile from
- In "Creation of
Man by the Mother Goddess," part of an incantation, Mami the
Wise functioned as divine midwife. Then, as creator of destiny, she
shaped seven female/male pairs of humans from clay mixed with the
blood of a slain deity (Speiser in Pritchard 1969: 100).
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