Spirit Possession and the Goddess Ishtar in Ancient
Probably the ancient worlds most famous example of possession by
spirits occurred almost daily over a period of about 2,000 years. At the
great ancient Greek sanctuary of Delphi, the god Apollo gave oracles or
predictions to those who consulted him, and he spoke through a priestess,
the Pythia (Goodrich
Scholars have argued interminably about how the Pythia
received the gods message: by eating a psychedelic substance, breathing
volcanic fumes from a cleft in the rock, and so on. However, to my mind
it is much more likely that she was a medium who, through either talent
or training, went into trance when the god possessed her.
Spirit possession is a well-known phenomenon occurring cross-culturally
in most areas of the world. It is very likely that most people have seen
a possession in their immediate community or in their own
experience, although to many of us in the West this seems exotic
or anachronistic (Keller 2002: 3).
Those who regularly become possessed are termed mediums, and globally
more of them are women than men (Paper
1997: 106). Possession has been defined as total, though temporary,
domination of a humans body and consciousness by a known or unknown
alien being; after the event, the person possessed usually has no memory
of what happened (After Ann Gold, quoted
in Keller 2002: 3). Through availing itself of the persons
body, a spirit, ancestor, or deity can be present in and for the community
(Paper 1997: 203).
Given the worldwide incidence of mediums and spirit possession today,
their existence in the ancient world should not be surprising. Another
familiar example, this time from the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament),
is the so-called Witch of Endor, the medium whom King Saul
consulted to make contact with the dead prophet Samuel (I
Samuel 28). Yet another instance is the ancient Greek Maenads,
female devotees possessed by the god Dionysus (Kraemer
Spirit possession seems also to have been part of the religious life
of ancient Mesopotamia. For instance, it is likely, as I have suggested
elsewhere, that during the Sacred
Marriage ritual the Sumerian goddess Inanna possessed her high
priestess and acted through the latters entranced body. In ancient
Mesopotamia, attested examples of possession normally involved oracles
or prophesies by religious functionaries many of them women,
many devotees of Inannas Semitic counterpart, Ishtar.
Ishtar, fully armed,
stands on her sacred lion. An eight-pointed star, one of her symbols,
adorns her elaborate crown. Her forward-striding leg reveals her
warrior's kilt. A worshipper stands before her. Behind her is a
sacred date palm, with two rampant gazelles uncharacteristically
posed opposite each other, giving a suggestion of fighting. Normally
there would be one on each side of the tree trying to reach the
fruit. Impression of a Neo-Assyrian seal dated ca. 750-650 BCE.
Drawing © 2008 S.
Beaulieu, after Leick 1998: Plate 38.
The Mesopotamian Semitic word for prophet, raggimu (masc.)/raggintu
(fem.) meant shouter, and it is likely that this kind of oracle
giver proclaimed the message in a temple. Another kind of prophet was
called mahhû (masc.)/muhhutu(m) (fem.) meaning ecstatic
and derived from mahu to go into a frenzy (Nissinen
2003: 6-7). Both kinds were normally attached to the temple of
the deity for whom they spoke. When they spoke, they would very likely
have been possessed by the temples god(dess).
Mesopotamian oracular reports have come down to us primarily in two groups,
the Mari letters and the Nineveh
collection, dated about 1,000 years apart. The Mari letters (2nd millennium
BCE) were written to the king of Mari by members of his family and courtiers.
Prominent among the senders of Mari letters containing accounts of prophecies
were Shibtu, the queen of Zimri-Lim (c. 1775-1761), the kings sister
priestess Inib-shina, and other royal ladies such as Addu-duri (Nissinen
2003: 15, 28). The prophets themselves included slightly more women
than men (Huffmon in Nissinen 2000: 51).
They were connected to a number of deities, one of whom was Annunitu(m),
a form of Ishtar.
The Nineveh collection, on which I will concentrate here, consists of
reports preserved at Nineveh in the great library of the Assyrian king
Assurbanipal and written down in the 7th century BCE (deJong
Ellis 1989: 133, 141). The sex differential changes quite dramatically
from the Mari letters to the Nineveh collection. In the latter, female
prophets outnumbered males by two to one. Furthermore, the majority of
the Assyrian prophets came from Arbela,
a city in the northern part of Mesopotamia (Parpolo
1997: XLVIII). Not surprisingly, as we shall see, Arbelas
protector deity was the goddess Ishtar. The Assyrian king Esarhaddon (681-669
BCE) and his son Assurbanipal (668-627 BCE), both warrior kings (Pongratz-Leisten
2006: 26), had close relationships with Ishtar of Arbela as Lady
of Battle. The prophecies in the Nineveh collection concerned these
goddess Ishtar of Arbela, identified from an inscription on the
stone. Fully armed, she stands on her growling lion, which she controls
with a rope. Her cylindrical horned crown is topped with a star-rosette.
Stone stele from Tel-Barsip in north-east Syria. Dated to the eighth
Drawing © 2008 S.
Beaulieu, after Pritchard 1969: 177, plate 522.
Although the Assyrian oracles were certainly recorded by scribes and
probably were to some extent fashioned by them to fit an accepted literary
tradition, nonetheless they are still presented as the words of a deity.
For instance, an oracle given by the mouth of the woman Sinqisha-amur
of Arbela reads: King of Assyria, have no fear! I will
deliver up the enemy of the king of Assyria for slaughter
The possessor of the medium then identifies herself: I am the Gr[eat
Lady. I am Ishtar o]f Arbela ... (Parpola
1997: 4). In another prophecy spoken through Sinqisha-amur, the
possessing deity assures the king: I am your father and mother.
I raised you between my wings (Parpola
Mothering and nursing language occurs several times in the Nineveh collection.
An unknown prophet speaks as Ishtar of Arbela: I am your great midwife;
I am your excellent wet nurse (Parpola
1997: 7). The following excerpt comes from a long prophecy made
for the crown prince Assurbanipal through the prophetess Mullissu-kabtat
(meaning Mullissu is honored): You whose mother is Mulissu,
have no fear! You whose nurse is the Lady of Arbela, have no fear!
(Parpola 1997: 39).
An ewe suckling
her lamb, while browsing on a bush. She is a goddess as the star
above her tells us it is the cuneiform sign for "deity."
She represents Ishtar as nursing mother, as sometimes described
in the Assyrian oracles. Impression of a cylinder seal from the
Assyrian capital city Ashur.
Dated to the middle Assyrian period (ca. 1500-1000 BCE).
Drawing © 2008 S.
Beaulieu, after Parpola 1997: XXXVIII Fig. 17.
In some of the oracles the deity refers to the king as a calf. One oracle
says that Ishtar of Arbela has gone into the steppe, but she has sent
a message of well-being to her calf (Parpola
1997: 10). Another comforts the king: [Have no fear], my
calf (Parpola 1997: 18).
This motherly reference reminds us of wonderful ivory carvings of a cow
suckling a calf, some of which were found at Nimrud
in Mesopotamia (Mallowan 1978).
This image was a ubiquitous motif of the period (Parpola
1997: XXXVIII). Further, it was closely connected in the
historical traditions with the goddess (Keel
and Uelinger1998: 215).
Cow bending over
her suckling calf, a widespread motif in the ancient Near East.
Parpola identifies the cow in this image as "Mullissu/I[sh]tar"
(1997: XXXVIII, Fig. 16). Ivory panel found at Nimrud.
Dated to the first part of the first millennium BCE (Neo-Assyrian
Drawing © 2008 S.
Beaulieu, after Mallowan 1978: 56, fig. 65.
The 7th century Nineveh collection mentions thirteen Assyrian mediums,
nine of them female. The remaining four were possibly male, but two of
them seem to have been sexually ambivalent.
One of the latters oracles is identified as the mouth of the
woman Baya, son of Arbela (Parpola
1997: 6 my italics). Female mediums from Arbela included
Ahat-abisha Sister of her father, Sinqisha-amur I have
seen her distress, and Dunnasha-amur I have seen her power
(Parpola 1997: IL, LII). It is
not surprising that so many prophets were from Arbela
(modern Erbil), for Ishtar was the protector deity of Arbela. They were
almost certainly attached to her temple there, House of the Lady
of the Land (Nissinen 2003: 100;
Nissinen in Nissinen 2000: 95).
The goddess Ishtar
appearing in a halo of light to a worshipping king or priest. She
is in her warrior stance and holds a weapon. Her dais is a growling
lion. Seal impression from the Achaemenid period (after 500 BCE).
Drawing © 2008 S.
Beaulieu, after Parpola 1997: XXX. Fig. c.
Not only was Ishtar a warrior goddess, but she was the divine mediator
between deities and between deities and humans (Nissinen
in Nissinen 2000: 96). Thus, it was usually she who possessed the
Assyrian mediums. So the overwhelming majority of the prophets
are associated in some way with Ishtars cult. When on occasion another
deity wanted to contact a king through an oracle, s/he used the
channel of a medium of Ishtar (Toorn
in Nissinen 2000: 78-79). Ishtar induced ecstasy in her devotees.
If ever there was a possession cult in Mesopotamia, it was connected
with Ishtar (Toorn in Nissinen 2000:
Cross-dressing was part of her cult, and she had the ability to alter
a persons sex, so that a man became a woman and vice versa. In Mesopotamian
treaties, the curse on treaty breakers often included lines like the following,
from an Assyrian vassal treaty:
may Ishtar, the goddess of
men, the lady of women, take away their `bow, [potency?] cause their
(Reiner in Pritchard
1969: 533). Like Inanna, Ishtar also confused the lines that separated
the sexes, the generations, the classes, and the species, human and animal.
Ishtar was goddess of love and war, as well as of the Venus star. Later,
as often in earlier periods, Ishtars warlike qualities were definitely
emphasized by warrior conquerors like the Assyrians. For their kings,
Ishtar was not only Lady of Battle but often a personal deity.
She fought beside them in battle and led them to victory. Ishtar of Arbela
was an especially warlike figure. Hence it is surprising to encounter
in the oracles the goddesss nurturing character. Blood-thirsty goddess
she might be, but she shows concern for her calf in the most
motherly of ways. This adds a further dimension to her complex character.
Procession of deities
on their sacred animals, arranged between two likenesses of an Assyrian
king (Sennacherib?). Scholars have identified them, from the left,
as follows: 1. Ashur, the supreme god of Assyria; 2. Ninlil/Ishtar
of Nineveh; 3. Enlil, supreme deity of Sumer, or possibly Sin, the
moon god; 4. Sin, the moon god, or Nabu, the scribe god; 5. Shamash,
the sun god; 6. Adad, the storm god; and 7. Ishtar of Arbela. One
of four panels carved in the rock face at Maltai
or Maltaya, 70 km north of Mosul in northern Iraq. Possibly done
on order of Assyrian king Sennacherib, 704-681 BCE. Length 6 m,
height 1.85 m.
Drawing © 2008 S.
Beaulieu, after Pritchard 1969: 181, # 537.
That Ishtar, gender-bending source of ecstasy that she was, should have
been served by many female as well as some transvestite and eunuch mediums
is not surprising either. We can only speculate on what great influence
these predominantly female prophets must have had in their temple and
on the warlike Assyrian kings, when their powerful goddess spoke through
- The title Pythia meant
“Pythoness or Female Serpent” and came from the name of the dragon-snake
Pytho, the original guardian of the sanctuary. Delphi’s well-known
myth tells how Apollo acquired the sanctuary by killing Pytho. Before
Apollo, it was dedicated to the earth goddess Gaia. The temple of
Apollo was built over the much earlier shrine to Gaia. That shrine’s
remains are still there behind what is now called “the Rock of the
Sybil.” See Fontenrose 1974.
- According to tradition,
Gaia’s daughter Themis was the first Pythia; the Greek word themis
means “law as established by custom.”
- Although Apollo retained
the priestesses as mediums, male priests usually passed on or interpreted
their answers to those seeking guidance (Maurizio
- Nonetheless, in Pentecostal
Christian churches, for instance, worshippers regularly become “possessed
of the spirit” and speak in tongues and otherwise prophesy, and so
do some devotees on the programs of certain televangelists.
- Though they are often
interconnected, a medium normally differs from a shaman, in that a
shaman “actively employs the spirits rather than serving as a passive
vehicle for the spirit” as does a medium (Grabbe
in Nissinen 2000: 18). In addition, s/he retains her/his own
consciousness throughout the experience and also remembers the event
after coming out of trance.
- Mulissu/Mullissu was the
Assyrian name of the great and influential goddess Nin-lil, spouse
of the supreme Sumerian god En-lil. She was wife of the Assyrian state
god Ashur, En-lil’s Assyrian counterpart. Her sacred animal was the
lion. Later she was equated with Ishtar, especially Ishtar of Arbela.
In Assyria, in the later period, Ishtar was the spouse of the god
Ashur. Herodotus called her Mylitta and identified her as the Assyrian
- Several categories of
religious functionary dedicated to Ishtar were transvestites, and
many may have been castrates.
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