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Spirit Possession and the Goddess Ishtar in Ancient Mesopotamia

Probably the ancient world’s 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 1989: 194-254).[1] Scholars have argued interminably about how the Pythia[2] received the god’s 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.[3]

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).[4] 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 human’s 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 person’s body, a spirit, ancestor, or deity can be present in and for the community (Paper 1997: 203).[5]

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 1989: 49).

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 latter’s entranced body. In ancient Mesopotamia, attested examples of possession normally involved oracles or prophesies by religious functionaries — many of them women, many devotees of Inanna’s Semitic counterpart, Ishtar.

drawing of Ishtar, female worshipper, date palm, and two gazelles

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. British Museum.
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 temple’s 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 king’s 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, Arbela’s 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 two kings.

drawing of stone stele, with Ishtar standing on her growling lion

Assyrian warrior 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 century BCE.
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 1997: 18)

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,[6] have no fear! You whose nurse is the Lady of Arbela, have no fear!” (Parpola 1997: 39)

drawing of ewe with suckling lamb; star above ewe identifies her as a goddess

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).

drawing of cow with suckling calf

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 period).
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.[7] One of the latter’s 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).

drawing of goddess Ishtar with halo standing on a growling lion; before her is a priest worshipping her

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 Ishtar’s 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: 79).

Cross-dressing was part of her cult, and she had the ability to alter a person’s 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 steri[lity]…” (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, Ishtar’s 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 goddess’s 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 them.

Notes

  1. 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.
  2. According to tradition, Gaia’s daughter Themis was the first Pythia; the Greek word themis means “law as established by custom.”
  3. Although Apollo retained the priestesses as mediums, male priests usually passed on or interpreted their answers to those seeking guidance (Maurizio 1995: 70).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 Aphrodite.
  7. Several categories of religious functionary dedicated to Ishtar were transvestites, and many may have been castrates.

Bibliography

  • Bienkowski, Piotr and Alan Millard, eds. 2000. Dictionary of the Ancient Near East. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.
  • Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green 2003 (1992). Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. Austin, TX: University of Texas.
  • deJong Ellis, Maria 1989. “Observations on Mesopotamian Oracles and Prophetic Texts: Literary and Historiographical Considerations.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 41: 127-186.
  • Fontenrose, Joseph 1974 (1959). Python: A Study of Delphic Myth and Its Origins. New York: Biblo & Tannen.
  • Goodrich, Norma Lorre 1989. Priestesses. New York:  Franklin Watts.
  • Keel, Othmar and Christoph Uehlinger 1998. Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress.
  • Keller, Mary 2002. The Hammer and the Flute: Women, Power, and Spirit Possession. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University.
  • Kraemer, Ross S. 1989. “Ecstasy and Possession: Women of Ancient Greece and the Cult of Dionysus,” 45-55 in Unspoken Worlds: Women’s Religious Lives, eds. Nancy A. Falk and Rita Gross. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  • Leick, Gwendolyn 1998. A Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Mythology. New York: Routledge.
  • Mallowan (Sir), Max 1978. The Nimrud Ivories. London: Colonnade, British Museum.
  • Maurizio, L. 1995. “Anthropology  and Spirit Possession: A Reconsideration of Pythia’s Role at Delphi.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 115:69-86.
    Nissinen, Martti 2003. Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature.
  • Nissinen, Martti, editor. 2000.  Prophecy in Its Ancient Near Eastern Context: Mesopotamian, Biblical, and Arabian. Atlanta, GA:  Society of Biblical Literature.
  • Paper, Jordan 1997. Through the Earth Darkly: Female Spirituality in Comparative Perspective. New York: Continuum.
  • Parpolo, Simo 1997. Assyrian Prophecies. Helsinki: Helsinki University.
  • Pongratz-Leisten, Beate 2006. “Cassandra’s Colleagues: Prophetesses in the Neo-Assyrian Empire.” Journal of the Canadian Society for Mesopotamian Studies 1: 23-29.
  • Pritchard, James B., editor. 1969. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament: Third Edition with Supplement. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

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