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Ancient Grain Goddesses of the Eastern Mediterranean

O Nisaba, good woman, fair woman, woman born in the mountains! . . .
[M]ay you be a heaper up of grain among the grain piles and in the grain stores!
(Black, Cunningham, Robson, and Zólyomi 2004: 294)

vegetation goddess, 
              sitting on blades of growing grain, receiving three minor male gods and offering them a stalk of grain

A vegetation goddess, sitting on blades of growing grain, receives three minor male gods and offers them a stalk of grain. Other stalks emerge from her shoulders. According to Boehmer, several of the stalks end in ears of grain (1965: 96). Behind her grows another stalk. She wears the flounced robe of deity and a round beret-like hat and has only one set of horns marking her as a minor deity. Two of the gods have snakes in front of them. Cylinder seal. Akkadian, ca. 2350-2150 BCE.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Boehmer 1965: Plate XLVI, #536.

As the Harvest season approaches,[1] I have been thinking about the ancient goddesses who embodied the grain that maintained the agriculturally based civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean. Their Mesopotamian names resonate with the rustle of grain fields: Nunbarshegunu and Ninlil, Ezinu and Ashnan, Sud, Kusu, and Nissaba, and the parallels between them and Greek Demeter are fascinating. But what is the revered patron of scribes Nissaba doing among this group? Well, whatever else, she was always barley and it was the mainstay of the culture.

The Mesopotamian farming-based cities lay to the north and east and had as protector deities “grain goddesses like Ninlil, Ninbarshegunu, and [Nissaba]” (Jacobsen 1976: 25). Today, when we think of grain, we usually imagine a vast field of ripening wheat or a crusty loaf of wheat bread. The people of Mesopotamia, on the other hand, would almost certainly have thought first of barley. Wheat is not an easy crop to grow in irrigation-dependent lands, such as those of southern Mesopotamia, because salt has a tendency to build up in the soil. Barley, on the other hand, is much hardier and will grow in more soils. Ancient Mesopotamians used barley for making bread and, more importantly, beer.

Grain goddesses occur frequently on Mesopotamian seals, and respectful male vegetation deities often stand before their thrones. They usually sit on heaps of grain, or small granaries, or even on growing grain; they hold stalks of grain in their hands, while more sprout from their shoulders. It is impossible to be sure which grain goddess an image depicts, though only one set of horns in a crown indicates minor divinity. Thus the single-horned goddesses may have been Ezinu or Ashnan, while the double-horned ones may have been the more important deity Nissaba. It is likely, however, that most are barley goddesses. Furthermore, in the texts, grain goddesses were regularly identified with one another (Lambert in Finkel and Geller 1997: 6).

              grain goddess, seated on what might be a storage unit for seed, offering what looks like a pot planted with blades of grain to an important 
              multi-horned god, who holds out his hands to take it

A double-horned grain goddess, seated on what might be a storage unit for seed, offers what look like a pot planted with blades of grain to an important multi-horned god, who holds out his hands to take it. The goddess wears the flounced robe of deity and has blades protruding from her shoulders. Behind the multi-horned god, a lesser god carries a plow, and behind him a double-horned vegetation god with blades growing from his body holds a sheaf of grain. The presence of the plow indicates that the multi-horned god is probably Ninurta, both warrior deity and patron of farming. The goddess might then be his mother Ninlil/Sud or his grandmother Nissaba. This seal suggests an interesting parallel with the story of the Greek goddess Demeter, who introduces the heroTriptolemus to farming and then sends him off to teach humans agriculture. Cylinder seal. Akkadian, ca. 2350-2150 BCE.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Boehmer 1965: Plate XLV, #533.

“Lady of Abundance” Ezina/Ashnan was a popular Sumerian grain goddess.[2] One text describes her as “the growing grain, the life of Sumer” (Black, Cunningham, Robson and Zólyomi 2004: 111). She was a daughter of a great god, and her sister Lakhar was a sheep goddess (Civil 1983: 45).[3] Ezinu/Ashnan may have started out as the deity of emmer wheat; perhaps she was increasingly celebrated as a grain goddess after Nissaba (more below) shifted her domain to writing and scribes.

Like most grain goddesses, Ezina/Ashnan was a very old deity; she appeared in the Early Dynastic period (2900-2350 B.C.E.) (Black, Cunningham, Robson and Zólyomi 2004: 293). Worshipped all over the land, she had a strong presence in ancient Mesopotamian writings. Interestingly, she was also relied on to support treaties and laws by withholding abundance from anyone breaking them (Kramer in Pritchard 1969: 161). One text salutes her as “the good bread of the whole world” (Black, Cunningham, Robson and Zólyomi 2004: 222).

vase decor in four layers: top, Innana, embodied in her high priestess, at her temple; below her, a procession 
              of naked priests carrying gifts of the land's produce to her; below them, sheep and goats; at the bottom, water and grain plants

On the Warka vase, found in Inanna's sacred city Uruk in southern Mesopotamia, a procession of naked priests carry gifts of the land's produce to Innana's temple. Embodied in her high priestess, Inanna greets them at the shrine door, which is marked by Inanna's signature gateposts. At the bottom of the vase, above the water that makes all possible, grow grain plants, probably barley and wheat. Above them walk what are likely sheep and goats. Alabaster. 3' tall. Fourth millennium BCE.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Gadon 1989: 137.

Several other Mesopotamian goddesses had connections to fertility and thus to grain, among them the great goddess Inanna/Ishtar. Her connection with the land’s abundance was fully depicted on the famous Uruk or Warka vase.[4] Along the bottom of the vase grow two kinds of grain looking very similar to the stalks that grain goddesses hold.[5] An amazing seal shows both Ishtar and a grain goddess. The two are part of, and frame, a mythic scene which includes a male warrior, possibly Gilgamesh.

seal, with 
			goddess Ishtar, a minor grain goddess, a bearded semi-human (possibly Gilgamesh), a goat-like creature, a human and minor 
			goddess at worship, offering an sacrifice and a vase pouring two streams of water; also an inscription reading 'Eli-eshtar, scribe' 
			(meaning 'My Deity [is] Ishtar.'

This is an extremely interesting seal, and it probably represents a story involving the hero Gilgamesh that is now lost to us. Nonetheless, we can understand that at least part of it deals with grain and fertility. On the right of the composition stands a one-horned minor grain goddess, grain stalks protruding from her shoulders. She holds what look like two sticks in one hand, and with the other reaches out to a bearded, turbaned semi-human. He is wrapped in a lion skin (?) and holds a club in one hand. In the other he holds two objects. From his shoulders sprout vegetation. He might be the demi-god hero Gilgamesh. Between the grain goddess and the warrior, a goat-like creature prances. On the left side of the seal the goddess Ishtar in warrior stance faces a worshipper across an altar which bears a noosed rope or a necklace. The worshipper carries an ibex as sacrifice(?), and behind stands a minor goddess also worshipping, who holds a jar with two streams of water flowing from it (Tigris and Euphrates?). The inscription reads: "Eli-eshtar, scribe." The name seems to mean "My Deity [is] Ishtar." Serpentine. Akkadian, ca. 2350-2150 BCE.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Collon 1982: Plate XXXI, #213.

Probably originating as an epithet of Nissaba and Ezina/Ashnan meaning “Bright”[6] (Kramer 1981: 362), Kusu was regularly regarded as a deity in her own right and often evoked in magic and religious texts. Shala(sh) was another Sumerian goddess of grain. One tradition sees her as wife of the grain god Dagan, another of the storm god Ishkur/Adad. Her symbol was a stalk of grain/barley (Black and Green 2003: 39, 172-173). Yet another goddess connected with grain was the Babylonian goddess of love Ishkhara (Ishara), who was often identified with Ishtar. One tradition assigned her to the Semitic grain god Dagan as spouse. Her symbol was the scorpion (Black and Green 2003: 110).

seal: grain goddess (Ishara)
              with horns and stalks growing out of her shoulders, sitting on a heap of grain, holding grain stalks and receiving 
              a multi-horned male deity who proffers a plow; also, two vegetation deities 
              carrying a box, possibly a depiction of a unit of grain measure; also, a human worshipper

A grain goddess with one set of horns and stalks growing out of her shoulders sits on a heap of grain. She holds grain stalks in both hands. She is receiving a multi-horned male deity who proffers a plow. He probably is, or represents, Ninurta, god of farming. Behind him two vegetation deities carry, on a horizontal bar, a box which is possibly a depiction of a unit of grain measure. Under the bar is a scorpion, symbol of Ishara, Babylonian goddess of love and a minor grain goddess. A human worshipper stands behind them. Cylinder seal. Dated ca. 2350-2150 BCE.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Boehmer 1965: Plate XLVI, #541.

Surprisingly, the great Sumerian goddess Nissaba, whose name was used in written material to denote “grain,” was the much-valued scribe of the gods.[7] She was the goddess of writing, accounting, and surveying and, more important, patron of scribes and scribal wisdom. Clearly, however, she began as a grain goddess and was remembered as such. Indeed, in written material, she was often identified with the other grain goddesses, especially Ezinu/Ashnan. The grain she embodied was likely barley, for one of her epithets Nunbarshegunu[8] seems to have meant “Lady (Whose) Body (Is) Dappled Barley.”[9] Nonetheless, “she became patroness of scribes some time soon after the invention of writing,” and her scribal aspects were dominant in the Sumerian schools (Michalowski in Reallexikon IX: 575). Nissaba carried a tablet made of lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone, dark blue like the night sky. Acknowledging their patron, scribes often concluded literary pieces “Praise to Nissaba!” (Black, Cunningham, Robson and Zólyomi 2004: 280, 291, 307, 314, 338, 349).

seal: seated grain goddess (Nissaba), 
              holding a stalk of grain, sitting on a storage unit, receiving a minor vegetation/grain god and 
              a minor goddess holding a sheaf of grain; also, a tree planted in a pot

A grain goddess, holding a stalk of grain, sits on what looks like a storage unit and receives two minor male deities, one vegetation/grain god, and a minor goddess holding a sheaf of grain. The seated goddess has three horns on her crown and so is likely to be Nissaba. Behind her is a object which might be a tree planted in a pot. Cylinder seal. Akkadian, ca. 2350-2150 BCE.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Boehmer 1965: Plate XLV, #532.

Following the grain-goddess pattern, Nissaba had a long history going back to the Early Dynastic period (2900-2350 B.C.E.), and her lineage too was extremely distinguished. She was the daughter of the sky god and an earth goddess, and her sister was Nin-Isina, a revered healing goddess. In another tradition Nissaba was eldest child of the Sumerian leader of the gods.[10] Her spouse Khaya (Haya), whose name probably means “Life,” was “the god of stores” and storehouses, probably because of his connection with grain goddesses: his spouse Nissaba and daughter Sud (Jacobsen 1976: 99).

Sud was renamed Ninlil when she married Enlil, the dominant deity of the pantheon (Civil 1983).[11] Nissaba also had a connection to the netherworld. In one Babylonian poem she was called “Mistress of the Underworld.” Her symbol was a sheaf or an ear of grain.[12]

seal: high-ranking 
              grain goddess with triple-horned crown (Nissaba), sitting on  a store of seed, receiving a praying, single-horned minor god; both have 
              grain sprouting from their bodies; also two other minor gods and a human worshipper

A high-ranking grain goddess with triple-horned crown, probably Nissaba, sits on a store of seed and receives a single-horned minor god, who has grain sprouting from his body. His hands are in the position of prayer. She holds out to him a stalk of barley (?) and has similar stalks growing from her shoulders. Behind the minor grain god are two other minor gods, Both single horned with symbols on their hats. One holds out his hands to her in prayer, the other displays an object (a flail, musical instrument?). Between them is what seems to be a standard (?).  At the back a human worshiper touches her/his nose in reverence. Cylinder seal. Akkadian, ca. 2350-2150 BCE.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Boehmer 1965: Plate XLVI, #538.

Why Nissaba became patroness of writing has been subject of some scholarly dispute. Lambert suggested that Nissaba meant “Lady of Saba,” but there is no evidence that a city called Saba has ever existed (Michalowski in Reallexikon IX: 576). Jacobsen made a quite strong case that Nissaba became patron of writing because she was deity of all grasses, including reeds: “She is the reed when it is fashioned into a reed stylus” (1976: 10). Most convincing is Selz’s argument: he interprets the goddess’s name as “Lady of the Grain Rations (or Grain Distribution)” (1989: 491). Selz cites surviving lists giving monthly accounts of barley distribution to argue that grain, especially barley, functioned as money (1989: 491). Thus, the goddess being measured out as barley became an accountant, that is, a scribe, tracking the allotments. A Sumerian poem recounts how one of the great gods gave order to the world, assigning areas of control to lesser deities. After bestowing the arable land and grain on Ezina, he presented Nissaba with “the measuring reed” and the “measuring tape,” so that she could “demarcate boundaries.” He then proclaimed her “the scribe of the Land” (Black, Cunningham, Robson and Zólyomi 2004: 222, 224). Thus she took office as head measurer, steward of the chief god Enlil at Nippur, center of the grain trade (Selz 1989: 497).

Greek grain 
              goddess Demeter enthroned, with her staff of majesty in one hand and stalks of barley in the other; with her is her daughter Persephone 
			  who carries two lit torches, indicative of her status as an Underworld goddess

The Greek grain goddess Demeter enthroned, with her daughter Persephone. Demeter wears a polos, a box-like hat often seen on goddesses, and her long rich hair flows over her shoulders like the grain it is said to resemble. In her left hand she wields her staff of majesty, and in her right she holds stalks of barley(?). Persephone carries two lit torches, indicative of her status as an Underworld goddess. Marble. Greece. Fifth century BCE.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Gadon 1989: 162.

Perhaps the best-known of the grain goddesses is Demeter,[13] patron of the fertility not only of plants, but also of humans. Along with her daughter Kore/Persephone, she was the focus of the Eleusinian Mysteries, secret rituals that yearly drew prospective initiates from all over the Greco-Roman world. The focus of the rituals was likely the abduction of Demeter’s beloved daughter by the lord of the Underworld. The story is recounted in the seventh-century BCE Homeric “Hymn to Demeter” (Foley 1994).[14] The poem ends with the return of Persephone after her mother exercises her awesome power to withhold all fertility and almost destroys both gods and humans.

Like Mesopotamian grain goddesses, Demeter was a very ancient divinity with roots which might go back well into the second millennium BCE. Though her name does not appear in texts dating to that period, they do mention a “Grain Mistress” (Burkert 1985: 44). Like the early Nissaba, Demeter stands primarily for grain, especially barley, her yellow hair reflected in the golden ripeness of the fields. In images, she holds ripe grain in her hand and wears it as a crown. Her daughter has been understood as the early shoots of grain or, when in the Underworld, seed-grain buried in silos during the summer heat (Foley 1994: 34, 40; Burkert 1985: 160). Like Nissaba, Demeter had some Underworld connections; indeed, the dead were known as Demetreioi, “Belonging to Demeter.” Burkert states that “[no] Near Eastern parallels are found for the mother-daughter constellation” of Demeter and Kore (1985:161), whom the Greeks called “the Two Goddesses” because of their closeness as well as similarities (1985:159). Still, Nissaba also had a daughter who, like Persephone, married a great god and became a great queen. Like the Mesopotamian grain goddesses, Demeter had the power to withhold fertility not just from a breaker of a law or treaty, but from both humans and deities. Finally, Mesopotamian Nissaba was the divider or distributor of the grain rations and, from there, divine measurer and keeper of order. Demeter too was concerned with order and the upholding of custom. One of her epithets was Thesmosphoros, “Law-giver.”[15] However, while her beloved daughter was in the Underworld, Demeter not only refused to keep order, but actually caused its dissolution by withdrawing from the world, which then became sterile. As soon as she got her way and was convinced that she would get her daughter back, she made “the grain grow fertile for humankind”:

At once she sent forth fruit from the fertile fields
And the whole wide earth burgeoned with leaves
And flowers
(Foley 1994: 26)


  1. Harvests in the north occur at the end of summer. On the other hand, in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean, especially in Mesopotamia, the summer was the dead season and harvest was in spring (Jacobsen 1976: 47).
  2. Lambert identifies Ezina as Sumerian, Ashnan as Akkadian Semitic (in Finkel and Geller 1997: 6).The names were borrowed from Sumerian into the Semitic languages of Mesopotamia (Frayne, personal communication, June 2008).
  3. Between them, they provided the main foods of Sumer. See “The Debate between Sheep and Grain” (Black, Cunningham, Robson and Zólyomi 2004: 225-229).
  4. One of the priceless objects which, I understand, is still missing after the looting of the Baghdad Museum at the beginning of the Iraq War.
  5. My thanks to Stéphane Beaulieu for this observation.
  6. Frayne, personal communication, June 2008. Michalowski translates it as “Pure” (in Reallexikon IX: 576).
  7. Her name Nissaba was once read as Nidaba (Michalowski in Reallexicon IX: 575).
  8. This epithet is the name of an independent goddess, a “wise old woman,” in the poem “Enlil and Ninlil” (Black, Cunningham, Robson, and Zólyomi 2004: 102-111).
  9. Frayne, personal communication, June 2008.
  10. In another tradition, Enlil married Nissaba’s daughter and so became her son-in-law (Civil 1983).
  11. In the poem “Enlil and Sud,” as we have seen, Sud’s mother was Nunbarshegunu, an epithet of Nissaba likening her to “mottled barley.” This reference links not only Nissaba, but also her daughter Sud/Ninlil to barley. So Sud/Ninlil was also a grain goddess. Not surprisingly, she was often identified with Ezinu/Ashnan and Shala. One of Ninlil’s sons was Ninurta, whose symbol was the plow.
  12. In Babylonian times, Nissaba was wife to Nabu, who took over from her as patron of scribes and writing.
  13. Roman Ceres. See Spaeth, Barbette S. The Roman Goddess Ceres. Austin, TX: University of Texas, 1996.
  14. Homer’s name has traditionally been assigned to a group of hymns, really short epics “designed as an introduction to the epic recital at festivals”; they date to around the sixth-seventh centuries BCE (Burkert 1985: 123).
  15. Literally it means “one who brings or gives” thesmos “that which is laid down, rule, precept.”


  • Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green. 2003 (1992). Gods, Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. Austin, TX: University of Texas PressBlack, Jeremy, Graham Cunningham, Eleanor Robson, and Gábor Zólyomi 2004. The Literature of Ancient Sumer. Oxford: Oxford University
  • Black, Jeremy, Graham Cunningham, Eleanor Robson, and Gábor Zólyomi 2004. The Literature of Ancient Sumer. Oxford: Oxford University
  • Boehmer, Rainer M. 1965. Die Entwicklung der Glyptik während der Akkad-zeit. Berlin: de Gruyter
  • Burkert, Walter 1985. Greek Religion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
  • Civil, Miguel 1983. “Enlil and Ninlil: The Marriage of Sud,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 103: 45
  • Collon. Dominique 1982. Catalogue of the Western Asiatic Seals in the British Museum. Cylinder Seals II. Akkadian—Post-Akkadian—Ur III. London: British Museum
  • Finkel, I.L. and M.J. Geller, eds. 1997. Sumerian Gods and Their Representations. Groningen, The Netherlands: Styx
  • Foley, Helene P., ed. 1994. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter: Translation, Commentary, and Interpretive Essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
  • Gadon, Elinor 1989: The Once and Future Goddess. San Francisco: Harper & Row
  • Jacobsen, Thorkild 1976. The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion. New Haven: Yale University
  • Jacobsen, Thorkild 1989. “The lil2 of dEnlil,” 267-276 in DUMU-E2-DUB-BA-A: Studies in Honor of Ake Sjöberg. Eds. H. Behrens, D. Loding, and M.T.Roth. Philadelphia: Occasional Publications of the Samuel Noah Kramer Fund. Number 11
  • Kramer, Samuel N. 1981. History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Recorded History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press
  • Pritchard, James B., editor. 1969. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament: Third Edition with Supplement. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
  • Reallexikon. 1932--. Reallexikon der Assyriologie. Founding editors. Erich Ebeling and Bruno Meissner. Berlin/Leipzig: de Gruyter
  • Selz, Gebhard J. 1989. “Nissaba(k):`Die Herrin der Getreidezuteilungen,’” 491-497 in DUMU-E2-DUB-BA-A: Studies in Honor of Ake Sjöberg. Eds. H. Behrens, D. Loding, and M.T.Roth. Philadelphia: Occasional Publications of the Samuel Noah Kramer Fund. Number 11

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