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Visitor trails The Great Goddess, Myths of Fertility

Near Eastern Antiquities - Length: 1 hr 30 mins - Tour days: Monday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday

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Vase décoré de déesses nues dit "vase d'Ishtar"  (détail)
Vase décoré de déesses nues dit "vase d'Ishtar"  (détail)

© RMN / J. Galland

00Introduction

From the early Neolithic period until the fall of Babylon, Mesopotamian religious thought appears to have been marked by the image of a goddess who incarnated the natural forces of fertility and fecundity. The most developed form of this was the image of Ishtar, who was the subject of many myths.

The Neolithic era was characterized by profound social change: populations of hunter-gatherers from the Near East formed villages and began to practice sedentary farming. As an extension of the ancient practice of gathering, the domestication of edible plants no doubt acted as a symbolic link between the fertility of the earth and the fecundity of the woman. Thus, a mythology of vitality incarnated by the female image slowly took shape. This was probably a reference to a powerful protective deity conceived of as a "mother goddess", or at any rate a principal of fecundity that guaranteed the long-term survival of the group.

With the emergence of city-states, this fertility mythology developed, and accompanied the development of society. At Uruk, for example, we see this mythology in the form of the goddess Inanna, protector of the city. Other goddesses appeared in various cities of the Sumerian world, lending shape to this fertility/fecundity principle, each of them emphasizing a particular aspect.
But none achieved the prestige and lasting fame of the Sumerian goddess Inanna, who was known as Ishtar among the Akkadians. Many mythological poems were dedicated to her, making her the preeminent goddess. Combining the symbolism of fertility and the power of the warrior-woman, she was venerated by the kings of both Assyria and Babylon, and throughout Mesopotamia's long history this religious fervor never waned.

 

How to get to the next stop:

From the Pyramid, follow the signs for Richelieu. After the ticket check, turn right and take the escalator. Go into the Department of Oriental Antiquities and go to display case 1 in room 1a. (The cases are numbered in their upper right-hand corners.)

Statuette féminine
Statuette féminine

© R.M.N./H. Lewandowski

01Female figurine from Tell es-Sawwan

This small stylized figurine is carved out of alabaster. It comes from the Neolithic site of Tell es-Sawwan, located on the eastern bank of the Tigris, at the mouth of the great alluvial plain of southern Mesopotamia. A simple irrigation system allowed its inhabitants to cultivate various domestic varieties of cereals and leguminous plants. The principal occupation period of the site corresponds to the Neolithic painted ware period known as the Samarra period (circa 6200–5700 BC), but the alabaster figurines that were discovered there are from the preceding period, that of the Hassuna (circa 6500–6000 BC). They come from individual tombs, most of them of children, which were dug beneath a large rectangular house made of unfired brick, which doubtless belonged to an important figure in the village.
Most of the tomb figurines of Tell es-Sawwan are representations of females. These could be interpreted as mothers whose role was to accompany the children to the world beyond, but some of the figurines were found in tombs of adults. The recurrent feminine symbolism, reinforced by the nudity of the figure, is instead evocative of an appeal to a protective power, which has traditionally been referred to as a "mother-goddess". This primordial figure of fecundity and fertility appears to have played a central role in the imaginations of the first farming communities in the Near East.

How to get to the next stop:

The next piece is also in display case 1.

Figurines of women in the style of Halaf
Figurines of women in the style of Halaf

© 1998 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

02Halaf culture female figurines

This painted clay figurine with its exaggerated features is characteristic of the Neolithic culture known as Halaf (circa 6000–5100 BC). This culture, originally from the regions of Syria and southern Mesopotamia, was the successor of the cultures of Hassuna and Samarra, and was marked by the resurgence in the use of circular dwellings. The small Halafian villages drew their sustenance from grain-growing and various forms of animal husbandry. Above all, however, the Halaf culture was characterized by the production of painted ceramics. These were of remarkable quality, due the variety of their shapes as well as the richness of their polychrome decoration, which was both geometric and naturalistic.
In addition to ceramics, the culture also produced female figurines like the ones you see in the display case. The figure is depicted nude and in a seated position, arms wrapped around the breasts, in a position similar to that of childbirth. Brown lines are painted on the body. Although the head is very sketchily represented, and the hands and feet are absent, the figure's female attributes — its thighs and breasts — are quite sharply delineated. The emphasis laid on these characteristics clearly suggests the representation of a fecundity principle in the form of a female, "mother-goddess"-type figure. Such a figure, the guarantor of life's regular renewal, surely played a major role in society that was based on the production of natural resources.

How to get to the next stop:

Now walk over to display case 2, on the other side of the entryway.

Cylinder seal of the priest-king
Cylinder seal of the priest-king

© 1987 RMN / Pierre et Maurice Chuzeville

03Cylinder-seal - the "priest-king" and his acolyte feeding the sacred flock

This type of cylindrically-shaped seal appeared at the same time as the first cities, and is characteristic of this period since it depicts a "priest-king" figure. The priest-king was the leading figure in proto-urban society, and combined both military and religious functions. Here, he is depicted performing a religious ritual: he is presiding over a liturgical ceremony in honor of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of fertility. A large temple to Inanna stood at the center of the city of Uruk.
Dressed in a long robe and wearing a headdress signaling his status, the priest-king appears to be performing an offering — no doubt a sheaf of grain — before the entrance to the goddess's temple, symbolized by the shaft of reeds tied with a band. He is followed by an assistant, who also holds a sheaf of grain, and their offering will be symbolically used to feed the sacred flock of Inanna. Sheep from this flock can be seen on the tapered part of the cylinder.
The offering of the grain testifies to the emblematic dimension that remained associated with grain crops — nourishing plants that were among the first to be domesticated. It is meant for Inanna, the great goddess of fertility, who rules over nature's annual regenerative cycle. The goddess's accomplishment of this crucial function depends in particular on the fervor and regularity of the rituals performed by human beings, and in particular by their leader, the priest-king.

How to get to the next stop:

Now go over to display case 5 in the same room.

Votive bas-relief: libation offered to the goddess of vegetation
Votive bas-relief: libation offered to the goddess of vegetation

© Musée du Louvre / Ali Meyer

04Votive bas-relief - Libation offered to a vegetation goddess

This plaque, sculpted in low relief and featuring a hole in its center, is characteristic of the period of the archaic Sumerian dynasties, from the 3rd millennium BC. The hole was probably used to attach the plaque to a wall by means of a pin, in the votive part of a temple. The decoration depicts a libation carried out by a man in ritual nudity, no doubt the king or an important priest.
The officiant pours a liquid into a tall vessel, out of the top of which protrudes a branch bearing two date clusters. The religious ceremony takes place in the presence of a fertility goddess, wearing a plumed tiara, the mark of her divinity. The goddess's function is symbolized by the palms that spring from her shoulders. She stands atop a sacred mountain, traditionally represented by a scale motif. This allows us to identify the goddess as Ninhursag, whose name in Sumerian means "the Woman (nin) of the Mountain  (hursag)". She is the incarnation of the primordial figure of the Earth-Mother.
This entire scene, clearly mythological in nature, illustrates the power of religious ritual, which ensures harmonious growth for the date palm, seen as a symbol of natural fertility and prosperity. This power is seen in the goddess's intervention, whose life-generating action responds to her worshipers' religious fervor.

How to get to the next stop:

Now go into the next room (1b), and go over to display case 7.

La déesse Ishtar
La déesse Ishtar

© R.M.N./Franck Raux

05The goddess Ishtar

This small plaque made from shell features an engraved silhouette from the temple of the goddess Ishtar at Mari, a city on the Middle Euphrates. We don't know whether it was an isolated piece or part of a "standard"-type ensemble that presented a complex narrative scene. The engraved figure is female, her hair in a chignon topped with a headdress on which is placed a crescent moon cradling a star. This is Ishtar, the astral goddess and mistress of love and fertility. This is emphasized by the wooly cloak she is wearing, which reveals her nudity.
This representation of Ishtar revealing herself is, in fact, from the most famous mythological account about her, that of her descent into the underworld. The story tells how the goddess decided to visit the Netherworld, which was ruled over by her sister Ereshkigal. One after another, Ishtar had to pass through the seven gates of the Land of No Return, and at each step she was forced to leave behind a garment or an ornament. Having thus lost all of her powers, she found herself prisoner in the Netherworld, and all of life on earth was threatened with extinction. She was allowed to return on the condition that her lover Dumuzi take her place; he in turn was allowed to return to earth each spring in order to ensure the return of fertility. Ishtar's bold action brought a new equilibrium to the world, founded on the annual regeneration of life.

How to get to the next stop:

Leave room 1b by the staircase. Turn left at the top to enter room 2 of the Oriental Antiquities department. Go over to display case 1.

Le drame du nouvel an : Sceau du scribe Zaganita
Le drame du nouvel an : Sceau du scribe Zaganita

© R.M.N./Hervé Lewandowski

06The drama of the new year: the seal of the scribe Zaganita

This cylinder seal is from the time of the Akkadian Empire, in the 23rd century BCE. It belonged to a scribe named Zaganita, and is richly decorated with a scene from mythology. The action is organized around a majestic palm tree, the symbol of fertility, which acts as the divider between two scenes, both involving deities, who are recognizable by their horned tiaras.
On one side we see the god Ea, the master of fresh waters, here depicted emerging from his watery abode. Where he lives is called Apsu, the underground layer of fresh water from which come rivers and springs that spread fertility across the surface of the earth. On the other side of the palm we see the goddess Ishtar, shown here with wings in order to suggest her astral dimension. She is standing on a mountain from the heart of which emerges a figure that could be interpreted as the god Dumuzi. This scene illustrates one of the most important Mesopotamian myths, that of the descent of Ishtar into the Netherworld.
The combined action of the divinities Ea and Ishtar ensures the regular return of plant life, as testified to by the imposing palm, the tree of life planted at the center of the world.

How to get to the next stop:

Now go from room 2 to room 3, and find display case 5b, which is on the side of the room that flanks the Rue de Rivoli.

Vase décoré de déesses nues dit "vase d'Ishtar"
Vase décoré de déesses nues dit "vase d'Ishtar"

© R.M.N./J. Galland

07Vase decorated with nude goddesses, known as the "Ishtar vase"

This large ritual container was found in a tomb in the city of Larsa in southern Mesopotamia. It is decorated with the image of Ishtar, the great goddess of fertility. She is shown here as the mistress of animals, and is surrounded by birds, fish, a bull and a tortoise, all expressions of various sorts of natural fertility. The goddess is depicted frontally, wearing a horned tiara, the symbol of divinity. Arms opened wide, she displays her nudity as the divine incarnation of Love and the mistress of sexuality and fertility. Her wings symbolize her astral dimension, where she is identified with the planet Venus.
Although Ishtar is the goddess of love and female sexuality, she is just as frequently depicted as a warrior, leading armies into combat and deciding the outcome of battles. She thus incarnates, in a single personality, the indivisible forces that rule over life and death.

How to get to the next stop:

In this same room, go to display case 15, on the other side of the room.

« Enki et Ninmah », un mythe sumérien de la création de l'homme.
« Enki et Ninmah », un mythe sumérien de la création de l'homme.

© R.M.N./Franck Raux

08"Enki adn Ninmah", a Sumerian creation myth

In the early 2nd millennium BCE, Mesopotamian scribes were devoted to perpetuating the Sumerian cultural tradition, in particular by transcribing copies of the principal mythological texts. Among these we find the poem known as "Enki and Ninmah", which is the subject of this unfortunately incomplete tablet.
The poem is a creation myth that features the Sumerian god Enki, "the master of luxury and know-how", and the goddess Ninmah. Ninmah, whose name in Sumerian means "the sublime Woman", is another name for the great goddess of fertility. According to the myth, when the world first began it was populated only by deities, who had to ensure their own subsistence. This was not easy, and led to Enki asking Ninmah to give birth to a "servant of the gods". This, then, is how humans came into existence, when the goddess kneaded "the heart of clay that is at the surface of the Abyss" before fixing it with "the image of the gods".
Made from fertile soil, humans are also the repository of a part of the divine. Since then, they have been charged with serving the gods and through them contributing to the harmonious functioning of the world.

How to get to the next stop:

Now leave room 3 by the corridor that leads to rooms 5 and 6. The stele we are seeking is on the left as you enter room 6.

Stele representing the goddess Ishtar of Irbil
Stele representing the goddess Ishtar of Irbil

© R.M.N./F. Raux - S. Hubert

09Stele with an image of the goddess Ishtar

On this stele we see the image of the goddess Ishtar. It was found during archaeological excavations at the site of Tell Ahmar on the left bank of the Middle Euphrates. This was the site of the ancient city of Til Barsip, the capital of the Aramaic kingdom of North Syria, Bit-Adini. Conquered by the Assyrians in 855 BCE, the city took the victor's name and was henceforth known as „Fortress of Shalmaneser”. This stele was sculpted in the 8th century BCE, sometime after this conquest. Ishtar was the goddess of both Love and War, and she is depicted here in her masculine, warrior shape. She is standing atop a lion, the animal form she usually takes, and whose leash she holds in her left hand. She has a halo and wears a long sword at her waist, as well as two crossed quivers at her back. She is wearing the traditional headdress of a horned tiara, symbol of her divinity, which is here in cylindrical form and topped by a rayed disk. This symbolizes the goddess's astral dimension, which is associated with the planet Venus. Her masculine garments consist of a short tunic and a fringed shawl, which leaves one of her legs free. This is reminiscent of the outfits worn by genies or lion-taming heroes seen in reliefs from Assyrian palaces.
The inscription carved in the background informs us that the kings of Assyria worshipped this particular warrior-woman Ishtar in her temple at Arbeles. The religious fervor that the goddess inspired never lessened throughout the long history of Mesopotamia.

How to get to the next stop:

Go down the corridor of room 6. Our last stop is the relief attached to the wall on the right.

Brick wall panel: lion passant
Brick wall panel: lion passant

© Photo RMN / Franck Raux

10Brick panel: lion passant

This glazed-brick relief was once part of the decoration of the walls that lined processional path at Babylon, during the period when the city was at its apogee under the Chaldean dynasty. Nabopolassar, the founder of the dynasty, followed by his son Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562 BCE), employed the riches of their vast empire in the service of a policy of extending and embellishing the capital city. Its prestigious and sumptuously-decorated edifices, dominated by the high ziggurat — the famous "tower of Babel" — contributed to a reputation that extended far beyond the empire's borders.
The great processional way was the major axis of Babylon. It led from the Gate of Ishtar, in the north, all the way to the temple of Marduk, the tutelary god of the city. The way was lined with a splendid relief decoration made of molded bricks. They are called glazed bricks because they were covered in a bright, glassy coating. The decoration consisted of a pattern of large-scale animal figures, symbols of Babylon's major divinities. The lion, animal attribute of the goddess Ishtar, was depicted next to the dragon of Marduk. The lion is shown with his jaws open in a menacing manner. He is the vigilant guardian of the long life of the city and the prosperity of its inhabitants.
The fervor that the goddess's protective power inspired never lessened. It was thus to her that Babylon's principal gate was named after her, and a number of temples were dedicated to her. With the multiple facets of her rich personality, she incarnated the feminine dimension of the world.

How to get to the next stop:

Retrace your steps to return to the Hall Napoléon.

 

Author(s) : 

Patrick Pouyssegur