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"Music" stele

© 1994 RMN / Christian Larrieu

Near Eastern Antiquities

Iselin Claire (after a text by André-Salvini Béatrice)

The stele of music shows the foundation rites - performed to the sound of the lyre - of the temple built by Prince Gudea (c. 2100 BC) at his capital of Telloh (ancient Girsu), for Ningirsu, god of the state of Lagash in the Land of Sumer. The stele thus accords with the tradition of Neo-Sumerian art, which unlike that of the preceding period that focused on the warlike exploits of the rulers of Akkad, tends to show the king engaged in pious activities.

The building of Ningirsu's temple

In the Neo-Sumerian Period (c. 2100 BC), the rulers Gudea and Ur-Nammu had themselves depicted taking part in the foundation rites of temples, notably on steles, as statues, and as figurines. On the stele of music, Gudea, carrying a peg and cord and followed by figures probably representing his princely heir and two priests, prepares to lay out the plan of Ningirsu's sanctuary. The ceremony is punctuated by music, which accompanies the chanting or singing of liturgical poems. Behind the cantor, a musician plays on a lyre whose sound box is decorated with a bull. The deep tones of the instrument evoked the bellowing of a bull, and by poetic identification, within the temple of Ningirsu "the room of the lyre was a noisily breathing bull." The making of the god's lyre gave its name to the third year of Gudea's reign, called "the year in which was made the lyre [called] Ushumgalkalamma [the dragon of the land of Sumer]."

Music in temple foundation ceremonies

The spirit embodied by the lyre played a part in the events leading to the building of the temple, for it appears in the dream in which the god reveals to Gudea the task he is to accomplish (Gudea Cylinders, Louvre, MNB 1512 and MNB 1511): "When, together with Ushumgalkalamma, his well-beloved lyre, that renowned instrument, his counselor, you bring him gifts [...] the heart of Ningirsu will be appeased, he will reveal the plans of his temple."
When the work was complete, Ushumgalkalamma went before Gudea, leading all the musical instruments, to mark the arrival of the god in his new abode. Ushumgalkalamma is the god's counselor because its song calms the emotions that disturb the spirit, allowing the return of the reason indispensable to good judgement. Among the divine servants of Ningirsu, it is the lyre's duty to charm his master, a god of changeable mood. It is assisted by the spirit of another lyre that brings consolation in times of darkness: "So that the sweet-toned tigi-drum should play, so that the instruments algar and miritum should resound for Ningirsu, [...] his beloved musician Ushumgalkalamma accomplished his duties to the lord Ningirsu. To soothe the heart and calm the liver [the seat of thought], to dry the tears of weeping eyes, to banish grief from the grieving heart, to cast away the sadness in the heart of the god that rises like the waves of the sea, spreads wide like the Euphrates, and drowns like the flood of the storm, his lyre Lugaligihush accomplished his duties to his lord Ningirsu."

Representations of musicians in Mesopotamia

Representations of musicians are not uncommon in Near-Eastern iconography. They are found from the early 3rd millennium BC in the banquet scenes that appear on perforated plaques and cylinder seals. Early in the next millennium, they would appear on molded terracotta plaques, such as the example with the harpist in the Louvre (AO 12454). Very few examples of musical instruments have survived until today (among them the lyres from the royal tombs of Ur, c. 2550 BC); these representations are therefore particularly valuable.


André-Salvini Béatrice, "Stèle de la musique", in Musiques au Louvre, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1994, pp. 10-11.
Parrot André, Tello, vingt campagnes de fouilles, 1877-1933, Paris, Albin Michel, 1948, pp. 174-176, pl. 20a.
Rutten Marguerite-Maggie, "Scènes de musique et de danse", in Revue des arts asiatiques, Paris, École française d'Extrême-Orient, 1935, p. 220, fig. 8.
Sarzec Édouard de, Découvertes en Chaldée, Paris, Leroux, 1884-1912, pp. 36 et 219-221, pl. 23.
Sillamy Jean-Claude, La Musique dans l'ancien Orient ou la théorie musicale suméro-babylonienne, Villeneuve d'Ascq, Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 1998, p. 160.

Technical description

  • "Music" stele

    Second dynasty of Lagash, reign of Gudea, c. 2120 BC

    Tello (ancient Girsu)

  • Limestone

    H. 1.20 m; W. 0.63 m; D. 0.25 m

  • E. de Sarzec excavations, 1881 , 1881

    AO 52

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

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