Mesopotamian Monday: Prayer to Ishtar by Assurbanipal

Through examining hymns of exultation, we can attain a sense of how an individual perceives him or herself. So, by looking at one of Assurbanipal’s prayer to Ishtar of Nineveh and Arbela, we can get a sense of how Assurbanipal perceived himself, or at least how he wants others to perceive him.

The prayer may be summarized as follows: First, the speaker extols Ishtar of Nineveh and Ishtar of Arbela, who are to be understood as two distinct deities (lines 1-7). Subsequently, the speaker identifies himself as Assurbanipal and describes how the goddesses supported and currently support him, from birth to his current success as king of Assyria (lines 8-44).


Now, this hymn contains a plethora of rich imagery which could help us to understand how Assurbanipal perceives himself. I will focus on one aspect, though. In particular, I want to focus on how Assurbanipal represents himself as having been raised by a divine goddess. I suggest that this self-representation is conceptually related to how Marduk, a mighty warrior deity, is represented in the myth titled The Babylonian Creation Epic (Akk. Enūma eliš). First, I will discuss the relevant sections of each text independently. Second, I will point to the particular similarities in terms of the motifs and imagery employed.

In Assurbanipal’s hymn, Assurbanipal represents himself as having been raised by the goddesses:

I (am) Assurbanipal, their hearts’ desire,
Great seed of Baltil, [bo]rn at Nineveh,
Formed in the [Emashmash], and the Egashankalamma,
Whose kingship they [sum]moned(?) from the [crown prince’s] palace
They have [ordered] with their holy command that my throne long endure.
I knew neither human father nor mother, I grew up on my goddesses’ knees,
The great gods have guides me like an infant…
They made my physique splendid, they made mighty my strength,
They exalted my name over any other ruler’s. [1]

What stands out in these lines is how the goddesses themselves summoned Assurbanipal, ordering his kingship. Then, in describing his upbringing, he likens himself to an individual without human parents, an extraordinary experience for a human being. Subsequently, these gods are attributed with having made his strength mighty and physique splendid. In other words, he perceives himself as having been made into the ideal human and king, both caused by the goddesses.

Another text, commonly called The Babylonian Creation Epic, contains a similar description of a Marduk, a central deity in Mesopotamia who was known for defeating the mythological dragon of Chaos named Tiamat. Importantly, The Babylonian Creation Epic is a mythological narrative about Marduk’s ascent to primacy within the divine pantheon. So, the beginning of the narrative takes great care to represent Marduk as a mighty, fearsome deity. When Marduk is born, the narrative describes how he was raised:

He sucked the breasts of goddesses,
A nurse reared him and filled him with terror.
His figure was well developed, the glance of his eyes was dazzling,
His growth was manly, he was mighty from the beginning. [2]

Here, Marduk is represented as having been raised by goddesses. Unlike Assurbanipal, though, the goddesses are not attributed with making Marduk mighty; rather, he just was so from the beginning. Instead, Anu, father of Marduk, is attributed with rendering Marduk perfect (lines 91-92).

When placed side-by-side, an important theme emerges: the mighty-warrior-to-be who was raised by goddesses. Although framed in distinct ways, both Marduk and Assurbanipal are represented as being raised by goddesses. And while I don’t have evidence to suggest that Assurbanipal expressed himself as he did in order to compare himself to Marduk, it is plausible that Assurbanipal used the theme with full awareness that this was how mighty divinities were sometimes represented within other texts [3].

Thus, we return to the initial question: how did Assurbanipal want others to perceive him? On the basis of the previous discussion, I suggest that Assurbanipal wanted to be perceived as one who was intimately connected to the divine realm. By representing himself as having been raised by goddesses, he successfully integrates himself into the divine realm. Additionally, by emphasizing his perfect physique and might as originating from the goddesses, he is represented as an extraordinary human. He is, to a certain degree, representing himself as a superhuman, being part man and part divine.


[1] Benjamin Foster, Before the Muses (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), p. 820.

[2] W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Creation Myths (Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2013), p. 55, lines 85-88.

[3] This gains support from the fact that The Babylonian Creation Myth was so well-known during the 7th century BCE, itself being part of a cult ritual. For other references to the role of two goddesses in raising Assurbanipal, see Barbara Nevling Porter, “Ishtar of Nineveh and Her Collaborator, Ishtar of Arbela, in the Reign of Assurbanipal,” in Iraq vol. 66, Papers of the 49th Recontre Assyriologique Internationale, Part One (2004), pp. 41-44.  She notes two texts aside from the text we are examining. In both texts, goddesses are attributed to having suckled the royal baby Assurbanipal. Moreover, a commentator on Enūma eliš suggests that the “nurse who raised Marduk” was actually Ishtar of Nineveh, one of the two Ishtar-figures referenced at the beginning of the hymn. Although this isn’t proof for interpreting The Babylonian Creation Myth, it does support the general thinking that Assurbanipal’s being raised by Ishtar of Nineveh is conceptually similar to Marduk’s being nursed by goddesses. See Eckart Frahm and Enrique Jimenez, “Myth, Ritual, and Interpretation: The Commentary on Enūma eliš I–VII and a Commentary on Elamite Month Names,” in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel 3, Vol. 4 (2015), p. 301.


Mesopotamian Monday: A Prayer by Assurbanipal to Assur

Within religious traditions, a primary aim and orientation is sometimes to secure a blessed life for descendants. In Catholic and Christian traditions, this can occur through infant baptism. In Deuteronomy 11:19 and 6:7, teaching children Torah is emphasized. And in any case, depending on social status, the performance and language which are perceived to have efficacy for blessing descendants can vary.

Naturally, Mesopotamian prayers by kings were also aimed at securing blessings for descendants. So, how did Mesopotamian’s performance rituals in order to attain and secure a blessed life for descendants? One way to think about this question is by looking at a prayer by the Assyrian king Assurbanipal [1].

For the majority of the prayer, Assurbanipal praises Assur [2]. For example, the speaker exalts Assur as the creator:

[Let me exalt] the sovereignty of [Assur] forever.
[Cap]able one, profound of wisdom, sage of the gods, princely one,
[Father], creator of what is in the heavens and earth, who formed the mountains,
[Assur], creator of the gods, begetter of goddess(es),
[Whose heart] is inscrutable, whose mind is ingenious,
Lofty [hero] whose name is feared… [3]

Evidently, the speaker attributes creation itself to Assur, views Assur as a warrior, and consider Assur to be the wisest of all beings (i.e. “sage of the gods”).

In the second half of the hymn, we read of a focus on the descendants of Assurbanipal:

Among descendants, in far-off days,
For future reigns, years without number,
May th(is) praise of Assure be not forgotten, may it keep one mindful of Esharra, a temple in Assur.
Let it be in (every) mouth, may it never cease to enlarge understanding,
So that, as to me, Assur will deliver into your hands sovereignty of land and people [4].

Essentially, the speaker Assurbanipal prays for the perpetual reign of his offspring on the basis of his prayers and role in supporting the temple at Assur. Note, though, that Assurbanipal explicitly says “your hands,” with reference to his descendant. Although it is unclear whether he used a 2nd person form because his descendant is present where the hymn is performed or he imagines his descendant as being present, it is clear that the prayer is explicitly focused on his particular offspring, not the general concept of “descendants.”

Based on Assurbanipal’s father, though, this is no surprise. In a famous text typically called Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty, a covenant stipulates that all people within the Assyrian empire ruled by Esarhaddon commit to serving his son, Assurbanipal, as king when Esarhaddon dies [5]. Thus, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. For just as Esarhaddon attempted to ensure that Assurbanipal maintain reign and sovereignty, so Assurbanipal attempted to ensure that his descendant maintain reign and sovereignty [6].

 Therefore, Assurbanipal’s prayer to Assur uses religious language, imagery, and activities as a perceived means of securing political sovereignty for his offspring. This echoes how Esarhaddon ensured that Assurbanipal maintain sovereignty. At base, it demonstrates how a particular social class, namely that of the royal family, attempts to secure a blessed life for descendants.


[1] As noted previously, individuals and groups with different social statuses will have different rituals and performances to attain blessed life for descendants. Now, the prayer which I am analyzing here was written for Assurbanipal. So, at most the text represents the ways in which a very small and wealthy social class sought to attain blessings for descendants. Therefore, we should be careful not to apply the paradigm and rituals represented within this hymn to every social group in ancient Mesopotamia, even if they do overlap is some places.

[2] In particular, he praises Assur as a primeval deity called Anshar. See Benjamin Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), pp. 817n1.

[3] Translation by Foster (2005), pg. 817.

[4] Translation by Foster (2005), pg. 818. Italics added for clarity in the text.

[5] For an example available on, see Jacob Lauinger, “Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty at Tell Tayinat: Text and Commentary,” in Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. 65 (2012), pp. 87-123.

[6] Interestingly, perhaps Assurbanipal also looks backwards to his father, Esarhaddon in The Underworld Vision of an Assyrian Prince (SAA 03 032 r. 26). See Ramond C. van Leeuwen, “Cosmos, Temple, House: Building and Wisdom in Ancient Mesopotamia and Israel,” in From the Foundations of the Crenellations: Essays on Temple Building in the Ancient Near East and Hebrew Bible, eds. Mark J. Boda and Jamie Novotny (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2010), pg. 414.  



Chapter I in “Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar”

The subtitle of Chapter I is “Elementary Principles or the Sounds and Characters”. To no surprise, it is very dense. Nonetheless, the density of data is counterbalanced by very thorough and technical discussions of the descriptions. For example, in the discussion of the ayin and aleph, Gesenius (6e) points to the various ways in which the LXX transliterated gutterals, along with Arabic pronunciation. In doing so, he effectively demonstrates how he, along with other scholars, determine the strength of vowels, how the Hebrew alphabet works, and other similar things. In other words, Gesenius deals with information in a manner which doesn’t merely present “facts”; rather, he attempts to provide multiple examples for any grammatical, phonological, or syntactical claim.

Moreoever, his discussion of vowels, especially that of the waw and yod with their respective phonological shifts (such as au to a o with and ai to e), is laid out very clearly. As far as I am aware, professors do not typically assign Gesenius as a grammar. And while I surely don’t think an entire class should use Gesenius as a first year grammar, providing excerpts of some of his explanations may help some students. I, for example, don’t do well with memorizing raw data; however, once I understand how something functions and why it functions as such, I tend to hold onto the information much better. Explaining how something functions and why something functions as such is precisely what Gesenius, along with subsequent editors, do. Therefore, Gesenius can be a helpful tool for teaching, at least when used judiciously.

Furthermore, one particular point by Gesenius  makes me want the more conscious of the letters used at the beginning of lines in poetry. In section 5h, Gesenius notes that “The sequence of the three softest labial, palatial, and dental sounds… and of the three liquids… indicates an attempt at classification.” Although I am not necessarily convinced by this statement, or any of the evidence referenced, it would be productive to consider the phonological value of consonants and how they functions within the Hebrew Bible, especially within poetic texts. Though I don’t know what sort of results this may yield, it would be an interesting feature to investigate when present. It could be aided by the basic divisions between gutterals, palatals, denials, labials, sibilants, and sonants (section 6o).

In conclusion, if you are a 2nd year Hebrew student or later, just go and read Gesenius’ Hebrew grammar right now. If you don’t want to, at least consult it to find clarification on particularly confusing phonological matters.



Mesopotamian Monday: Coronation Prayer of Assurbanipal (1/2)

Part 1: Reading Mesopotamian Texts as Scripts

*This week, Mesopotamian Monday is divided into two Parts. Part 1 can be read independently; however, Part 2 expands and builds on Part 1.  

Most students in the USA have read play scripts as literature during their K-12 education. Many of these play scripts have stage direction embedded within the lines themselves. These stage directions weren’t intended to be spoken; rather, the stage directions were intended to be performed. As such, it suggests that plays are not primarily literature to be read. Instead, the plays were meant to be performed, scripts only capturing a snapshot of performance, sometimes providing stage directions to aid in performance.

This raises a serious problem, then: how much do we lose when we read plays as “literature” rather than as a key to performance? This same problem, I suggest, is also present in Mesopotamian literature. So, I will discuss one text in particular, the Coronation Prayer of Assurbanipal. The text itself is relatively straight forward: the speaker requests blessings on the kings, economic prosperity for Assyria, and long life and military success for Assurbanipal. In the second section, the speaker describes the deity as having given symbols of power and authority to Assurbanipal [1], wishes that any who oppose the king would lose life and social status. This is summarized in a short section at the end of the text.

Notably, Foster includes a footnote between the first half and second half of the text. In the footnote, Foster notes a stage direction inserted within the text: “As soon as he has made the blessing, he turns around and makes a blessing toward the ‘Censer Gate’, that is, toward Shamash” [2]. Importantly, this stage direction is not an extra addition or commentary; rather, it is included within the flow of the text itself [3]. What Foster has done, then, is exclude the ‘stage direction’ from flow of the text.

It appears that Foster is attempting to present the coronation prayer primarily as a piece of literature. So, just as one would read a poem by Robert Frost, so one would read the Coronation Prayer of Assurbanipal. In my opinion, this misrepresents the text. When a text provides stage directions, whether it be a modern play or a Coronation Prayer, it is essential that we listeners pay attention! To a certain degree, it is a text’s way of saying, “Hey, I know that I’m meant to be performed in a physical space. So, I’ve provided stage instructions so that my words can be enacted and physicalized within a real environment.”

In this case, the Coronation Prayer is pointing towards its awareness that it is meant to be performed within the physical space of the Shamash Temple at Ashur [4]. In other words, without performance, the text is not entirely complete.

(Click here to read Part 2)

[1] Ernst F. Weidner, „Salz aus Bariku“, in Archiv für Orientforschung Bd. 13 (1939-1941), pp. 324-325.

[2] Foster (2005), pg. 816n1.

[3] Ernst F. Weidner, „Assurbanipal in Assur“, in Archiv für Orientforschung Bd. 13 (1939-1941), pp. 204-218.

[4] For a helpful methodology as it concerns monuments, see Jeremy D. Smoak, “Inscribing Temple Space: The Ekron Dedication as Monumental Text,” in JNES Vol. 76, no. 2 (2017), pp. 319-336.

Mesopotamian Monday: Coronation Prayer of Assurbanipal (2/2)

Part 2: When the Scripts are Enacted

*This week, Mesopotamian Monday is divided into two parts. In order to fully understand Part 2, click here to first read Part 1

When scripts are embodied and performed on stage, certain physical aspects, not present before, become apparent. In this case, what does it mean for the officiant to “make a blessing toward the ‘Censer Gate’, that is, toward Shamash”?

First, we must identify the location of these documents. Then, based on the location of the text, we can infer the location where the ritual was enacted. Finally, by looking at the architecture of the Shamash temple, we may be able to identify ways in which the physical space makes the Coronation Prayer more understandable.

The Coronation Prayer of Assurbanipal was discovered in Assur at the house of an incantation priest, just 300 meters south of the great Ziggurat [5]. In proximity of the Ziggurat were a variety of temples dedicated to other deities, Shamash’s temple being among them [6]. This suggests that the giving of a blessing towards Shamash, towards the ‘Censer Gate’, may have occurred within Shamash’s temple.

Now that we have identified the location in which this ritual may have been enacted, how can the ritual space can help us to get a better sense of the performance of the Coronation Prayer? For this, two points should be addressed. First, it is difficult to identify what the ‘Censer Gate’ exactly was. For sure, we know that it marked a particular gate within the temple [7]. Second, whereas the temple entrance during the Old Assyrian and Middle Assyrian periods was on the northwestern front, the cult direction during the Neo-Assyrian period is re-oriented towards the East [8].

This shift in the direction is notable because the sun rises in the East. Seeing that the sun rises in the East, this means the sun would have had maximum access to the temple. Moreover, recall that the officiant turns towards Shamash. Thus, on the basis of the (a) eastern oriented Shamash temple and (b) the officiant of the Coronation Prayer turning towards Shamash, I would like to suggest that the Coronation Prayer would have been accomplished in the morning, when the temple would have received maximum sunlight.

Receiving maximum sunlight is extremely significant. Throughout Mesopotamian literature and history, reference is made to prayers, rituals, and judgment occurring at sunrise [9]. So, Mary Shepperson suggests that “these temple gateways where judgements were given and oaths taken may be connected to solar phenomena. If the presence of light is understood as the presence of the god of justice, then it seems desirable that judgement should be performed in sunlight” [10].

Therefore, performance of the Coronation Prayer was not a simply a religious prayer. Instead, the Coronation Prayer should be understood as a ritual performed in a physical space, one which was performed before Shamash. This reading is important because it suggests that the Coronation Prayer has legal overtones [11]. The ritual moves an individual from one legal status to another social status by means of religious language and actions. And, as I have demonstrated, this can be observed by considering the special and ritual aspects of the text [12].

At base, then, this should challenge our understandings of the relationship between “legal” and “religion.” Especially in the 21st century, people enjoy speaking about the separation between Church and state, often times viewing them entirely distinct entities. I propose, though, that this distinction did not exist in ancient Mesopotamia. Instead, the king’s new legal, social and religious status was invoked through rituals employing religious language and legal symbolism.

So, is this really a ‘Coronation Prayer’ or is it a ‘Coronation Prayer Employed in a Legal Ritual’? I suggest the latter.

[5] Weidner (1939-1941), pg. 210. Moreover, Weidner (1939-1941), pg. 210n30, notes that temple documents were often stored this house during the late period of the Assyrian empire. So, see also Ernst F. Weidner, „Neue Bruchstücke des Berichtes über Sargons achten Feldyug“, in Archiv für Orientforschung Bd. 12 (1937-1939), pp. 144-148.


[7] CAD B Babu A, 1C 2´.

[8] Adrndt Haller and Walter Andrae, Dei Heiligtumer des Gottes Assur und der Sin-Shamash-Tempel in Assur (Berlin: Verlag Gebr, 1955), 82.

[9] Mary Shepperson, “The Ray of Shamash: Light in Mesopotamian Architecture and Legal Practice”, in Iraq Vol. 74 (2012), pp. 51-64.

[10] Shepperson (2012), pg. 58. She continues by noting that, when temples were oriented Southeast, they would maximize the duration of the morning sun. Perhaps this is why the Sin-Shamash temple is not exactly East; rather, it is oriented between 73 and 103 degrees. Furthermore, though Shepperson is focused on the Ur III period, the same principle appears to be at place in later Mesopotamian history and literature, as is evident by her citations of NB texts. For a more broad overview of the influence of the sun on ancient architecture, see Ezequiel Uson Guardiola, Joan Lluis Fumado Alsina, and Josep Vives Rego, “The Influence of Religious and Cosmological Beliefs on the Solar Architecture of the Ancient World”, in International Journal of Architectural Engineering Technology no. 1 (2014), pp. 3-11.

[11] Martin Arneth, „“Möge Shamash dich das Hirtenamt über die vier Weltgegenden einsetyen” Der „Krönungshymnus Assurbanipals“ (SAA III, 11) und die Solarisierung des neuassyrischen Königtums”, in  Zeitschrift für altorientalische und biblische Rechtsgeschichte no. 4-5 (1998-99), pp. 28-53, provides an excellent form-critical analysis of o. 1 – r. 2, along with some fascinating work showing how the form matches on king rituals from the MA period and before. This work highlights the centrality of Shamash. However, Arneth does not deal with the stage instructions found in r. 3. My analysis, then, contributes to Arneth’s argument for the centrality of Shamash and the prayer as being legal in nature.

[12] Mapping out the way that a text imagines itself to be enacted in a physical space, and how that changes our reading of the text, was inspired by Jeremy Smoak, “Inscribing Temple Space: The Ekron Dedication as Monumental Text,” in JNES 76 no. 2 (2017), pp. 319-336.

Magic in the Anti-Witchcraft Rituals

One the topics I am exploring extensively right now is the topic of magic. It is a hotly debated topic, with a wealth of data to draw from an develop our understanding of it. So, I am currently reading one of the most well known “magic” texts from the ancient world, namely the anti-witchcraft ritual. It is more commonly referred to as Maqlu.

What I find interesting, though, is the way that language is employed in the text. Near the beginning of the text, we read the following:

I have made an image of my witch and my warlock

Of the one who made my image and the one who performs (witchcraft) against me.

(Tablet 1, Lines 15-16)

What I find interesting in these lines is the parallelism at play. In line 15, a G Preterite 1CS form describes the patients as “making” an image of the witch and warlock. Here, the verb epēšu is used in relation to the creating an image of the respective witches.

In line 16, the verbal form switchs from a preterite to two participial forms from the root epēšu. On each form is a 1CS possessive suffix. What is not identified is an object concerning what is epēšu-ed in line 16. Because line 15 uses a finite form of the verb in relation to creating a image, this notion appears to carry over from line 15 into line 16.

Moreover, in line 16, the participial forms function as substantivized participles, denoting an agent noun (cf. Huehnergard 20.1). So, the implication is that the participles communicate “the one made my image,” albeit without explicitly stating “image.”

Now, what is particularly interesting about this is that the patient performs the same basic activity which is performed by the witch and warlock. This is evident because of the parallelism in the lines. What this points towards, then, is something well-developed in scholarship: “magic” is problematic category for describing certain phenomenon because it historically carries an negative connotation. In reality, when we look at texts like Maqlu, the afflicted patient appears to be performing rituals similar to that of the “witches” themselves, or at least employing the same material means for rituals.

Therefore, while “magic” is a necessary category for interpreting texts, people, events, and things in history, we must always be conscious of what we mean by “magic.” Do we assume certain things about magic, which ultimately causes us to misrepresent the texts or cultures on hand? So, by being attentive to what we mean when we say “magic,” we can have (a) a better appreciation for other cultures and societies and (b) a more precise and accurate understanding of other cultures and societies.

“Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar: Introduction”

One of the fundamental grammars for Biblical Hebrew is Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar. Right now, I am reading it. As I work through it, I’ll be posting some observations about the grammar which I find intriguing.

First, as one of the fundamental grammars to Biblical Hebrew, it contains references going back to the 17th century. Because the 2nd edition of the English edition I am reading was published in 1910, this is not too surprising. Nonetheless, it is fascinating to see references to the scholarship which paved the way for modern biblical scholarship.

Second, in terms of chronology, it assumes quite a bit. For example, in describing the origins of Biblical Hebrew, GKC comments that it began “as early as the time of Moses” (2n). A similar sentiment is expressed concerning the age of Akkadian: “As regards the relative age of the Semitic languages, the oldest literary remains of them are to be found in the Assyrio-Babylonian (cuneiform) inscriptions, with which are to be classed the earliest Hebrew fragments occurring in the old Testament” (1m; bold-font added for emphasis). In both cases, GCK assumes the history reality of characters like Moses and Genesis 1-11. Most current scholarship would not use these chronological markers for explaining the history of biblical scholarship.

Third, GCK briefly introduces poetry, pointing to a metrical scheme for biblical poetry. In my training, though, it is accepted metrical schemes do not play a role in biblical poetry; rather, one of the basic building blocks in parallelism. This is a good reminder that much of what I take for granted as “how things are” in scholarship may not be so 50-100 years from now!

Fourth, concerning grammar and on a similar note to the previous, GKC discusses what makes the grammatical structure of the Semitic family unique, pointing towards how “the verb is restricted to two tense-forms” (1f). Although some still use “tense” to describe the language of Biblical Hebrew, I am convinced that Biblical Hebrew is primarily an aspectual language, tense being secondary.