Mesopotamian Mondays: Multiple Creation Myths

Creation myths in ancient Mesopotamia explain why things exist in the way that they exist. This is also known as a cosmogony. For example, in a text by Plato, “a divine demiurge (craftsman)… transforms a preexistent chaos into an ordered cosmos in imitation of an eternal model” [1]. Likewise, some Rabbinic Jewish texts are devoted to establishing ties between the Jewish calendar and creation itself [2]. Through reading each of these traditions, modern readers can get a sense of how these respective people-groups made sense of the world. In doing so, the important principles within the respective cultures become more apparent. So, the Rabbinic Jewish text demonstrates how the Jewish calendar was central to Jewish culture, which is therefore explained within a cosmogony, or creation myth. Likewise, the Plato text demonstrates the cultural importance of the eternal model.

And within a single culture, multiple, competing cosmogonies can exist simultaneously, each focusing on a different aspect of the culture [3]. This is true with Mesopotamian myths [4]. So, in this blog post, I will briefly discuss how one particular creation myth centers around the renovation of a temple.

The creation myth itself is commonly called “The First Brick.” Rather than being a pure literary text, though, it is framed as an Akkadian incantation, presumably recited during temple-renovation rites. Incorporation of creation myths into rituals and incantations is not uncommon in Mesopotamian literature. As with most creation myths, it is framed with language akin to “in the beginning”: “When Anu had created the heaven” [5]. Subsequently, Ea is described as taking clay from the Apsu, typically understood as “primeval waters,” and creating a variety of deities (ln. 26). This is followed by a list those created by Ea, including deities and humanity (lines 27-39). The second half of the text describes the various activities to be performed by those who Ea had created. Of paramount importance, each created subject is built to perform a particular deed as it concerns the renovation of a temple. Activities range from providing food-offerings to performing particular rites.

What is evident as the central aspect of this creation myth, then, is the temple renovation. Each character within the narrative sequence has the expressed purpose of somehow contributing to a temple renovation. By contrast, “The Theogony of Dunnu” focuses on the descent of gods and their subsequent deposition [6]. Moreover, “The River Incantation” focuses on the role of the River as both creator and a means by which ritual impurity and sin are carried away [7]. In other words, while each creation myth may include some aspects of temples in creation and cosmogony, the temple renovation is a central concern of the creation myth “The First Brick,” unique to this particular text.

[1] Encyclopedia of Ancient Mediterranean Religions, 213.

[2] Encyclopedia of Ancient Mediterranean Religions, 215.

[3] In the Hebrew Bible, we see the two creation accounts: Genesis 1:1-2:4a, commonly designated as the Priestly Source; and Genesis 2:4b-3:24, commonly designated as the Elohistic Source. Most relevant to this post, though, is that each cosmogony has a distinct focus.

[4] W.G. Lambert, Babylonian Creation Myths (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2013),

[5] Lambert (2013), “The First Brick,” ln. 24, p. 381. This is analogous to the language in Genesis 1:1.

[6] Lambert (2013), “The Theogony of Dunnu,” 387-395.

[7] Lambert (2013), “The River Incantation,” 396-398.

Mesopotamian Mondays: Deities Who Forget

In the ancient world, deities were perceived as sometimes forgetting about humans, their servant subjects. Such is true for ancient Judean religion(s) (i.e. the Hebrew Bible) and Mesopotamian religion(s). So, in what follows, I will briefly explore one method by which Assurbanipal reminded deities to pay attention. This is followed by a couple of examples demonstrating how certain actions and moments in the Hebrew Bible are means by which the Israelites reminded the deity to pay attention.

During the reign of Assurbanipal (c.  668-627 BCE), the Assyrian king collected a massive amount of Akkadian (cuneiform) texts from across Mesopotamia. He then compiled these texts into a single location, which is the modern archaeological site of Kouyunjik, ancient Nineveh. Many of these cuneiform tablets are explicitly noted as being compiled for the palace of Assurbanipal. In other words, Assurbanipal of Assyria was responsible for creating a treasure trove of literary, magical, ritual, and other types of cuneiform texts.

His gathering of these texts served to point to Assurbanipal’s wisdom. In doing so, he hoped that this would also cause deities to look favorably upon his rule, life, kingship, and well-being. In fact, most of these texts contain statements at the end of the tablets about the scribe and writing process. This is more commonly called a colophon. In a few of these colophon’s, the speaker of the text is Assurbanipal himself! So, at the end of a medical texts, the colophon begins with: “I, Assurbanipal, king of the universe, king of Assyria, on whom Nabu and Tashmetu have bestowed vast intelligence… I wrote down on tablets Nabu’s wisdom, the impressing of each and every cuneiform sign, and I checked and collated them” [1]. Assurbanipal goes on to plead for well-being in the present and future.

In this prayer-colophon, the tablet serves as a reminder to the deity: “When this work is deposited in your house and placed in your presence, look upon it and remember me with favor!” [2].  Essentially, the material on which Assurbanipal claims to have written serves as a physical reminder to the deity to pay attention! Thus, by amassing a massive number of texts, many of which explicitly reference being in the Palace of Assurbanipal, his accumulation of texts is practical on two planes. First, it highlights his role as a sage par excellence. Second, the accumulation physically serves as a reminder to the deities, especially the writing deity Nabu, to pay attention to Assurbanipal.

A similar sentiment is expressed in the Hebrew Bible. Throughout the Pentateuch, more commonly referred to as the Torah, people do certain actions which remind Yahweh to pay attention to them. Likewise, Yahweh requires Israelites to perform certain actions so that he doesn’t forget things. For example, Jeremy Schipper and Jeffrey Stackert illustrate how circumcision functions as a reminder to Yahweh: “by prescribing a physical “blemish” for all Israelite males, God turns an irritant into an effective reminder for himself so that he might always bless his people with fertility” [3].

Additionally, Yahweh remembers his covenant with the Patriarchs only after he hears the groans of the Israel: “And Yahweh hear their groanings, such that God remember his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God saw the sons of Israel and God took notice” (Exodus 2:24-25; my translation). In other words, Yahweh is not portrayed as having divine omnipotence, knowing and remember everything happening in the world; rather, he is portrayed as being a forgetful deity, inasmuch as he forgets about the Israelites and his covenant. It is only sound, a loud cry, which reminds Yahweh of his covenant. In short, this demonstrates how the notion of needing deities to pay attention is a common problem in the ancient Near East; however, different time periods, scribes, and cultures deal with the issue in different ways [4].


[1] Benjamin Foster, Before the Muses (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), 831.

[2] Before the Muses, 831.

[3] Jeremy Schipper and Jeffrey Stackert, “Blemishes, Camouflage, and Sanctuary Service: The Priestly Deity and His Attendants,” in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel 4 Vol. 2 (2013), 477-478.

[4] To be clear, I am not claiming that these are the same or that one influenced the other. Rather, I am suggesting that this is simply part of the broader ancient theological environment.

Mesopotamian Monday: Counsels of a Pessimist, Death, and Immortality

Life and death was, is, and will always be a reality for humanity. Throughout time and space, different cultures and individuals have dealt with it in different ways. In the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible, one of the most well-known passages is the time speech in Chapter 3: a time to be born, a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot; a time to smash and a time to build, etc. Professor Simeon Chavel at the University of Chicago convincingly argues, though, this “poetry… is a sham; life prosaically keeps one off-balance” [1]. In other words, the poetry about time mocks traditional wisdom, wisdom seeking to explain, amongst many other things, death.

Similarly, Greeks and Persians viewed the human soul as immortal, originating in the celestial realm. Therefore, upon death, souls would either return to the celestial realm or underworld for a period of cleansing. Christian tradition understands that the righteous will be granted immortality upon dying [2]. These examples demonstrate how different cultures understand life, death, and humanity. Here, then, I want to look into how a particular Mesopotamian text explores life, death, humanity, and immortality.

In the text Counsels of a Pessimist, a speaker initially expresses how life itself is temporary (lines 1-10). Lines 9-10 come to the following conclusion: “[Whatever] men do does not last forever, / Mankind and their achievements alike come to an end” [3]. The subsequent line, though, makes a sudden shift. The poem places the word “you” at the beginning of line 11, functioning emphatically in the text: “[As for] you to the gods, offer prayers” [4]. The subsequent lines continue by describing aspects and ways for the audience to provide prayers and offerings to the deity, along with the potential consequences of doing such. Finally, the speaker encourages the audience to banish misery and suffering, as they produce bad dreams, dreams which themselves contain portents and ominous signs (lines 16-22).

What the scribe of Counsels of a Pessimist has accomplished more broadly, then, is to create a contrast between the temporality of mankind, on the one hand, and the more important goal of serving and interacting with deities for success within such temporality [5]. After all, the gods hold immortality, whereas humanity does not. This is more explicitly explored in literature like The Epic of Gilgamesh. In the epic, Gilgamesh seeks immortality from Utnapishtim and a plant of rejuvenation; however, upon failure he ultimately “overcomes death” through building enduring structures [6]. I have to wonder, though, if this is exactly what Counsels of a Pessimist pushes against.

In the section describing the temporality of mankind, the end of a line reads “fire burns it.” Most commonly, the verb used here describes burning during warfare, namely the destruction of cities and people [7]. Unfortunately, that is the only readable part of the line. Although highly speculative, I wonder if cities and destruction by warfare is somehow related to the referent of the phrase “fire burns it.” If the line is referencing a city or a building, it means that the Counsel of a Pessimist is actually in disagreement with Gilgamesh’s view of attaining immortality! For whereas Gilgamesh attains immortality through building enduring structures, the Counsel of a Pessimist may be expressing the opposite, pessimistic worldview: even the “enduring structures” ultimately burn. Therefore, “Mankind and their achievements alike come to an end.”

[1] Simeon Chavel, “The Utility and Futility of Poetry in Qohelet,” in Biblical Poetry and the Art of Close Reading, eds. J. Blake Couey and Elaine T. James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 110.

[2] Daniel A. Smith, “Heaven,” in The Routledge Encyclopedia of Ancient Mediterranean Religions, eds. Eric Orlin et. al. (New York: Routledge, 2016), 399-400.

[3] W.G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960), 109.

[4] Lambert (1960), 108-109, transliterates [at-]ta, a 2MS pronoun. Moreover, line 11b, transliterated as šu-taq-rib can be normalized as šutaqrib, an Št 2MS Imperative. Because an imperative is present, the 2MS Pronoun is not necessary. Instead, it serves the morpho-syntactic purposes of emphasizing the subject. Additionally, the emphatic nature of the phrase atta ana illimma is evident in the use of a -ma because the subsequent lines 12-19, do not use a -ma. So, the –ma appears to be a non-coordinating -ma functioning to emphasize the initial part of the phrase, namely atta ana ilimma. See John Huehnergard, A Grammar of Akkadian 3rd edition (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2011), 325 (§29.2). So, whereas lines 1-10 focus on what mankind does to endure, line 11 has a strongly marked shift to how the audience interacts with deities. At base, it seems that this form of caus pendens, or front dislocation, of the phrase atta ana ilimma serves to create suspense. By fronting the phrase, the text itself uses Front Dislocation as a means to “amplifies referent enhancement and nonreferent suppression. Front Dislocation is not only an attention-getting device, but also an attention-creating and attention-directing device.” See Paul Korchin, “Suspense and Authority amid Biblical Hebrew Front Dislocation,” in JHS Vol. 15, Article 1 (2015), 14.

[5] This is potentially problematic because lines 23-31 are not transliterated, as they are unclear. So, I am taking the dream section in lines 17-22 as having to do with “interacting with the deities.” I have some preliminary notions on how this relates; however, it is an undeveloped idea. Therefore, even if the dream section does fit into the contrast between serving deities as opposed to the temporality of mankind, that contrast still is present.

[6] Jeffrey H. Tigay, The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic, Reprint of 1982 edition from University of Pennsylvania Press (Wauconda: Bolchaz-Carducci Publishers, 2002), 7.

[7] CAD Q, qamû.

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.  



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.

Mesopotamian Monday: Hymn of Sargon II to Nanay

Just as modern-day artists and religious practitioners write hymns of worship for gods, ancient scribes also wrote hymns for gods. The most significant difference between hymns of today and hymns of 2700 years ago is the culture and society in which hymns were written and composed. In other words, hymns presume the reader has a different type of knowledge. For example, when one reads Amazing Grace, the hymn assumes a certain degree of knowledge about Christian religious traditions. The same is true with ancient Mesopotamian hymns. In order demonstrate this, I will briefly examine a hymn of Sargon II to Nanay [1].

Generally speaking, this text is a prayer to Nanay by Sargon II. Because the tablet on which the text was written is broken, though, it is difficult to identify the flow of the text. It roughly consists of a description of cultic performers, a blessing for Sargon II, and a prayer against crop pests [2]. What I am interested in, though, is the particular deity invoked and her associations in the late 8th and early 7th centuries BCE.

The deity invoked in this prayer is Nanay, a deity who emerged in first in Sumerian civilization. By the 1st millennium, though, she became associated with the god of Borsippa, Nabû, at the temple of Ezida [3]. In terms of the family of deities, Nabû was equivalent to Muati, the son of Marduk (lines 2-5). Moreover, Nabû’s divine specialty was in the field of writing. As the deity of writing, his temple in Borsippa was known for being a center of scribal learning and scholasticism [4]. Therefore, by association, Nanay was part of divine household which specialized in scribal learning and scholasticism. In what follows, I will provide two examples as to why understanding this cultural background is essential to understanding the logic of the prayer of Sargon II to Nanay.

First, in the hymn we read a description of what Nanay does: “The knowledgeable physician whom she does not [guide], His hand is faltering before his clients. Without her, who can do anything?” In essence, she enables physicians to do their jobs. The phrase “knowledgeable physician” uses the Akkadian word asû. The asû is known in Mesopotamia as a physician, inasmuch as he employs magical materials as means to heal and provide therapy to the sick. What this hymn suggests, then, is that the knowledge of these ancient physicians was, first and foremost, made possible on account of Nanay’s assistance.

Second, we read that she plays a role in preventing plagues against the crops: “Keep affliction and loss afar off from him: The fell locust plague that destroys the grain, the vile cicade-pest that denudes the orchards, that cut off the food offerings of god and goddess” (lines 23-26). Although Nanay is not the goddess of fields, irrigation, or anything of the sort, she functions in context of a deity who is the deity of scribal writing, namely Nabû. In such scribal writings, we find a wide variety of genres, many of which are incantations and rituals. Within a text which lays out the texts required for an individual to read if they wish to become an exorcist, a line references incantations and rituals which are “designed to avoid plague or pestilence” [5]. Though done tentatively, I suggest that Sargon II requests Nanay to aid in preventing pestilence because her divine family is in charge of writing and scribal practices. Thus, they would have special knowledge of certain rituals and incantations which impact crops.

Furthermore, invoking Nanay as a means of preventing pestilence fits well with apotropaic magic, magic designed to prevents a particular, bad outcome [6]. This is notable because magic was, in many respects, tied to the notion of writing in the ancient world [7]. In light of the close relationship between magic and writing, it is, therefore, reasonable for Sargon II to invoke Nanay and implore her to prevent pestilence as a sort of apotropaic magic.

So, in summary, understanding the cultural context of any text is integral to understanding what it is expressing and the logic of what it is expressing. Thus, I have sought to demonstrate this principal by offering a few examples from the prayer of Sargon II to Nanay.

 [1] Translations from Benjamin Foster, An Akkadian Anthology (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), pp. 788-790. To read the text, visit and find SAA 03 004.

[2] Foster (2005), 788.

[3] M. Stol, “Nanea,” in Dictionary of Demons and Deities, ed. Van der Toorn et. al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 611-614. For a more detailed history of Nanay, see Tawny L. Holm, “Nanay and Her Lover: An Aramaic Sacred Marriage Text from Egypt,” in JNES 76 (2017), pp. 1-37 (link). For more on Nanay at Borsippa as the husband of Nabû and as Nanaya Ehurshaba, see C. Waerzeggers, The Ezida Temple of Borsippa: Priesthood, Cult, Archives, Achaemenid History 15 (Leiden, 2010), 22, 26–27.

[4] Grant Frame and A.R. George, “The Royal Libraries of Nineveh: New Eivdence for King Ashurbanipal’s Tablet Collecting, in Iraq, Vol. 67, No. 1, Nineveh, Papers of the 49th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, Part Two (2005), pg. 265. This is supported by the role of Ezida, Nabu’s temple, as a center for scholasticism, an archaeological site wherein 250 scholarly tablets were discovered near the shrine to Nabu. For a simple overview, see this link.

[5] M. J. Geller, “2 The Exorcist’s Manual (KAR 44),” in Assyrian and Babylonian Scholarly Text Catalogues: Medicine, Magic and Divination, ed. Ulruke Steinert (de Gruyter, 2018), pg. 306. Text available here:

[6] ] M. J. Geller, “2 The Exorcist’s Manual (KAR 44),” in Assyrian and Babylonian Scholarly Text Catalogues: Medicine, Magic and Divination, ed. Ulruke Steinert (de Gruyter, 2018), pg. 306.

[7] This issue is discussed in an unpublished paper of mine. I hope to publish the discussion in the future. If you are interested in my comments, please email me or leave a comment. Moreover, consider Part 1 of the Exorcist’s manual published by Ulrike Steinert, “1 The Assur Medical Catalogue,” in Assyrian and Babylonian Scholarly Text Catalogues: Medicine, Magic and Divination, ed. Ulruke Steinert (de Gruyter, 2018), pp. 203-291. The colophon for this text is translated by Steinert as follows: “[Written according to an older original and?] collated. [Tablet of…] …, the young physician, [son of …, the] shangu-priest of Baba, from the midst of the city Assur.”  This is important because it highlights the role of the physician as both (a) performing incantations and rituals and (b) functioning as a scribe to write down such incantations and rituals. This demonstrates, again, a relationship between text and the physician/exorcist who performs magic.

Mesopotamian Monday: Inscription of Sargon II to Adad at Dur-Sharrukin



Image of the sanctuary of Adad at Kohrsabad. Image from Frankfort and Jacobsen, Kohrsabad (1936), pg. 123.

    A common way that kings honored deities within the pantheon was via prayers inscribed at temples and gates. For example, at the capital of Assyria during the reign of Sargon II, Dur-Sharrukin, archaeologists uncovered a small room within a temple building. Presumably on account of Adad’s lower position in the pantheon, his sanctuary is smaller than the main sanctuary. Within his sanctuary, archaeologists uncovered an inscribed stone on the threshold of the entrance to the temple [1].

                The inscription is brief, only 8 lines. Because the inscription is so short, I will cite the entire text here. Subsequently, I will offer some comments on the text, focusing primarily on how the text is reflective of Assyrian culture and society.

1.       O Adad, irrigator of heaven and earth, who brightens

2.       The daises, for Sargon, king of the world, king of Assyria, governor

3.       Of Babylon, king of the land of Sumer and Akkad, builder

4.       Of your throneroom (cella), bring the rains from heaven

5.       Floods from underground in good season. Garner grain and oil

6.       In his common-leas; may his subjects

7.       Lie down in safe pastures amidst plenty and abundance;

8.       Make firm the foundation of his throne; let his reign endure [2]


Transcription of the first three lines of the inscription from Frankfort and Jacobsen, Kohrsabad (1936), pg. 130.

Before discussing some aspects of the text, I will discuss a few uncommon terms. Daises references the raised platform in the temple.  The cella references the sanctuary as a house of the image of the deity, in this case Adad. Thus, within this text, Adad is responsible for brightening the dais because of his presence in the sanctuary; however, Sargon II is responsible for building the throneroom, namely the cella.

                Within this inscription, I want to highlight the progression of the narrative. After the narrator addresses Adad and clarifies that this request is for Sargon II (1-4), the narrator requests three things which fit together. First, he requests waters from heaven and springs (4-5). Naturally, well-watered farming land would result in a good crop. On account of the waters, he subsequently requests that the good rain season causes a good season for the crops (5-6). This is particularly relevant because farming and crops played a large role in Mesopotamian economy during the 1 millennium BCE and previously [3]. Therefore, a good rain season leading to a good crop production would effectively feed the population of Mesopotamia. In other words, it allows his subjects to lay down amidst plenty and abundance (6-7).

                As is evident, the narrative progression emphasizes Adad’s role as the ultimate cause for successful farming in Mesopotamia. Within this narrative development, though, I want to highlight an aspect of line 6, “in his common-leas.” Ancient Mesopotamia perceived all land as belonging to the king. This explains why the land is referenced as “his” common-leas. Moreover, the word used here is the Akkadian word tamirtu. Tamirtu has two primarily definitions: “a type of agricultural, especially irrigated, land” and “surrounding territory, environs” [4]. Because (a) irrigation canals were necessary for successful farming in Mesopotamia and (b) the context of this prayer to Adad is concerned with farming, it is likely that the nuance of tamirtu is one of arable, irrigated land [5]. Thus, it is apparent, even within prayers to deities, that a central concern of the king was ensuring that his people received adequate water and food, such that they would live in plenty and abundance.

                Returning to the logical narrative of the inscription, all this successful farming and abundant resources serves to legitimize Sargon II as a ruler of his people and representative of his people to the deities. By maintaining such legitimacy, his position as king is ensured, as is that of his son and his son’s son (line 8).               

[1] Gordon Loud, with chapters by Henri Frankfort and Thorkild Jacobsen, Kohrsabad Part I: Excavations in the Palaces and at a City Gate, OIP 38 (Chicago: 1936, University of Chicago Press), 122-125.

[2] Translation takes elements from both Loud, Khorsabad I (1936), pp. 130-131, and Benjamin Foster, Before the Muses (Maryland: CDL Press, 2005), pg. 784, in order to provide the most clarity in the translation.

[3] For a history of scholarship concerning farming in Mesopotamia and reference to relevant periods, see Herve Reculeau, “Farming in Ancient Mesopotamia and How the Oriental Institute Helped Us Understand It,” in New and Notes: The Oriental Institute’s Quarterly Newsletter 232 (Winter 2017), pp. 4-13.

[4] CAD T, tamirtu, pg. 119.

[5] This connotation of tamirtu is re-enforced by an inscription from Sennacherib dated to 703 BCE, wherein Sennacherib explicitly (a) provides land in the tamirtu for orchards and (b) cuts canals in order “to make the orchards luxurious.” See Thorkild Jacobsen and Seton Lloyd, Sennacherib’s Aqueduct at Jerwan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, OIP, 1935), pg. 33.

Mesopotamian Monday: Shalmaneser III’s Prayer to Mulissu


Statues of Shalmaneser III from Istanbul Archaeological Museums (Source: Wikipedia)

Shalmaneser III’s prayer to Mulissu provides insight as to how Mesopotamian kings functioned in the cosmos, especially their relationship to deities [1]. By function, I don’t simply mean how they ruled; rather, I mean how they fit into the world- and theological- view of ancient Mesopotamia more broadly.

This text may be summarized succinctly: the speaker requests Mulissu’s blessings for the king because he supports the deity’s particular temple [2]. Within this text, three aspect of the king’s role in the Mesopotamian worldview emerge: (a) his role in temple rites and rituals and (b) his role in maintaining the temple, (c) both of which point to his role to do the will of deities.


First, the king is portrayed as participating in rituals and rites within this text:

“… [the one] who guarantees your offering, who maintains [your] food offerings, /
The faithful shepherd who watches over (?)… [ ] /
The most great one, first in rank, who performs [your] rites” (lines 14-16)

In the first two lines, the king is said to make and maintain the offerings. His offerings, though, consist of more than a small donations or tax deductions; rather, he provides a large portion of offerings which allow a temple to function. That’s not to say that the king was the only person to provide offerings; rather, he was just a primary contributor.

From a theological perspective, he is one of the primary figures who pleases and appeases deities. Without the king’s support in temple, deities would, perhaps, not be appeased, perhaps choosing to abandon the king and his people! [3]

Returning to the text cited earlier, consider, as well, the speakers’ claim to partake in rituals and perform in rites. For example, in Neo-Assyria, the king participated in a festival at the Temple of Assur. The festival consisted of roughly 1 week of various animal sacrifices, rituals, and libations [4].

Second, and in a similar vein, the king claims responsibility for maintaining the quality and beauty of the temple. Consider a central aspect of the text, namely the speakers’ repairing the cultic hard: “The great harp that played (?) your songs of praise (?) having deteriorated, / … He made it once again splendid and greater than it was [before]” (lines 17, 20). Evidently, the king repaired, or replaced, broken cultic items. Likewise, the king was known to provide finances for building or repairing entire temples. [5]

His role in maintaining cult materials and buildings, generally speaking, provided justification for the deity to bless the king. In other words, from the royal perspective, the king was not legitimated by the divinities for no reason; rather, he functioned within a reciprocal relationship: so long as the king provided the proper sacrifices, housing, and cultic materials for the deity, the deity lent support to the king.

Finally, and ultimately, these two roles of the king point toward the king as the most central performer of the will of deities. In fact, the relationship between the king and the deity was the most central aspect of Assyrian imperial ideology. Shawn Zelig Aster comments that the “king embodies the will of Assur, and acts as his vicar…, and as his priest…” [6]. Such embodiment was made possible because Assur, the highest deity in the Assyrian pantheon, was perceived as the hypostasis of ideal Assyrian kingship. Therefore, one was a “good” Assyrian king not because a deity said a king was legitimate; rather, one was a “good” Assyrian king because they performed (embodied) the will of the deity [7].

To summarize, Shalmaneser III’s prayer to Mulissu demonstrates how the king related to the Mesopotamian worldview, albeit through poetic means. The two majors ways, namely being involved in temple ritual and maintaining the temple through contributions, both points to a more important aspect: the king embodied the will of the deity. Therefore, whenever a text present the king as embodying the will of the deity, it is, at base, expressing why the king is a legitimate king.


[1] Before commenting on this prayer, a few caveats are necessary. First, it is unclear if Shalmaneser III is addressing the deity, or another Assyrian king. Second, it is unclear exactly which deity is being addressed. Unfortunately, I was unable to access the resources which would have enabled me to discuss these problems. Furthermore, all translations of the text are taken from Benjamin R. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature, Third Edition (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005).

[2] Mulissu is the name of Assur’s spouse during the Neo-Assyrian period. Aramaic texts write her name as mlš; Herodotus writes her name as Mylitta. See M. Stol, “Mulissu,” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Second Edition, eds. Karel van der Toorn et. al. (Leiden/Grand Rapids: Brill/Eerdmans, 1999), 606.

[3] That’s not to suggest that a temple could not function without the king. Karen Radner, , “Assur’s “Second Temple Period”: The Restoration of the Cult of Assur, c. 538 BCE,” in Herrschaftslegitimation in vorderorientalischen Reichen der Eisenzeit, eds. Christoph Levin and Reinhard Muller (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017), pp. 77-96, demonstrates how one of the primary temples at Assur was rebuilt c. 538 BCE. And although it was traditionally connected to the Assyrian king, it was revived in 538 BCE after the end of Assyrian kingship. Concerning Neo-Babylonia, G. van Driel, Elusive Sulver (Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor her Nabije Oosten, 2002), pg. 80, suggests a similar idea: While the king played a prominent role in providing means to maintain the cult, major building operations, and agriculture, “we cannot regard the king as the unrestricted owner the temple” (147).

[4] Salvatore Gaspa, “Meat offerings and their preparation in the state cule of the Assyrian empire,” in BASOR, University of London, Vol. 75, No. 2 (2012), pp.253-255.

[5] Radner, “Assur’s “Second Temple Period”” (2017), pg. 78.

[6] Shawn Zelig Aster, “Transmission of Neo-Assyrian Claims of Empire to Judah in the Late Eight Century BCE, in HUC Annual, Vol. 78 (2007), pg. 6.

[7] For more discussion on this matter, see Baruch Levine, “Assyrian Ideology and Israelite Monotheism,” in Iraq, Vol. 67, No. 1, Nineveh, Papers of the 49th Recontre Assyriologique Internationale, Part Two (Spring, 2005), pp. 411-427, esp. 412.