mesopotamia

Old Babylonian Humbaba Plaque, 1950-1651 BC

A terracotta plaque with high-relief image of Humbaba, facing with hands to the abdomen, legs spread.

Humbaba appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh as the guardian of cedar forest. He is described as a giant protected by seven layers of terrifying radiance and was eventually killed by Gilgamesh and Enkidu. He is depicted with a human body, lion’s claws and paws, a monstrous face, long hair and whiskers. In the Old Babylonian Period clay plaques depicting Humbaba were used for divination purposes and were hung on walls as protective amulets.

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The sickle sword of Assyrian king Adad-nirari I.

Dates to ca. 1307–1275 B.C., northern Mesopotamia, 54.3 cm long, and made of bronze.

This curved sword bears the cuneiform inscription “Palace of Adad-nirari, king of the universe, son of Arik-den-ili, king of Assyria, son of Enlil-nirari, king of Assyria,” indicating that it was the property of the Middle Assyrian king Adad-nirari I (r. 1307–1275 B.C.).

The inscription appears in three places on the sword: on both sides of the blade and along its (noncutting) edge. Also on both sides of the blade is an engraving of an antelope reclining on some sort of platform.

Courtesy of & currently located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, via their online collections.

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Literature from Mesopotamia: The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 6

This Neo-Assyrian tablet preserves parts of the sixth tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh. In this tablet, the goddess of love and war, Ishtar, attempts to seduce Gilgamesh who rejects her. When Ishtar’s father, the god Anu, sends the Bull of Heaven down to punish Gilgamesh for spurning her, Enkidu kills the creature. One of the most significant works of Akkadian literature, the story grapples with the themes of friendship, mortality, and the origins of man. (Source)

Nineveh, 7th century BCE.

British Museum.

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Sumerian Silver Lyre, from Ur, southern Iraq, c. 2600-2400 BC

This lyre was found in the ‘Great Death-Pit’, one of the graves in the Royal Cemetery at Ur. The burial in the Great Death-Pit was accompanied by seventy-four bodies - six men and sixty-eight women -laid down in rows on the floor of the pit. Three lyres were piled one on top of another. They were all made from wood which had decayed by the time they were excavated, but two of them, of which this is one, were entirely covered in sheet silver attached by small silver nails. The plaques down the front of the sounding box are made of shell. The silver cow’s head decorating the front has inlaid eyes of shell and lapis lazuli. The edges of the sound box have a narrow border of shell and lapis lazuli inlay.

When found, the lyre lay in the soil. The metal was very brittle and the uprights were squashed flat. First it was photographed, and then covered in wax and waxed cloth to hold it together for lifting. The silver on the top and back edge of the sounding box had been destroyed. Some of the silver preserved the impression of matting on which it must have originally lain. Eleven silver tubes acted as the tuning pegs.

Such instruments were probably important parts of rituals at court and temple. There are representations of lyre players and their instruments on cylinder seals, and on the Standard of Ur being played alongside a possible singer.

Al-Mustansiriya University - Baghdad, Iraq

The university was established in 1963 on the site of the Mustansiriya Madrasah which dated back to 1227 CE

Sumerian Electrum Hedgehog, Early 2nd Millennium BC

The symbolic meaning of the hedgehog to Sumerians is a mystery although, they may have shared the same beliefs as the Egyptians who saw the awakening of hedgehogs from hibernation as a symbol of rebirth. In several ancient Egyptian scenes from the Old Kingdom hedgehogs are shown as inhabiting the deserts; by living there, on the edge of the ordered world, they could be seen as triumphing over adversity, and hence as another symbol of continued life.

The figure could be an aspect of the goddess Ishtar, Mesopotamian goddess of sexual love and war, or Ishtar’s sister and rival, the goddess Ereshkigal who ruled over the Underworld, or the demoness Lilitu, known in the Bible as Lilith. The plaque probably stood in a shrine. 

Old Babylonian era, 1800-1750 BCE, from southern Iraq (place of excavation is unknown), Mesopotamia, Iraq. (The British Museum, London).

Weapons and tactics change, but PTSD goes back millennia

“A new study of ancient Assyrian medical texts from Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq, shows that Assyrian doctors were diagnosing and treating psychological conditions related to war. One assumption ancient Assyrians made was that the gods allowed dead people’s spirits to punish living people. So warriors who experienced mental trauma were thought to be under attack by the ghosts of people they killed in battle. Today we call this mental trauma from war and other difficult experiences Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, often shortened to PTSD.” - See more here

The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld

To the place where those who enter do not depart, to the road whose journey does not end, to the house where those who enter are deprived of light, where dust is their sustenance, clay their food…

Written in Akkadian, this tablet from the famed library of Ashurbanipal, the last Neo-Assyrian king, tells the mythological story of the goddess Ishtar’s descent to the underworld. Upon her arrival, she finds its first gate shut and threatens to break it down until the gatekeeper, acting on the orders of Queen of the Underworld, lets her through. At each of the seven gates of the Underworld, she must shed a layer of clothing or jewelry, leaving her powerless upon her arrival before the Queen. Ishtar, the goddess of love and fertility (…and war), was thus trapped in the underworld, and her absence left the world above in suffering and chaos. Eventually, by the agency of gods greater than the Queen of the Underworld, Ishtar is released and her apparel restored to her, and order is restored to the world. (Source)

The work is a beautiful piece of Akkadian poetry with roots in the much earlier Sumerian myth of the Descent of Inanna, the Sumerian name for the goddess of love and fertility.

To hear a recording of the poem in Akkadian alongside one English translation, see here.

Neo-Assyrian (c. 900-600 BCE), Nineveh.

British Museum.