Female perfume-makers in neo-Assyrian and neo-Babylonian documents

In the epic of Gilgameš, Uta-napištim recounts the following after the Deluge has ended: “I brought out an offering and offered it to the four directions. I set up an incense offering on the summit of the mountain, I arranged seven and seven cult vessels, I heaped reeds, cedar, and myrtle in their perfume burners. The gods smelled the savor, the gods smelled the sweet savor, the gods crowded round the sacrificer like flies”[1].

 Since P. Faure’s work, Parfums et aromates de l’Antiquité, published in 1987, historians have been able to understand that perfume in the ancient world could cover multiple realities. All ancient people used perfume, the best known are the Egyptians who had workshops in Alexandria for perfumes based on cinnamon or kyphi (a solid perfume in the form of incense). In fact, we know two bas-reliefs dating from 4th centuryBC representing the work of perfume-makers, who only use canvas bags and recipients for their work. Perfume and its use are themes rather well-known in near-eastern documents, but relatively little research has been undertaken on this subject. We can nonetheless cite several studies such as those of F. Joannès for Mari[2] or E. Ebeling on perfume-recipes at Assur[3]. We also find a synthesis about perfume and make-up in the Dictionnaire de la Civilisation Mésopotamienne[4] as well as in l’Histoire Mondiale du Parfum, by B. André-Salvini[5]. If perfume ingredients have attracted the attention of historians, the individuals who made them have been neglected.

 The act of perfuming oneself is an ancient gesture. Perfumes, which were most often found in the form of oil, were kept in small gypsum, chlorite and ceramic vases. The most ancient containers come from Tell Buqras in Syria and date from 7,000 BC, that is Neolithic times[6]. Gypsum was used to make zoomorphic vases (hedgehog and hare). Recipients were discovered at Susa, they date from the 4th and 3rd millennia. Jars and bottles dating from the 3rd millennium were discovered at Ur, Tello and Mari, and contained perfumed oils. Finally, among the better known attestations, zoomorphic rhytons at Ugarit were found. We know several terms for perfume: eliu (MA[7]), narqītu (in Standard Babylonian)[8], riqītu (OB and MA)[9] and riqqu (OB)[10], the verb meaning “to make perfume” being ruqqû. Similarly, the word “perfume-maker” was written in several ways: luraqqû (at Mari)[11], muraqqû (MA, NA, NB)[12] or raqqû (Old Akk, OB, Mari, MB)[13]. If in the current western civilisation, to perfume oneself is an act more associated with one’s personal care, even to personal hygiene, we are well aware that in Mesopotamia perfume was more widely used. Thus, among the furniture of temples and palaces we find perfume-burners and incense-burners, and aromatic products were added to drinks, to give them more flavour. Perfume in the form of fumigation could also present a medical aspect. Throughout this presentation on female perfume-makers, we will attempt to determine in which manner these women appear in the texts studied. We must however point out that the documents we have related to them are rather limited, and this paper can only give a glimpse of the matter.

1.     A few reminders on perfume

1.1. Techniques used to make perfume

Perfume initially appears as a rough texture, that is, it is used as an aromatic substance without being transformed, as in the case of perfume-burners. The use of such substance continues in the first millennium, as two bas-reliefs illustrate. The first is the famous “Garden Party” – the oldest scene we know of a lounging banquet – showing Assurbanipal and his queen Libbali-šarrat after the royal campaign of the Assyrian king in Elam.  The fact that the queen is present is rather rare and therefore notable, and in this garden where the royal couple clearly take their refreshments, we observe two perfume-burners that seem to keep them at bay from the other human beings present[14].  Also, in another well-known bas-relief, the “scene of an audience with the great king” which was visible in the Apadana of Persepolis, we observe king Xerxes I and behind him crown prince Darius, also cut off from other mortals by two perfume-burners. As for perfume preparations, they are rather well attested. As early as the 3rd millennium we see that the essence of plants was extracted so as to make perfumed water, ointments and oils. Two technics were employed in order to proceed to this extraction: it had to either be done cold (rendered by the Akkadian verb rummuku), performed on four types of woods – cypress, cedar, myrtle and juniper – or the extraction had to be done hot (according to the technic called “oil pans”) notably used in Mari with cypress, myrtle, fragrant reed and boxwood. During the neo-Babylonian period, the variety of fragrant products used became wider through accessing resources from the Arabian Peninsula. We thus find lists of “woods”, that is plants whose stems, berries, gums and resins were used. We should remember that in Mesopotamia itself, trees or shrubs necessary to make these aromatic substances for perfumes were rare. They therefore had to be acquired from the West. This is why perfume appears essentially in royal inscriptions or the archives of sanctuaries.

1.2. A place to manufacture perfume: neo-Babylonian sanctuaries

In neo-Babylonian documents, temples constitute the best examples of perfume fabrication. We find for example data on this subject in a study by A.C.V.M. Bongenaar on the archives of the Ebabbar temple[15]. Perfume is added to certain oils that are employed on special occasions, even celebrations. Such oils are called hilu, kiru and siltu[16] and are used during very specific days and for particular female deities. According to A.C.V.M. Bongenaar, the term hilu can designate a perfume or incense, as well as the ceremony for which this oil is made. Furthermore, this substance is only associated to the deity Šarrat-Sippar, and particularly during the ceremony of her sacred marriage[17]. A recipe to make hilu is known from several texts. Thus 6 litres of sesame are needed to which are added aromatic herbs to make hilu[18]. In the prosopography of the sanctuary of Šarrat-Sippar’s prebend-owners, the E-edin-na, A.C.V.M. Bongenaar identified a woman, Kaššā, who bears the title rabītu ša bīt Šarrat-Sippar, and who could be the daughter of Nabuchodonosor[19].  In the texts where we find her, Kaššā receives wool to prepare a cultic objet for the female deity, a imitu ša pišannu [20] and sesame to prepare oil[21]. However, she does not appear in charge of the fabrication of perfumed oil, this seems to instead rest with Sîn-ili’s family, who is the son of Šamaš-iddina and descendant of Bel-ēṭēru, and who is one of the ērib bīti of the temple of Šarrat-Sippar. At Uruk in the Eanna temple, perfumes were made in a house called bit hili. One of the most famous texts concerning this house is UCP 9/2 27, dated to Nabuchodonosor’s reign and studied by F. Joannès[22]. This bit hili is a religious edifice, under the responsibility of the šangû bit hili[23] and associated to the goddesses Uṣur-amâssu and Urka’itu[24].  This document lists the details for the ingredients given to a person named Nabû-mušetiq-uddê for the “work for the bit hili”. He thus gets 22 different aromatic substances (cedar, cypress, myrtle, box wood, fragrant reed, myrtle for example), but also pees, wool and sesame[25].

2. Looking for female perfume-makers

While we know a few male perfume-makers, such as Nur-ili at Mari under Zimri-Lim[26] for example, the names of female perfume-makers in royal palaces during the first millennium remain unknown for now. In the texts I have studied to write this presentation, a female perfume-maker is referred to as a (mí)muraqqītu in Akkadian. We further find references to female perfume-makers during the middle-Assyrian period[27], and often in cultic contexts[28].

2.1.Female perfume-makers in neo-Assyrian documents

First, I would like to come back to female perfume-makers during the neo-Assyrian period with a text that comes from the administrative documents of Nineveh’s palace, SAA 7 24. This document, whose date is probably lost, presents a very detailed list of women officiating in the palace of Nineveh. It was previously studied by B. Landsberger[29], F. Fales and J.N. Postgate[30] and more recently by S. Parpola[31]:

 “36 Aram[ean women] ; 15 Kushite women […] ; 7 Assyrian women, m[aids of theirs] ; 4 replacement[s…]; [x+]3 Tyrian wom[en…]; [x] Kass[ite women]; (break) [x fem]ale Cory[bantes]; 3 women from Arpa[d]; 1 replace[ment…]; 1 woman from Ashd[od]; 2 Hittite women, …[…]. In all, 94 (women and) 46 maids of theirs: total, of the father of the crown prince; in all, 140. The woman Šiti-tabni, 2 maids, ditto; the woman Amat-Emuni, 3 ditto. 8 female chiefs musicians; 3 Aramean women; 11 Hittite women; 13 Tyrian wo[men]; 13 female Cory[bantes]; 4 women from Sah[…]; 9 Kassites women; in all, 61 female musicians. 6 temple stewardesses […]; 6 female …[…] scribes ; 1 woman-… ; 4 women from Dor ; 15 female smiths and seals-borers; 1 hairdresser, in all, 33.Grand total: 194 (women) and 52 maids; (also) 1 female perfume-maker; her 2 maids; in all, 156.”

In his recent article on the neo-Assyrian harem, S. Parpola went back on this unique text from the palace of Nineveh and which dates according to him to the reign of Esarhaddon. Among these women we find 94 court women, whose names we cannot identify, with their 46 servants. According to S. Parpola, these women must have been royal concubines (they are said to be linked to the father of the crown prince, in Akkadian ša abišú ša mār šarri). Among them, only 11 are Assyrians, the others are Arameans, Kushites, Tyrians, Kassites, people from Arpad, Ashdod, or Hittites. Indeed, we note that female musicians are the workers the most represented for the female population of the palace. In this text, only two women are named. The first among them, Šiti-tabni, bears an Akkadian name and appears next to two female servants, who are apparently hers. As for Amat-Emuni, her name is particularly interesting. It is indeed composed of an Egyptian theophorus, Emuni, the combination meaning “Servant of Amon”. She seems to be accompanied by three servants. Data on these two individuals are meagre, considering that they appear in only this one text. However, despite the scarcity of sources for them, given that they are cited by name and that they are accompanied by several servants we could deduce they enjoyed a high position. We also find 33 women who exercised professions other than within the arts, among them a hairdresser and a perfume-maker. The translation of these two professions seems problematic. S. Parpola chose to translate gallabtu as hairdresser, instead of “female-barber” chosen by F.M. Fales and J.N. Postgate. Also, the term mu-raq-qí-tú was translated by F.M. Fales and J.N. Postgate as “spice-bread baker”, not by “perfume-maker”. These women who worked in sectors other than catering, music or dance represented 15% of the Assyrian harem according to S. Parpola from among 249 women (39% are concubines, 21% servants, 25% musicians and dancers and 15% are skilled workers). It is therefore not surprising that these women are found in small numbers as beauty experts in this text. Other items also come to our help to understand these female perfume-makers. These are objects found in royal tombs of Assyrian queens[32], notably tomb II containing the body of Yabâ, queen of Tiglath-Phalazar III, as well as the remains of another woman, probably Atalia, queen of Sargon II. This tomb was discovered by Hussein in 1989, in room 49 of the north-west palace of Kalhu.  In the funerary chamber, a great wealth of objects was found, objects engraved with the names of these two queens, but also with Banitu’s name (meaning Beauty), the wife of Salmanazar V. Among the objects found inside the sarcophagus, we find bowls made of gold, jars made of crystal, a mirror made of electrum (an alloy of gold and silver) and a recipient for cosmetics made of electrum, also inscribed with the queens’ names. For example, we find on the engraved mirror: “Belonging to Atalia, queen of Sargon, king of Assyria”. On the floor of the funerary chamber, a box made of electrum destined for cosmetics was also found equipped with a mirror that served as lid. We easily imagine female perfume-makers employing these objects during the exercise of their work. The other objects (jewels, precious stones, precious dishes) were maybe used for these women’s beauty care and adornment after their death.

2.2.Female perfume-makers in neo-Babylonian documents

If documents that come from the royal Assyrian palace are relatively meagre, the ones that come from the palace of Babylon during the first millennium are perhaps even more so. Only one document gives us information on female perfume-makers, text Bab 28122, part of the lot N1 from the archives of the southern palace of Babylon. This lot of 303 texts was found in the palace part called by R. Koldewey Gewölbebau, or vaulted building, and which he had initially thought to be the emplacement of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. In the text studied by F. Weidner in Fs. Dussaud in 1939 and which it seems has not been utilized since, we find female perfume-makers mentioned twice:

– Firstly on the obverse line 9: “šá 6 mu-raq-qé-e-tú 2 SILA3 ÀM ina ŠU.2 IdNÀ.BÀD-ma-[ki?-i?][33]”.

– And then line 11 on the reverse: “6 mu-raq-qé-e-tú 2 SILA3 ÀM ina ŠU.2 IdNÀ.BÀD-ma-[ki?-i?]”.

This tablet could be dated year 13 of Nbk, that is 593/592[34], and lists the quantity of sesame oil allocated per month either to individuals or to a group of persons, as is the case here (month of Nisanu on the obverse and month of Ayyaru on the reverse). This oil can be used for food consumption, and perhaps also for anointment[35]. People who receive the oil, for example our female perfume-makers here, are placed under the responsibility of an individual bearing a Babylonian name. As for our study, despite my investigations, I have not found more information on Nabû-dur-makî. This text is remarkable on several points. On the one hand, it mentions Joiakin, the king of Juda deported to Babylon by Nabuchodonosor who seems to also receive a ration of oil (Obverse, line 29 : […] a-[n]a Iia-’-ú-DU LU[GAL šá KUR ia-ú-du, and repeated line 32 of the reverse [a-na Iia-’-ú-DU LUGAL šá KUR] ia-ú-du). In this text, princes are also cited and eight individuals that come from the kingdom of Juda like Ur-milki (reverse l. 13), Gadi-ilu (obverse l. 18), Šalamyama the gardener (reverse l.22) and Samakuyama (obverse l. 28). Concerning rations allocated to individuals that came from the land of Juda, the quantities are rather meagre, around half a sila (that is 0,421 l.).  Joiakin receives half a PI, that is 15,156 l. but he shares it with his family. Individuals from Tyr are also cited (obverse 32), as well as people from Parsu (obverse 12, reverse 15 and 18), Egyptians (obverse 17, 20, 23 and reverse 20, 23), Ionian craftsmen (obverse 15, 19 and reverse 12, 16, 21, 27), Lydians (obverse 22 and reverse 25). Among the professions present in these lists we find palace scribes, servants, gardeners, messengers, carpenters, guards.  It is of course interesting to note that the origin of our female perfume-makers for the palace of Babylon remains unknown, but that once more, they appear in a list which places them in contact with people of a foreign origin, and for some coming from the West. We can then ask the following question but which cannot be settled at present: in the same way as certain products destined for perfume-making come from the West, could we also reasonably propose that these women also come from this area? Further, is their coming to Babylon or Assyria due to the fact they are experts in their trade? The other question concerning this text, and which is not fully elucidated, is to know why do individuals on this list receive oil from the palace: do they reside at the palace? Or do they simply receive their rations there[36]? Yet, if they have taken the trouble to record these women and their activity, we could infer that they were sufficiently important because they were experts and as such should be listed and identified in the palatial sphere.


Perfume appears as an element linked to power and which concerns elites, palatial and cultic: the objects found in royal Assyrian tombs and the archives of temples testify to this. It is therefore not surprising that female perfume-makers appear in such contexts, at least according to the sources we have currently.

[1] J. Bottéro, L’Epopée de Gilgameš, Paris, 1992, p. 194.

[2] F. Joannès, “La culture matérielle à Mari (V) : les parfums”, MARI 7, 1993, p. 251-270.

[3] E. Ebeling, Parfümrezepte und kultische texte aus Assur, Rome, Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1950.

[4] Article “Parfums et maquillages” by F. Joannès.

[5] See M-C. Grasse (dir.), Histoire Mondiale du Parfum. Amériques, Afrique, Orient, Europe, Océanie. Des origines à nos jours, Paris, 2007.

[6] M. Casanova, “Les origines de la parfumerie de l’Asie centrale au Levant”, Dossiers d’Archéologie n°337, Janvier-Février 2010, p. 16.

[7] E. Ebeling, Parfümrezepte, p. 50.

[8] Nabonide, OECT 1, pl. 27, iii 29.

[9] For the OB period, see UCP 10 142, and for MA see E. Ebeling, Parfümrezepte, p. 39.

[10] For texts relating to it, see CAD R, p. 369b: notably E. Ebeling, Parfümrezepte, p. 28, 29 and 33.

[11] See for example ARM 2 136.

[12] We will study this term in this paper.

[13] See CAD R, p. 173b et 174a.

[14] A. Benoit, Art et archéologie : les civilisations du Proche-Orient ancien, Paris, 2003, p. 403.

[15] A.C.V.M. Bongenaar, The Neo-Babylonian Temple at Sippar: Its Administration and its Prosopography, PIHANS 80, 1997.

[16] Id., p. 267

[17] See texts Cyr 279 and Camb 152.

[18] See BM 74485 (= Bertin 1816): 14 herbs, for a total weight of 9.4 kg with 42 l. of sesame oil.

[19] A.C.V.M. Bongenaar, The Neo-Babylonian Temple at Sippar, p. 249 and see texts Camb 24 et Nbn 57.

[20] Camb 24.

[21] Nbn 57.

[22] F. Joannès, “Traitement des maladies et bit hilṣi en Babylonie récente” in. L. Battini et P. Villard (éds.), Médecine et médecins au Proche-Orient ancient, BAR International Series 1528, Oxford, 2006, p. 76.

[23] Id., p. 77.

[24] Id., p. 77.

[25] Id., p. 76-77.

[26] ARM 23 470-475.

[27] See KAV 194: l. 9 (= VAT 8862).

[28] As in KAR 220 iv 9.

[29] In “Akkadisch-Hebräische Wortgleichungen”, VT 16 (or Fs. Baumgartner), 1967, p. 198-204: B. Landsberger initially presented this document as a list of women sent by the king of Tyr to Assurbanipal alongside one of his daughters.

[30] In SAA 7 24

[31] S. Parpola, “The Neo-Assyrian Royal Harem”, in. G. Lanfranchi, D.M. Bonacossi, C. Pappi et S. Ponchia, Leggo! Studies Presented to Frederick Mario Fales on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday, Wiesbaden, 2012, p. 613-626.

[32] See M.S.B. Damerji, Gräber Assyrischer Königinnen aus Nimrud, Jahrbuch des Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseums 45, Mayence, 1999.

[33] This name Nabû-dūr-makî si a personal proposition, but relies on the existence of this patronym during the neo-Assyrian period (see PNA 2/2, p. 823), and would mean “Nabû is a fortress against want”.

[34] O. Pedersen, “Foreign Professionals in Babylon: Evidence from the Archive in the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar II”, in. W.H. Van Soldt (éd.), Ethnicity in Ancient Mesopotamia, CRRAI 48, Leyde, 2005, p. 268.

[35] See E.F. Weidner, Jojachin, König von Juda, in babylonischen Keilschrifttexten, Fs. Dussaud II, Paris, 1939, p. 927.

[36] See on this subject O. Pedersen, “Foreign Professionals in Babylon”, CRRAI 48, p. 271.

Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse de messagerie ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *