Women who played the role of interceder: Part 1

Women who played the role of interceder: Part 1

Eiko Matsushima

REFEMA 2nd workshop (June 22, 2013, Tokyo)

1.     Introduction

Today, I would like to talk about one aspect of the roles of women in ancient Mesopotamia, one that I am in fact very interested in.

I recently had occasion to review my previous study on the divine marriage ceremonies in Mesopotamia, which looked specifically at the Assyro-Babylonian world.[1] There exist several sources of written materials on the ceremonies and from them we can understand that the ceremonies were significant religious events. The leading figures of the ceremonies were the main god of a big city (or a country) and his spouse, for example Marduk, the chief god of Babylon and his spouse Zarpanītu, or Nabû, who had a big temple in the city of Kalhu in Assyria, and his spouse Tašmētu, etc. The king and the royal family took care of the ceremony, preparing the furnishings, sacrifices, and banquets. We do not know if the ceremony was held annually or on other occasions, but the fact that there are several mentions on it indicates that it was not a rare event. Many discussions have developed on the subject and some important publications have been generated.[2] I will not talk about the details of the rite, as it is discussed elsewhere, but rather investigate the fact that the goddess, the “bride” of the wedding ceremony, played an important role.

During the ceremony, the goddess stayed for couple of days in a “bedroom” with her husband. Some of the available documents explain that in the course of her stay on the wedding bed, the bride asked her husband for benevolence toward the king (and/or his family).[3] That is to say, she played an intermediary role between the human king and her divine husband, the great god of the country. As a matter of fact, in first century Assyria and Babylonia, the ritual was realized with divine statues, which were identified with the gods themselves understood to live in the temple, thus in a very symbolic way. Given the information, it seems significant that the spouse of the divine couple gives some important suggestions to her husband, and additionally the people expected her to be an interceder on their behalf. I infer from this that similar incidents might occur in human society.

By collecting some examples of “women who intercede” in Mesopotamian society from the written materials, I will analyze them in order to investigate whether my inference is sufficiently reasonable or not.

2.1        Examples of the intercession of the goddesses during the wedding ceremony

Looking first at the goddesses in divine marriage ceremonies in first century Assyria and Babylonia, we can find among the documents mentions of the followings:

1)     Tašmētu to Nabû

 [Taš]tu bēltu rabîtu hīrtu narāmta-ka şabitat abbūti ina mahri-ka ina majjāl taknê ūmišam naparkâ literriš-ka balāţi
“Tašmētu the great Lady, your beloved spouse, who intercedes (for me) [daily] before you in the sweet bed, who never ceases asking you to protect my life.”
H. Hunger, Babylonische und assyrische Kolophone (AOAT 2, Neukirchen-Vlyn, 1968) no.338

2)     Zarpanītu to Marduk

Zarpanītu ina urši bīt hammūti lemutta-šu litasqar
“May Zarpanītu pronounce evil (words) against him in the bedroom where (Marduk lives) as master (of the family)!”
K. 2411 (=J. A. Craig, ABRT I 76-79) col. I 28’

3)     Mulissu to Aššur

Mulissu šarrat Ešarra hīrat Aššur banīt ilāni rabûti ša Sîn-ahhê-eriba šar Aššur ūmišam amāt damiqti-šu ina muhhi Aššur liššakin šaptu-ša
“Mulissu, the queen of Ešarra, spouse of Aššur, creator(ess) of great gods, who daily pronounce favorable words on behalf of Sennacherib, king of Assyria, before Aššur.”
K. 2411 (=J. A. Craig, ABRT I 76-79), col. II 10-12[4]

4)    Aja to Šamaš

 a. [              hí]rtum ina bīt majjāli liqbi-ka
“May[Aya your spo]use say to you in the bedchamber, [“Be appeased”] ”
Lambert, BWL 138:200 (last line of a long hymn to Šamaš: a manuscript has an Ashurbanipal colophone.

b. Aja kallātu rabîti ašibat bīt majjāli kajjanāmma panû-ka lišnamir ūmišam damiqta-a liqbi-ku
“Aja, the great bride (/daughter in law) who stays in the bedroom and constantly brightens your face, may she say you favorite (words) for me!”
VAB 4, 258 ii 20 (Nabonidus)

We see here that Tašmētu intercedes with Nabû, Zarpanītu with Marduk, and Aya with Šamaš, etc, on behalf of each goddesse’s royal devotee. Thus, the goddesses play an intermediary role between a human, generally the king (and/or his family), and the great god of the country.

The intercession of goddesses, as well some gods, between great gods and human beings has already been discussed extensively.[5] Some try to find a common aspect in the role the of goddesses I mentioned here, with the role of the famous goddess Ištar. I am not convinced in this view, since Ištar, from the third to the first millennium, has retained a major position with overwhelming power in the pantheon. She protects the king by her own will, and even if she intercedes for the king, she is standing before the chief gods of the pantheon or before the supreme divine council, that is to say, in a public place.

Other goddesses do not act so publicly. Tašmētu, for example, intercedes with her husband in her bedroom, a very private space. The wedding bed, though entirely private, was the place of her intercession, and so the place of her activities. In Assyro-Babylonian divine marriage rites of the first millennium, gods such as Nabû, Marduk, Šamaš, etc. were the main heroes, whereas the goddess were ranked second, as merely the spouse of a great god. However, the goddess played a significant role in the private sphere.

In examples given here, the main title of the goddesses is either rtu (=spouse: 1) 3) 4)) or kallātu (=bride or daughter-in-law: 5)). In example 2), Zarpanītu is depicted to as ina urši bīt hammūti “in [the] bed of the family master’s house”. These Akkadian words are explained in the Chicago Assyrian Dictionaries (here abbreviated as CAD) as follows:

rtu : wife of equal status with the husband. […] In speaking of the wives of gods, hīrtu is preferred to aššatu/altu (CAD H: 200a-201b).

kallātu: daughter-in-law, wife of a son living in his father’s household, bride, sister-in-law […]The word denotes a young woman who was acquired by the master of a household as a wife for his son living in this household (CAD K: 79a-82b).

hammūtu: a status of head of the family (CAD H 69b-70a).

Using these explications, we can understand that each of these goddesses was considered to be the (main) wife in a big and divine household. Her status might not be exactly equal to that of her husband, but she had her own firm position in the household. Her status was appreciated to a certain degree in the household as well as in the society.

Ancient Mesopotamia, especially in the post-Sumer period, was a male-dominated world. The possibilities for women were limited both in society as well as in the family. However, as the second-ranking person, she was efficient in her private area, especially in the bedroom. A goddess, who was the first wife of a chief god, could offer suggestions to her husband and act as an intermediary between a god and a human being. In particular, she could request of the great god, her husband, much benevolence for the king, his land, and his people.

From this feature which can be seen in the religious sphere, we may imagine the actual roles of women in the mortal societies of Mesopotamia, especially upper classes in the society.

2.2 An episode in the Gilgamesh Epic: standard version, tablet XI.

I would like to add here one more example of a woman who got her husband to change his mind. In the Gilgamesh Epic, the hero, being shocked by the death of his friend Enkidu, went on a long journey in order to meet Uta-Napishti who had survived the Flood and remained alive in a distant place. When he finally found Uta-Napishti, Gilgamesh asked him how to obtain eternal life. However, failing to pass a test (he could not stay awake for six nights and seven days), Uta-Napishti tried to make him go back to his natal city. However, Uta-Napishti’s wife (marhītu), feeling pity for Gilgamesh asked her husband to help once more that unhappy young man. Following her intervention, Uta-Napishti decided to disclose a secret to Gilgamesh: a plant of life that can be found in the bottom of Apsu, i.e. the deep underground water (tab. XI 273 ff.). Gilgameš then went on to find the plant and take it back with him to his city, Uruk. As you well know, however, he lost it just before his arrival due to his own inattention.

 The central point of importance for this episode is that Uta-Napishti suddenly and easily changed his mind, just after his wife criticized his initial decision.

3.   Royal women in Sargonic Assyria

During the long history of Mesopotamia, there were some women whose activities are recorded in written materials. Recent studies on palace women in the Neo-Assyrian period have given us a new view of women in the royal court including queens.[6] For instance, eleven names of principal wives (MÍ.É.GAL/ MÍ/KUR=sēgallu) from the ninth to the seventh century BCE are known, including Sammuramat and Naquia/Zakutu as the most well known. Let us take a brief look at them.

Sammuramat was the wife of Šamši-Adad V (823-811 BCE) and mother of Adad-nerari III (810-783). We know of four public monuments on which the name Sammuramat is clearly inscribed: two statues found in the Nabû Temple at Kalhu, a boundary stone erected in southeastern Turkey, and a large limestone stele placed among the monuments at Assur. On the top of the limestone stele, a text is engraved in which she is called kallāt Šulmanu-šarru, “daughter-in-law” of Shalmaneser (858-824 BCE).[7] All of these four monuments date during the reign of Adad-nerari III.[8] The inscription on the boundary stone explains that Sammuramat accompanied her son on a military campaign, and documents indicate that she was an important and powerful person in the Assyrian government, at least during the reign of Adad-nerari III. It is highly probable that she acted as regent for her son at the beginning of his reign. However, we know almost nothing about her position and power during the reign of her husband. Perhaps she was already appreciated as kallātu of the father of Šamši-Adad V.

In later times myths and legends around her were invented, and Greek and Roman writers composed stories in which classical Semiramis was the heroine.

Another famous royal woman, Naquia/Zakutu, became a wife of Sennacherib (704-681 BCE), probably while he was still the crown prince. Nothing is known about her until 683 BCE when her son Esarhaddon was nominated as crown prince. It is well known that Esarhaddon was the youngest son of Sennacherib, and that there was a serious succession conflict before and after the death of Sennacherib between Esarhaddon and his brothers; we also know that Sennacherib was murdered by one or several of his sons certainly because of that conflict. It seems that during his reign, another palace lady, Tašmetum-šarrat, was the first queen whereas Naquia was just one of other wives.[9] Since the coronation of Esarhaddon (681-669 BCE), however, she became the ummi šarri (MÍ.AMA.MAN or AMA.LUGAL), “Queen Mother,” and was sometimes present in public places, especially during religious activities. The fact that some high-ranked officials sent letters directly to her indicates that she maintained great power and efficiency in the royal court, but we do not know exactly what kind of power she had. Her titles were sēgallu, ummi šarri as we have just seen above, and kallātu (MÍ.É.GI4.A) Šarru-ukin.[10] Naquia/Zakutu was an extraordinary queen, and a unique woman in the long history of Mesopotamia. S. C. Melville has suggested that it was Esarhaddon’s own idea to bring her to power. When Esarhaddon died, she forced all Assyrian high officials to take an oath of loyalty, the so-called Zakutu treaty (ABL 1239 + JCS 39, 189), on behalf of her grandson Ashurbanipal (668-631 BCE), the youngest among his brothers, on his coronation. A woman intervening thus in political affairs using her own name and will was a unique and unparalleled event.

In the cases of both Sammuramat and Naquia, the women obtained and maintained power as the mothers of kings, acting always as “Queen Mother.” One bronze relief shows Naquia depicted with his son Esarhaddon. Indeed, in analyzing her role we see her essentially as a mother loyal to her son, making her able to take advantage of her position.

Libbali-šarrat, the principal wife of Ashurbanipal, on the other hand, is a queen depicted with her husband in a bas-relief, and it is her position as wife and not mother that is of central importance. In the well-known garden scene from the North Palace Nineveh, she is seated facing the king who is reclining on a coach: both are drinking, beer or wine, in order to celebrate the victory over the Elamites. The depicted banquet certainly took place in the queen’s residence, thus in a private domain in the royal palace. In the depiction she is present as a partner of the king, even if the king is above her in the royal family’s hierarchy. It is worthy of notice that she behaves in the image as a spouse, not as a mother. In a letter written some years ago by a sister of Ashurbanipal, Šerua-eţerat, Libbali-šarrat is described: “You are a daughter-in-law (kallātu), the lady of the house of Assurbanipal, the crown prince of Esarhaddon.”[11]

4.   Temporary observations

Having thus seen some examples of the attributes of women in high classes, from goddesses to royal ladies in first millennium Mesopotamia, we can observe that in religious spheres, goddesses were expected to play the role of interceder with her divine husband on behalf of her devotees. This act always took place in a private space. We understand also that her efficiency depends on her position as hirtu and kallātu. In one legendry epic, Uta-Napishti’s wife –marhītu–got him to change his mind. Thus, in the religious or mythic domain, women could play an important role as adviser to her husband as well as interceder on behalf of her devotees.

Then we looked at examples of famous royal women in the Assyrian court of the first millennium: queens whose deeds or memories are recorded. From the available documents and other materials, we cannot construct a complete image of their activities, and cannot understand all of their roles in society. Nevertheless, we have seen that the system of the household has much to do with their status. We found one keyword: kallātu. This Akkadian term is, as we have seen above, understood as “a young woman who was acquired by the master of a household as a wife for his son living in this household.” So, I will turn to an analysis of the meaning(s) and function(s) of kallātu, in order to discern some further aspects of women’s role in the family as well as in the society of Mesopotamia.


[1]  I presented a paper titled ”Ištar and Other Goddesses in the So-called “Sacred Marriage” in Ancient Mesopotamia” at the International Conference on Ishtar/Astarte/Aphrodite: Transformation of a Goddess, at Keio-University, on 25-26 August, 2011. A book with all of the revised papers of this conference is forthcoming. As for my previous work, see 2.2 in this forthcoming article.

[2] A history of these discussions can be found in the recent book edited by M. Nissinen and R.Uro: Sacred Marriages, the Divine-Human Sexual Metaphor from Sumer to Early Christianity, Eisenbrauns, Indiana, 2008.

[3] Or, as we are going to see in section 2.2, asked to pronounce a malediction on the enemy of her devotee.

[4] We are not sure if this example can be related to the wedding rite, but it does depict a goddess who intercedes.

[5] See in particular the work of B. Pongratz-Leisten, in M.Nissinen and R.Uro, Sacred Marriages, 65-66.

[6] We refer for instance to only two books: Melville, S. C., The Role of Naqia/Zakutu in Sargonic Politics. SAAS IX, Helsinki, 1999 (Here abbreviated as Melville, 1999). Macgregor, S. L., Beyond the Hearth and Home: Women in the Public Sphere in Neo-Assyrian Society. SAAS XXI, Helsinki 2012 (Here abbreviated as Macgregor, 2012). There are many useful references in the bibliographies of these books.

[7] A.K. Grayson, Assyrian Rulers of the Early First Millennium BC II, RIM 3, Toronto, 1996, A.104.2001, 6.

[8] On the top of the stele found at Assur, a seven-line text with her name was inscribed. The text reads as follows: “Stele of Sammuramat, queen of Šamši-Adads, king of the universe, king of Assyria, mother of Adad-nerarti, king of the universe, king of Assyria, daughter-in-law of Shalmaneser, king of the four quarters (Macgregor, p. 84).

[9] There is an inscription of Sennacherib in which he expresses a feeling of affection for Tašmetum-šarrat: it is a unique phenomenon in Assyrian history that a king speaks of his personal feelings towards his wife in official inscriptions: ARRIM 4, 1986, p.32; see S. L. Macgregor, 2012, 85, note 173.

[10] Among the two examples of Naquia/Zakutu as kallāt Šarru-ukin, Borger, Asarh, 115-116 (revised in Melville, 1999, 39) and ADD 645, 3. The former is an inscription in which she declares that his son Esarhaddon was to be put on the throne of Assyria with the strong support of great gods. It is written and organized just like a royal building inscription.

[11] See SAA XVI 28 (=ABL 308). There are a few different interpretations of the letter. I prefer that of A. Livingstone, which seems simpler than the others: he understands that Šerua-eţerat was treating Libbali-šarrat with respect, addressing her royal titles: see ZA 97, 2007, 100-105. See also the translation of M. Luukko and G. Van Buylaere (SAA 16, Helsinki, 2002, no.28), which notices an opposite nuance. They understand that Šerua-eţerat blames Libbali-šarrat for not writing to her sister-in-law and finds out that there is a rivalry between two high ranked women in the royal family. From the letter, at least, we understand that royal women sometimes wrote to each other.


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