Women in a Cultic Context

Women in a Cultic Context



It is difficult to discuss on the women in cultic context in general view point, since the subject is too vast. Here I try to see only one aspect of the role of the goddesses in a temple ritual, which is generally called the “Sacred Marriage Rite,” but I intentionally say “The So-called Sacred Marriage Rite,” I once carried out an intensive study of that rite from the Assyro-Babylonian world, using Akkadian materials, and have published a number of works on it.[1]

Many discussions on this subject have been developed for more than half a century and a number of important publications were generated. We can find a history of the discussions on it in a recent book, Sacred Marriages, the Divine-Human Sexual Metaphor from Sumer to Early Christianity[2].Therefore, I do not repeat it here, but refer to the fact that the ritual in question about which we have a plenty of materials in Sumer, was also celebrated in post-Sumer Mesopotamia until the first millennium BCE. The protagonists were not Ištar and Dumuzi as in Sumer, but other deities whose personalities were quite different from theirs.

As I have mentioned above, I collected the documents related to the ritual in the Akkadian field in the 1980s, Now am preparing a new paper in which I intend to speak a lot about this subject. Let me dress however a list of the rituals exclusively of those of the First Millennium..

  1. Nabû and Tašmētu in Kalhu, Assyria. Seventh century BCE.
  2. Marduk and Zarpanītu in Babylon. Seventh century BCE.
  3. quršu ritual of Mulissu in Assur. Eighth or seventh century BCE.
  4. Šamaš and Aya in Sippar. Sixth and fifth century BCE.
  5. Anu and Antu in Uruk. Late Babylonian periods.

The protagonists were the main god of a big city and his spouse, as Marduk and Zarpanītu, Nabû and Tašmētu or Nanaja, Šamaš and Aya, and Anu and Antu. The king and the royal family took care of the wedding ceremony, preparing the furnishings, sacrifices, and banquets, but they did not take part in the ritual. The ceremony itself was performed certainly by divine statues.

Some of our documents speak of the Goddess who asks her husband the benevolence for the king (and/or his family) on the wedding bed. Thus she playes the intermediary role between the human king and her husband, the great god of the country. Tašmētu intercedes with Nabû on behalf of her royal devotee, Zarpanītu with Marduk, Aya with Šamaš, etc.

The intercession of goddesses during the “Sacread Marriage” is already noticed. Some authors of the articles in Sacred Marriages compare the act of the goddesses in the first millennium rites with Inanna/Ištar in the Sumerian materials [3], as well as the role of Ištar which we find in the Assyrian royal documents. I understand, contrary to many of them, that the role of Tašmētu, Zarpanītu, Aya, etc. is not the same as the role of Ištar in the “Sacreasd Marriage” in Sumer and in Assyrian documents of the first millennium. Ištar always retains a major position with overwhelming power in the pantheon throughout the Mesopotamian history. She protects the king with her own will. Even if she seems to intercede for the king, she stands before the chief gods of the pantheon or before the supreme divine council, that is to say, in a public place. In contrast to this, Tašmētu for example, intercedes with her husband, in her bedroom, that is to say, in a very private space. The wedding bed was, though private, the place of her intercession, and so the place of her activities.

We observe the followings. In the Akkadian divine marriage rite of the first millennium, gods such as Nabû, Marduk, Šamaš, etc. were the main heroes, whereas the goddess was ranked second, as merely the spouse of a great god.

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

Thus Ištar/Inanna disappeared from the sacred love rite after the second half of the second millennium. In the first millennium, the ritual of divine marriage was celebrated in which the goddess was just the spouse, the second-ranking person behind her husband, at least from the social perspective of the time. On the other hand the outstanding goddess Ištar maintained her overwhelming power over the course of time, as the goddess of sexual love, of war, and a great patron of the kingship, especially in Assyria. Other goddesses remained always unassuming beside their husbands. However, they actually played significant roles in the “bed of the marriage rite.” Such a goddess could exert much influence through the marriage rite and secured the well-being of the king and his family. Her role cannot be well seen from out, but she was effective behind the scenes.

I suppose that through this fact in religious sphere, actual roles of women in human societies in Mesopotamia, especially in high societies, can be appeared.

[1]  See E. Matsushima, “Le lit de Šamaš et le rituel eu Mariage à l’Ebabbar,” ASJ 7, 1985, pp. 129–37; “Le ritual hiérogamique de Nabû,”  ASJ 9, 1987, pp. 131–75; “Le ritual du mariage divin dans les documents accadiens,” ASJ 10, 1988, pp. 95–128.

[2] Edited by M. Nissinen and R. Uro (Indiana: Eisenbrauns) 2008, here abbreviated as Sacred Marriages. The documentation was re-arranged and aptly completed later by M. Nissinen in Akkadian Rituals and Poetry of Divine Love,” in R. M. Whiting (ed.), Melammu Symposia II, Mythology and Mythologies. Helsinki 2001, pp. 93–136..

[3] See Sacred Marriages pp.65-66.

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