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Tag: Priestesses

Priests and Priestesses in Babylonia

“AT an early period in Babylonian history the priesthood and kingship were blended in one office, and it is not until after several centuries from the beginnings of Babylonian history as we know it that the two offices were separated.

Indeed, long afterward the monarchs of Babylonia and Assyria appear to have taken especial pleasure in styling themselves the priests of such and such a deity, and in all likelihood they personally officiated at the altars of the gods on occasions of high religious sanctity.

The priesthood in general was called shangu, which may mean ‘ sacrificer,’ and there is little doubt that at first, as among other peoples, the Babylonian priest was practically a medicine-man. It was his business to secure people from the attacks of the evil demons who caused disease and the wiles of witches, and to forecast the future and discover the will and intentions of the gods.

From left, Storm God Ninurta, with bows and arrows.  Ishtar, queen of heaven and earth is elevated with wings and spears and maces on her shoulders.  The tree of life sprouts to her right, our left.  The Sun God Shamash rises from the mountain Kur in the center, with rays of light on his shoulder.  The God of Water and Wisdom, Enki/Ea battles the bird-god Imdugud/Anzu, with depictions of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and fish coursing from his shoulders.  At far right is the deified vizier Usmu, the two-faced. All gods wear conical hats with four pairs of horns.  At far left is the word Adda in Accadian cuneiform, "Scribe."  Accordingly this cylinder seal is known as the Seal of Adda, Akkadian period, 2350-2100 BCE. British Library.  http://www.ancientworlds.net/aw/Article/787375

From left, Storm God Ninurta, with bows and arrows.
Ishtar, queen of heaven and earth is elevated with wings and spears and maces on her shoulders.
The tree of life sprouts to her right, our left.
The Sun God Shamash rises from the mountain Kur in the center, with rays of light on his shoulder.
The God of Water and Wisdom, Enki/Ea battles the bird-god Imdugud/Anzu, with depictions of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and fish coursing from his shoulders.
At far right is the deified vizier Usmu, the two-faced. All gods wear conical hats with four pairs of horns.
At far left is the word Adda in Accadian cuneiform, “Scribe.”
Accordingly this cylinder seal is known as the Seal of Adda, Akkadian period, 2350-2100 BCE. British Library.
http://www.ancientworlds.net/aw/Article/787375

It is quite clear how such an official as this came to be known as the ‘sacrificer,’ for it would seem that the best way to find favour with the gods was to make offerings to them through an accredited intermediary. Indeed the early priesthood of Babylonia appears to have been as much magical as religious, and we read of the makhkhu, or soothsayer, the mushelu, or necromancer, the asipu, or sorcerer, and the mashmashu, or charmer, whose especial functions are probably outlined in their several titles.

But as civilization proceeded and theological opinion took shape, religious ceremonial began to take the place of what was little better than sorcery. It has been said that magic is an attempt to force the hands of the gods, to overawe them, whereas religion is an appeal to their protective instincts.

Now when the feeling began to obtain that there was such a quality as justice in the universe, and when the idea of just gods had an acceptance among the people through the instruction of thinking theologians, the more vulgar practices of the sorcerer-priests fell out of favour with the upper classes, if not with the populace, and a more imposing ceremonial took the place of mere incantation.

Besides, being founded on the idea of mercy as opposed to mere power, religion has invariably recommended itself, politically speaking, to the class of mind which makes for immediate and practical progress as apart from that which seeks to encourage mere speculation.

As the ritual grew the necessity for new branches of the priesthood was discovered. At the head of the priestly organization was the shangan-makhu, and each class of priests had its chief as well. The priests were a caste, — that is, it is probable that the right to enter the priesthood was vested in certain families, but many young men were educated by the priests who did not in after life exercise their functions, but who became scribes or lawyers.

As in the case of most primitive religions, the day of the priest was carefully subdivided. It was made up of three watches, and the night was divided into a similar number of watches. Three relays of priests thus officiated through the day and three through the night.

Iraq, Akkadian Period Reign of Naramsin or Sharkalishari, ca. 2254-2193 B.C. Black stone 4.2 cm H, 2.5 cm W Purchased in New York, 1947 Oriental Institute Museum A27903 This cylinder seal was dedicated to the goddess, Ninishkun, who is interceding on the owner's behalf with the great goddess Ishtar. Ishtar places her right foot upon a roaring lion, which she restrains with a leash. The scimitar in her left hand and the weapons sprouting from her winged shoulders are a reference to her martial qualities. https://oi.uchicago.edu/collections/highlights/highlights-collection-mesopotamia

Iraq, Akkadian Period
Reign of Naramsin or Sharkalishari, ca. 2254-2193 B.C.
Black stone
4.2 cm H, 2.5 cm W
Purchased in New York, 1947
Oriental Institute Museum A27903
This cylinder seal was dedicated to the goddess, Ninishkun, who is interceding on the owner’s behalf with the great goddess Ishtar. Ishtar places her right foot upon a roaring lion, which she restrains with a leash. The scimitar in her left hand and the weapons sprouting from her winged shoulders are a reference to her martial qualities.
https://oi.uchicago.edu/collections/highlights/highlights-collection-mesopotamia

Priestesses were also known in Babylonia, and many references are made in the texts to the ‘sacred women.’ Some of these were exorcisers, and others, like the Greek pythonesses, presided at oracular shrines. The cult of Ishtar in especial had many attendant priestesses, and these were of several classes.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 239-41.

Origins of the Sacred Marriage Rite

“In the Old Babylonian period, the daughters of kings and rulers were appointed as high priestesses of the Moon-God or of the Goddess Ishtar.

The en or entu priestesses were the counterparts of male high priests. They wore distinctive clothing, a cap with raised rim, a folded garment, jewelry, and a staff, the same insignia and garments worn by the ruler.

They lived inside the sacred shrine, had charge of temple management and affairs, performed ritual and ceremonial functions, and were usually unmarried. The nin-dingir priestess in ancient Sumer had a similar role.

Assyriologists believe that it is this class of women who annually participated in the Sacred Marriage, impersonating or representing the goddess. The basis for the ritual of the Sacred Marriage was the belief that fertility of the land and of people depended on the celebration of the sexual power of the fertility goddess.

It is likely that this rite originated in the Sumerian city of Uruk, which was dedicated to the Goddess Inanna, earlier than 3000 B.C.

The Sacred Marriage was that of the Goddess Inanna and either the high priest, representing the god, or the king, identified with the God Dumuzi. In one typical poem, the encounter is initiated by the goddess, who expresses her eagerness for union with her lover. After their union, the land blossoms forth:

“Plants rose high by his side,

Grains rose high by his side… .”

The goddess, happy and satisfied, promises to bless the house of her husband, the shepherd / king:

“My husband, the goodly store house, the holy stall,

I Inanna, will preserve you for,

I will watch over your house of life.”

The annual symbolic reenactment of this mythical union was a public celebration considered essential to the well-being of the community. It was the occasion of a joyous celebration, which may have involved sexual activity on the part of the worshipers in and around the temple grounds.

It is important for us to understand that contemporaries regarded this occasion as sacred, as mythically significant for the well-being of the community, and that they regarded the king and the priestess with reverence and honored them for performing this “sacred” service.

The Sacred Marriage was performed in the temples of various fertility goddesses for nearly two thousand years. The young God-lover or son of the goddess was known as Tammuz, Attis, Adonis, Baal, and Osiris in various languages.

In some of these rituals, the sacred union was preceded by the death of the young god, symbolizing a season of drought or infertility which ended only by his resurrection through his union with the goddess. It was she who could make him alive, who could make him king, and who could empower him to make the land fertile.

Rich sexual imagery with its joyous worship of sexuality and fertility permeated poetry and myth and found expression in statuary and sculpture. Rites similar to the Sacred Marriage also flourished in classical Greece and pre-Christian Rome.”

Gerda Lerner, “The Origin of Prostitution in Ancient Mesopotamia,” Signs, 1986, pp. 239-40.

Tammuz

“Among the gods of Babylonia none achieved wider and more enduring fame than Tammuz, who was loved by Ishtar, the amorous Queen of Heaven–the beautiful youth who died and was mourned for and came to life again. He does not figure by his popular name in any of the city pantheons, but from the earliest times of which we have knowledge until the passing of Babylonian civilization, he played a prominent part in the religious life of the people.

Tammuz, like Osiris of Egypt, was an agricultural deity, and as the Babylonian harvest was the gift of the rivers, it is probable that one of his several forms was Dumu-zi-abzu, “Tammuz of the Abyss.” He was also “the child,” “the heroic lord,” “the sentinel,” “the healer,” and the patriarch who reigned over the early Babylonians for a considerable period.

“Tammuz of the Abyss” was one of the members of the family of Ea, god of the Deep, whose other sons, in addition to Merodach, were Nira, an obscure deity; Ki-gulla, “world destroyer,” Burnunta-sa, “broad ear,” and Bara and Baragulla, probably “revealers” or “oracles.” In addition there was a daughter, Khi-dimme-azaga, “child of the renowned spirit”. She may have been identical with Belit-sheri, who is referred to in the Sumerian hymns as the sister of Tammuz.

This family group was probably formed by symbolizing the attributes of Ea and his spouse Damkina. Tammuz, in his character as a patriarch, may have been regarded as a hostage from the gods: the human form of Ea, who instructed mankind, like King Osiris, how to grow corn and cultivate fruit trees. As the youth who perished annually, he was the corn spirit. He is referred to in the Bible by his Babylonian name.

When Ezekiel detailed the various idolatrous practices of the Israelites, which included the worship of the sun and “every form of creeping things and abominable beasts”–a suggestion of the composite monsters of Babylonia–he was brought “to the door of the gate of the Lord’s house, which was towards the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz.”

The weeping ceremony was connected with agricultural rites. Corn deities were weeping deities, they shed fertilizing tears; and the sowers simulated the sorrow of divine mourners when they cast seed in the soil “to die,” so that it might spring up as corn. This ancient custom, like many others, contributed to the poetic imagery of the Bible. “They that sow in tears,” David sang, “shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.”

In Egypt the priestesses who acted the parts of Isis and Nepthys, mourned for the slain corn god Osiris.

Gods and men before the face of the gods are weeping for

thee at the same time, when they behold me!…

All thy sister goddesses are at thy side and behind thy couch,

Calling upon thee with weeping–yet thou are prostrate upon thy bed!…

Live before us, desiring to behold thee.

It was believed to be essential that human beings should share the universal sorrow caused by the death of a god. If they remained unsympathetic, the deities would punish them as enemies. Worshippers of nature gods, therefore, based their ceremonial practices on natural phenomena.

“The dread of the worshippers that the neglect of the usual ritual would be followed by disaster, is particularly intelligible,” writes Professor Robertson Smith, “if they regarded the necessary operations of agriculture as involving the violent extinction of a particle of divine life.”

By observing their ritual, the worshippers won the sympathy and co-operation of deities, or exercised a magical control over nature.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

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