The Mathematical Priestess, part II

May 29, 2015
Uruk Temple. Drawing Lamassu Design.
Uruk Temple. Drawing Lamassu Design.

In Mesopotamia the first accounting systems arose out of the need to record and disperse temple commodities. Many of these early accounting scribes were women. As societies became more complex, arithmetical systems developed to accommodate trade, architecture, irrigation, and land division. Math and record-keeping were also necessary for the development of Mesopotamian astrology, which was the genesis for the Greek astrological system we use today. We’re not talking about grade school arithmetic at this point either: Mesopotamians had a base 60 counting system (it eased division), utilized square and cube root tables, calculated compound interest, and (by the later period) could calculate the time of an eclipse to within a few minutes. Both Mesopotamians and Egyptians understood triangular relationships long before Pythagoras, although the Greeks did provide the theorems.

The Goddess and the City

May 1, 2015


The mythology of Mesopotamia revolves around the accouterments of civilization to a surprising degree. Maybe it’s because cities were founded so early in that region, sometime before 4,000 B.C.E. One myth even concerns itself primarily on how Inanna brought various technologies to her city of Uruk. Another myth describes how wild creatures were banished from a tree so it could be fashioned for Inanna’s throne. The most famous Mesopotamian myth, The Epic of Gilgamesh, concerns itself with the tensions between urban and rural life.

I just finished a book called Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City by Gwendolyn Leick that underscored for me the central place of the city in Mesopotamian religious life. Before the invention of cities, the gods lived in heaven, and they created dry land in the sea below with the idea of building a dwelling place for themselves. That dwelling was the temple, and the surrounding city, like humans themselves, was created to serve the needs of the gods in their home. Leike points out “Thus the Mesopotamian Eden is not a garden but a city, formed from a piece of dry land surrounded by waters.” The significance of this reason for creating earth is that “Contrary to the biblical Eden, from which man was banished for ever after the Fall, Eridu remained a real place, imbued with sacredness but always accessible.”

There have not been a lot of books about Mesopotamia in English published in the last twenty years that are directed toward a lay audience, and still fewer written by women. My interest in Mesopotamia is in religion from a feminist standpoint, and I have no interest in urban planning and still less in the dizzying history of war and conquest in this region. I trusted that my subject would be treated at least tangentially, and I was pleasantly surprised. This was a reminder yet again that you cannot understand the religion of a culture without understanding many aspects that our secularized society has designated nonreligious.

This is a book for people who have already read a bit about Mesopotamia. The material is dense, although clearly written, and there is a lot of politics that will not interest most people. The biases of the milieu Leick comes from are apparent, especially in the first few chapters where the dearth of evidence necessitates some speculation. Unlike many academic writers she does address issues of class, ethnicity, and women’s status, and she identifies places where religious texts are driven by political concerns. I recommend that novices start with Mesopotamian myth and poetry, such as that found in Gilgamesh: A New English Translation by Stephen Mitchell or Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer, which also has some introductory commentary. But if you’re ready to move on to some historical context, this is a book I would check out.

There is still time to sign up for my online course Emerging Interpretations of Inanna’s Descent.

The Joy of Laughing with Them

March 27, 2015

One of the things I appreciate greatly about Mesopotamian mythology is the humor. It’s not just the things that sound funny to us today, from far outside the culture, that tickle me. There are some of those, to be sure, as there are with any mythology. When Ishtar issues her zombie threat at the gates of hell, declaring she will raise up the dead to devour the living unless she is allowed to pass through, Americans giggle because we think zombies are hilarious. Mesopotamians were chuckling because when Ishtar issues this blackmail she has not yet been to hell (she’s trying to get in!) and has no power there. It is an empty threat. Also, even if the scenario she describes were something she would do (it isn’t), it’s a bit of overkill.

Sometimes we understand right away what the Mesopotamians were laughing at, such as when the god Enki gives Inanna all the accoutrements of civilization while he is in a drunken expansive mood, then gets an a dudgeon when he sobers up and realizes all his stuff is missing. Other times it takes some familiarity with ancient cultures to catch the humor. In the Gilgamesh myth the hero Enkidu takes the haunch of the bull he has just killed, to Ishtar’s outrage, and he throws it at the goddess. The haunch was considered the choicest part of the animal, and when a bull was sacrificed this was the part that was ritually offered to the deity. Here, instead of offering the haunch with humble obeisance, the hero is deliberately offending the goddess by throwing it at her. No doubt there are a lot of inside jokes in these stories that we don’t have the background to catch.

Sometimes the stories don’t convey humor so much as wry irony. This is the case with the story of how the fly came to pester humankind, or how Gilgamesh lost his herb of immortality.

I will be teaching an online class in another month where we well discuss these myths, particularly the one about Inanna’s descent into the underworld. Reading materials and instructions for joining the live sessions will be available April 26, and the first live session will be Sunday, May 3. Sessions will last for about an hour and meet every other week until July 26. The class will be taught through Mago Academy, and information for signing up can be found at this website.

New Online Class: Emerging Interpretations of Inanna’s Descent

February 27, 2015

I am pleased to announce that I will be teaching a longer online course through Mago Academy that will meet seven times over the course of three months. The subject will be Inanna’s descent to the underworld and her subsequent return. I have long believed that this myth deserves more scrutiny than it typically receives. While it is enjoyable at the first read, it is still a complex myth that takes some time to appreciate. More information and registration can be found here.

Sheep Knuckles and Cylinder Seals

September 19, 2014

I’m blogging today about a piece of information about cylinder seals I ran across in a children’s nonfiction book on Mesopotamia. The book is Passport to the Past: Mesopotamia by Lorna Oakes.

Cylinder seals are small cylindrical carved pieces designed to make impressions in clay. They were used in Mesopotamia to sign documents and affix ownership. Kings, officials, and just about anyone with wealth or rank had their own unique seal which they guarded carefully. These seals might be carved of ivory, shell, bone, limestone, or lapis lazuli. According to Oakes, some believe these seals evolved from sheep knuckles used for the same purpose. The book has a picture of a seal with a knob in the shape of a sheep. I could not find a public domain photo of this cylinder, but I did find another cylinder pictured here that has sheep carved into its knob.

Cylinder seal. Top knob has a sheep design.
Cylinder seal. Top knob has a sheep design. Uruk 3200 b.c.e. Photo Marie-Lan Nguyen.
The sheep knuckle is a small roughly square six-sided bone from the hind legs of the animal. This bone, or analogous bones from deer, antelope, and goats, has been ubiquitous in cultures all over the world. Most commonly it is used for playing games (knuckle bones were the prototype for gaming dice), but it is also used for divination and casting lots. Sheep knuckles have also been carved as amulets and votive offerings. Animal knuckles are often found in burial sites. I don’t know if the sheep knuckle could be used in forensics like fingerprints, but the pictures I’ve seen show considerable variation, so it’s plausible that indentations in clay from a sheep’s knuckle could have been used like a signature. A carved knuckle would have been even more recognizable.
Roman women throwing knuckles.
Roman women throwing knuckles.

I have quite a few books on Mesopotamia but none go into the evolution of cylinder seals. Oakes lists the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago as sources. If anyone has a written source about the role of sheep bones in the evolution of cylinder seals please let me know.

Tasting Life to Its Fullest: My Love Affair with Mesopotamian Culture

April 4, 2014

Photo Michel Wal
Photo Michel Wal

This post concludes our in-depth exploration of Mesopotamian cuisine, inspired by Jean Bottero’s wonderful book, The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia. Bottero states in his conclusion

In writing this book I did not intend to provide an exhaustive, scholarly study of eating and drinking among our venerable ancestors from ancient Mesopotamia. Such a work would have been tedious and dry, addressed (at the expense of honest readers) only to academics, who scarcely need it and may not want it.

I am not an academic or a scholar, so I appreciate that attention was paid to making the study of Mesopotamian cuisine interesting. I have, however, read a fair amount about the Sumerians and Akkadians, more than the average Pagan, so I also have some general context in which to place this cornucopia of information about food. One thing that jelled for me in exploring this book, which had only vaguely registered before, was an appreciation for the enthusiasm with which the ancient Mesopotamians approached the business of life. This can be glimpsed in their descriptions of their games, in the homage paid in word and picture to lovemaking, and in the exuberance with which the hero Gilgamesh throws himself into adventure, friendship, and even sorrow. Yet it was only in studying the art and excess of their food and drink that I came to recognize the Mesopotamian commitment to enjoying life. This was not merely the hedonism of “eat, drink, and be merry,” although sensuality certainly played a part. Mesopotamians worked as hard as they played, and they took significant pride in their accomplishments. They also loved hard: they loved their cities, their craftsmanship, their civilization, and the gods who rewarded them so generously for their labors. Their joie de vivre was not tempered by cynicism, as it so often is today, although they had a fine appreciation for ironic humor. If in the ancient world the Egyptians strove to be memorable, the Israelites to be good, the Greeks to be wise, the Romans to be victorious, the Celts to be honorable, and the Germans to be brave, the Mesopotamians strove to extract the most satisfying enjoyment possible out of life.

In closing let’s turn once again to the words of the tavern keeper, sometimes identified as the goddess Ninkasi, to Gilgamesh

Humans are born, they live, then they die,
this is the order that the gods have decreed.
But until the end comes, enjoy your life,
spend it in happiness, not despair.
Savor your food, make each of your days
a delight, bathe and anoint yourself,
wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean,
let music and dancing fill your house,
love the child who holds you by the hand,
and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.
That is the best way for a man to live.


Bottero, Jean. The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia. Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Mitchell, Stephen. Gilgamesh: A New English Version. New York: Free Press, 2004.

Feeding the sacred herd. Photo Louvre Oriental Antiquities Collection.
Feeding the sacred herd. Photo Louvre Oriental Antiquities Collection.