Food for the Gods

March 28, 2014

Sumerian worshiper.
Sumerian worshiper. Photo Rosemaniakos.

In the ancient Mesopotamian view of the universe, humans were created as servants for the gods. In recognition of their status as mortals, not gods, each city built elaborate temples where they performed essential rites to the greater beings. One core duty for the temple staff was the preparation and dedication of food.

By any measure, the gods had humongous appetites. They ate four meals a day: two large and two small meals. At the temple complex in Uruk, one of the smaller daily meals included six sheep, eight lambs, one steer, seven ducks, eight geese, four dormice, four pigs, thirty pigeons, three ostrich eggs, and three duck eggs. Ishtar and three major deities received a total of thirty loaves of bread apiece per day, with minor deities each receiving fifteen. Grapes, figs, dates and candy were also served, along with the ubiquitous beer. Apparently the gods didn’t have to eat their vegetables, because none are mentioned.

In order to understand the process of feeding the gods, it is necessary to move out of a Judeo-Christian concept of offering. As Jean Bottero explains,

Biblical sacrifice, the idea of which we have become more or less accustomed to, is basically a negative gesture: it deprives us – and we willingly accept this deprivation – of something we reserve for God without his having a need or use for it. In Mesopotamia, on the other hand, sacrifice, offerings to the gods, were positive actions: what was given to them, they needed.

bull.grainIn order to understand the role of food in religious life, it is also necessary to move out of contemporary constructs about food. We think of food as fuel or sustenance, we think of food as sensory enjoyment, we think of certain foods as symbolic, and we think of shared food as a means of social cohesion. For Mesopotamians food was all of these things, but it was something more. Food was imbued with certain powers, particularly the power of life. The various prayers and ceremonies involved in the harvesting, milling, butchering, and preparing of food enhanced these powers and added new ones. Recall that when Inanna is trapped in the underworld unable to save herself, the god Enki sends his representatives down to revive her with the “bread of life” and “water of life.” Recall also from the previous post that Ereshkigal participated in an important ceremony not by being present but by partaking in the food that was served. Throughout Sumerian and Akkadian myth the idea is implied but not specifically spelled out that food is a means of disseminating power.

Millers, farmers, herders, and others donated the basic ingredients to meet the voracious appetites of the gods. There were specifications about how animals destined for the temple should be raised and fed. All of the meat was high quality and some of it was exceptional. Special prayers were spoken when butchering temple animals or when milling grain that would be used for temple bread. Though high quality ingredients were used in food preparation, and meals were served on the finest platters and vessels by priests or priestesses dressed in immaculate clothing, the recipes themselves were basic. Meat was grilled or boiled rather than simmered in the elaborate sauces that characterized Mesopotamian cooking from the empire stage onward, at least for people with means. The gods were believed to be traditionalists in their culinary tastes, preferring food as it was prepared in prehistory.

What finally became of all that food? The accounting involved in meeting the meal specifications for the gods must have been daunting in itself. In fact, we have learned much about the feeding of the gods by making inferences from temple accounting records, which are extensive. The food could not have been left outside the city once the gods had gorged themselves without creating a huge problem with lions, hyenas, and other scavengers. Nor could this much food have been consumed by the what must have been a large temple staff. Though Mesopotamian cultures in historic times, and even in the archaeological records of prehistory, were highly class stratified, this food would not have been destined for the tables of aristocrats. As mentioned a few posts back, rich men employed an extensive kitchen staff to prepare elaborate meals catering to their sophisticated tastes. They would not have eaten such simple food except when participating in religious rites. Unfortunately the temple accountants did not see a need to document how the food was disbursed once the gods had eaten their share. Probably it was given away.


Bottero, Jean. The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Temple complex in city of Uruk. Drawing Lamassu Design.
Temple complex in city of Uruk. Drawing Lamassu Design.

Feasting with the Dead

March 21, 2014

Mosaic from royal tomb. Photo Alma E. Guinness
Mosaic from royal tomb. Photo Alma E. Guinness

On the last day of the month, as the moon disappeared, Sumerians gathered to celebrate family ties, everyone bringing food to share. The ancestors also took part in these gatherings. The ceremony was called kishiga meaning “food on the ground” by the Sumerians and later kispu by the Akkadians. “Food on the ground” probably referred to the practice of leaving offerings for the dead on the bare earth. The dead were believed to be slight waifs needing little food or water, but they still required regular feedings. Unfortunately we do not know exactly what food was served, but it was probably simple rather than elaborate fare and no doubt included bread and beer.

The timing of the monthly gathering at the disappearance of the moon is curious, because it suggests that menstrual seclusion might not have been practiced among the Sumerians. In most nonindustrial societies women either naturally bled at the disappearing moon, or herbal and other remedies were used to encourage this to happen. The presence of menstruating women at this gathering would mean there were no fears about menstruating women being vulnerable to ghosts, no fears about menstruating women spoiling food, and probably no special diet for menstruating women as well. Either that, or women who were menstruating did not take part in the ceremony and left food preparation to non-menstruating women (or even men). Still another possibility is that the women in menstrual seclusion ate special foods that were prepared for the meal with the ancestors, and they took part in the ceremony not by being present but by having the blessed food brought to them. This last conjecture is plausible because in one myth the gods have a banquet in heaven which the goddess Ereshkigal cannot attend as she is needed at her post in the underworld, and the gods invite her to send a representative to bring banquet food to her. The eating of the food, not presence at the table, counts as participation.

The kispu occurred at other times during the year in addition to the monthly holy day, and sometimes the kispu was a state holiday sponsored by the king. He would arrange this meal to honor past kings (including kings from former dynasties), the dead subjects of the kingdom who might not have descendents to make the required offerings, and those soldiers who died in service to the king.

The monthly meal for relatives dead and alive was not the same as the funerary meal for the newly deceased. In this ceremony, of which we know very little, bodies were usually buried with food and water. Additional food offerings might be left on the graves, and sometimes there was a clay straw leading from the deceased’s mouth to the surface as a conduit for water.

We will wrap up this exploration of the cuisine of Mesopotamia with a look at the food of the gods.


Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. Teresa Lavender Fagan, trans. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1992.

Bottero, Jean. The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Bottero, Jean. Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia. Teresa Lavender Fagan, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Grahn, Judy. Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

More Drinking in Mesopotamia

February 21, 2014

Another record of beer sale. Photo Babelstone.
Another record of beer sale. Photo Babelstone.

The Sumerians already had the technology of brewing beer when they arrived in Mesopotamia from unknown parts. Dedicated beer drinkers though they were, the Sumerians did not invent the process of fermenting grain and their words related to this process come from an unknown culture. The brew was drunk communally from a large vessel with straws. Mesopotamians consumed beer with food and on its own, and also used beer in cooking and in medicine. Some households made their own beer, but breweries also delivered to houses. Brewing was originally a woman’s occupation, although over time there was encroachment by men into this area. Women owned and managed the taverns.

In some ways the taverns of Mesopotamia were like those of today only more so. They were places for gossip and wasting time. Sexual activity often accompanied the drinking, including prostitution and homosexual activity, which is graphically portrayed in pictures. The euphoric effects of alcohol were as much a purpose of drinking in the tavern as the camaraderie, although scholars do not believe that habitual drunkenness was a feature of Mesopotamian life, partly because the drink was not very potent. Rulers looked on the taverns with distaste. It was not the prostitution, homosexuality, or inebriation they objected to – Mesopotamians held no judgment about these things – but the potential public houses presented for political intrigue. There also seems to have been a general disapproval of people habitually indulging in idle gatherings during the afternoons. Priestesses were forbidden to enter the taverns, perhaps because sexual relations with men were not allowed in some priestess roles.

The subject of drinking often arises in myth. In his epic search for eternal life, Gilgamesh encounters a female tavern owner who urges him to abandon his quest.

until the end, 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.

The scene sets out starkly the choice humans face of pursuing grand ambitions which may bring frustration and unfulfillment versus the abandonment of dreams for temporal pleasures.


Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1992.

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

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

Beer drinking scene from a cylindrical seal, circa 2600 B.C.E.
Beer drinking scene from a cylindrical seal, circa 2600 B.C.E.

Drinking in Mesopotamia

February 14, 2014

Barley field. Photo Daniel Schwen.
Barley field. Photo Daniel Schwen.
I don’t know if other priestesses begin to notice a pattern in the goddesses they are attracted to in the various pantheons. With a few exceptions, I seem to gravitate toward the young mother goddesses rather than the crone goddesses, although I respect and acknowledge the crone’s power. A friend of mine seems to like goddesses that are associated with pigs, and she was surprised when I pointed that out. Recently I’ve become aware of another idiosyncrasy in my goddess studies: my unconscious attraction to goddesses who like beer.

The Mesopotamians loved their beer. They even had a beer goddess, Ninkasi, and all the gods were enthusiastic beer drinkers. (Ninkasi is one of the eight children of Ninhursaga and Enki mentioned in my book Invoking Animal Magic.) The god Enki, known for his often generous and sometimes erratic behavior, gives the gifts of civilization to Inanna while in an expansive drunken mood. (He regrets this when he sobers up.)

Even the Egyptians, who also loved their beer, used wine as well as beer in religious and funerary rites, and pharaohs devoted time and attention to grape cultivation and wine making. In northern Mesopotamia rich men also cultivated grapes, and wine was imported, but nowhere did the fermented grape surpass the fermented grain (though it seems Ninkasi presided over both). Descriptors of beer quality, type, and manufacture rival those in other Mediterranean cultures for wine. The Greeks deplored the Mesopotamian’s fidelity to beer as an unfortunate flaw in an otherwise civilized culture.

Beer was made from fermented grains, usually barley. According to Jean Bottero:

Although necessarily different from our beer, it was still essentially made from a base of various grains, first germinated and malted in damp conditions and then, once malting was completed, heated in water into which various aromatic products had been added. (Hops were unknown in that area, but dodder [probably a red vegetable dye–HMR] was used, and many other flavoring agents as well.) Then the mash was left to ferment.

The resulting brew was not very high in alcohol content, and was often further diluted with water, but it nonetheless produced in expansive feeling. Here is an excerpt from a drinking song, translated by Jeremy Black:

Receipt written for beer delivery by scribe Ur-Amma. Photo Tom L. Lee.
Receipt written for beer delivery by scribe Ur-Amma. Photo Tom L. Lee.

In the troughs made with bur grass, there is sweet beer. I will have the cupbearers, the boys and the brewers stand by. As I spin around the lake of beer, while feeling wonderful, feeling wonderful, while drinking beer, in a blissful mood, while drinking alcohol and feeling exhilarated, with joy in the heart and a contented liver — my heart is a heart filled with joy! I clothe my contented liver in a garment fit for a queen! The heart of Inana is happy once again; the heart of Inana is happy once again!

We are not done drinking in Mesopotamia. Next week more libations will be poured.


Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Ebeling, J., Flückiger-Hawker, E., Robson, E., Taylor, J., and Zólyomi, G., The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (, Oxford 1998–2006.

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

Hornsey, Ian Spencer. A History of Beer and Brewing. Cambridge, UK: Royal Chemistry Society, 2003.

Cooking in Mesopotamia

February 7, 2014

What was cooking and eating like in Mesopotamia? Last week’s post gave some idea of the range of ingredients used by Mesopotamian chefs. It is not surprising that food in Mesopotamia was heavily spiced, given the evidence that even hunter-gatherers seasoned their food. What is interesting is the variety and sophistication of the cooking techniques.

Meat was typically braised over a large open fire to seal in the juices, then deboned, trimmed of gristle, and cut into smaller pieces. It was then transferred to a large clay pot to simmer in broth and vegetables over a stove, somewhat like we would do with a crockpot. Regulated high heat cooking was done in a smaller metal pan. There are many descriptions for grain dishes cooked in broth and animal fat. Unleavened bread would be flattened and cooked quickly on hot clay surfaces or in ceramic cooking molds. Bread was leavened with beer or some other fermented mixture and baked in a dome oven. Over 200 varieties of bread are mentioned, many of which resemble cakes or pastries. Various shells and baskets made of bread were used as serving containers for meat. Salt was sometimes used for curing meat or fish. Fish might also be cut in thin pieces and dried. Fruits and vegetables might be dried in the sun or in slow ovens devised for this purpose. Since there was a ready supply of heat and sunshine, I wonder if cooks might have had a source of solar cooking, but this is not mentioned in any of my books. While trees were sparse in most of the region, particularly in the south, there was enough scrub vegetation for charcoal, which was produced for cooking.

Fermented dairy products, surprisingly, were unknown, but milk had to be quickly processed in that hot climate. Milk products were usually consumed as cream, buttermilk, or cheese. Butter was clarified.

Culinary records that survive emphasize cleanliness of hands and utensils and the need to wash certain ingredients thoroughly. None of the recommendations on hygienic food preparation are as complex as Jewish dietary laws, but there are indications that cleanliness was a concern. Pork was consumed (as was shellfish), but pigs are described as unclean in their habits, needing special care in raising. There are no explicit food taboos, although it seems that eating dogs or horses would not have occurred to anyone. (Europeans ate both.) There were strictures against eating certain foods on certain days or times of the year, and it is unclear whether this was for religious or other reasons.

The table of the gods will be discussed in another section, but it is worth noting here that foods for the divine epicure were prepared simply. Meat was roasted; bread was basic. It seems that conservatism was the basis for this, the texts mentioning that foods for the gods are prepared according to the old ways. This is interesting to me because Pagans today offer old-fashioned libations to the Goddess: wine, mead, beer, water or fruit juice. It would not occur to me to offer her a cola, and I doubt anyone has ever given her a highball.

Speaking of libations, next week’s post will talk about drinking in Mesopotamia.

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

Cuisine of Mesopotamia

January 31, 2014

Photo Luigi Chiesa

Surprisingly little is discussed about the enjoyment of food in ancient Mesopotamia, even though a rather extensive culinary record is extant. Once the Akkadians and Sumerians of this region began practicing irrigation, the rich soils and hot climate yielded a rich abundance of food that persisted for three millennia. At one time it was believed that agriculture began in this region. We now know this is not true, but the diversity and surfeit of human produced food, as well as the complexity of food preparation, is truly remarkable.

Over the next few weeks I will be writing about food, feasting, and drink in Mesopotamia. Most of the information presented here comes from Jean Bottero’s 2004 book The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia. As Bottero notes, all societies develop “routines and rituals, perhaps even myths, to regulate the use of food, indeed, to confer a value upon food that goes beyond the mere consumption of it…”

Here is the menu for a feast ordered by Assyrian King Assurnasirpa II (northern Mesopotamia circa 850 B.C.E.) to celebrate the conclusion of a large construction project. This feast was prepared for 69,570 people and included the king’s staff, the population of the city, guests invited from outside the city, plus all the workers who had participated in the project–and of course, all the gods.

1,000 oxen
1,000 calves and young lambs
14,000 sheep and 200 oxen “from the flocks belonging to Ishtar, my mistress”
1,000 fattened sheep
1,000 lambs
500 deer
500 gazelles
1,000 large birds
1,000 geese and other fowl
2,000 suki and qaribe birds (don’t know what those are)
10,000 pigeons
10,000 doves
10,000 small birds
10,000 fish
10,000 locusts
10,000 eggs
10,000 measures of beer
10,000 skins of wine

Photo Bohringer Friedrich.
Photo Bohringer Friedrich.

quantities of barley, wheat, sesame, carob, garlic, onions, lentils, turnips, milk, pomegranates, grapes, pistachios, almonds, figs, dates, roses, cumin, aniseed, watercress, and various other foods and spices which cannot be translated.

Sounds like quite a party! Next week I will discuss how all of this food might have been prepared.

The Cedar Forest

August 3, 2012


They stood at the edge of the Cedar Forest,
marveling at the great height of the trees.
They could see, before them, a well marked trail
beaten by Humbaba as he came and went.
Far off they saw the Cedar Mountain,
sacred to Ishtar, where the gods dwell,
the slopes of it steep, and rich in cedars
with their sharp fragrance and pleasant shade.
Gilgamesh, Stephen Mitchell, trans.

Extensive cedar forests once covered Lebanon, Western Syria and parts of Turkey. Cedars in this region are known as Lebanon Cedars and are not closely related to the many other trees around the world called cedar, such as the White Cedar, which is a cypress, or the Red Cedar, which is a juniper. What trees bestowed with the name cedar seem to have in common is an aromatic wood resistant to insects and to rot. They may also have a fine resin; the Lebanon Cedar resin was exported to Ancient Egypt for embalming.

Cedar forest in Lebanon. Photo by Jerzy Strzelecki.

It was to the great cedar forests west of Mesopotamia that the hero Gilgamesh and his partner Enkidu journeyed on what was essentially a timber raid. In order to take the trees, the giant tree guardian Humbaba, servant of the god Enlil, had to be vanquished. Humbaba is a protective deity whose image is displayed in Mesopotamian seals and wall plaques. Gilgamesh relished the thought of slaying Humbaba, at least at the onset of the journey. He did have attacks of cowardice as the confrontation grew near, yet he overcame his terror and killed the giant.
Humbaba. Circa 1700 b.c.e.

With Humbaba out of the way, the heroes cut choice trees from the forest, binding the logs together to make a raft. They decided to set aside the best cedar for a giant door in Enlil’s temple — a good move, since Enlil was displeased about the slaying of his servant. Interestingly, the deity who did not seem miffed with the lumber thieves and giant murderers was Ishtar, the one whose forest had been plundered. When Gilgamesh returned to his city, she asked him to be her lover, offering him jewels, a chariot and a large cedar house.

Ishtar is the Mesopotamian deity who brought prosperity, technology, music, dancing, writing and many other gifts to humanity. She is a generous goddess, unlike her father Enlil who can sometimes be stingy or destructive. She delights in helping civilization to flourish. Ishtar is usually categorized as a fertility goddess, or a goddess or sexual love, which is certainly true, but it does not capture her complete essence. She is like cedar wood, a pervasive fragrance instinctively drawn in. With her concern for providing well for her cities, she would have naturally choosen to bestow a tree with a long lasting wood ideal for building.
Cones of Lebanon Cedar. Photo by Line1.


Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1992.

George, Andrew, trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh. London: Penguin Books, 1999.

Jewell, Eleanor. Facts About Cedar Trees.

Ketchledge, E.H. Forests and Trees of the Adirondack High Peaks Region. Lake George, NY: Adirondack Mountain Club, 1996.

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

World Biomes. Lebanon Cedar.

Good Morning, Little Dove

February 17, 2012

Two Mourning Doves
Mourning Doves. Photo by R.L. Sivaprasad.

The Iseum (space of worship) chartered through me by The Fellowship of Isis is called The Temple of the Doves. Why doves? The dove is one of the feathery creatures most beloved of the goddess, and a particular favorite of a divinity close to my heart: the goddess Ishtar.

Reverence for the dove is ancient and enduring, possibly extending back to the Stone Age. According to Marija Gimbutas, “Small birds were sculpted, engraved, and painted throughout prehistory. In Minoan Crete they appear perching on shrines, pillars, and the Goddess’s head. Unfortunately, it is not possible to recognize the species of birds portrayed, except in a very few cases.” Since doves and other pigeons like to roost in large buildings, and the first building complexes were places of worship, the religious significance of the dove may have grown up around the temple. Devotees would have assumed the doves came to bring messages from the sky gods or to carry prayers back to them. These doves would not have been exclusively the subjects and messengers of any god in particular, instead serving the deity of the temple where they lived.

As we move from decayed artifacts to religious writing, the sacred role of doves becomes less obscure. Sumerian hymns refer to doves as temple inhabitants and the dove plays an important role in both the Babylonian and Hebrew accounts of the Great Flood. Doves and other pigeons were commonly sacrificed in Mesopotamia, the Levant and (to a lesser extent) Egypt. Dove sacrifice was particularly important in early Judaism, and doves are the most frequently appearing birds in the Old Testament. Doves would have been sacrificial candidates due to their value (they were used for food and fertilizer) and their easy availabilty, but their temple association was probably a key component. The demand for sacrificial doves was so high that, inconceivable as it sounds, doves and other pigeons were actually bred in large numbers for the temples.

Scholars believe that the dove association with the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar came late, which fits with my surmise that doves originally served many mistresses. Astarte, who is a fertility goddess like Ishtar, had an extensive cult throughout the Levant and is unquestionably linked with doves. Today it is the dove, rather than the original lion, that goddess worshippers most often associate with Ishtar. The dove’s plump, curving features, her gurgling coos and her soft, sweet melodies carry a voluptuous aura which naturally evokes this goddess of sexual love.

The early Christian sects, who worshipped a feminine form of wisdom they called Sophia, linked Sophia with the white dove, also one of Aphrodite’s many animal totems. Recognition of Sophia withered under patriarchal Christianity, though her worship has been revived in some of the more liberal churches. Her dove emblem continues as the symbol of the Holy Ghost.

Doves have always been close personal friends of mine. As a child, I would sit in my room listening to the mourning doves on the wires outside my window, and it felt like they were speaking to my heart. Even today, I think their music is one of the most beautiful and soothing sounds in nature.


Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.
Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989.
MacKenzie, Donald A. Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915. Sacred Texts.
Walker, Barbara. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.

More information about the pigeon family here.