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Lately I have been fascinated by Mesopotamian art–particularly early Sumerian art.  Here is an inlay carved into a piece of shell from early dynastic Sumer (circa 2800-2600 BC).  It depicts the hero/king/god, Ninurta fighting a seven-headed dragon (ancient Mesopotamians were fascinated with the number seven—which they put everywhere, in case you ever wondered why the week has seven days).  Ninurta was a famous hunter and warrior (who some scholars suggest shows up in the Bible as the hunter Nimrod).  His attributes include a bow and arrows, a sickle sword, and a talking mace named Sharur! [as an aside, I feel like a mace would be a singularly brain-damaged talking entity]  Ninurta killed a sequence of seven heroic monsters in order to receive innovations and magical items (a tale which is echoed in the stories of Hercules and the offspring of Echidna).  One of the monsters he fought was this splendid 7-headed dragon which, in this carving, looks like a cross between a leopard and a seven headed snake.  This amazing mythological creature was quite likely the original version of the Greek hydra.  Additionally a seven-headed dragon has a big scary role in the events of the Book of Revelations—so he is more on people’s minds than Ninurta is, these days.  However all of these allusions and myths are not as important as the vitality and beauty of this amazing artwork—which is nearly 5 thousand years old!

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Ningishzida (middle figure) bringing Adapa of Eridu to Anu (on throne at right)

Ningishzida was a Mesopotamian deity, worshiped in the city of Gishbanda which lay near Ur in the orchards of the Fertile Crescent.  It seems that he was originally a tree god (the name Ningishzida means “lord of the sacred/giving tree” in Sumerian, the first known written language), but he became associated with fertility, the underworld, and the healing force of nature. I wish I could tell you more about Ningishzida, but, remember how I mentioned Sumerian was the first known language?  Surviving texts concerning Ningishzida are ancient.  The texts were baked into clay tablets and these have become smashed and broken.  When translated they look like this (roll over the links along the left side for source identification and click any of the “GI” links for English translations). There is beauty, nature, the underworld, and magic.  There are serpents and lions and glowing portals, but the meaning is unclear (to say the least).

The “libation vase of Gudea”, dedicated to Ningishzida (21st century BC). the double helix depicts the deity.

Yet if the combination of fertility, a magical tree, the Fertile Crescent, and a serpent do not seem immediately familiar to you, perhaps you should peruse the book which comes free with the hotel room (you don’t even have to read very far).  Scholarly tradition asserts that the Pentateuch was written before or during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century. The author/authors seem to have used Mesopotamian sources for the portions which deal with creation and primeval history.

The Caduceus

Ningishzida is portrayed as either a serpent with the head of a man, or, more frequently, as a double-headed serpent coiled into a double helix.  It is believed that the Greeks also made use of this symbolism in their myth of the caduceus, the wand of Hermes/Mercury which is associates with theft, deception, and death (for Mercury was a psychopomp who led souls to the underworld with his staff).  Of course contemporary people are familiar with the double helix as well.  We know that DNA, the fundamental blueprint of life is latticed together on a double helix.  It is strange that the first use of this symbol is a mysterious Sumerian tree/snake god who apparently also appealed to Jewish scholars during the Babylonian captivity.

Shamash was the Mesopotamian deity of the sun.  To the Akkadians, Assyrians, and the Babylonians he was synonymous with justice, generosity, and salvation.  However there was a second solar deity in the Mesopotamian pantheon, Nergal, who was not associated with such positive aspects of existence.  Nergal was the child of Enlil, god of the wind, who was exiled from earth for raping Ninlin, the goddess of the open fields. Ninlin followed Enlil into exile and gave birth to their son Nergal in the underworld (Sumerian myth-makers should be ashamed of the sexism of this story).  Nergal’s dark origins foreshadowed his nature. Unlike Shamash, who represented the life giving power of the sun and divine justice, Nergal was only associated with certain phases of the sun. To quote Wikipedia “Portrayed in hymns and myths as a god of war and pestilence, Nergal seems to represent the sun of noontime and of the summer solstice that brings destruction, high summer being the dead season in the Mesopotamian annual cycle.”

Akkadian Seal of Nergal with a sickle-sword and a mace with two feline heads (c. 2360–2180 BCE, carved from soapstone)

As a god of plague, drought, fire, and insufferable heat, Nergal quickly came to be associated with death and the underworld. He was portrayed either as a powerful man bearing a sickle-sword and a mace, or as a lion with a man’s head.

Although he was a terrible god of destruction, the main myth we have about Nergal is romantic in nature. Mesopotamian scholars have discovered and translated a poetic epic recounting Nergal’s tempestuous courtship of the dark goddess Ereshkigal (the queen of the underworld, who once gave Ishtar such a wretched time).   After a passionate tryst, Nergal left Ereshkigal, who thereafter was overwhelmed by passionate longing for further intimacy.  Hearing of her unhappiness and realizing how much he in turn missed her, Nergal abandoned his place in the heavens and traveled down through the seven gates of hell to rejoin Ereshkigal.  The two death gods then shared a bed for seven days and seven nights before marrying and jointly sharing rule of the underworld (it’s a happy story!).

A modern painting of Nergal

Despite the felicity of his connubial circumstances, to the people of Mesopotamia, Nergal represented the unpredictability of mortal life and early unnatural death.  He was worshiped, particularly at his chief temple located at Cuthah (a smaller city just northeast of Babylon) but his cult was far from the most popular. Unlike many other Babylonian deities, Nergal was mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 17:30) and his name has therefore found a place among the demons and boogeymen of Christianity. If you search for “Nergal” on the internet you are likely to find the picture of a heavy metal singer from Poland dressed up in gothic makeup!

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