So... what's Mesopotato? Err, Misosoupteamama. Cough. Sorry. Mesopotamia!
What in the world is that? Ask 10 Singaporean students and 9 will give you a typical student’s empty stare; the blank stare that you give your mathematics teacher when he asks you to find the speed of the falling apple given that Gilgamesh has 3 goats.
Blank stare. “Huh?”
Here's to rekindling that spark of memory from Class 4. Mesopotamia means “Land between the Rivers” in Greek and those who lived there consisted primarily of 2 groups: those who speak Sumerian and those of Semitic Dialects.
Mesopotamia resided groups of people of different cultures and beliefs, from those studying their scriptures, to those worshiping their gods, and their various attitudes towards women. These people believe in polytheism, that they are multiple gods and goddesses to worship instead of having one single god almighty. Fun fact: Mesopotamia is NOT the name of the civilization, it is simply the NAME of the land in which the people lived on!
Confused? Or already lost at this point?
Good. No one cares.
Juuuuuust kidding we’ll help!
We'll be looking at how attitudes towards female religious figures has affected the women in Mesopotamia, in their practices and beliefs. Women in the polytheistic Mesopotamia were often regarded as Goddesses. They were figures of authority and possessed strong qualities of being bold, ambitious, firm, and strong in character. A great example would be the immortal Queen Elizabeth ll, who was one of the high priestess then. She was in fact thousands of years old. And if you have not realised, we are in fact joking!
For real now, our main case studies focuses on Goddess Ninlil and Goddess Ishtar, and how both of them went to the underworld without fear, embracing the YOLO.
I WORSHIP THEE
(and you, and you, and you, and...)
The Mesopotamians practiced a polytheistic religion. They believed in having not just one god to worship, but in fact MANY gods, probably beyond the number of fingers and toes of your village combined! They were said to have established their own belief system, with the infinite choices of gods and goddesses that they can worship!
Here’s where the women come into play: Goddesses. They were regarded as goddesses and priestesses. Women possessed strong roles for their religion in the ancient Mesopotamian culture. Not only were they held in high position and authority, they were also thought by the people, to be powerful and in some cases, of superiority!
GURLS, WHAT DO Y'ALL DO?
Wealthy families were seen sending their daughters to the temples with an appropriate dowry, in which her role would then be to present what they had while interceding for the family’s needs in prayers. With the help of other chief priestesses, they were able to aid the people in knowing what the deities wishes for them were. Carved in wood, necklaces, bracelets and rings, they were custom made according to the goddesses and gods that women worshiped. Since jewelry has become stereotypically one that of a woman, you can recognise a woman’s faithful committing in following their gods.
The three main things that regular women in Mesopotamia mostly did in the Babylonia era 2000-331 BC were house-making, prostitution, and getting by with menial skills. With reference to the all-knowing internet, women were in charge of carrying out the duties of a basic housewife in current day context.
Ordinary women did not get to learn in schools ran by religious leaders. There was an exception though, that this exclusive rule were meant only for females born with royale blood. Regular women grew up learning how to manage the household as a wife in preparation for the future. By future, it actually meant ages as young as 14. (I know right?!)
Their very own families could trade their daughters to the temple, and through this they gained honor, like little “gold stars” as in glory and recognition. Not only so, since priestesses were also otherwise known as “hookers” in our context, and prostitutes in the Babylonian era, families did have the right to sell their daughters into slavery or to being seducers.
Shockingly, it was never considered disgraceful to be a prostitute, nor did it demote one's social status. Instead, engaging in sex with deities in the holy sites like temples existed coherently with non-religious prostitution. In other words, religious prostitution in the Neo Babylonian era was not only a way of gaining power in the Mesopotamian society, but also a way make one's name great.
Powerful Woman 1: Goddess Ninlil
Our first subject: Goddess Ninlil, the Goddess of Wind
The “ Queen of the Breeze”, was also worshiped as a mother goddess or a healer. Before Ninlil gave birth to the Moon God, Sin, it was known that she was “sexually assaulted” by Enlil while she was bathing alone. The other gods were enraged when they found out of Enlil’s deed and banished him to the underworld. Ninlil, then pregnant, JOINED (?!) Enlil to be together with him (seriously?!). Just when they got comfy, Ninlil then realized that if she gave birth to her son in the underworld, he must then remain there. And. For. Eternity. What a bummer. So the funny duo packed up and climbed their way back to earth after using her power to create three illusions of herself. Her husband and their unborn son were then to remain in the underworld as captives to Ereshkegal. Goddess Ninlil was a woman with power and come on, she was kinda smart. Who would have thought that her magic would work in this cool way?
Powerful Woman 2: Goddess Ishtar
She is Ishtar, Goddess of Fertility and War.
Being one of the more prominent deity in Mesopotamia, Ishtar had conflicting aspects of a goddess; She loved fiercely and passionately yet her yearning for war was undiminished. This made her a unique, potent and high ranking goddess in that era, in layman modern terms, a CP 9999 Pokemon! (Ha!)
A little additional info: Some of you might have read about another powerful Goddess, Inanna. When the Akkadians conquered Mesopotamia and had their language dominated, Inanna was renamed to Ishtar, the generic word for Goddess. Why the change in name? Perhaps the name was rhyming a little too close to banana and no one would really take you seriously if your name resembled a fruit.
Ishtar was a self-proclaimed Compassionate Prostitute with Babylonian sculptures honoring her as a sacred prostitute. She had many high priestesses as underlings and these prostitutes provided their services to Sumerian Kings granting them Ishtar’s power.
The official name for these High Priestesses is the word “ishtaritu”. They provided their services to any male worshiper as long as he paid the appropriate contribution (Sex for religious purposes? Now that’s real sensitive stuff right here). Furthermore, it was encouraged that Babylonian women should go to the temple to provide said services to any random strangers at least once in their life. These practices, though seemingly vulgar, were deemed as a sacred ritual that unites them with their gods.
One of her famous myths were about her descent to the underworld. The purpose of this descent was strongly believed to be one of power; Ishtar was already a Goddess of Heaven and Earth, yet she wanted the Underworld too. (Some people just don’t know when to stop yeah?)
In the myth, she passed through the seven gates of hell, and at each gate, removed an item of her clothing until she was naked. In her attempt to overthrow her sister, Ereshkigal Queen of the Underworld, Ishtar failed and was killed instead. After being removed from Earth, all sexual activities and fertility ceased to exist! NATURALLY, something had to be done about it. No sex, no love right? The powerful God, Ea, knew of this and assisted in Ishtar’s release. But according to Underworld rules, someone had to take her place. Being the lovely lady she was, Ishtar then chose her husband, Tammuz, as sacrifice.
MESOPOTAMIA - AHEAD OF THEIR TIMES?
Women in Mesopotamia supposedly had way less issues with inequality than women of our generation. Women were revered as goddesses in their religion. Now comparing this to the role of women in modern day religion, (well cast singing “goddess” Beyonce and all other fabulous women aside) we don’t see women fulfilling high positions in religion nowadays. One of the learning points that we could take note of from the Mesopotamians is the fact that they were probably one of the pioneers, being open enough to view women as leaders of the society.
Well, if you made it here, you’d have been blessed by the Mesopotamian goddesses of knowledge about women and religion in Mesopotamia. The endeavor of understanding history is to lead towards the progression of mankind. Our views of gender equality are rather backward, but we should not be on par with a page in the history books. One small step for women, a giant leap for mankind!
Thank you for reading!
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