I, the High Priestess
There I raised the ritual basket
There I sang the shout of joy
But that man cast me among the dead.(1)
Entering through Babylon’s Ishtar Gate, one gazes down the long ceremonial corridor to the imposing, over 2 meter high figure of Marduk, a steel and clay model by the American artist, Robert Reynolds. Marduk is presented in the form of Mushushu , the snake-headed creature with forked tongue, the front legs of a lion, the back feet clawed like a vulture’s, a deadly scorpion-tail. So awesome was he in ancient Babylon that his name was hardly uttered – he was Bel, “Lord”. And “lord” he is of this unprecedented exhibit, “Babylon, Mythos und Wahrheit”, newly opened on Jun 26th at the Pergamon Museum.
“Wir sind keine Politiker, wir sind Archeologen.”, replied the only woman on the panel at the museum press conference on Wednesday, when asked about the political message of the exhibit. Proceeding, however, from the assumption that there is nothing which is NOT political, it is important to ask what choices have been made in the narrative presented? Whose “truth” is being told in this show, the stated purpose of which is to elucidate “den Mythos Babel und die Wahrheit um das antike Babylon”. What statements are made, for example, about the functions and status of women and thus about the power relations in Babylonia?
Previously at the Louvre and travelling on to the British Museum, the exhibit presents a fascinating overview of 3,000 years of Babylonian history in the section “Wahrheit”, and the European myths about that history in “Mythos”. Over 800 Babylonian treasures, among them sculptures, reliefs, votive offerings, architectural fragments, and written documents are shown. The Babylonians’ list of achievements is long and rich. We are indebted to them for the calendar, clocks, advancements in medicine. Writing was invented as far back as 3400 B.C. The first urban systems were created in Babylonia, along with the famous ziqqurats – the temple-towers. A multitude of varied objects give a vital impression of Babylonian commerce, farming methods, arts, religion, foreign trade, economic administration, and everyday life in general.
“The Eternal Seed of Kings” is one out of a long list of titles presented in the first room, which is devoted solely to kings, leaving us in no doubt as to the hierarchical structures of either ancient Babylon or the underlying premises of the exhibit. Here we meet with the likes of 21st c. Ur-Nammu, the 18th c. Hammurabi, and finally the Macedonian Alexander. They are accompanied by sceptres, steles documenting their victories or underlining their power, and of course – their weapons.
But where are the women? After all, was not at least the 25thc.BC Queen Ku-baba, founder of a dynasty, worthy of mention? In the following room I find a small cuneiform tablet – a letter concerning the “transport” of a princess from the father to presumably the father-in-law. But there will surely be more, and I continue to the next room, with its models of towers, temples and urban structures – all the work of the kings, the so-called “builders of cities”. Babylon itself was Marduk’s city, and it was Marduk who was installed in the cities that came under Babylon’s power starting in Hammurabi’s time, and who slowly rose to the position of head of the Babylonian pantheon by the end of the second millennium. But why was he promoted on a large scale and what kind of deities was he replacing? No reference is made to the fact that though male pantheons were firmly in place by the beginning of the 3rd millennium, the kings of Kish, an ancient kingdom of that period, still referred to themselves as “the spouse of the goddess Innana (Ishtar)”. In the 1000 years following there proceeded a gradual replacement of the goddesses by male gods, frequently gods of wind, thunder or storm.
Assuming that the religious narratives that prevail in a given era are either a reflection of what the people believe, or what those in power are encouraging the people to believe, it is surely relevant to look more closely for signs of parallel developments in Babylonian life. Was the erosion of the power of the goddesses paralleled by a similar process in respect to women? Not mentioned in the exhibit room devoted to Law are the following relevant facts. In about 2350, King Urukagina, after all a social reformer, issued edicts regulating among other things the gender roles of women: how they should speak to men and their right to remarriage. Ur-Nammu’s code followed (2050 BC), promulgating a relatively humane approach – monetary fines were imposed rather than the “eye for an eye” approach, the lex talionis, of the later Codex of Hammurabi. The Codex Lipit-Ishtar (1930 BC), regulating “fallen” women and second wives, evidences a further weakening of female status. Hammurabi’s code, though admirable in its attempt to secure some degree of social justice, reveals aspects that had consequences for women that would be felt for centuries to come. Female sexuality would from this point be under state control, and the patriarchal family would become fully institutionalized, mirroring the state. Women were basically SOLD into marriage – no matter how high their status, in the end they were dependent on male favour. The Middle Assyrian Laws carried this trend one step further – since 1250 BC not only abortion and birth control have been under state control, but also the public veiling of women. Gender was gradually being defined, and this definition was and is an integral component of the state.
And where is Inanna – the later Ishtar? Off to the side in a niche, we find her. There is no indication of her power. The hieros gamos, sacred marriage, through which the king was periodically empowered by the goddess, is not even mentioned. The small reliefs of sexual intercourse which have elsewhere been convincingly argued to be depictions of this ritual are to be found only later in the exhibit under “Everyday Life”. Whatever one’s opinion may be as to the actual existence of ritual sex, surely it is for many reasons worthy of reference.
The story continues in “Mythos”, where suddenly female images abound. We have arrived in the Christian era where the objectification of woman continues its course. Babylon is the symbol of evil, and is presented here as seen in the Bible, by St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and artists up to the present. It is the embodiment of the forces of chaos – all that is to be feared and avoided if “civilization” is to survive. Babylon is the shadow side of humanity, too full of horror to be recognized within, and thus projected onto the Other.
That Other is Woman – whether Sallambo, Lilith, Astarte or the modern strip-tease. Inanna/Ishtar was the great force that prevailed long after Marduk had usurped her position. Inanna, who encompasses life with all its paradoxes – lust, blood-thirstiness, compassion, rage, fear and courage, sexuality without bounds – blurring gender boundaries. She is cruel, glorious, creative and beyond all social confines – a model of disobedience and independent thinking. The poet and priestess of Ur, Enheduanna, the first writer in history to put her name to her works, whose writings became part of the canon in scribal schools for 500 years after her death, made an impassioned plea for (re)establishing her as the head of the pantheon.
But Marduk was needed – needed to ensure the ever more clearly defined hierarchical order. In the “Enuma Elish”, the Babylonian Creation Story, Marduk, the “masculine” personification of order and control, and Tiamat, the “feminine” personification of Chaos and Nature, confront each other. Brutally and humiliatingly, Tiamat’s body – her wide open mouth, her swollen nakedness – is completely exposed to our inner gaze. Marduk gains the upper hand. His arrow tears into her belly, piercing her bowels, splitting her heart in two. And when she is slain he throws her carcass down, triumphantly standing upon it. Then, viewing her dead body, he decides to divide up “the monster”, and ripping her apart “like a shellfish” he begins with the creation of the world. The story continues to this day. Nature continues to be “stood upon”, the spoils to be divided up. One need look no further than present-day Iraq for an example of the disaster of this paradigm (2).
Reaching the end of the exhibit we come to the “Babel Jetzt” project, a documentation filmed in contemporary Babel. Finally – a woman’s voice: Iman A Khafaji, Director of the Babel Center for Women’s Rights, makes a plea to those in power and brings up a point not covered in the exhibit: “In old Babylon they didn’t differentiate when they chose the goddess Ishtar over the male god. They chose her for her sanctity. I hope… that woman will be respected and granted her rights.” We have unfortunately come no closer to that goal through this exhibit. Even the first known poet, Enheduanna, was not considered worthy of mention.
(1) Translation from the Sumerian by Betty De Shong Meador, in Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart, University of Texas Press, Austin.
(2) See “‘Feminine’ Gnosis and the Eroticization of Culture”, Karen-Claire Voss.
Catherine Framm , Berlin 2008