25 March 2015

ELEGY FOR HATRA (Part III: Goddesses and Putative Priestesses)

(Part I, click here; Part II, click here)

Three Goddesses and a guy-lion

Allat, the Arab goddess of war, is the central figure on this stone relief from Hatra (once covered with thin sheets of gold or silver). She is flanked by two smaller female figures, most probably her daughters al-Izza and Munat, with right hands raised up, palms forward, in the typical Hatrene manner indicating benediction or respectful prayer.  Although these deities are of Arab origin, Allat is shown with the attributes of the Greek goddess Athena: a gorgon head on her breastplate, armed with a spear, a helmet, and carrying a shield marked with her lunar symbol. The eyes and the costume are rendered in the local Parthian fashion.  

The fascinating thing about this relief is the combination of strong Parthian features and borrowed Greek traits -- the Greek input seen here, obviously, in dressing up Allat as Athena but also more subtly in the bend of her left leg and slight body tilt which breaks the typically stiff  Parthian pose.  Even so, their eyes (once inlaid with white seashells with bitumen-black dots for pupils) are set straight forward.

The goddesses are perched on a lion -- Allat's sacred animal par excellence -- pictured with an extravagant flame-like mane (it's always a male lion) and its tail wrapped, pussy-cat like, around its hind leg.  The association of Allat  with lions was noted by Lucian, a 2nd-century CE Syrian author, in his work on De Dea Syria ('The Gods of Syria', 41).  Lucian describes the temple at the sacred city of Hieropolis where the local goddess (Allat, often identified with a similar, earlier goddess, Atargatis) appears under the guise of Greek Hera: 

The sanctuary faces the sunrise….  In it are enthroned the cult statues, Hera [Allat/Atargatis] and the god, Zeus, who they call by a different name [Baal-Hadad]. Both are golden, both seated, though Hera [Allat/Atargatis] is borne on lions....  
We saw just such an enthroned Allat with her lions on the so-called Cerberus relief (pictured in Part II). 

The relief showing Allat standing with her daughters was found in one of the smaller shrines in Hatra (known as Shrine V) outside of the central Sacred Area, along with three more reliefs of Allat-as-Athena.  Inscriptions from the same sanctuary name the goddess as ˀšrbl and ˀšrbl btlh, 'Iššar-Bel' and 'Iššar-Bel the virgin', harking back to Ishtar,  the ancient Mesopotamian goddess of sex, love, and war, whose symbol, too, was a lion. Two of the inscriptions come from statue bases dedicated by women, one of whom was named as the priestess Martabu: 
In the month Adar of the year 546 (= March 235 CE). The statue of Martabu, priestess of Isharbel, [creator] of the Universe, which [is] erected for her [by] Bara, her son, son of Abdshalma son of Bara, the priest, and his brother has made the [garment?] for the life of themselves and for the life of their sons and for the life of whoever is dear to them. Shabaz, the sculptor.* 
It's very likely that Shrine V was dedicated to Allat in the guise of Iššar-Bel the virgin, where she was visited primarily by priestesses and ordinary women. 

Three more goddesses.  Or are they mortals?

The three female figures on this relief look pretty glum (even by Hatrene standards).  I must admit that they are almost like clones, being of the same height and dressed exactly alike.  All wear bright red diadems in the form of high cylindrical crowns (poloi) over their black-coloured hair.  Long veils hang down their backs.  Each figure slightly lifts her skirt in a typical Hatrene female gesture.  One figure grasps a mirror (or tamburine or perhaps even a plate) in her right hand.  The others hold palm branches(?) with trailing ribbons. 

Are they goddesses, or mortal women?  Or, as I suspect, are they three priestesses engaged in a ritual act that is now entirely unintelligible to us?

Note the red marks on their cheeks.  

We have enough statues of male priests from Hatra to know that they can be identified by a circle incised on both cheeks -- a mark  never found on non-priestly dignitaries but only on statues of priests.  While it is impossible to tell from their statues if the circles are made by scarification, branding, or tattooing, Lucian (De Dea Syria, 59) does say that all devotees of the goddess at Hieropolis are tattooed on their necks or wrists.  In such cases, the tattoo would mark a person as belonging to the goddess.  Temple staff at Hatra may indeed have been considered as the chattel 'property' of a deity.  A kind of sacred servitude surely underlies a law posted at the city gates which threatened with death any female musician and singer of Maren, Marten, and Bar-Maren who leaves the city.*

Not only do the three ladies have red marks on their cheeks but they are not wearing any jewellery other than (as I would argue) the diadem of the goddess they serve. The lines around their throats probably do not indicate multiple necklaces but rather are thin sashes that tied their gowns. 

To see what they are missing, check out the clunky gold jewellery worn by the three goddesses at the top of the post and the bling on this fragmentary figure (left, from Shrine I): a gilded polos topped by a long veil, golden girdle under her breasts, knock-out gold earrings and a heavy gold necklace that would make Cartier blush.  I doubt, too, that real goddesses actually carried their own ritual implements.  If they hold anything, it will be a symbol of authority, such as Athena's spear or this goddess' sceptre. 

Inside the holy shrine

For similar reasons, I suspect that the women depicted on this model shrine are also priestesses and not images of any goddesses themselves.  The altar is in the form of a temple, with four pillars at the corners and four identical female figures between the posts.  The women  wear short coats over their gowns, with open V-shaped neckline, and are girdled by double sashes just under the breasts.  Their hair is parted in the middle and combed back with the ends coiled up high on their heads.  Each figure holds fruit in her right hand and a well-filled cornucopia in her left.  It appears (though I can't swear to it) that they are bare-footed.  Statues of male priests are also usually identified by bare legs and feet.

It seems that no single trait is sufficient to distinguish Hatrene deities from mortals.  In fact, without inscriptions it is often difficult to tell representations of goddesses and mortals apart.

A seated woman (left; from Shrine VI) wears a plain crescent-shaped diadem on her head and a heavy but not ostentatious necklace.  Yet she is surely a goddess for she holds an orb in her left hand, symbolizing her power over the world and, in her right hand, a staff or sceptre now lost.  Perhaps sceptre and orb were borrowed from Roman divine and imperial regalia (but this is just a guess). 

This very goddess appeared earlier this month on the ISIS video recording the jihadist rampage through the Mosul Museum.  Her statue was seen being flipped off its stand and onto the floor, breaking off its head (Gates of Nineveh).  The good news is that the barbarians destroyed a plaster replica and that the original statue (pictured here) is still safe in Baghdad. 

Unlike this next goddess.

She had her head chopped off and stolen during the looting of the Baghdad Museum in 2003 -- while American troops stood by.  Alas, ISIS is not the only force responsible for the catastrophic destruction of Iraq's antiquities, though it is by far the deadliest.  My picture of the goddess (left) is a composite photograph with her head put back where it belongs:  since the almost life-size statue was too heavy to join the exodus of loot, it was left behind (the sad headless image may be accessed on the CAIS website).** 

Be that as it may, she was once a beautiful goddess, though we don't know her by name (Shrine VII).  Her gown has heavily patterned sleeves and is more elaborate than most worn by other deities.  She also wears a richer version of the same short garment with V-neckline and girdled under the breasts as the priestesses(?) on the model shrine above.  Her head is crowned by a short polos encircled by a laurel wreath and covered by a veil that drops down the back.  Heavy earrings ending in pointed cones hang from her ears.  Her open hands touch what looks like a wreath on her lap; her left hand also holds a palm branch which rests on her lower arm. 

Stuck on the Throne

The absolutely static enthroned figures may most truly 'personify' Hatrene art.  The rules of frontality are completely dominant and any sense of movement or activity entirely absent.  Such rules are never broken ... but they can be made to budge a bit. Standing figures sometimes put one foot forward which does express slight movement.  King Uthal rather timidly does this, and the high-ranking military officer advances a little more forthrightly (both illustrated in Part II).  One of the minor goddesses on the Allat relief at the top of this post lifts her right shoe onto the lion's mane, and all three ladies shift their weight by almost imperceptibly bending a knee -- a pose undoubtedly adopted (albeit hesitantly) along with Athena's own attributes from the Graeco-Roman sphere.

We'll look at this again as we examine the very last group of statues from Hatra -- those of mortal women who are not involved (or at least not overtly involved) in the religious sphere.

Queens, Princesses, Noblewomen ... in the next and last part of Elegy for Hatra.  

So, think with me about this picture (left).  Who is this woman seated on a chair?  She is made of a rough local limestone rather than the more precious 'Mosul marble' (in fact, a finer limestone) used by the better-off.  And she is bare-headed but marked by lunar imagery. 

Your thoughts are welcome as comments.  

Till next week, then.

Part IV: click here

* Thus, in contrast with cities such as Palmyra, there is evidence for a prominent female priestess at Hatra as well as female temple personnel.  Inscription cited from Raha Masha.

**The head was listed by Interpol among the "Top 30 Missing Artifacts" stolen in 2003; and is one of ca. 8,000 objects still listed as missing


Inscriptions from Temple V: The Melammu Project; Shinji Fukai, 'The Artifacts of Hatra and Parthian Art', East and West, 11, No. 2/3 (1960) 135-181; Lucinda Dirven, 'Aspects of Hatrene Religion', in (T. Kaizer, ed.) The Variety of Local Religious Life in the Near East in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods,Leiden 2008, 209-46; ead. "My Lord With His Dogs: Continuity and Change in the Cult of Nergal in Parthian Mesopotamia" in L. Greisiger, C. Rammelt & J. Tubach (eds.), Edessa in hellenistisch-romischer Zeit (Beirut 2009), 47-68; K. Jakubiak,in (L. Dirven, ed.) Hatra: Politics, Culture and Religion between Parthia and Rome, 2013, 91-106.


Top left: Limestone relief of Allat from Hatra Temple V.  1st c CE.  Temple V.  Iraq Museum #56774 Photo credit: Virtual Museum of Iraq

2nd left: Local yellow limestone. Head of a goddess (Tyche?). 2-early 3 c CE.  H. 53.5 cm.  Status: Stolen from Baghdad Museum; still missing.  Photo credit: akg-images

3rd left: Mosul marble high-relief of three goddesses or priestesses.  0.44 high x 0.44 wide.  Mosul Museum # 53. Status: unknown.  Photo credit: Lynn Abercrombie/NationalGeographicCreative

4th left: Ivory(?) fragmentary relief of goddess flanked by bird (eagle) perched on pillar.  Temple I.  Photo credit: CAIS-soas

5th left: Mosul marble model shrine from Temple I.  H. 20.3 cm. Baghdad Museum # 57794. Status: unknown.  Photo credit: Lynn Abercrombie/NationalGeographicCreative

6th left: Limestone statue of anonymous seated goddess from Temple VI.  Status: Replica in Mosul Museum destroyed by ISIS (Gates of Nineveh). Photo credit: ErickBonnierPictures

7th left: Limestone statue of anonymous seated goddess from temple VII.  Status: Head broken off and stolen from Baghdad Museum; still missing.  Photo credit: CAIS/soas

Bottom left: Local yellow limestone female figurine.  Photo credit: via Suppressed History Archives


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