Organised by the Department of the Middle East, and hosted by the irrepressible and ever-amusing Dr Irving Finkel, Inanna Day at the British Museum was a joy from beginning to end, combining academic research, beautiful objects, humour, and the always lovely feeling that we who celebrate the Goddess may not be so far out of the mainstream as we often think. I certainly recognised many people in the full auditorium!
Threaded through it all was the knowledge that the beautiful land, once known as Sumer, is currently blighted by a seemingly never-ending war, which added a bittersweet feeling to the day. I was moved by the fact that the speakers continually brought their talks back to the present day by comparing the current events in Iraq with its peaceful past. This was no dry intellectual day divorced from the real world and was, to me, a testament to the presence of Goddess in the room.
Before I go on I will say that I knew very little about Sumer before attending this day so I can only try to do justice to the ideas that were shared with us.
The first speaker was Dominique Collon, Curator of the Anatolian and Seal Collections, on ‘Ancient Sumer: Literature, Culture, and Art’, who explained to us that Inanna was, and is, a goddess of Sumer, the southern part of Mesopotamia (south-eastern Iraq). She showed us many slides of beautiful artefacts from Sumer and also spoke of the confusion of Inanna with Ishtar, the Babylonian/Assyrian goddess of northern Mesopotamia. She explained that, whereas the Sumerians in the south had deities linked to crops, fertility, animal husbandry etc, those in the north were generally linked to the stars, the heavens (the sun and moon), and to the weather (particularly storms). She told us that, although Inanna is often depicted with weapons on Her shoulders, this is a later representation and that originally they would have been plants. However, She wasn’t linked to wheat, as the south is too dry for such crops, and agriculture, as we think of it, began in the north. Inanna would have been connected to a much earlier and wilder level of ‘agriculture’, such as the date harvest, rather than to ‘domesticated’ crops. She was also sister to Ereshkigal, ‘Great Lady of Earth’ and Goddess of the Underworld, who is the only deity to have been found depicted holding a double ‘rod and ring’, symbol of justice. It wasn’t until later that Inanna, Goddess of Love and Fertility, became linked to Ishtar, Goddess of War.
Dr Finkel then explained to us that Sumerian is the earliest known written language and appears to be unrelated to any other known language, ancient or modern. He also told us about Enheduanna, considered to be the earliest known author, who was a High Priestess of Nanna, the Moon God, and who honoured Inanna over all other gods of Sumer.
The final speaker was the wonderful Richard Dumbrill on ‘The Music of Sumer’. His talk contained a great many mathematical ideas, which I struggled to understand, but he must be applauded for succeeding in making his talk accessible and interesting to everyone there...or at least to me! He suggested that the first instrument was created when an ostrich egg was threaded onto the bottom of a hunter’s bow as a drinking cup and the bow twanged to make sound….and then he demonstrated that with one that he had made earlier! He also talked about the different notes on instruments being created by the number of vibrations made per second and linked each note to a deity; An to 60, Enlil to 50, Enki to 40, Nanna to 30, and Inanna to 15 etc. He also suggested that agriculture naturally brings about matriarchy, to a ripple of applause, because women would have been responsible for organising and dividing the produce and would also have developed a counting system…so we invented mathematics too!
The culmination of the talks was the unveiling of a mysterious object, which had been lurking on the stage during Richard Dumbrill’s talk. This was the stunningly beautiful reproduction of the bull-headed Golden Lyre of Ur, which was played in Ur almost 5,000 years ago and drew a gasp from the audience as its covering cloth was removed. The harp, the original of which was damaged in the conflict in Baghdad, was recreated as a tribute to Iraq and the Iraqi people and the project was supported by craftspeople and professionals from all over the world, including Iraq, using materials as close to the original as possible. The huge roaring sound of the bull which emanated from the lyre was a reminder of the pain of the Iraqi people and a call for the return of the gentle and fecund Goddess Inanna to Her land.
I will be waiting anxiously for the next Goddess day at the BM!