Arvind Murthy - Mesopotamian Symbolism

Ancient Mesopotamia flourished in the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in the area we now call the Middle East. It is an area rich in history, from religious to geographic to (most importantly, of course) artistic development. Examples of symbolism can be found everywhere today, from the sometimes indecipherable images of pop art to the usually more mundane icons many corporations use in their logos. However, back in ancient times, when written language itself had barely been developed, symbolism was much harder to come by. Much of it was in the form of religious symbolism, which is today one of the most recognizable and important uses of symbolism for mankind. Early cave paintings often used symbolism as a way to hide their human subjects, for the paintings were believed to wield much magical power which could turn dangerous if employed unwisely. Paintings were thought to contain the essence of the subject, and were usually hidden in the depths of the caves, unreachable by ordinary means, hidden for protection. This early supernatural or spiritual thinking gave way to the more developed pantheon of gods and goddesses in the ancient Mesopotamian times of Assyria, Sumer, and Akkad, the three regions that made up ancient Mesopotamia.

I encountered some trouble while trying to find ancient pictures of gods, goddesses, or related figures online: there was a plethora of sites talking about each of the religious deities but very few which displayed pictures of them. However, the ones I did find were very impressive in their symbolic qualities. One of the most popular artifacts online was a clay figurine of a goddess standing upright, totally naked except for a necklace:

It reminds me of one of the pictures we looked at in class, "Venus of Willendorf"; both statues were seen as fertility symbols, and had marked emphasis on the sexual organs of the body. However, while the "Venus" figurine was not exactly what we would term "attractive" by today's terms, with most of the focus of the artist going towards the breasts while the arms were virtually nonexistent, the goddess picture I found online was much more ideal-like in its proportions. It hailed from the 17th century B.C. and is thought to represent either the Summerian goddess Inanna or the Akkadian goddess Ishtar. The website mentions that the doubt about that statement stems from the fact that the figure is missing two standard symbols of divinity, the horned crown and a ruffled garment.

Clay Plaque, ca. 17th. Century B.C.

Inanna was known as the goddess of "love, procreation, and war." Sometimes she has a quiver and a bow for weapons, as well as a lion escort. Her place in Mesopotamian mythology is complete with a story of her descent into the underworld. While she was in the underworld, no creatures procreated, almost certainly stemming from the fact that she is the goddess of procreation. The actual figure of her I found had somewhat exaggerated sexual features: "she is seen holding her breasts. Since this figure was apparently kept in the bedroom, it is thought to have encouraged procreation in that private place. So the love aspect of her characteristics is symbolized through the stories of her many lovers throughout her existence, from Tammuz, the vegetation god, to a gardener whom she turned into a frog; in the figure it is symbolized by the location in which it was kept", the bedroom. Her procreation powers are symbolized by the halting of reproduction in the underworld while she was there; in the figure it is perhaps symbolized by the exaggerated sexual features. Finally, her war aspect is not symbolized in this figure, but is revealed by her weapons, the quiver and bow, and by her escort, a lion.

Another picture I found online is somewhat connected to the goddess Inanna. It is a depiction of the Dragon of Marduk molded onto a base of glazed brick. The materials used alone make this a wonderful piece to look at, as I have not seen too many glazed brick representations or dragon, much less of anything, so the effect is quite electrifying to look at. The colors are fantastic as well, shades of orange and brown, to give it a dark sort of quality, enhancing the myth behind the piece. In contrast to many of the animal depictions we looked at in class in the cave paintings, this dragon was not considered evil and was actually sacred to the god Marduk, the central deity of Babylon. Marduk has quite an impressive story dedicated to him in the annals of Mesopotamian mythology, involving a colossal ware waged with the other gods. In the end, Marduk wins, smashing another god's skull to use her body as the roof of the sky and doing other large-scale modifications to the world. In this picture of Marduk's dragon I found, the dragon is striding on all four legs in a very determined fashion, and has a "scaly body, serpent's head, viper's horns, front feet of a feline, hind feet of a bird, and a scorpion's tail." It is quite an amalgamation of creatures, and it was placed on the entrance to one of the gates the Babylon as decoration. During a New Year's festival for the king, the Dragon of Marduk accompanied scores of other pacing animals glazed in brick also on the gate: many of these other animals were sacred to other gods. Much symbolism can be detected here, from the dragon body (Marduk breathed fire) to the array of animal parts adorning its body, all of which can be used as weapons in war, Inanna being the goddess of war. Again, its location can be seen as symbolic as well", perhaps guarding the entrance to Babylonia against evil visitors and maybe even deterring them from trying to invade or take over.

c. 604-562 B.C.; Mesopotamian, Neo-Babylonian Period
Ishtar Gate, Babylon; Molded, glazed bricks; 1.2 x 1.7 m


883-59 B.C.; Mesopotamian, Neo-Assyrian
Limestone; height 1 m

The next piece of artwork I found from the Mesopotamian area was that of an eagle-headed deity. Perhaps there is a link between this and the painting we looked at in class of the shaman dressed up in the skin of a deer or elk. While Mesopotamians may not have dressed up as creatures anymore, clearly their respect for animals was strong, from the Dragon of Marduk to the many animal escorts of the gods and goddesses. This particular engraving of an eagle-headed deity with wings came from one of the palaces built by a king of Assyria. The deity has wings as well, and is seen taking care of a tree, a symbol of life and fertility. These early cultures depended immensely on their crops for survival, so a piece like this emphasizing taking care of both the land, and perhaps by extension (since it was in a king's palace) their leader is understandable.


This piece from Assyria of a Birdman also highlights their fascination with man-creature combinations, although the Birdman has been around for many thousands of years, often representing a mischievous creature. In this depiction, he is shown with his hands raised, probably holding a winged sun-disk, the symbol of divinity.

Glazed Brick; 7th century B.C.
Representing a Birdman

Mesopotamian, Neo-Assyrian Period
terracotta; 33.6 x 34.3 cm


The Ram in a Thicket, The British Museum
Gold, copper, shell, limestone & lapis lazuli
Size 45.7 cm high, 30.5 cm wide, 2600 B.C.

One of the most impressive-looking pieces I found was "Ram Caught in a Thicket," although it seems the title is misleading. While the animal is a golden goat rather than a ram, the piece is made out of wood with gold overlay, as well as other materials like shell. It is thought that the ram may represent Tammuz, mentioned earlier as a love of Inanna and the vegetation god. The figure has a sort of resplendent quality to it, and glows with a kind of energy, useful for the god of vegetation.

All of the ancient pieces I found were amazing not only in their artistic quality but in the complexity of their symbolism as well.
It is necessary to note that these symbolic creations came not long after the development of a written language and that the evolution of symbolism was taking place at a remarkably rapid pace.


Garbini, Giovanni. The Ancient World. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968.
Ruskin, Ariane. Prehistoric Art and Ancient Art of the Near East. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1971.
Barnett, R. D., and D. J. Wiseman. Fifty Masterpieces of Ancient Near Eastern Art. London: Hazell Watson & Viney Ltd., 1969.
Siren, Christoper B.. The Assyrian-Babylonian Mythology FAQ. 12 Aug. 1999. 9 Dec. 2002. <>.