The Queen of the Night

The Queen of the Night

The British Museum bought the Queen of the Night in 2003 to celebrate its 250th anniversary. It’s a baked clay plaque nearly half a metre tall and was made in ancient Iraq (Babylonia) sometime between 1800 and 1750 BC.

As a giggle I should tell you that they tried to buy it as early as 1979 but wouldn’t pay the £70,000 asking price. The owner, Mr Sakamoto must have been some negotiator as they eventually paid £1,500,000.

However, it is a magnificent and worthy piece, now sadly tucked away almost out of sight in a corner of room 56. The first record of the plaque was in 1924 in the hands of a Syrian dealer, by 1933 it had found its way to the British Museum and soon became known as “The Burnley relief” after its owner. It came to the public’s attention in 1936 in a feature article in The Illustrated London News and was given the somewhat dramatic name “The Queen of the Night” when the British Museum acquired it.

We will probably never know exactly where it came from but it shows stylistic similarity with the sculpted head of a male god found in the biblical city of Ur. It is so close in quality, workmanship and iconographical details, that it could well have come from the same workshop. The necklace is virtually identical.

The figure on the plaque was originally painted red. She wears the horned headdress characteristic of a Mesopotamian deity and holds a rod and ring of justice, which are symbols of divinity. Her long multi-coloured wings hang downwards, implying that she was a goddess of the Underworld. It comes as a surprise to us today that, if you look at her feet you see the talons of a bird of prey. The background to the plaque was originally painted black, suggesting that she was associated with the night. She stands on the backs of two lions and a scale pattern indicates mountains.

More surprising is the way she would once have looked. Today we are used to seeing ancient artefacts without paint on them but this wasn’t how they were originally seen. Almost all of them were painted in the often brash and gaudy colours of the paints that were available at the time.

Queen of the Night in its original Colours
© Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum has analysed the traces of the paint on the plaque and reconstructed its original colours in Photoshop.

Who was the Queen of the Night? Nobody knows, but there are several contenders:-

Lilith is the Hebrew name of a demoness from the Bible. According to legend she was Adam’s first wife and flew away after a quarrel. The name Lilith was connected to that of the Mesopotamian demoness Lilitu, one of a triad of demons. Lilu was the male demon who haunted open country and was especially dangerous to pregnant women and infants. Lilitu was his female counterpart. She was believed to cause impotence in men and sterility in women. Lilitu was also associated with owls.

There is, however, a problem with this identification as Lilitu was a demoness and not a goddess, whereas the Queen’s headdress and the rod-and-ring symbols she holds unambiguously indicate her status as a goddess.

Ereshkigal was the “Queen of the Great Below” and ruled the Underworld from the beginning of time. In ancient Mesopotamia, this was the place where all the dead were gathered.

Ereshkigal was certainly entitled to a horned headdress and the rod-and-ring symbol and was probably permitted to hold two rod-and-ring symbols as well. The dark background, the lowered wings, the owls with their association with death and the scale pattern are all features that are associated with the Underworld. However, Ereshkigal was an unpopular subject due to her link with death.

Ishtar was a Mesopotamian (Akkadian) goddess of sexual love and war. She was associated with Venus and was sometimes depicted with wings rising from her shoulders. As a goddess of war she generally wears an open robe allowing her freedom of movement. In her right hand she holds either the double-lion-headed mace, the rod-and-ring symbol, or the leash of her roaring lion on whose back she rests one foot. In the third and early second millennium BC she was almost always depicted full-face, often with a necklace and with two locks of hair hanging above her breasts. She had cult centres throughout Mesopotamia, as well as hundreds of minor shrines. Ishtar, was also goddess of harlots.

The size of the plaque suggests it would have belonged in a shrine, probably set into a mud-brick wall. Such a shrine might have been a dedicated space in a large private home or other house.

According to some scholars that shrine may have been located inside a brothel. Well, at least that would explain her name! by Gerry Palmer

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