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Body and Liminality in Ancient Mesopotamia

This essay explores the conceptualization of the liminal body in ancient Mesopotamia. Liminality is a well-known aspect of magical traditions. The body plays a pivotal role, personifying, at the same time, the practitioners of the arts and the ritual site. What follows highlights the mental states that metaphorically transform the human vessel into a threshold, a crossroad between the physical and the spiritual realms.


The intricate web of cultural and linguistic meanings behind seemingly mundane categories like human bodies illuminates a complex and polyvalent basis at the bottom of civilizational concepts. The goal is to provide a deeper understanding of how people create cultural meaning and how ambiguous and contradictory attitudes toward crucial cultural concepts can be. The framework includes cultural anthropology, cultural history, and cognitive linguistics’s study of metaphor. 

Cultural history aims to emphasize and understand the mental concepts, beliefs and experiences of people of the past rather than chronicle wars and ruling dynasties. Cognitive linguistics focuses on the studies of metaphor, further clarifying the link between language, thinking and culture, thus shedding light on the formation and manifestation of ideologies. 


According to the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, culture is a web of meaning (Geertz, 1976/1998). To fully understand it, scratching the surface to find what lies beyond the practices and beliefs is essential. The past is just as alive as the future due to the ethnographers' and historians’ repeated interactions and reinterpretations of the previous eras (Ginzburg, 1973/1989).


McDermott, J. New Year's Day at the Ziggurat of Ur. (n.d.).
Figure 1: "New Year's Day at the Ziggurat of Ur" (McDermott, n.d.).

The Concept of Liminality

Liminality, in anthropological terms, includes places, objects, or subjects with permeable connections to the supernatural realm, like crossroads, doors, and windows, as well as the aroused human body, often viewed as a liminal space. In her article "Sex, Magic and the Liminal Body in the Erotic Art and Texts of the Old Babylonian Period," Julia Assante explores the usage of erotic images positioned in liminal places to ward off evil spirits. She establishes the linguistic and conceptual connection between bodily orifices and doors, introducing a firm link between folk magic and the human body, particularly genitalia, in an attempt to discredit usual interpretations of such artistic pieces as evidence of sacral prostitution (Assante, 2001).


Apotropeic genitalia symbols are common in many cultures around the world. For instance, protective phallic pendants were found in territories under Roman influence (Vukelić, 2021). They were mostly worn by children to shield them from illnesses and spirit attacks. The idea that erotic imagery could serve any other than a pornographic purpose might be bewildering from a contemporary perspective. Still, erotic connotations have a long history in human magical traditions due to the link between liminality and sexuality. 



Serpent god Ningishzida. (circa 3000 BCE).
Figure 2: Serpent god Ningishzida (circa 3000 BCE).


Liminality as a concept in anthropology originates from Victor Turner, who discusses it in the context of tribal coming-of-age rites (Turner, 1969). It represents an altered consciousness, a side effect of a ritual. An individual enters the rite with an ordinary state of mind, only to step out into a forever-changed reality. The liminal periods signify transition but also a lack of central identity. They can be read as particularly potent since they enable the questioning or even dissolving of social hierarchies and the known world order. 


The Belgian feminist Luce Irigaray positions the concept as a fertile ground for identity redefinition, especially regarding womanhood. The liminal body is temporarily genderless, therefore, it potentially questions heteronormative values. It is a transitional state that escapes limitation and, sometimes, definition (Irigaray, 1999, as cited in Andre-Barett, 2010). 


Several metaphors typical for ancient Mesopotamia signify the human or divine body as a transition between physical or mental categories. From nature to civilization. From the spiritual to the material world. A body is a meeting point between opposites such as creation and destruction, or knowledge and curse. The following paragraphs will delve deeper into the correlations between the body and liminality, as well as the transitions they represent.



A couple. (circa 2500 BCE).
Figure 3: A couple (circa 2500 BCE).

Mesopotamian Sexual Metaphors: Magical Bodies

Assante introduces two verbs in her study, kasu and rehu. They constitute magical activities. We can translate the verbs as doing magic but also performing a role in sexual intercourse. For instance, kasu means "to bind" or "hold with female genitalia" (Assante, 2001). Interestingly, both perspectives are seen as active, avoiding the pitfall of gender binary oppositions.


Human bodily orifices are linguistically and conceptually seen as doors. The Sumerian word KA and the Akkadian babu, refer to gates, entrances, and body holes (Assante, 2001). This links the concepts, emphasizes their liminal potential and constitutes the human body simultaneously as a practitioner and the site of the ritual. Visual and textual sexual metaphors transform the body into a magical ceremony, a drive for spiritual movement. 


Another common Mesopotamian marital metaphor is agriculture. In poems about the Sacred Marriage between a god and a goddess, intercourse equals the cultivation of the land. The goddess represents wild, untamed nature, while the god introduces agriculture to make it inhabitable by humans (Wiggermann, 2011). The same metaphor exists in the Epic of Gilgamesh, with role reversal. The wild man, Enkidu, is bound to civilization by sleeping with a prostitute. Here, the female character is associated with civilization and the male with nature. In both cases, the process of cultivation is what creates civilization, but, interestingly, brings the loss of freedom to the human (Višić, 1993). Through the act of marriage, the participants transform the land and establish the civilized order, solidifying social hierarchies and bringing social reality into existence, which is a process equated to the cultivation of the soil. 


Sumerian woman. (n.d.).
Figure 4: Sumerian woman (n.d.).

Wedded to a Spirit: Possession as Pairing

An unexpected connection is found between sex, marriage and spiritual possession. The word haru, "to possess," is also translated as "to wed" (Assante, 2001). Possession in Mesopotamian cultures is complex and ambivalent. Spirit attacks explain many illnesses, but openness to entities is also vital for the creation of humans, the performance of the priests, and the legitimization of power (Zisa, 2023). The key difference between the two is the presence or absence of consent and intention.


The voluntary nature of possession is obvious in one of the versions of the creation myths, where the god Enki has to possess the first man so he can procreate. The goddess Inanna, later Ishtar, often possesses her priests and priestesses. Enheduanna, the high priestess who was possibly King Sargon’s daughter, describes the mystical amalgamation with the goddess as the basis of the birthing process of her hymns. For Enheduanna, Inanna is not just a chief among all the gods, but her personal deity whom she readily invokes. According to Jacobsen, the concept of a personal god became prevalent in the second millennium, replacing the older, more collective approach to religion (Jacobsen, 1976).


A statue of Ebih-il. (n.d.).
Figure 5: A statue of Ebih-il (n.d.).

Voluntary possession, or invocation is quintessential for every step of human existence, from the mythic creation and procreation to the legitimization of the city-state. The randomness and force characterize harmful, illness-inducing entity attacks. Still, the linguistic correlations with marriage are present, solidifying the ambiguous attitude toward the institution.


The divine body can also be liminal in the context of society. Ancient Mesopotamia was influenced by diverse ethnic groups whose dominion over the culture was constantly exchanged. For instance, Enheduanna’s hymns merge the traits of the Sumerian Inanna and the Akkadian (Semitic) Ishtar (Binkley, 1998). As the Akkadians took over, the deity responsible for legitimizing power in Sumer became equated to her equivalent among the newcomers. Through syncretism, the two goddesses figuratively possessed each other, united in a sacred marriage, and turned liminal to mark the transition of local dominion between people. The hybrid divine body is a liminal point that signifies the beats of cultural exchange.



Ishtar. (circa 19th-18th century BCE.).
Figure 6: Ishtar (circa 19th-18th century BCE).

Agriculture as Civilization: The Body as a Cultivator

Tradition is not a stable concept but is perpetually challenged through interaction with its members. Geertz defines cultural behaviour as an interactive creation of meaning, which is why it is prone to transformation (Geertz, 1973/1998). An opposing attitude towards the metaphor of civilization as agriculture is noticeable among the scribes. For instance, the Epic of Creation, Enuma Eliš, shows a bias towards urban life and the government as well as a masculine authority (Wiggermann, 2001). Still, by positioning Marduk as the new chieftain among the gods, the text does not conceal the fact he got his position by usurpation. This transparency allows opposing readings of the text as well as the dominant. Both approaches are still common in art, music and fiction.


The metaphors that equate agriculture with civilization but also sexuality reveal ambiguous perspectives. Civilization is necessary for people to survive, while it simultaneously represents the loss of freedom. After all, the gods created humans to work the land for them. The motifs tie into the myth of the fall of man, further mudding the waters between gods, mortals, and their roles and intentions.



Goddess Ishtar on an Akkadian Empire seal. (2350–2150 BCE).
Figure 7: Goddess Ishtar on an Akkadian Empire seal (2350-2150 BCE).

Sacred Marriage and the Divine Body 

The concept of divine love or sacred marriage, usually connected to the goddess Inanna/Ishtar is layered and polyvalent. The language used in poems reflects the agricultural and cultivating processes, with colourful imagery of gardens, plants and fruits. The ritual involving the goddess's alleged possession of the priest in an imitation of the sacred marriage served to bless and legitimize the ruler (Zisa, 2023).


This context opens an interesting, additional reading of the Epic of Gilgamesh. His refusal of Ishtar’s advances could be interpreted as a rejection of the ancient tradition. Indeed, the hero is antagonistic to the role of the feminine in the legitimization of kings. As a result, he fails to achieve immortality. In the epic and through the hero’s perspective, Ishtar's body is a destructive rather than creative power (Assante, 2001). Mesopotamian metaphors concerning the female body tend to swap their perspectives and attitudes, from creative to destructive, probably as society's stance towards women changed. Still, Ishtar’s importance in the legitimization of earthly power remains, establishing her as a prominent link between the mortal and the immortal world, marking her divine body as a border that divides different realities.



Tiamat and Marduk. (n.d.).
Figure 8: Tiamat and Marduk (n.d.).

Between Gods and Humans: Who is Who?

Enkidu’s fall from grace inspired the younger biblical myth. By murdering the giant Humbaba, beloved by the god Enlil and dishonouring goddess Ishtar, Gilgamesh’s treasured companion lost eternal life. The reason for this is attributed to the hatred of god Enki rather than Enkidu’s inner flaws. However, something else links this myth to Genesis. Through intercourse with a prostitute, Enkidu abandons his natural state, falls into the chains of human civilization and accepts the divine hierarchy, where men are lower than the gods. But the prostitute is goddess Aruru in disguise, who also offers him wisdom. She reveals herself to be Enkidu’s creator who molded him to tame the violent Gilgamesh. In a way, Enkidu’s fall is planned by the gods (Višić, 1993).


The Bible provides a mythical equivalent. Eve steals knowledge and gives it to Adam, allegedly cursing the whole of humanity. Višić describes both Aruru and Eve as creators who gift their human favourites. This opens an interesting and not fully comprehensible subject concerning the goddess that hides behind Eve’s name. She can be found in the epithets, titles and the linguistic roots of the name itself. The tradition of naming human women by what was previously a divine epithet was a trend of demoting older, powerful creation goddesses to mere humans. The second millennium marks a change of preference and esteem from life-giving to life-protecting deities. The biblical and Greek original women, Eve and Pandora are “precious fossils linking the demoted first women to their earlier divine prerogatives” (O’Brien, 1983, p. 10).


Pazuzu, an illness-inducing entity. (Early first millennium BCE.).
Figure 9: Pazuzu, an illness-inducing entity (Early first millennium BCE).

Whether this practice was intentional or subconscious, might never be known. Still, on an interpretative, perhaps even accidental level, the myth can be paralleled with the story of Enki possessing a human body to enable procreation. In the Hebrew equivalent, a goddess takes over the first woman to move humanity from the primordial state into history. Even though it is not certain if this was the original intention behind the text or a case of linguistic archaeology that the anonymous myth writers simply inherited, a space for interpretation is forever open. And a speculative crevice appears. A rabbit hole that leads to the possible transition between more female-friendly to strictly patriarchal mythic versions, the fall into Simone de Beauvoir’s eternal Otherness of women (Beauvoir, 1949).


The concept of the Other in anthropology and social sciences is a discursive process of establishing the difference between the perceived dominant group and the dominated that serves as a discrimination basis (Staszak, 2009). Regarding women, the discursive otherness is indeed ancient, but the above paragraphs can be interpreted as linguistic evidence of a more equal conceptual hierarchy in the distant past. 


Batou, P. Spring in Mesopotamia. (2016)
Figure 10: Spring in Mesopotamia (Batou, 2016).

Conclusion

The body, human or divine, male or female, occupies a layered, ambiguous position in ancient Mesopotamian cultures. It is a meeting point of contradictions, such as destruction and creation, glory and contempt, mortality and immortality. The basic physical instincts, like sexuality, are marked as the staple of civilization, the human ability to cultivate the land, but also as an initiation rite into society that results in acknowledging the loss of one’s freedom and the truth that people exist to serve the gods. The role of women is conceptualized as powerful in both positive and negative sense of the word, which is a result of cultural changes through time. 


A sexually aroused body is a liminal space where the material and spiritual world communicate. Through love, marriage and spirit possession, the human or the divine body is a mediator between realms and categories such as nature and civilization, humans and spirits, etc. The body is a ceremonial site through which a transition takes place, the object of the ceremony, but also the subject that conducts the rite. Rituals allow individuals to embody the social and mythological ideology, thus bringing it into the material world. Myths affect reality through the ritual by altering the mindset of the participants, who then return to their mundane state, serving as vessels for the community ideals. On another, maybe accidental level, transitional, liminal states can be identified between cultural changes and dominions by observing the hybrid forms of deities or linguistic leftovers through metaphors, phrases, titles and epithets that, perhaps, announce a hidden, older and sometimes fundamentally different meaning.


A dive into the ancient imagery around the body reveals a complicated attitude toward human existence, power, and the hierarchy of the world that represents a fertile ground for contemporary cultural history, literary analysis or anthropology, enabling a deeper understanding of the ancient mind, but also offering novel points of conversation about cultural concepts in the present.


Bibliographical References

Assante, J. (2002). Sex, magic and the liminal body in the erotic art and texts of the Old Babylonian period. Sex and Gender in the Ancient Near East, Actes de la XLVIIe Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale (Helsinki, 2-6 July 2001), 27-51.


Andre-Barrett, M. (2010). Liminality in Delany and Irigeray’s Conceptions of Bodies, Desire, and Identity. Sexual Diversity Studies Undergraduate Journal, 1-10.


Binkley, R. (1998). Biography of Enheduana, priestess of Inanna. http://www.cddc.vt.edu/feminism/Enheduanna.html


De Beauvoir, S. (1949). The Second Sex. First Vintage Book Edition.


Geertz, C. (1998). Tumačenje kultura I-II, XX vek, Beograd.


Ginzburg, C. (1989). Sir i crvi, Kozmos jednog mlinara iz 16. stoljeća. Grafički zavod Hrvatske.

Jacobsen, T. (1976). The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion. Yale University Press.


O’Brien, J. (1983). Nammu, Mami, Eve and Pandora: “What’s in a Name?” The Classical Journal, 79(1), 35–45. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3297042


Staszak, J.-F. (2009). Other/Otherness. In International Encyclopedia of Human Geography.  Retrieved 12/14/2023 from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/social-sciences/otherness


Rothenberg, J. (2016, June 27.) Enheduanna (2300 B.C.E.): Seven Sumerian Temple Hymns. B. De Shong Meador transl.) Retrieved 12/19/2023 from https://poemsandpoetics.blogspot.com/2017/06/enheduanna-2300-bce-seven-sumerian.html


Turner, V. (1969). Liminality and Communitas. In The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (pp. 94–113, 125–30). Chicago: Aldine Publishing. https://voidnetwork.gr/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Liminality-and-Communitas-by-Victor-Turner.pdf


Višić, M. (1993). Književnost drevnog Bliskog Istoka. Naprijed. 


Vukelić, D. (2021). Magija na hrvatskom povijesnom prostoru. Školska knjiga.


Wiggermann, F. A. M. (2011). Agriculture as Civilization: Sages, Farmers, and Barbarians. The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture (pp. 662–689). https://doi.org/10.1093/OXFORDHB/9780199557301.013.0031


Zisa, G. (2023). Conceptual Metaphors and Social Action. Divine Sex as Political-Economic and Gender Paradigm in Ancient Mesopotamia. Aula Orientalis, 41(1), 109-131. 


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Ana Avramović

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