DOG-TIRED: Oneiric Goddess of Mesopotamia and Her Temple Dogs
By Sarah Janes
The Mesopotamian goddess known as Gula, appears to emerge sometime during the first Babylonian Dynasty, already entwined with earlier goddess figures — Baba/Bawa and Bau — themselves protective, healing dog deities of Sumer and Akkad. Some scholars believe the name Bau/Bawa/Baba to be onomatopoeic, mimicking the bowow of a dog bark. Baba and Bau likely echo an even more ancient reverence for dogs — as creatures of healing and protection. A reverence cultivated by the close companionship, coevolution and co-operation between humans and canines since the Stone Age.
Early humans certainly observed the healing effect of dog-licking on wounds and there is much evidence to suggest that this was incorporated into their earliest healing rituals. Dogs are also excellent guards and defenders of vulnerable humans — especially when we are sleeping. Many votive dogs have been discovered, often buried under the thresholds and doorways of ancient dwellings and ceremonial buildings. I think this awareness influenced the development of cultures throughout the region and led to a combining of dream healing, oneiric oracles and temple dogs. Dogs protect you when you are sleeping, they make you feel secure and because of this, they enable you to have sounder sleep and sweeter dreams. In this way dogs have probably contributed to the cognitive evolution of the human brain and our physiology more than we can know.
Even the colloquial expression — hair of the dog — is thought to derive from ancient sympathetic magic cures and its earliest use with regard to over-indulgence is found on an ancient inscription in Ugarit (modern day Northern Syria). Hair from a (rabid) dog that bit you (incorporated into a poultice or similar) was believed to cure you of any poison from its bite. Other rituals from the Near East suggested the dog as a useful vessel for demons/illnesses to be transferred into — similar to the scapegoat ritual of Yom Kippur as an elimination of impurity (Yom Kippur certainly has very ancient origins and is a direct descendent of the healing rituals of the Mesopotamian ašipu — medical sorcerers). During such rituals, a possessive entity or disease could be removed from a human patient and put into a dog host, which could thereafter be beaten, sacrificed or banished. Gula appears to be a great protectress of dogs however, and those who beat or killed them felt her wrath most keenly. A residue of this ancient esteem for dogs and pets might have trickled into the Jewish religious law of the Talmud, where it is stated that you must feed your animals before you feed yourself. The meticulously kept accounting records from Gula’s Dog Temple at Isin provide precise evidence about the vast amount of provisions the temple dogs regularly received.
Dogs continued to be vital animal attendants in the healing sleep temples of the Hellenic and Roman period. Dog saliva assists in speedy wound healing and new tissue growth, as it has antimicrobial and antibacterial properties. Human saliva also works, but is less readily offered. Humans are generally less enthusiastic and liberal with its application too (although they tend to lick their own buttholes less). It is now accepted by modern science that the tremendous olfactory senses of dogs can help them to sniff out certain illnesses, and they are often perceived to have precognition of imminent or not-so-imminent death.
Gula derives from the Sumerian language and its root translates as great, increase or abundance. Her epithets include Great Physician, Great Healer (azugallatu) of the Land, (of the black-headed ones — the Sumerians) and Herb Grower. In medical incantations the goddess is referred to as bēlet balāti (Lady of Health).
As a patron guardian of the Sumerian city-state Isin — Gula became Ninisinna (Lady of Isin) and was syncretised with Inanna — Queen of Heaven and premier Mesopotamian goddess. Gula became a favourite in the Kassite era. During this time, she is a regular feature on kudurra (boundary stones) — where in her human form she is often represented alongside Inanna.
Gula is associated with the Babylonian constellation, The Goat — part of the constellation Lyra on modern astronomical maps. This relationship can be traced back to Gula’s earlier roots. The brightest star in the Goat/Lyra constellation is Vega — who was known as Lamma — a messenger of the goddess Baba, as recorded in the MUL.APIN (The Plough Star) — an astronomical compendium, thought to have been created in Aššur (modern day Iraq) around 3400 years ago.
Eventually Inanna appears to completely absorb the healing prowess of Gula and even commandeers her canine companions, who become Inanna’s pack of hunting dogs. The Great Gula slowly fades into obscurity.
The Dog Temple
The é-gal-mah temple at Isin was the seat of Gula/Ninisinna’s cult. Within this temple complex was the Dog House (é-ur-giz-ra).
At least 33 dog burials have been discovered under the ramp leading into Gula’s temple, similar dog burials are located throughout the Levant and across the Eastern Mediterranean, where it is suspected that Gula’s influence spread. The attention and ritual ascribed to dog burials in the region probably developed in the first instance with Palaeolithic Natufian burial customs in the Southern Levant and alongside the domestication of the dog.
The chief activity of temple workers at Gula’s Dog House seem to be feeding and caring for dogs, many of which lived to a ripe old age or appear to have had long-term injuries. Gula’s temple was a healing sanctuary for humans too, where cures of all sorts were performed. These cures took the form of dream incubation, miracle-working, sympathetic and prophylactic magic, surgical procedures, herbal cures, fasting and purification, curses and spells and perhaps hirudotherapy too (the use of blood-sucking leeches — and their hirudin containing saliva — to clear coagulated blood, treat abscesses and in some cases even correct circulatory problems and venous disorders).
Gula to Eshmun and Asklepios
Gula is known to have had other temples at Borsippa, Aššur and Nippur and her cult, or the ghost of it, appears to have influenced later healing cults and the employment of temple dogs particularly by the Hellenistic dream healer god Asklepios. Asklepios may have inherited his healing canines from the sacred dog cults and healing temples of the Phoenicians and Canaanites. The Phoenicians worshipped a god of healing and vegetation called Eshmun — said to have come from Beirut, who merged with Asklepios in a Hellenized Phoenicia when the Persian Empire fell to Alexander the Great. During this time, the sacred grove around Eshmun’s temple at Sidon acquired the title — ‘Grove of Asklepios’.
Greek philosopher Damascius claimed that Asclepius of Beirut was a youth who was fond of hunting. He was pursued violently by the goddess Astronoë (thought by many to be a version of Astarte). In his powerful desire to evade her, he castrates himself and bleeds to death. Astronoë then names the youth Paeon ‘Healer’, restores him to life from the warmth of her body, and transforms him into a god. A village near Beirut named Qabr Shmoun — Eshmoun’s Grave — exists to this day.
The Pet Cemetary
Ritual veneration and ceremonial burial of dogs in the ancient world is a widespread practice and it was certainly in part because of the influence of an association with Bau/Gula. This association probably influenced the religious food taboos around eating dog flesh. The same went for flamingoes, which were the unclean birds of Gula (although the Romans later developed a few recipes, and especially relished the tongue).
Some ancient references hint at temples where one could get sacred dog-licked for a fee, in which case many animals would have had to be provided for and eventually buried. There is a dog cemetery at Ashkelon in Israel, believed to be the largest dog cemetery in the Near East. Over 60% of the 1,400 dog skeletons that have been recovered so far belong to puppies. There is still a great deal of speculation around whether these animals were sacrificed or died natural deaths - or more likely a mix of both. The site appears to have been used for about 50 years during a period of Achaemenid Persian rule over its Phoenician populace.
Dogs were revered in the Persian Zorastrian traditions as well and the first Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great was known for its religious tolerance. Dog demanding dream goddesses of the Levant, Persia, Anatolia, the Mediterranean and Aegean frequently blended together, especially during times of cultural tolerance, prolific trade and cosmopolitanism. It has been suggested that the graves at Ashkelon hint at the as yet undiscovered presence of a temple to one or some of them.
Astarte and Aphrodite Ourania
The Greek travel writer and geographer Pausanias asserted that the worship of Aphrodite Ourania (heavenly or spiritual Aphrodite - a celestial form of the regular Earthly Aphrodite of lust and beauty) originated in Assyria. This Aphrodite was created by the Phoenicians and Paphians of Pafos, Cyprus intermingling. According to Pausanias they returned her cult to Ashkelon. The celestial title of the goddess is in-keeping with Near Eastern goddess traditions. According to Hesiod, Aphrodite Ourania was conceived when the severed genitals (thanks Cronos) of Ouranos mixed with Thalassa (Goddess of the Sea). She emerged from the resultant sea foam, as it washed over the rocky beach at Pafos.
Astarte, who is thought by some to have favoured the dog sacrifice, is known to have travelled to Cyprus from Assyria, where she had already shape-shifted from Ishtar-Inanna. It is believed she merged with their chief local goddess once there. Many scholars believe Astarte morphed into Aphrodite from this union, and perhaps more specifically manifested as Aphrodite Ourania.
Akkadian Hymn to Gula
O Gula, most exalted lady, merciful mother, who dwells in the pure heavens,
I call out to you, my lady, stand nearby and listen to me!
I seek you out, I turn to you, as the hem of my god(’s) and goddess(’s garment), I lay hold of your (garment’s) hem,
Because judging a case, handing down the decision,
Because restoring and maintaining well-being are within your power,
Because you know how to save, to spare, and to rescue.
O Gula, sublime lady, merciful mother,
Among the myriad stars of the heavens,
O lady, to you I turn; my ears are attentive to you.
Receive my flour offering, accept my prayer.
Let me send you to my angry (personal) god (and) my angry (personal) goddess,
To the god of my city who is furious and enraged with me.
On account of oracles and dreams that are hounding me,
I am afraid and constantly anxious.
O Gula, most exalted lady, through the word of your august command, which is supreme in Ekur,
And your sure approval, which cannot be altered,
May my furious god turn back to me; may my angry goddess turn again to me with favor.
May the god of my city who is furious and enraged with me,
Who is in a rage, relent; who is incensed, be soothed.
O Gula, most exalted lady, who intercedes on behalf of the powerless,
With Marduk, king of the gods, merciful lord,
Intercede! Speak a favorable word!
May your wide canopy (of protection), your noble forgiveness be with me.
Provide a requital of favor and life for me,
That I may proclaim your greatness (and) resound your praises!
Source: Adam Lenzi. Reading Akkadian Prayers & Hymns: an Introduction. Society of Biblical Literature. p. 243.Gula and the Dog Temple