THE SAPPHIRE TABLET
Thoughts on our ancient faith and our modern world
A warrior queen stands in a grove surrounded by the armed men and women of her tribe. She raises her hands and invokes the name of her Lady, the Queen of Heaven, the impetuous mistress of battle, for the cause of victory, survival, and preservation of her people.
She is Queen Boudicca, leader of the Iceni, an indigenous people of Britain. The year is 60 CE, and the Iceni kingdom has just been usurped by the Romans in the course of their invasion of Britain. Upon the death of the king, Prasutagus, the Romans fail to honour their treaties and the will of the king, instead annexing and looting the kingdom, subjecting the late king's wife - Boudicca - and their two daughters to physical and sexual violence.
When Suetonius, the Roman governor of Britain, was attempting to put down resistance to Roman occupation on the island of Anglesey, in modern Wales, Boudicca and the Iceni seized their chance for rebellion. With her appeal to heaven, Boudicca leads the Iceni and allied tribes in wholesale destruction of Roman colonies in Britain. The cities that would later become Colchester, London, and St. Albans are burned and razed, the Roman 9th (Spanish) Legion routed, and for a moment, the course of history wavers as Roman control of Britain hangs in the balance.
Suetonius, hearing news of the revolt, returned to gather the Roman legions in Britain. Despite being heavily outnumbered, his forces met Boudicca's for a decisive battle - the location is still unknown - where Roman military discipline and organisation allowed them victory in spite of Boudicca's overwhelming numbers. 80,000 Britons would be killed, and Boudicca poisoned herself rather than surrender to the inevitable Roman retribution.
Despite her ultimate defeat, Boudicca lives on to the present day as a British folk hero. Her exploits and resistance are taught in schools and her statues stand in major cities, including London, which she once had burned to the ground. Many accounts, however, leave out mention of the goddess Andraste, to whom Boudicca appealed before she commenced her revolt.
It is natural to wonder about the character of Andraste, the goddess venerated by this warrior queen and her people. Regrettably, the Celtic Britons left behind very little in the way of written records; much of what we can glean must come from Roman sources, naturally inimical to the Britons.
The Roman historian Cassius Dio, writing a century and a half after the fact, describes Boudicca's speech - likely embellished, as Boudicca would have spoken neither Latin nor Greek - in which she calls upon Andraste for "victory, preservation of life and liberty" against the Romans; Dio later describes sacrifices and banquets being held in honour of the goddess Andate (sic) alongside his depictions of gory retribution visited upon Romans, particularly Roman noblewomen, by the Britons.
It was customary for Roman historians to embellish the negative traits and barbaric character of their enemies, but we nonetheless get a picture of Andraste as a goddess not only of battle but of retribution; these characteristics instantly draw to mind comparisons with Inana, particularly in that one reason for Boudicca's personal fury towards the Romans, namely the sexual assault against her daughters, is reminiscent of Inana's fury against the gardener Šukaletuda, who had violated her, and in retribution for which Inana turns the waters of the Land into blood and decrees Šukaletuda's destruction.
The name Andraste (also Andate, Andarta) naturally invites comparisons with that of Astarte, the name under which Inana was venerated in ancient Phoenicia and the Levant. Phonetic similarity does not, on its own, lend itself to a temporal relation, but the similarities appear on more than just a surface level, so much so that a relationship between Andraste and Astarte has been proposed elsewhere in the historical record.
Marcus Zuerius van Boxhorn, an early Dutch linguist who laid the foundations for our understanding of the Indo-European language family, wrote in Originum Gallicarum liber ("book of the origins of the Gauls") in 1654 that, drawing upon the summary of Dio's work prepared by 11th century Byzantine monk Joannes Xiphelinus, he believed Astarte to have been introduced to the Gauls - who, as Celts, shared a linguistic bond and common body of worship with the Britons - by the Phoenicians.
In his 1845 work, Crania Britannica, anthropologist Joseph Barnard Davis also explores this hypothesis; he references Polybius' Histories, from which it is known that the Gauls venerated by 223 BCE a warrior goddess with the epithet of "immovable"; Polybius equates this goddess with Minerva, but Andraste, whose name translates similarly, seems much more likely. Davis further infers that the epithet Belisama, originally of Andraste, was adapted as a name of Minerva by the Romans, but that this title ultimately derives from Akkadian belet šame - Queen of Heaven.
Davis also claims that a Phoenician temple to Astarte existed in Gades (now Cádiz, Spain); the city was founded by the Phoenicians around 1100 BCE and references to the same temple also exist in Roman historiography. Inana, under her various names and titles, was one of the most widely venerated deities across the Mediterranean, and with numerous Phoenician colonies being founded on the Iberian coast in the first half of the first millennium BCE, it's not difficult to envision worship of the Queen of Heaven being adapted by their Celtic and Gaulish neighbours. Phoenicia was, after all, a major mercantile and trading power of the age, and the fire, passion, and reverence of Inana spread like wildfire along other known trade routes of the ancient and pre-classical world.
Indeed, given the Phoenicians' renown for trade, exploration and commerce, their proximity to the Celtic peoples, the longevity of their city-states and empires (Phoenician presence in Iberia extended some nine centuries) and what we know from the written record of the way reverence of the Queen of Heaven spread through the ancient world, it would almost seem more surprising had the Celts not had extensive exposure to her worship and her mythology.
I also find it interesting that Boudicca herself is described with the same warlike zeal and fury; she is described by Dio thus: "in stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh". (Loeb Classical Library translation; text in the public domain.) Dio describes Boudicca releasing a hare herself, for the sake of augury, which alongside the invocation of the Goddess may indicate that her office also implied a priestly function. Whether this is the case or not, Boudicca is remembered for her avenging fury which instantly draws the stories of Inana to mind; on further examination, it is surprising how deep the connection may run.
As Sumerian Reconstructionists, the study of history underpins our understanding of our faith. We are therefore bound to treat history cautiously and with respect; there is therefore an important disclaimer to be added here that we have precious little historical evidence of Celtic culture and beliefs, and no primary written sources. Our understanding of Andraste is pieced together from limited Roman sources, and so we lack an indigenous Celtic perspective on their Goddess.
As far as I am aware, the roots of Andraste have received almost no coverage in modern scholarship, and other possibilities do exist; it is entirely feasible that a chance archeological discovery could validate or overturn this idea.
Nonetheless, there is no denying what we do know of Andraste and Boudicca are tantalisingly evocative of Inana in her irresistible warrior aspect, and a potential connection is discreetly hinted at in the historical record. Those who are devoted to Inana strive for an ever more complete understanding of her character, and in encountering the legendary and historical character of Boudicca, is it any wonder that our minds are drawn to the awe-inspiring avenging power of our Goddess?
Queen of Heaven, quick to anger,
Fierce tempest of the heavens,
Suen's daughter bathed in moonlight,
Living source of righteous fury,
May the nations know your power,
May your awesome wrath inspire,
May you stir the hearts of many,
To resist the greedy few.
Your name on Earth shall live forever,
Your deeds proclaimed in every tongue,
Your shrines and holy dwellings treasured,
"Your praise is sweet", be ever sung.
The cuneiform writing for Inana's name is 𒀭𒈹 d.MUŠ3, and unlike the names of many deities, this is not a phonetic spelling of her name. Enlil, for example, is written 𒀭𒂗𒆤 d.EN.LIL2, where en means "lord" and lil "wind, spirit, breath of life", so where did Inana's sign come from and how does it help explain her character?
To explain, we must look to where Inana was first worshipped, the city of Uruk, a city ancient even by Sumerian standards. Records grow incredibly sparse the further back in written history we go, and it's in 4th millennium BCE Uruk, near the dawn of writing, that the worship of Inana is first attested in the historical record.
We know from textual and religious evidence that the Lady of Myriad Domains grew and acquired her powers over time, and the text of Inana and Uruk tells of her first triumphant entry into that city, when she chose it as her own and took the divine powers of heaven into it in a grand procession.
We also know that in the earliest days of her worship in Uruk, she fulfilled two vital functions, one spiritual as the Queen of Heaven, and one temporal as the Lady of the Storehouse. The earliest evidence we have for such a function being attributed to Inana is a beautiful 4th millennium BCE vase called the Warka Vase, which depicts Inana standing in front of a storehouse gate, flanked by the ceremonial doorposts composed of tied bundles of reeds.
The storehouse was a focal point of Sumerian economic activity at the time. It was a room or building in a temple complex where surplus food would be stored, so that it might be distributed in times of need. To the early Sumerian, this was an incredible development. The presence of the storehouse guarded against famine and starvation. Permanent settlements were a relatively recent innovation - before this, humans had spent a hundred thousand years as nomadic hunter-gatherers, never sure where our next meal would come from. The early Sumerian would have been truly thankful for the bounties of civilization, promising food and shelter for all, allowing for the pursuit of knowledge and human advancement like never before, and would have thought it right to worship the deities who lifted them so rapidly from that pre-civilized state.
It is these storehouse gateposts that became forever associated with Inana through the symbol 𒈹. Early cuneiform was written vertically, so when turning the symbol 90 degrees clockwise, the symbolism of a bundle of reeds erected in the ground and tied together starts to reveal itself. This is made clearer still when looking at how the symbol developed from a drawing of the gatepost through the proto-literate period.
The significance of the sacred union of Inana and her consort Dumuzi to the maintenance of human life and civilization is also revealed upon closer examination of the early form of worship at Uruk. As depicted on the Warka vase, Dumuzi appears in his aspect called Ama-ušum-gal-ana, his symbol the date palm cluster, while offerings of fruits and grains are carried to Inana in her role as Lady of the Storehouse. The joining together of Dumuzi's life- and fertility-giving gifts and Inana's power of the storehouse, allowing for the sustenance of the community, are also a metaphor for the fertility of the Land, which it is hoped will be ensured by their union.
The storehouse also stands for a key moment in human history, because it represents the first step by which scarcity can be defeated. Scarcity is a great quickener of human ills, for a casual glance through history reveals a nigh endless list of wars and calamities that have been instigated for want of resources. A world where every person has enough to survive and thrive is a world that is free to prosper. Furthermore, it is the intention of the gods that humanity provides for ourselves such that the whole world can constantly celebrate and enjoy the blessings and riches of the Land. This is the reason why one of the many epithets of Babylon was Uru-uĝbi-ezen-zalzal, where the people continually rejoice.
We have a power in our hands, in our modern world, that was unthinkable to the Sumerians. We have reached a level of technological advancement that, through automation, it would be possible to solve the problem of scarcity forever and permit billions of human beings to rest from their labours, and yet, wealth is permitted to settle in the hands of a tiny minority who fill their own private storehouses with hoarded riches. A proverb from Ur shows this greed for what it is:
𒃻𒌇 𒃻 𒀠 𒁲 𒃻𒈪𒉭 𒀭𒊏𒄰
To be wealthy and demand more is to speak abominations unto one's god!
The ancient world faced the constant specter of famine, disease, raids and invasions. The ancients knew, on a primal level that we can scarcely comprehend today, the truth of the adage that every civilization is three missed meals away from chaos. One of the reasons why Sumerian society was able to flourish was the commitment to ensuring the welfare of the collective. This is even more remarkable when considering that even despite the Sumerian commitment to communal welfare, theirs was never a society truly free of worry for the future. A mere six thousand years hence, our advancements in technology, medicine, and building global peace - while far from perfect - give us the power to harness the fruits of the Earth sustainably, responsibly, and for the wellbeing of every human. That we do not do so is, in the eyes of the Sumerian, an unforgivable shame.
To follow a Mesopotamian path in the modern day brings with it the inevitability and the responsibility of being aware of human history on a far greater scale than is generally taught in our schools. We observe that the decline of a civilization is not a one-off, violent event; Rome didn't fall in a day, and nor did Babylon, and while these cities were sacked by invaders, this was after a centuries-long period of decline and instability, division and infighting, often accompanied by external factors such as climate events and plagues. While we should be careful to avoid hyperbole, the parallels to our modern age are difficult to miss.
We should therefore pray for the guidance and wisdom of our gods so that their blueprint for a good society may one day be realised on Earth, and be alert to historical trends so that we may be well informed in what the tablet of history tells us of an increasingly uncertain future. We find hope and aspiration towards a better future in the sacred marriage of Inana and Dumuzi, and the vast untapped potential that the Earth holds for the betterment of humanity.
Holy Inana, lady of the myriad domains,
Lady who fills the good storehouses of the Land,
Lady who provides for the abundance of the people,
May your storehouses be piled high with fruits and grains,
May your holy union with Dumuzi forever bless the Land,
May the Land ever bring forth good grain to sustain humanity.
Queen of Heaven, you brought forth the divine powers to your people in Uruk,
May their splendour never fade, may your hymns and blessings never cease.
May your storehouses be piled high with gold and lapis lazuli,
May the prosperity of the Land ever be ensured by your hand,
May your festivals and celebrations carry on without end.
In this age of civilization, with your name restored to glory,
May we yet see an end to hunger and strife,
An end to bitterness and quarrel,
And the unity of the human race,
In pursuit of a future of abundance,
A future that sings your praises,
Lady most honoured among the Anuna gods,
Holy Inana, your praise is sweet!