Modern crimes against ancient goddesses

Before I begin I want to get something clear: I am an archaeologist who specialises in Near Eastern/Egyptian iconography, BUT, I have also been a professional artist for my entire adult life, so I am an enormous fan of modern reception of the ancient Near East.  I even run a fb group for this and make reception pieces myself, it is fun. 

What I am not a fan of, is the proliferation of modern reception being used as examples of the real thing on Pinterest, Wiki, and a multitude of Christian and neo-pagan blogs and websites (plus some pseudo-history pages that purport to educate the masses).

This post will look at some viral ‘fake’ artefacts on the interweebs.  They are not really originally fakes, btw… I assume the artists will have probably made them as freestanding artworks and as homage.   

Other people have turned the copies into fakes by taking the image out of context.  However, most of these images are so prolific that their original artist is long forgotten.  Basically, because the individuals stealing these images don’t give a crap who made them.  They believe they are OLD and REAL.

1) The ivory lid from Ugarit

Left: REAL, the Minet el Beida ivory pyxis lid from tomb III, Minet el Beida, Ugarit, Syria. 13th century, Late Bronze Age.
Image © Louvre Museum, Paris.   Right: MODERN COPY.

These copies amuse me, because the reception pieces consistently misinterpret the imagery on the original object (above left).  On a multitude of dodgy internet sites the female figure can be described as any goddess from Ugaritic Anath, Asherah or Ashtart, to Assyrian Ishtar, and Sumerian Inana (wrong millennium kids).  Some even call her Phoenician Ashtarte or biblical Ashtoreth (again, wrong millennium). 
This object and its copies are interesting because they appear to have influenced modern artists regarding the design of costume for Near Eastern goddesses beyond this one group.  Which I must say is a misleading assumption, because the original ivory lid is in hybrid style and has mostly Aegean features.  It may even be a Mycenaean object.  So it may not be Near Eastern at all.  However, the lid is fairly unique and has no clear parallels in Syria (a goddess between rampant animals is damn near everywhere in the late Late Bronze Age).

Left and Right: MODERN COPY (right is the same plaque after someone put it through photoshop)

So what has changed on the reception pieces?  Quite a bit…  Both artists change the rampant goats of the original lid to horses (horses don't have beards), and the sheaths of wheat or leafy vegetation in her hands are given eyes and altered to snakes.  A few sites therefore call her a snake goddess.  On two copies she is standing on human skulls, rather than the grainy undulating ground of the original…  Some bright spark clearly wanted a chthonic goddess with all those skulls and snakes. 

After this she also appears to have influenced pieces that are not direct copies

Above is an 'Astarte' from various pagan commercial sites that sell reception trinkets.  It is probably worth mentioning we don’t know who the goddess is, if it is one... One thing is pretty sure, she is not Mesopotamian.

2) Astarte

Left: REAL,  Gold sheet plaque from Lachish, 14-13th century, Late Bronze Age Levant. Image
© Israel Museum, Jerusalem.  Right: MODERN COPY.

This one is actually just a nice little homage copy of the original plaque, no major errors or cavalier changes.  She is again a Late Bronze Age hybrid piece with this time Levantine and Egyptian characteristics. She is from a city and time frame when the Levant was under Egyptian rule, so a fusion goddess makes perfect sense…  Again, nothing particularly Mesopotamian to see here. 

I would leave it alone, but for Wikipedia having the gall to call it the original plaque.  And naturally it is used by cheerful pop-history (Mr P’s Mythopedia), conspiracy theory (Mesopotamian Gods and Kings) and neo-pagan sites as the real object.   Yet again, you can basically pick any high profile Near Eastern goddess and she will be called this, even though actual experts are still arguing over whether she is Anath, Qudshu or Astarte.

3) Inana?

Left: MODERN FORGERY, Early 20th century.  Image © Fitzwilliam Museum, London.  
Right: MODERN REWORKING of early 20th century forgery.

A reception goddess that is ironically a copy of a fake goddess that is a copy of a real Minoan votive figurine.  Exhausting just to think about it… but to be pedantic: no Mesopotamian goddess here either.

The source for these modern and almost modern copies are votive figures in faience and bronze from Minoan Crete, dating to around 1600 BCE. When Arthur Evans discovered the first figurines in the early 1900s he used a resourceful bunch of guys to restore them and he was totally cool with their making a bit of cash on the side selling antiquities.  The original ‘goddesses’ were so popular that the art market was just a tad desperate to get some and his trained restorers stepped up to the mark and flooded the market with very good fakes. 

The reception plaque is a modern interpretation of the Fitzwilliam Museum of London’s fake Minoan ‘goddess’ figurine, plus perhaps a couple of fragments of fakes that Evan’s published.  Authentic Minoan votive figures have quite specific arm gestures and do not clasp their breasts like goddesses on Syro-Levantine votive figures and seals.   This plaque is labelled the goddess Inana on various internet sites, or the Inana of Crete, whatever that means.

4) Ishtar

Left: REAL, Ishtar from Eshnunna, Iraq.  First half of 2nd millennium, 2000-1500 BCE. Image © Louvre Museum, Paris.  Right: MODERN COPY.

This plaque (right) is obviously a fan copy of the original, as it resembles it relatively closely.  The original is a clay plaque in the Louvre of the goddess Ishtar, that is from Eshnunna.  We know it is Ishtar because of her attributes, the quite specific sceptre, the lion (under her foot) and the diadem of a high god.  The artist here however has reinterpreted the details and clearly not understood some idiom, such as the lion and the lion sceptre, but otherwise it is kinda cute. 

It is again used on various Mesopotamian history pages as the real deal.  I particularly enjoyed the caption on Mesopotamian Gods and Kings: ‘Inanna with liberty torch’.  Not only is she described as an alien nephilim giant, but she was also the goddess of liberty… because, wait for it... the badly copied sceptre is really a torch like the American statue of liberty holds…  cue eye roll.

On the upside it is a copy of a Mesopotamian goddess.

5) Ereshkigal
This figurine was most probably creatively sourced from the same Louvre plaque with the goddess Ishtar from Eshnunna, or something similar like seals, but the claws for hands clearly reference the British Museum Queen of the Night (Burney Relief) plaque.  Personally, I suspect the Ugarit lid copies have had some input in the design too, with that uncharacteristic skull and the patterns on the flounces.  But that is after all artistic licence.

Modern goddess by Netjerwaret

The modern reception artwork was made by the profile Netjerwaret at Deviant Art, but no blame may lay at their door that dodgy history sites like Mr P’s Mythopedia and Mesopotamian Gods and Kings call it a real ancient statue of Ereshkigal. 

Handy hint for the uninitiated:  There are at this point in time no confirmed ancient images of the Mesopotamian underworld goddess Ereshkigal in any medium in any collection in the world.  We don't know what she looked like.  The closest we come to one is the Queen of the Night plaque goddess and this connection is hotly disputed, because if the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians avoided depicting the goddess of the dead, she is unlikely to be her..

6) ‘Ninhursag’
The final plaque (right) is again a respectable copy of the original object, there are as usual minor details where the artist misread the content, like her missing left hand and the loss of her horned crown, but it is a lovely piece of reception nonetheless.

Left: REAL, goddess on a vase fragment naming Enmetena of Lagash,ca. 2400 BCE,
© Vorderasiatisches Museen, Staatliche Museen, Berlin.  Right: COPY, woodcut by Nicholas Fasciano.

The copy was most likely commissioned for the book by Samuel Noah Kramer that it illustrates, ‘History Begins at Sumer’ which  is a perennial favourite that was published in the 1950s and has been republished repeatedly since then.  The goddess is one of four woodcuts in the book by American illustrator Nicholas Fasciano. It is called 'Ninhursag' by Kramer.

The original object (left) is a fragment from a votive vessel that names the king Enmetena of Lagash (ca. 2400 BCE) that is in Berlin. The tablet records the dedication of a temple to Inana, but also mentions Nanshe and Ninhursag, with both goddesses being possibilities for the goddess depicted here.  However, the Berlin museum describes her as Nisaba.  The iconography is not overly specific, but she holds dates and has grain or vegetation in her crown, so a vegetation goddess is very likely.

The copy is another prolific mislabelled image on the internet and is used as an authentic ancient object on a multitude of pop history, neo-pagan and downright crazy sites, who embellish their descriptions with all sorts of interesting attributes for Ninhursag, the Sumerian birth goddess.  Some even try to give it a legitimate provenance, like Looklex Encyclopaedia who claim the woodcut is from the temple of Ninhursag at Tall al-Ubayd…  No it isn’t.

But the winner for complete nonsense reception again goes to Mesopotamian Gods and Kings with their farcical description of Ninhursag involving the planet Nibiru, mixed breed races of creation, plus calling the mythical king Lugalbanda her ‘giant mixed breed son’…  say what?

On the upside again at least it is originally a Mesopotamian goddess.

The copy incidentally came with three other woodcuts of gods that are also viral online as the real objects, but these will have to be the topic of a future blog post.


In summary, sourcing pictures of ancient goddesses from unreliable sites:  Don’t do it, it’s a trick

Seriously guys, you really can’t trust the internet to provide you with reliable and authentic images of ancient Mesopotamian gods.

Andrea Sinclair

7) Inana
in flight suit with helmet that has goggles
First of all … subjective much?

Now I have that off my chest, there is another viral image that may be found on any tin foil hat wearing page that pays homage to Sitchin on the net.  However, as with all the previous ladies this example is a reception piece that is an interpetation of a drawing from 1922.

REAL: Left: the real gypsum plaque from the Ishtar temple at Aššur.  Right: an artist's interpretation 
of the pigment decoration.  Andrae 1922, plates 27a and 28c. 

The original object is a 20cm high fragmentary gypsum plaque that Walter Andrae excavated in the early 20th century in the Ishtar temple at Aššur in Iraq. It was found in a room adjacent to the main cult room in layer H which dates to the Early Dynastic III (ca. 2500 BCE). There were traces of paint on the plaque, so the excavators did a line drawing to try to reproduce the colour designs.  There is no guarantee that the drawing is an entirely accurate reconstruction.  In the 1920s illustrators have been known to improvise.  It is clearly not drawn to scale.

The identification of the plaque as Inana also cannot be guaranteed, as experts are still disputing whether the Mesopotamian frontally posed naked goddess is an aspect of this goddess or another separate goddess.  Offerings of figurines in temples are not goddess specific, and it was possible for other gods to have cult places within the main building of a god.  It incidentally does not appear to be a wall sculpture (contra Sitchin).

Left: black and white image from Sitchin 1976. Right: MODERN REPLICA from the Herschel blog.

The modern copy of a drawing of a drawing is from the web site of Wayne Herschel, a rabid devotee of Zecharia Sitchin who has worked out how to make a dollar or three by selling expensive “replicas” to fans.  Herschel claims that Sitchin found the plaque in the Iran museum, and this is the story all over the internet.  An easy mistake I guess, Iran/Iraq, q and n are so easily confused.  It is actually either in the Berlin or Istanbul museums (distribution of finds).  Sitchin himself cites Andrae and the Ishtar temple in his book.

“The team headed by Andrae found yet another unusual depiction of Ishtar at her temple in Ashur.  More a wall sculpture than the usual relief, it showed the goddess with a tight-fitting decorated helmet with the “earphones” extended as though they had their own flat antennas, and wearing very distinct goggles that were part of the helmet.”

You have got to admire how much information can be gleaned from a black and white line drawing of a small plaque, but Sitchin’s claims about ancient astronauts are a whole separate issue and he too approached facts with a generous tablespoon of salt.  I could not possibly tackle his nonsense here.

Regardless, in this case we have a chain of outcomes beginning with a pseudo-science interpretation from the 1970s, and then another individual has added confusion by desiring to cash in on this craze by writing his own book and selling the public expensive replicas.  The object you see on the web is a 3 dimensional modern interpretation of a black and white drawing that is a copy of a polychrome drawing of a scruffy broken plaque from 1922 … confused yet?

W. Andrae 1922. Die Archaischen Ischtar-Tempel in Assur.
Z. Sitchin 1976. The 12th Planet.
W. Herschel:

Museum Websites

Louvre ivory lid

Louvre Ishtar

Israel Museum gold plaque

Fitzwilliam Minoan forgery

Berlin goddess

Sitchin’s rocket in the tomb of Amenhotep-Huy

Painting of the west wall in the tomb of Huy by Charles K. Wilkinson (1920s), Image © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. If yo...