The goddess of the Queen of the Night relief

Quite often a topic for this blog comes to me rather than the other way around, which happens to be the case here, as I hadn’t planned to write this post, but I had been interested in knowing more about the development of the mythology around this famous plaque.
And famous she is, images of her are all over the web in various guises and in nearly every art history book published for the last 80 years. 
Online the Queen of the Night plaque is often used as the poster girl for pagan, wiccan and Mesopotamian revival groups, apart from her being a popular subject for reception art regardless of an artist's personal inclinations. 
I've even interpreted her myself in a watercolour (detail shown above).
Left-R: Art by Yoshi Yoshitani, Peter Hubert / HB Art & Marsrut.

But she is also a source of controversy, because ask any three people who is represented on the plaque and you will likely get three different and often heated opinions about which goddess she is.

Ask any three Assyriologists and this too could happen.

Because right at this moment there is simply not enough evidence to be absolutely certain.  
Therefore, this post represents an overview - an everything you probably did not want to know about her - from the plaque's dubious origins in the early 20th century to the debates about her identity, inclusive of a very basic introduction to Mesopotamian iconography.
The Queen of the Night. Image (c) British Museum 2003,0718.1.


The Queen of the Night was known as the Burney Relief for most of the 20th century and therefore may still be called this in older textbooks and reprints.
  • It is in the British Museum in London (no. 2003,0718.1).
  • The plaque is 49.5 cm (19.48 inches) high and 37 cm (14.56 inches) wide.
  • Made of clay that was tempered with fine straw. It is big-ish for a clay plaque.
  • The clay was formed by pressing into a mould with the more complex details added afterwards, then it was fired in a kiln.
  • It has no provenience – which means there is no excavation context, rather it was reputedly acquired sometime in the early 20th century by an antiquities dealer. 
Therefore, the plaque is dated by style.
In 1937 Henry Frankfort dated it to the late 3rd millennium, in the Larsa period. It is currently dated to the early 2nd millennium, Old Babylonian period, perhaps the reign of Hammurabi (1810-1750 BCE), based on its similarity to artefacts from this period. In 1980 Edith Porada suggested it could be from Nippur due to similarities with plaques from there. 

It is NOT Sumerian.

Acquisition history

The plaque’s origins and movements before 1933 are unknown.

It first publically appears when Roger Homsy of the auction house Selim Homsy placed it on deposit in the British Museum on Feb. 13, 1933, where it was recorded as ‘broken in 3 pieces & a number of frags.’

In 1935 it was ‘exhaustively’ examined by conservator H.J. Plenderleith, and later restored, details of both being unclear, because these were never made public. He may have claimed that the black bitumen encrustation on the surface could not be younger than 15 years, which was assumed to rule out a forgery (Davis 1936).

Not long after restoration it was sold to the antiquities dealer Sydney Burney from whom it got the earlier name, the Burney Relief. Then it was published in an article by journalist Frank C. Davis in the Illustrated London News on June 13, 1936, which is the only source for Plenderleith’s results.
Image of the clay plaque from the Illustrated London News 1936
Why does she have 2 navels?
In 1936-7, three academics wrote articles interpreting the news article and the photograph: 
  • The 1st, by biblical scholar Emil Kraeling, proposed that the plaque could not be a senior goddess like Ishtar, and therefore must be the demoness Lilith
  • Number 2, Assyriologist Dietrich Opitz was not convinced of its authenticity and denounced it as a forgery. 
  • Number 3, Assyriologist Elizabeth Douglas van Buren accepted it as authentic and suggested the figure may be the goddess Ishtar.
  • Assyriologist Henry Frankfort (1937-39) in high dudgeon then weighed in and argued the figure was an inhabitant of the land of death, possibly the succubus Lilith, agreeing with Kraeling.  
  • As a result of Frankfort's ire, Opitz backed off in a new article (1937-9), but emphasised the unresolved problems, and considered it unlikely to be a cult relief when there is no evidence of cult for gods of death.
Burney later sold the relief to a Lt-Colonel Norman Colville and it remained in Colville’s possession until his death when it was sold to the art dealer Goro Sakamoto in 1975. The plaque was loaned to the British Museum by Sakamoto from 1979 to 1991. It remained in his possession until 2003 when the British Museum purchased it. 


In 1969 Assyriologist Pauline Albenda again questioned the plaque’s authenticity, arguing the lack of provenience, the unreliability of unpublished scientific studies and the stylistic anomalies, particularly the doubled ring and rod symbols held in the figure’s hands.

Thermoluminescence tests of the clay were subsequently done in 1975 by the British Museum, but these results were also not formally published. The test samples (one from a broken piece, one from the back) were stated to be ancient, within a range of 1720 years, spanning between 1765 BCE (Old Babylonian period) and 45 BCE (early Roman).

In 1996 British Museum curators John Curtis and Dominique Collon endorsed the authenticity of the plaque citing the previous information and assigned it a date between 1850 and 1750 BCE based on style. Which is a tad earlier than the scientific dates from 1975.

Almost ten years later, in 2005, Albenda repeated her concerns and again called for a scientific study to be done to resolve issues of authenticity. The same year the British Museum examined the pigments and concluded these were carbon black, ochre red and gypsum. Collon rebutted Albenda in 2007, reaffirming its authenticity, and proposed that the goddess was Ereshkigal.

Identifications of the winged figure
  • 1936 – Journalist Frank Davis – a Venus goddess - Ishtar
  • 1937 – Emil Kraeling – 'a superhuman being of a lower order' - demoness and ‘vamp’ Lilith / Lilitu
  • 1937 – Elizabeth Douglas van Buren – possibly Lilith, but more likely Ishtar
  • 1937 – Henry Frankfort – possibly Lilith, no doubt an inhabitant of the land of death. Later he firms for Lilith (1954 & 1996)
  • 1949 – Elizabeth Douglas van Buren – Ishtar in chthonic aspect
  • 1952 – Marie-Therese Barrelet – Ishtar of the underworld
  • 1980 – Edith Porada – female ruler of the dead, or a god of the Old Babylonian pantheon who may be associated with death. Followed by Zainab Bahrani (1993), Elisabeth von der Osten-Sacken (2002)
  • 1987 – Thorkild Jacobsen – Inanna/Ishtar as goddess of harlots, Ninnina, aka the demoness Kilili. Followed by Collon (1993), Pirjo Lapinkivi (2004 & 2017) and Frans Wiggerman (2007)
  • 1990  Porada again  demon of the underworld 
  • 1997 – Anthony Green – Ishtar in the underworld
  • 2002 – Julian Reade – exhibitionist Ishtar
  • 2007 – Caitlin Barrett – almost certainly Ishtar in an underworld context 
  • 2007  Dominique Collon  Ereshkigal

And so on, with others remaining cautious due to:

The problems of identification
The proposals so far are:
  • Inanna - the Sumerian goddess of sexuality and warfare
  • Ishtar - the Semitic goddess of sexuality and warfare, she was merged with Inanna in the late 3rd millennium when Sumerian culture was absorbed into Akkadian
  • Ereshkigal - sister of Ishtar, queen of the underworld and goddess of death
  • Lilitu demons (Sumerian LIL.LA) - predatory desert and wind spirits
  • Lilith - a Talmudic and Biblical demoness, likely derived from the Lilitu
  • Kilili - a messenger of Ishtar, both a dangerous and protective minor goddess
Ishtar holding rod, ring, with tiny lion.
Old Babylonian sealing, Berlin VA03334
Following is an overview of stylistic arguments for and against these identifications: 
The female figure
Rod and ring: She holds two pairs of rod and ring in her hands, the symbols of divine authority. The rod and ring are only held by major gods like Shamash or Marduk in Mesopotamian art (van Buren 1949, Abram 2011). Among goddesses only Inanna/Ishtar and Ninisina may be shown with these (Asher-Greve & Westenholz 2013). 
However, there are no examples of any god holding two sets of rod and ring from Mesopotamia. 
This is currently used to support an argument for the goddess Ereshkigal, because Ereshkigal stripped her sister Ishtar of her rod and ring in the myth of Ishtar's descent into the underworld and is assumed to have had her own pair.

Horned crown: The naked figure wears the multihorned crown indicating that she is both a goddess and a very senior one. This crown of bull horns is a really recogisable Mesopotamian symbol of divinity and it is not worn by demons.

Nudity: In the Old Babylonian period there were a variety of goddesses or demons who might be depicted naked, however Ishtar has not been securely identified as any naked goddess from early Mesopotamian art (Seidl 1976-80). The identification with Ishtar has been rationalised as her naked, and stripped of her symbols of power when she is in the underworld (Jacobsen 1987), however it makes little sense when this goddess retains her symbols of power.

It is also a common error to group Mesopotamian naked female figures under the heading ‘fertility’ and/or Ishtar, when Ishtar was not the only goddess of sensuality, and nudity does not necessarily indicate sex or fertility. In ancient Mesopotamia nudity was not intrinsically erotic (Asher-Greve & Sweeney 2006, Assante 2006, Bahrani 1993). 

Over a three-thousand-year time-frame and vastly different cultures (Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian etc), these naked figures will also represent different goddesses, who must be differentiated according to context and their symbols. In addition, if they do not wear a horned crown they may not even be goddesses. 
Finally, the Old Babylonian Ishtar was represented fully clothed and armed to the teeth with maces and axes... Not a goddess to meet in a dark alley... Whereas, in at least two myths, Gilgamesh and Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Underworld, the queen of the underworld Ereshkigal is described as naked.

Akkadian sealings (c) Louvre AO11569 & ISAC Museum Chicago A27903

Wings: Inanna/Ishtar is sometimes represented on 3rd millennium seals with upraised wings, but it should be cautioned that the seals that are often used to argue this were also unfortunately purchased on the antiquities market.
Downturned wings have also been argued to be characteristic of demons (Porada 1980).
Such wings are attested on naked goddesses on a few authentic clay plaques and a vase dating to this period. However, these goddesses are unidentified and most have different divine attributes, like fish, birds or antelopes. This makes identifying them difficult, but I hesitate to argue they are all demons or creatures of the underworld.
Legit plaques (c) Louvre AO 6501 & AO 17000

Mcown & Haines, Nippur I, pl. 134, centre Woolley, Ur 7, pl 81

Claws: The goddess has birdlike claws, instead of feet, and possibly dew claws on the calves, like a lion or cat. These features are used to support an argument for an underworld deity, or an aspect of Ishtar that is associated with the underworld, or with prostitution (Kilili).

Yet while wings and birdlike claws are features of certain unidentified goddesses and demonesses (above), these are not all the same magical being.

Finally, no images of the goddess of the dead and underworld, Ereshkigal, are confirmed from Mesopotamian art.... none... The same applies to Lilitu demons.

The animals and setting
2 owls: Owls were not symbols of Inanna or Ishtar. And there are few representations of owls from Mesopotamian art. They have been associated with the demoness Kilili connecting her to the owl goddess Ninnina. 
Sometimes a magical bird from the myth Ishtar and the Huluppu Tree is suggested to be an owl, but this is speculative. Similarly a description of the inhabitants of the land of the dead as feathered from the Epic of Gilgamesh is used to argue that she is an underworld goddess (Porada 1980).
However, the biggest problem is that there are no other examples of owls with representations of gods or goddesses or as attributes of these in Mesopotamian art, this plaque is unique. 
Old Babylonian plaque from Nippur, (c) Penn Museum 11.53.95.

2 lions: Lions were definitely symbols of Inanna and Ishtar. On the other hand, these were not associated with Ereshkigal nor nature spirits and demons. 
In 2nd millennium seal glyptic Ishtar is often represented with a foot on the back of a snarling lion. But she is not depicted with passive lions that face frontally. She may even be described as a ferocious lioness, but on this plaque aggression and control of wild animals are completely absent. 
Nonetheless, the symbol on the lions' shoulders does seem to be a motif from some Old Babylonian lions, although these markings are not identical (see lion above). This motif is one of the features used to argue the Babylonian date and source (Porada 1980).

Pretty standard Old Babylonian iconography of Ishtar
from Susa, Louvre AOD63 & Tell Asmar, ISAC museum A17898,
yes, those are lions under her feet.

Mountains: At the base of the plaque both lions and owls stand on a ground line of two rows of the scalloped ‘scale’ pattern that is symbolic of ‘mountains’ in Mesopotamian art. This is a common motif in glyptic under the feet of gods, magical beasts or sacred trees and infers a divine context. 
The goddess Ishtar was associated with mountains, and so was the earth goddess Ninhursag, but KUR - ‘mountain’, ‘land’ or ‘country’ was also a euphemism for the land of the dead, or underworld (Jacobsen 1976, Porada 1980).  
So no joy there either.
Gods stand on mountains. Adda seal, British Museum 89115.

The colours on the plaque are red-brown, black and white. In the past the broad areas of red and black have been suggested to indicate an underworld god, particularly the black background and wings (Frankfurt 1997, Porada 1990). However, I find this unsustainable, as dark backgrounds are not uncommon in 3rd to 2nd millennium visual representation, these can't all be chthonic settings. The wings, on the other hand, were red, black and white.

Red (ochre), carbon black and white (gypsum) were common pigments in the first half of the Bronze Age and they are a feature of early Mesopotamian art and architectural decoration. Green-blue pigment is less common before the Late Bronze Age (ca 1550 BCE). This particularly applies to objects made and decorated with common materials like this plaque (citing my own research here).
Nonetheless, hues of red were used in epithets of Ishtar, and goddesses associated with her: ‘red queen of heaven’ (Ninsianna), ‘she of the red face’ (Mushmehush), ‘red or fearsome light’ (Udhush). But I still would not assume that this figure is Ishtar from her red skin, as red ochre was used for both male and female gods where the pigment is still visible from the Old Babylonian period. 
Therefore, red and black are not specific indications of underworld gods and are not overly useful to identify this goddess.
British Museum 122934 and Berlin Museum VA Bab 00559.

Scientific tests

Two groups of tests of the plaque are said to have been carried out, once in 1935 by Plenderleith and later in 1975, both under the auspices of the British Museum. These were never formally published, so we have to take anecdotal evidence about their results. The main source for this is curators Curtis and Collon (1996) in an article about another naked goddess plaque that the museum also purchased from a dealer (circularity of argument much?).

Some of these earlier anecdotal results are inconsistent, or simply incorrect, which places doubt on the accuracy of their conclusions. Yet articles and books written before the 1970s built their arguments and drew their conclusions about the goddess' identity using these results.
  • Prior to 2000 many studies assumed the plaque was unique (after Frankfort), a one-off made from modelled clay and not made in a mould.... It is mould made.
  • The pigments were incorrectly identified, Plenderlieth is said to have concluded the black areas on the plaque were bitumen, however the black was pronounced to be carbon black in examination of the pigments in 2005. 
  • Prenderleith (1935) ruled it out as a forgery based on this black encrustation not being younger than 15 years. 
  • White pigment was not mentioned before 2005. 
  • The thermoluminescence tests of the clay were made from 2 small samples on the back of the upper part of the plaque, the external surface has not been tested.

Reconstruction of the colours from Aruz et al, Beyond Babylon 2008.

Cult objects

In 1937-39 Henry Frankfort considered the plaque to be 'exquisite' hand modelled monumental art that can only come from a temple context, many scholars followed his lead.

Yet the plaque is 49.5 cm high and made of moulded clay. It is neither monumental nor is it precious per se. In fact, that it was made in a mould infers that more than one plaque could be made. Speaking as a mould maker myself, creating a mould involves extra time and effort, and is only useful when multiple objects are needed.
And we know that cult statues were classy: 
In fact, there are Mesopotamian texts describing the materials, these generally included gold, silver, cedar, carnelian and lapis lazuli. Cult statues from important temples were lavish and expensive, their absence from archaeological contexts is simply due to their resale value in antiquity (Walker & Dick 1999).

Therefore, if the plaque is from a temple context it is not likely to be the primary cult object of the building.. it is undeniably lovely, but top-grade... it is not. 

Source CDLI year names. Image by Frank Merten.

Place of worship: Temple, brothel or tomb?
  • The assumption that this is a cult object representing either a Lilitu demon or Kilili is contradictory, as there are no known Mesopotamian cults or sanctuaries dedicated to demonesses or gods in the retinue of a great one. At best lesser gods may have been guests in the temples of major gods.
  • Ereshkigal on the other hand, appears to have had her own cult in the late 3rd and early 2nd millennium. In the Old Babylonian period she was worshipped in a few cities, with cult personel, and she may have had a temple in at least one northern Mesopotamian city. Ereshkigal was also honoured as part of rites and offerings to the dead (von der Osten-Sacken 2002, Jordanova 2015).
  • Inanna/Ishtar had temples in most Mesopotamian cities, with her main sanctuary in Uruk, but it is worth remembering that the various temples were not necessarily dedicated to the same goddess. Ishtar of Uruk was not the same as Ishtar of Ebla nor Ishtar of Zabalam. Akkadian texts from Mari name an underworld goddess called Ishtar-Errakal 'underworld Ishtar', this too is another goddess.
  • Kilili The argument that this object was from a brothel is not supported by any evidence and assumes an awful lot about the sexual values of Old Babylonian peoples. Whether prostitution of the nature that we perceive even existed in Bronze Age Mesopotamia is disputed in Assyriology (Budin 2008 & Assante 2006).

British Museum 1994,1001.1/103226 & Berlin VA03912. Images (c) museums.

A well-made fired clay plaque could have originally come from a domestic shrine, a small public shrine, be left as an offering in a larger temple or set up in a chapel dedicated to the dead and where funerary cult was performed. It could also be set into a wall as an architectural feature in a private chapel or temple. 
But we will never know, because this plaque has no recorded origin or legitimate excavation context. 

Some decisions about the identity of the goddess were made years ago using our knowledge at that time, and with a healthy dose of culturally biased judgement about female gods and sexuality (I am looking at you JG. Frazer). However, even with about 100 years of research we are dependent on textual and visual information when we identify Mesopotamian gods, as these figures may only be differentiated by their divine attributes (Westenholz 2014). 

4 gods (note horned crowns) that may be identified due to their symbols.
Akkadian-Old Babylonian seals. Image A. Sinclair

An additional problem is that identifications often relied on comparisons to other artefacts that were purchased on the antiquities market. It ought to go without saying that a potentially dodgy object is a poor choice to prove the authenticity of another unsourced object. In fact, if I exclude the plaques and seals that have no legitimate origin, the artefacts available for comparison are few. 
I've spent the last few weeks trying to find legit artefacts for this post, it has not been easy.  
To add insult to injury the scientific studies were never made formally public. This means no other members of the scientific community have been in a position to scrutinise results that are only anecdotally available. But I am also aware that museums do not like their celebrity pieces interfered with.
Winged god/-dess on an Old Babylonian seal.
from the palace of Zimrilim, Mari. Image (c) Louvre AO18361

The Queen of the Night plaque has no close artistic parallels and some features of it are unique to Mesopotamian art. This doesn’t mean it cannot be authentic, but it makes things difficult to prove. It is also worth being aware that in the early 20th century there were some slick forgers who were using ancient materials to produce their objects. These objects can defy scientific testing.

Finally, while I am inclined to think the plaque is authentic, but unique, I am not 100% confident of its authenticity. Minor details of the modelling of the figure bother me, those cute lions and doubled rod and ring. As Albenda suggested in 2008 - without any information about the plaque before 1933 it could be a composite of ancient and modern features cobbled together by a dealer to get the best price. 
It wouldn't be the first time.

Assuming the plaque is authentic…. who do I think this could be?.... 
I honestly do not know ... the visual information is too inconsistent. 
However, I don't have an emotional stake in her identity, so for me not knowing is the interesting part about the Queen of the Night relief and this alone drives me to learn more about Near Eastern iconography:
  • She is definitely a high-ranking Mesopotamian goddess (crown, rod, ring)
  • She does not show the standard characteristics of Old Babylonian Ishtar (not enough clothing and military bling).
  • I am prepared to accept she could be an Ishtar, where this means an important ‘goddess’, or a goddess of a city state who was assimilated with Ishtar, but not the Babylonian Ishtar who protected kings.
  • She could be an important regional goddess who may be associated with Ishtar, or perhaps the Ishtar in the role of funerary goddess for the chapel of a royal crypt, or an underworld goddess like Ishtar-Erragal.
  • She could also be the queen of death and the underworld, Ereshkigal, but until we know the iconography of this goddess this is speculative.
One thing is clear to me from all this, she is not a demon or nature spirit.
Andrea Sinclair 
My sincere thanks to Frank for bringing this topic up, and to Hannes Leonhardt of the Assyriology Institute here in Leipzig for finding a difficult reference for me.

But don't trust me, read further: References
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Albenda, P. 1969, 'The Burney Relief Reconsidered.' JANES 2: 87-93.
Albenda, P. 2005, 'The "Queen of the Night Plaque" - A Revisit.' JAOS 125/2: 171-90.
Albenda, P. 2008, 'Again the 'Queen of the Night Plaque' - A Response.' NABU 3: 57-60.
Aruz, J. et al 2008, Beyond Babylon: Art Trade and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C. Met Museum, New York.
Asher-Greve, JM. and D. Sweeney, 2006, 'On Nakedness, Nudity and Gender in Egyptian and Mesopotamian Art.' In Images and Gender OBO 220, S. Schroer (ed), 125-76. Göttingen.
Asher-Greve, JM. and JG. Westenholz 2013, Goddesses in Context: On Divine Powers, Roles, Relationships and Gender in Mesopotamian Sources. Göttingen & Fribourg.
Assante, JA. 2006, 'Undressing the Nude: Problems with Analyzing Nudity in Ancient Art.' In Images and Gender, OBO 220, S. Schroer (ed), 177-207. Göttingen.
Assante, JA. 2007, 'What makes a Prostitute a Prostitute? Modern Definitions and Ancient Meanings.' Historiae 4: 117-32. 
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Barrelet, M-T. 1952, 'A propos d'une plaquette trouvée à Mari (AO. 18962).' Syria 29: 285-93.
Barrett, CE. 2007, 'Was Dust Their Food and Clay Their Bread?' JANER 7/1: 35-42.
Budin, SL. 2008, The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity. Cambridge.
van Buren, ED. 1936-7, 'A Further Note on the Terra-cotta Relief.' Archiv für Orientforschung 11: 354-7.
van Buren, ED. 1949, 'Rod and Ring.' Archiv Orientalni 17: 434-50.
Collon, D. 2007, 'The Queen Under Attack - A Rejoinder.' Iraq LXIX: 43-51.
Curtis, JE. & D. Collon, 1996, 'Ladies of Easy Virtue.' In Collectanea Orientalia, CPOA 3, H. Gasche & B. Hrouda (eds), 89-95.
Davis, FC. 1936, Illustrated London News 5069/13.
Farber, W. 1990, 'Lilu, Lilitu, Ardat-Lili A.' RlA 7: 24.
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Lapinkivi, P. 2017, The Neo-Assyrian Myth of Ištar's Descent and Resurrection, SAACT VI. Helsinki.
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