Forgotten Women: The Queen of the Night

April 1st 2018


The Burney Relief, named after a former owner, is the common term for an early 2nd millennium BC (ca. 1950 BC) Mesopotamian (Babylonian, not Sumerian or Assyrian, as sometimes described) terracotta relief of a nude winged goddess-like figure with eagle's talons, flanked by owls and perched upon supine lions. Apart from its distinctive iconography, the piece is noted for its relatively large size (ht. 49 cm) and consequent high relief; though figurative terracotta relief plaques are a feature of the Old Babylonian period, they are normally of much smaller dimensions. Though in private ownership for many years, the relief was well known through its former on-loan exhibition in the British Museum in London.

In 2003 it was bought by the Museum as part of its 250th anniversary celebrations and renamed "Queen of the Night", and since then has toured museums around Britain, with pagans in some locations being allowed to organize religious ceremonies in her honour. The figure has been identified with the Sumerian Kisikil-lilla-ke of the Gilgamesh epos, and, somewhat improbably, with 7th century BC Babylonian Lilitu. Otherwise, she has been identified as the goddess Inanna (Sumerian) or Ishtar (Babylonian) in the myth of her visit to the Underworld, but the Underworld symbolism is now taken to suggest the most likely identification to be the goddess Ereshkigal, Inanna's sister and Queen of the Underworld. Some assert, based on the symbology and similar depictions, that it might actually be the Egyptian/Caananite goddess Anat.

Irving Finkle identifies her as Ishtar.

The piece has sometimes, on stylistic grounds, been regarded as not genuine, but scientific testing now appears to confirm its authenticity. A very similar relief dating to roughly the same period is preserved in the Musée du Louvre (AO 6501).



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