It took me a minute, but since it’s October, and October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, I decided to look and see what I could find about breasts in Ancient Mesopotamia, aside from the obvious fact that Mesopotamian women had them.
After some research, I’ve found that breasts were quite prominent in the land between two rivers.
Life and Breasts
To start, the Babylonians and Assyrians concentrated on what appears to be essentially the lifeline of a newborn child by listing the beginning of the life cycle as “a child at the breast.” Notice it is not just “a child is born,” but “a child at the breast.” This speaks volumes, especially when attached to all the other things I found.
As expected, Mesopotamians associated the female form with fertility. Many statues believed to be those depicting fertility have been unearthed throughout Mesopotamia. They usually feature mother goddesses with prominent breasts held up suggestively with folded arms underneath (see above), while some statues feature only one of the breasts being held up as if it were an offering. (Source)
Emphasis was also placed on breasts in erotic scenes, as pictured below.
The prominence of breasts in Ancient Mesopotamian culture is also evident in the descriptions of the defining characteristics of mythological figures. For instance, a characteristic of Lilith, a female demon who snatches and kills children, also a bearer of disease, illness and death, is described as having no milk in her breasts and unable to bear children. Nonetheless, Lilith’s epithet was “the beautiful maiden,” and would appear in men’s erotic dreams.
Lamashtu is another such demon, and her breasts are a prominent part of her description. She has the head of a lion, donkey’s teeth and a hairy body, but unlike Lilith, she is portrayed nursing a pig and a dog from her bare breasts. Instead of being the subject of erotic dreams, however, Lamashtu was bringer of nightmares, and was also considered bad news to children and their mothers, so much so that amulets were used to ward off her evil, particularly during childbirth. (Source)
Even so, breasts were still a source of good nourishment in mythology, and it wasn’t just for humans (or mammals). The breasts of Nissaba, the Sumerian goddess of grain, served to nourish the fields ready for planting.
Of course, breasts were also associated with child bearing, but there is a flip side. On the one hand it was a source of nourishment for babies, serving as their lifeline, for up to three years. On the other hand, a woman’s breasts were also a birth control tool.
A woman’s fertility is relatively low while she is breastfeeding, and so the concept of the wet nurse became widespread in Mesopotamia, as it helped nourish newborn babies with breast milk when their mothers were unable to provide them with it, and it also helped keep the wet nurses themselves from getting pregnant during the time they were nursing.
Hammurabi (1728-1686 BC) wrote a law covering the category of wet nursing, in which a two to three-year contract is held between a wet nurse and her employer, and gives her the right to sell the child of that employer should she not be compensated properly. Yikes! (Source)
Breast Cancer in Mesopotamia?
Ancient Mesopotamians also believed that disease came from demons that would enter a person’s body through any opening and begin attacking certain areas. Babylonians believed that each body part was attacked by a designated demon, and the demon that attacked the breasts was Alu, a night-dwelling demon, who when not attacking breasts was bent on terrifying those trying to sleep. (Source)
A final piece I gathered in putting this post together is one that I feel is especially indicative of the prominence of the breast in Mesopotamia. In the ruins of the ancient city of Nuzu, in northeast modern-day Iraq, excavations unearthed an infant buried under a private home, its remains inside a jar in the shape of a woman’s breast. (Source, page 94)
So, having said all that, I think it’s safe to say that breasts were almost revered in Mesopotamian culture. And for all the right reasons, too. Do you agree? Let us know in the comments!
Sources and further reading:
http://www.academia.edu/873588/Womens_Roles_in_Ancient_Mesopotamia, page 94
http://factsanddetails.com/world.php?itemid=1521&catid=56&subcatid=363 (under “Mesopotamian Hygiene, Perfume and Sex”)