Now That’s What I Call A Queen

It is time for a little light relief from all of that Hugo stuff. How about some Assyrian history instead?

Today I got notification from of a new paper upload from a friend of mine (hi Omar!). It was mainly about King Sennacherib and representations of masculinity in his depiction. However, along the way it also touched on his relationship with women. There’s a theory that Sennacherib was a bit of a feminist, or at least was responsible for making Assyria somewhat less macho.

The poor chap came to the throne in very unfortunate circumstances. His father, Sargon II, had been campaigning against the Cimmerians who must have actually had Conan in their army because they thrashed the Assyrians, killing Sargon and making off with his body. Clearly the gods were unhappy with Assyria.

Sennacherib had a rather better time of things militarily, though he did rather famously fail to capture Jerusalem. The Prophet Isiah claims a massive victory for King Hezekiah, but Assyrian sources just say that Sennacherib accepted tribute and went away.

The most famous thing that Sennacherib did, however, was to move his capital to Nineveh where he built a wonderously beautiful palace complete with fabulous gardens irrigated by the use of a technique that later became known as the Archimedes Screw. Stephanie Dalley believes that this palace was the original inspiration for the legend of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. (Sennacherib had conquered Babylon and put one of his sons on the throne there.)

In part of the palace there are lion guardian figures leading to a separate wing. On them is an inscription which reads:

And for the queen Tašmetum-šarrat, my beloved wife, whose features Belet-ili has made more beautiful than all other women, I had a palace of love, joy and pleasure built. … By the order of Aššur, father of the gods, and queen Ištar may we both live long in health and happiness in this palace and enjoy well-being to the full!

This demonstration of uxoriousness is highly unusual for an Assyrian king. We have nothing to back it up, and everyone would doubtless take it at face value if not for future developments, of which more later.

I was reading about Tašmetum-šarrat because Omar had cited a paper by Karen Radner which looks at a particularly famous seal. It is mostly famous because it is one of the few seals where we have both the seal itself and documents onto which it was impressed. The seal shows Tašmetum-šarrat and Sennacherib approaching a goddess (whom I shall assume is Ishtar). It is known to be the queen’s seal because it also features an image of a scorpion.

Yes, the official symbol of the Assyrian queen was a scorpion. Why? Well the theory is that the primary function of the queen was to produce and raise a crown prince. The female scorpion is known to carry her young on her back for protection, and she is of course a fearsome warrior. This is entirely appropriate for the queen of Ishtar’s chosen people. (Also scorpions have 8 legs and Ishtar’s star has 8 points, but that’s just me going off at a mystical tangent.)

But the reason I looked up Radner’s paper to begin with was mention Omar made about Tašmetum-šarrat having her own army. As best we can make out, Sennacherib had a lot of trouble with palace intrigue, and he didn’t much trust his senior advisors. So he gave one of his armies to his queen to command instead.

You may now imagine Ishtar smiling down happily at all this.

Sadly for Sennacherib, this cunning plan did not work. In 681 BCE he was murdered in a palace coup apparently involving some of his own sons. The plot was unsuccessful because the throne was eventually siezed by another son, Esarhaddon, who was governor of Babylon when his father died. The interesting question is, whose sons did the plotting?

Assyrian kings, as was the fashion, had several official wives, one of whom would be the official queen. We do not know if Tašmetum-šarrat and her sons were involved in the assassination plot. However, nothing is heard of Tašmetum-šarrat from then on. Instead we hear much of another wife, Naqia. She played a prominent role in the reign of her son, Esarhaddon (who conquered Egypt), and of her grandson, Ashurbanipal (shortly to be the subject of a major exhibition at the British Museum).

Scorpions, they are dangerous creatures.