The Famous Burney Relief: Who Was the Mysterious Mesopotamian Goddess?
The Burney Relief (known also as the Queen of the Night) is a terracotta plaque from ancient Mesopotamia. The relief is dominated by a nude female figure with wings and talons. She is usually identified as a goddess, though experts disagree with each other as to which deity she is supposed to be representing. Apart from the female figure, two pairs of animals are also featured on the plaque. The Burney Relief is today displayed in the British Museum in London.
Origins of the Burney Relief
The Burney Relief is named after Sydney Burney, a British art and antiquities dealer. The artifact was brought to London by a Syrian / Lebanese dealer around the 1930s, though its exact provenance is unknown.
In 1935, the object was offered to the British Museum for £350 ($390) by Selim Homsy & Co. acting on behalf of Abdul Jabar of Basra. The museum, however, declined the offer. In the following year, an article about the plaque was published in the Illustrated London News, which brought the Burney Relief to public attention.
In the subsequent decades, the Burney Relief passed through the hands of several private collectors. The last of these collectors was Sakamoto Goro, from whom the British Museum purchased the artifact for £1.5 million ($1.9 million) in 2004 to mark its 250th anniversary.
The Burney Relief discovered in Mesopotamian is dated between 1800 and 1750 BC. (Flickr upload bot / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Burney Relief Features
The Burney Relief is a rectangular terracotta panel, measuring 49.5 centimeters (19.5 inches) in height, and 37 centimeters (14.6 inches) in width.
The object is believed to have been made in Mesopotamia and has been dated to around the 19 th / 18 th century BC.
The plaque was modeled by hand and was painted. Although the relief has long since lost its colors, scientific analysis shows that red ochre was applied to the body of the female figure. Additionally, gypsum may have been used as a white pigment for certain areas. Nevertheless, the gypsum might also be the result of efflorescence from salts present in ground water, thus making it an unintended by-product, rather than a pigment deliberately applied to the relief.
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Approximate color scheme of the painted Burney Relief. (Rama / CC BY-SA 2.0)
The central figure of the Burney Relief is a nude female figure with wings and talons. The figure is depicted wearing a headdress with four pairs of horns topped with a disc, which indicates that she is a deity.
The figure’s arms are raised to the level of her shoulders and a rod and ring are held in each hand. The figure is also adorned with a necklace and bracelets on her wrists.
Apart from this female figure, two pairs of animals are also depicted on the Burney Relief. A pair of owls are shown, one on each side of the female deity, while a pair of lions are placed under her feet. The lions rest on a scale pattern, which is meant to represent mountainous or hilly terrain.
Who Was She?
The most intriguing aspect of the Burney Relief is undoubtedly the identity of the female figure. Initially, the figure was considered to be a representation of a demon known as Lilitu (from which the Jewish Lilith is derived). This is based on the figure’s wings, talon, and the presence of owls. Incidentally, it is due to the identification of the figure as Lilitu that the relief became known also as the Queen of the Night. This interpretation, however, is generally rejected by scholars today.
Lilitu also known as Lilith is debated to be entity represented on the Burney Relief. (Themadchopper / Public Domain)
Instead, the figure on the Burney Relief is regarded to be a goddess. Some scholars have argued that the figure is meant to represent Inanna (later equated with Ishtar), a Mesopotamian goddess regarded as the Queen of Heaven.
The headdress worn by the figure indicates that she was an important goddess, supporting her identification as Inanna. Additionally, the presence of the lions is also pointed out, as Inanna is the only Mesopotamian goddess associated with this animal. Moreover, her ornaments are associated with the myth known as Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld.
A modern illustration depicting Inanna-Ishtar's descent into the Underworld, some believe she is the entity represented on the Burney Relief. (Fæ / Public Domain)
The Debate Continues - Queen of the Sky or Queen of the Underworld?
The identification of the figure as Ereshkigal is based on the fact that the goddesses’ wings are shown pointing downwards. If the figure was meant to represent Inanna, so the argument goes, the wings would have been spread outwards.
The presence of Inanna’s symbols is explained by the suggestion that the relief portrays Ereshkigal after her triumph over her sister. In the myth of Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld, Inanna is forced to strip of her ornaments as she passes through her sister’s realm, and the relief may be a representation of the story’s conclusion.
The Burney Relief is not the only object of its kind. A similar plaque can be found in the Louvre Museum. The quality of this relief, however, is not as good as the Burney Relief. Nevertheless, it is clear that it depicts a nude female with wings and talons. Another noticeable difference is the animals depicted with the goddess. Instead of lions, the goddess in this relief is shown standing on a pair of horned animals, perhaps goats or gazelles.
Top image: The Burney Relief. Source: Neuroforever / CC BY-SA 4.0.
Albenda, P. 2005. The "Queen of the Night" Plaque - A Revisit. Journal of the American Oriental Society .
analogicalplanet.com. 2019. The Burney Relief : Innana, Ishtar, or Lilith?. [Online] Available at: http://analogicalplanet.com/Pages/ContentPages/Sidebars/BurneyRelief.html
Reynolds, N. 2004. £1.5m beauty is British Museum's newest treasure. [Online] Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1456347/1.5m-beauty-is-British-Museums-newest-treasure.html
The British Museum. 2019. Burney relief / Queen of the Night. [Online] Available at: https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1355376&partId=1
The Louvre Museum. 2019. Déesse nue ailée figurant probablement la grande déesse Ishtar. [Online] Available at: http://cartelen.louvre.fr/cartelen/visite?srv=car_not_frame&idNotice=24780