The unicorn bull on the Ishtar gate

The Ishtar gate to Babylon was constructed about 575 BCE by King Nebuchadnezzar II on the north side of the city, part of a grand walled processional road leading into the city. The annual new year’s parade flowed through this gate. There are three animals represented in mosaic form on the walls of the gate: Mušhuššu, which are composite animals meant to represent dragons, lions, and one horned bulls.

A recent translation of the cuneiform on the gate reads, “I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendor so that Mankind might gaze on them in wonder.”

The bull was sacred to the Babylonians. Likely these were aurochs, the ancestors to modern cattle, standing over six feet tall, armed with enormous horns. The chief god of the Babylonians, Marduk, was described as a bull calf, whose father was the sun god, Shamash. In the old Babylonian period, the horns of the bull were associated with the crescent moon.

With that in mind, the question becomes why show the bull with just one horn?

The Babylonians were very adept at depicting the auroch with two horns, even in profile.

The image below is a cylinder sea that shows some with two horns, and others with one. The drawing to the right highlights the image to make it clear.

Perhaps the Babylonians modified some of the aurouch’s horns to have bulls with just one horn for ceremonial purposes much like the sheep I discussed in last week’s unicorn? I’m certain that there was a reason that these bulls were portrayed with just one horn. It could be a stylistic choice, it could be for a symbolic reason.

Knowing that these creatures were placed at the gate to the city to prevent any evil from entering suggests that a mythological and symbolic context is important, especially in the context of the dragons also placed on the gate.

To learn more about unicorns, read due out in September.

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