The Star of Shamash

shamesh2The sun, a heavenly body that inspired people all throughout history since the dawn of mankind. In many polytheistic pagan societies, the sun plays an ubiquitous and essential divine role in the native system of beliefs, often associated with justice, power, healing , growth and light. Some major and well-known solar deities include the ancient Egyptian Ra, the Greek Helios, the Roman Sol or the Celtic Belenus. In the very earliest Sumerian pantheon of gods, the old, bearded Utu was worshiped as the god of the sun. Utu’s cultus was of major importance all throughout the existence of the ancient Mesopotamian religion, influencing local beliefs as far as Arabia and the Near East.

Utu was called Shamash in the East Semitic languages, most notably Akkadian, the language spoken in the Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires. The name Shamash is derived from the Akkadian word for the sun, šamšu, which is in turn derived from the proto-Semitic śamš. Shamash was the twin brother of the goddess Inanna (Ishtar), the Queen of Heaven. His main temples were in the cities of Sippar and Larsa. Utu continued to be venerated until the effective decline of the Mesopotamian religion, which would make for a time span of well over 3000 years. 

Shamash is usually depicted as an old man with a long beard and long arms. His main symbol is a solar disc, a circle with four points in each of the cardinal directions and four wavy, diagonal lines emanating from the circle between each point, the so-called Star of Shamash. According to Gods, Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia by Jeremy Black and Anthony Green, the Akkadian name for this symbol was shamshatu. It was often represented on a pole as a standard. In nearly all kudurru boundary stones on which the Mesopotamian gods are depicted, his symbol appears in the first tier alongside the crescent of Sīn and the eight-pointed star of Ishtar, which signifies his importance in the pantheon of gods. His symbol is currently a popular icon among people native to Mesopotamia.

The ethnic flag of the Chaldean people features a colored Star of Shamash flanked by 2 parallel blue bands. Though  the predominantly Catholic Chaldeans are mostly regarded ethnically and historically as a part of the Assyrian continuity, some claim a Chaldean ethnic identity as a nation of its own. As for the Assyrian people, their ethnic flag also features a Star of Shamash with four triple-coloured, widening, wavy stripes connecting the center to the four corners of the flag. Above the Star is a depiction of the Assyrian pre-Christian god Assur. This flag was adopted in 1971 and the Star of Shamash is widely used to represent Assyrian identity, both in the homeland and in the diaspora.

For examples and pictures, please visit this thread on my Twitter.

Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.

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