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Hieratica:  Seven Hymns to the Goddess Inanna:  Project Description

by Nancy Castille

January 2017




This work is my visualization of an ancient sacred text, a series of poems called "Seven Hymns to the Goddess Inanna". Encountering these as part of a sojourn into ancient Sumerian and Babylonian mythology and culture, I was struck by the beauty of the “hymns” and felt impelled to interact with them more deeply through some sort of creative project.  I decided to do a visual "re-enactment" of the poems, incorporating views from three perspectives:  linguistic, symbolic, and artistic.

My first step was to go through the text and capture and extract the most significant and meaning-laden words.  I then created a simple symbol for each of the 200 words that had been isolated.  The symbols were designed according to certain aesthetic rules to create a consistent "look" and impart the appearance of a sacred or hieratic "language".    I then re-assembled the symbols into seven separate poems, each of which was framed using electronic mosaics created through a combination of digital photography, photoscanning equipment, and Photoshop software.  Adding frames to the poems, already beautiful in their own right, was intended to further glorify the sacred symbols.  The frame designs were based on ancient Islamic geometric patterns, filling in each component of the design with electronically-constructed mosaic tiles made from scans of batik cloth and pictures of various gems and precious stones.

My Inspiration:  How My Journey Led Me to the Goddess Inanna

This work is the direct result of a brief encounter I had in 2009 with ancient Middle Eastern mythology and culture.  As a religion major in college and a former graduate student in theology, I have always maintained an interest in mythology and world religions.  This interest has proved to be a sustained lifelong passion.  Now that I am retired, I have found myself gravitating back towards the very same subjects that had so piqued my interest in religion at Oberlin College in 1975 when I first decided to major in religion. When in my intellectual divagations, I finally stumbled upon Babylonian religion and culture, I found there was something particularly compelling about this ancient culture that resonated deeply with me.  After reading through the beautiful Epic of Gilgamesh, amazingly produced as long ago as 6000 years, I decided I had to learn a bit more about the art and mythology of this period. 

I found my way to a book called Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth – Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer1 containing numerous stories and hymns about this powerful ancient goddess, painstakingly transcribed from ancient cuneiform tablets by devoted scholars and scribes.   I was particularly taken by the group of poems called "Seven Hymns to the Goddess Inanna" and decided to make this the subject of my next creative project.   I wanted to approach the project from the perspective of “participant observation”, a wonderful term so aptly coined by the great anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski.  This came to have meaning for me as an ongoing way of scholarship, where I not only would read something, but would participate actively in the object of study.  I wanted to “get my hands dirty” by actively involving myself and interacting with the seven hymns, bringing me to an even deeper level of understanding and retention of their message and content.

Hieratica:  Serving the Role of Sacred Scribe

Early in my creative process, when peering through my magnifying glass at my heavy volume of the Oxford English Dictionary, I discovered the word "hieratica".  The word "hieratica" comes the Greek hieros, meaning "sacred".  Hieratic is commonly defined as "appropriate to sacred persons or duties; priestly, sacerdotal".  When I discovered the derivative word, “hieratica,” I realized then and there that I had found the title for the work that I would create in honor of the goddess Inanna.   Hieratica was originally a cursive writing system used primarily by sacred scribes in ancient Egypt.  Egyptian hieratic or priestly writing, unlike hieroglyphics, used ink on papyrus in order to speed up the writing process for the ancient scribes.   The word "hieratica" was also used to refer to a special papyrus of the finest quality, used especially in religious books.  Later, during early Christianity, the term "hieratica" came to denote priestly writing of religious texts.  In short, there wasn't anything in the etymology of this wonderful word that I didn't like or didn’t think was directly applicable to my own project.

Even though we are separated by so many millenia, I feel a deep kinship with the ancient scribes that preserved this work for us.  I imagine that my experience is in many ways very similar to theirs.  I have labored lovingly over this work as a sort of act of devotion, patiently and painstakingly working at my craft and perfecting and streamlining it.  I am moved by the idea that scholars spend decades decoding the words of ancient peoples.  I can only imagine the patience and determination that propels these dedicated scholars to labor so unceasingly to decipher what ancient people have to say to us.   In a way, my own work is my way of paying tribute to all the linguists and scholars that decipher ancient languages and history, and bring these beautiful and compelling stories to us, allowing us to interact and understand them better.

I consider myself more a scribe than a priestess.  This is not “my” revelation or a personal confession or a description of a personal experience with the ancient goddess.  My main goal has been to capture the essence and meanings in the ancient texts and to revivify them.   My primary role has simply been to record and extract imagery and symbols from ancient texts and to let the art of ancient peoples influence and direct me.

Making Contact with the Ancients

I am struck by the idea that such emotional and meaningful narratives could have been created so long ago.  Each time I re-read these ancient texts, I continue to be amazed at their depth and beauty.  The use of such beautiful, strong symbols shows the depth and complexity of these people's understanding of human life.  It gives direct witness to how they found meaning and transcendence in the world around them.  I feel attuned to these ancient souls, who loved this earth like I do, who felt the beauty of life and strived to express it, who grappled with life in all its beauty, its paradoxes and its struggles.  I am thankful that these people created symbols and languages and art to express what was most important to them in life.  Reaching back to the wisdom of the ancients helps me to define better for myself what the symbols are within my own reality that give it depth and meaning.

I have always preferred to remain open to many different forms of religious expression rather than attaching myself to any particular one.  I prefer to think of the many faces of God, the many ways in which human beings try to express the sacred, and identify what it is that is holy about life, through many diverse religious and artistic forms.  I have not been focused on resurrecting ancient goddess religions in place of patriarchal religions in order to provide positive images that build feminine self-esteem.  On the other hand, even despite maintaining a relatively detached perspective spiritually, I ended up discovering that Inanna did indeed have many qualities that I admired and lessons to impart.  I did like the fact that the worldview that was being communicated by these ancient peoples portrayed a strong, powerful and lusty goddess, one that I discovered I really rather liked and admired.

The Process of Creation

Since the 1979 Judy Chicago exhibit came to San Francisco, I gained even more respect for the beauty of the decorative “female” arts – sewing, embroidery, ceramics, mosaics, work that is often relegated to or adopted primarily by women.  I wanted to find a way to create works that used scans of cloth to produce beautiful electronic banners, something along the lines of “les drapeaux” found in Haitian Voodoo religions, filled with very simple but decorative elements and symbols.  When I first started, I was not sure where I was going with all this but was confident that the answers would arise out of the process of engaging with the materials.  That is the beauty of the artistic process.

I had always had in mind to do something I might call “e-quilting” using the very wonderful and powerful software of Photoshop.  I wanted to be able to create electronic swatches from scans of beautifully-colored batik cloth, exploiting the scanner's ability to capture characteristics of the textile at a relatively granular level.   These electronic textiles would be incorporated into an overall decorative design, preferably something with a mesmeric, kaleidoscopic, or mandala-like quality. 

Since the work was to honor the powerful goddess Inanna (she was in charge of both heaven and earth, after all!), I also wanted to find some way to honor her regal status by including precious gems into the work.  Because the work was now to include stones as well as cloth, my idea of “e-quilting” morphed into “e-mosaics”.  When I encountered a book on the construction of Islamic geometric patterns, built on the repetition of simple geometric elements, I knew that this was the decorative element I would use in my own project as the basis for the frames.  It was both beautiful and decorative and, at the same time, evocative of the ancient Levantine themes with which my work is concerned.  The idea that Islamic peoples avoided depictions of the divine in their culture but instead used repetitive geometric designs to create fantastic tiles and decorations to the glory of God was a particularly inspiring thought for me.

Extracting the Essence of the Hymns

The hymns themselves are written in English in the source document mentioned above.  But since I wanted to get at the symbolic essence of the poem, I used what I call a process of “extraction” to get at the most important images used in the hymns.  I decided which were the most important words in a given hymn and pulled them out of the poem.  Later, I reassembled these symbols into a condensed “extracted” version of the hymn.  The poems included in my piece, therefore, are not really a translation or condensation of the original text.  They are, rather, a reconstruction or rebuilding of the poem from its most elemental components, components that were extracted in a separate process.  Even though most of the symbols extracted are nouns, the reconstructed hymns essentially add poetic and grammatical flourish around the nouns in order to avoid giving a primitive or pre-literate feel that might impede a modern reader from experiencing the actual meaning of the verse.

I approached this project with scientific detachment, seeking to arrive at an understanding of the work that would allow me to reach deeper into what the hymns were really trying to say. I then tried to find out what the words had in common and whether there were perhaps broad categories into which the words could be sorted.  Being a financial analyst by occupation, I had a natural urge to see if data analysis could tell me something that I might not otherwise see about the work.  This analytical process did not disappoint.  I was able to sort the words into five broad categories:  Community, Earth, Ecstacy, The Sacred, and Spirit.  Surely one could build an argument that these five components are the building blocks of religion. This confirmed the intuitive conviction that I had right from the start that these ancient works were created to describe a sacred reality and to convey a deep understanding of the human experience.

Creating a Symbolic Language

At this point in my process of conceptualization, an idea came to me that ultimately added four years to the completion time for the project -- I decided I would need captions for my poem banners or "hymns".  I therefore concluded that I would need to create my own symbolic “language” in order to put appropriate captions on each hymn.   Given that the hymns were written long before English and our alphabet even existed, I would have to create my own script, a script that would capture the spirit and essence of the hymns and its genesis in ancient culture, at the dawn of written language.

Strictly speaking, what I have created is not a language but a group of meaningful symbols or “glyphs” that represent certain key images that communicated the essence of the hymn itself.   Since most of the words I extracted are, in fact, nouns, it can hardly be said to be a language.  I feel that nouns command much more symbolic power by virtue of their “thing-ness”, their “reity”, so to speak.  What started as mostly a decorative project was slowly turning into a project in what I would call “participative linguistics."  Ultimately, despite the fact that I had initially thought the primary objective of the work would be decorative, involving e-quilting, Islamic patterns, and mosaics, the real art in large part turned out to be the symbols themselves. 

My process for creating the symbols involved first figuring out what I wanted the symbols to look like.  I did not want the language to be pictographic, representational, or alphabetic.  I wanted it to be strictly symbolic.  I wanted it to be simple but to represent a consistent aesthetic and have its own "personality".  I wanted it to evoke a sense of the primitive, a language that I imagined could be easily represented by writing with a stick in the dust.   And most importantly, I wanted to like each and every symbol.  I pored over many scripts and symbolic languages looking for inspiration.  In particular, I was inspired by the appearance of Viking runes, the ancient Greek "Linear B" language, and Voodoo "Vèvè" symbols.  I let all of this come together and influence the symbols I eventually created.

Creating and Producing the Symbols and Hymns

Like any artist, I have greatly enjoyed the craft and construction aspect of this project.   I have had to master many forms of software and electronic devices to accomplish my goals.  My process involved first drawing each symbol out by hand on 8" x 8" graph paper, approximating what I wanted the symbol to look like and using the lines on the graph paper to ensure that the forms were regular and even in their construction.  I then utilized a digital drawing tablet to transfer scans of the hand-drawn images into digital objects.  I utilized software that would allow me easily to create vertical or horizontal symmetry in the symbols and also give a consistent thickness to the lines in each symbol.  Each image was then brought into Photoshop and outlined in black, a trademark style that I have used in all of my previous artwork.  Knowing that creating a work where there were literally hundreds of individual "tiles" that would comprise the work, I paid considerable attention to resolution and file size when creating the images, so I could limit the size of the completed work to manageable proportions while still maintaining a crispness to the images.

When all 200 symbols were finally completed, I assembled them into the seven hymns.  When the individual symbols were finally assembled into complete poems, I was surprised and overwhelmed to see how beautiful the hymns were when all the symbols were brought together as a whole.  Until that point, even though all the aspects and elements had originally come from my own mind, I really had no clear idea how it would actually look when it all came together.  It was such a strange feeling to see something I had planned and created take on a life of its own and exist independently outside of me.

I am fascinated by the notion that when a viewer looks at this group of symbols, assembled as poems, that viewer would instantly recognize that there was deep meaning in the poem, even though the viewer had no idea of what that meaning was.  I wanted the appearance of the language to evoke a sense of beauty and mystery, celebrating a sense of sacred beauty existing above and beyond the explicit meanings of each symbol.

The Structure of the Work

I wanted to present the work to viewers in such a way that they would see it at increasingly deeper levels of understanding the longer that they engaged with the work.  Of course, I wanted the viewer first to experience and appreciate the sheer visual beauty of the designs and forms.  I wanted that viewer to experience a sense of awe, an almost intuitive appreciation that the work emanates from a sacred reality, apart from any linguistic or symbolic considerations.  In turn, I wanted the viewer to engage with the language itself, to personally engage in a decoding process, and to be thereby caused to consider the nature of language and metaphor in human experience in a firsthand experiential way.  After a viewer interacts with the work at a level of decoding, mapping words to meanings, the viewer is then prepared to go back to the poem qua poem, and search for meaning in the symbols and metaphors.   The viewer would then return to the glorified visual piece and appreciate the content that is being glorified.

The work is, therefore, divided into different components:

The symbols and the words they denote

The symbols constructed as poems or "hymns"

Word cubes decoding the hymns and symbols into English

Decorative frames glorifying the assembled hymn


I have found that the best way to present the work is to present each poem in 4 parts:

The reconstructed hymn in English

The "glorified" hymn framed and decorated with jewels and beautiful cloth

The unadorned hymn with symbols only

A "word cube" of the hymn with the English translations of the symbols


Dividing the work into four separate components is intended to create a recursive viewing experience:  the viewer looks at each component and then, once informed by that component, returns to a previously viewed component, experiencing the work with each recurring visit at a deeper level of understanding and recognizing the patterns and the meaning.  Or perhaps the viewer simply appreciates in greater depth the visual beauty and energy of each separate symbol or poem, once they have satisfied their urge to decode the meaning.

What Did I Learn?

In the end, my artistic journey did finally lead me to the objective to which I’d initially aspired – I feel that I discovered first hand the nature of the sacred reality that the ancient peoples were trying to communicate.  I asked myself if it was up to me, what symbols would I use to describe what is most sacred about life?  Seeing the words taken out of their original context and aligned in rows and columns, I could more clearly see the patterns and how this poem gave witness to a sacred reality and how this reality continually presents itself in human experience.  I could also see that the ancient peoples came up with a series of powerful symbols not too dissimilar from what I might use to describe what is sacred or transcendent about human experience.  I was struck by which words were chosen -- powerful words from nature, words describing community and social relations, words describing light and transcendence, words proving our deep and enduring connection to our an cestors and the deep and abiding love of life that is inherent in the human experience.




1  Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer, by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer, 1983

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