(Essay) Ninhursaga and the Fox by Hearth Moon Rising


The fox enjoys a special affinity with women. Perhaps it’s the aesthetic appeal of this cat-like canine, with her soft thick fur that would have been appreciated when humans depended on skins for clothing. Perhaps it’s the red color of her fur. While the common Vulpes vulpes or Red Fox has the most striking color, most foxes have some red in their fur. Red is the women’s color by virtue of the blood of the womb, and it is often specifically associated with motherhood.

Foxes are good mothers, or perhaps I should say good parents, since fathers and grown siblings assist in raising kits. The ferocity of the vixen defending her kits is legendary, and the fox makes a good totem of protection. The fox seems to enjoy a special relationship with the Sumerian goddess Ninhursaga, mother of all plants and animals (including people). Ninhursaga is possibly the oldest of Mesopotamian deities, measured in antiquity of worship. Her omega symbol is found in religious artifacts that date as early as 3000 BCE. Her name translates as “Queen of the Mountain” and this explains why she is also given the title “Mother of the Gods,” since the Mesopotamian deities reside in the mountain ranges that surround the Fertile Crescent.

When Ninhursaga withdraws her life-giving force out of anger toward her consort Enki, it is only the fox who can sway her. Enki is the god of plant-nourishing moisture such as rain or dew, and if he dies all biological life is in jeopardy. But Ninhursaga is angry with Enki because he ate some of her vegetal grandchildren, and as she withholds her “life-giving eye” from her consort the other gods become alarmed at the increasingly dusty state of affairs.

It is at this point that the opportunistic fox approaches the father sky-god Enlil and attempts to cut a deal. “What will you give me if I persuade Ninhursaga to withdraw her curse from Enki?” the fox asks. Enlil promises the cunning little canine not one but two shrines, where he will be perpetually worshiped.

So the fox gets down to work. He carefully arranges his fur and applies the dark cosmetic kohl around his eyes. He anoints his body with perfume. He approaches Ninhursaga with an obsequious seductiveness, applying flattery and wheedling her into a softer stance on Enki’s transgressions. Because of the fox’s intervention, Enki’s life is spared and disaster is averted.

Like so many other tales involving Ninhursaga, this one appears to be an attempt to explain practices and associations that stretch far back in prehistory, linked with forgotten matriarchal narratives. The story tells us that fox worship was once involved in the religion of the Great Mother in southern Mesopotamia. A fox cult evidently survived into historical times when its purpose and origin had become shrouded in mystery, hence the need to explain or justify the two shrines. What were those ancient hymns to the fox and what happened in those rituals? Who were those priestesses or priests who persevered in homage to the divine red canine after her worship had become anachronistic? And did the disparagement of the fox emerging in later Mediterranean cultures arise out of a need to discredit remnants of devotion to a powerful mother deity?



Gateways to Babylon. Ninhursag-Ki. http://www.gatewaystobabylon.com/gods/ladies/ladyninhursag.html

Guisepi, Robert E. The History of Ancient Sumeria. http://history-world.org/sumeria,%20Enki.htm

Jordan, Michael. Encyclopedia of Gods: Over 2,500 Deities of the World. New York: Facts on File, 1993.

Lariviere, Serge and Maria Pasitschniak-Arts. “Vulpes vulpes” in Mammalian Species. American Society of Mammalogists, ed., Dec. 1996. http://www.science.smith.edu/departments/Biology/VHAYSSEN/msi/pdf/i0076-3519-537-01-0001.pdf

Littleton, C. Scott. Mythology. London: Duncan Baird, 2002.

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