Healing in the Dog House: In Praise of Gula

All of us who love dogs know that they are great natural therapists and healers. Our dogs love us no matter what and that in itself can boost our immune systems and raise our spirits.Therir slobber may be a salve.
    Many cultures have revered dogs as both therapists and sacred guides - and sacrificial animals. The catacombs of Anubis at Saqqara in ancient Egypt contain seven million mummified dogs [1]. If you made the journey to a temple of Asklepios (Aesculapius to the Romans) the great god of healing and dream incubation in the Greco-Roman world,you would expect to meet many dogs, as well as snakes, his companion animals.
   Among  all the cultures that valued the healing power of dogs, ancient Mesopotamia rises like a step pyramid because of the immense popularity of Gula across millennia.. Gula ("Great") was the Babylonian name for a goddess of healing and medical arts first reverenced in Lagash as Bau (sounds like bow-wow). Gula, mistress of herbal remedies, healed bodies and souls. Her epithets included "She Who Makes the Broken Whole Again" and "The Lady Who Restores Life". She is always accompanied by dogs and clay dogs inscribed with her name were buried at thresholds to protect the household from disease and demons.
    If most of us have never heard of her, that is because history involves forgetting as much as remembering. Writing, invented in ancient Mesopotamia, was highly valued there and people competed to go for a prized education in the tablet schools where they learned to write in cuneiform ("wedge-shaped") strokes with a reed stylus on moist clay. However, writing was the skill of an elite. The successive city states and empires, from Sumer and Akkad to Babylon and Assyria were basically oral cultures. What was of most importance to ordinary people – in body or spirit – cannot be found in the often broken and fragmentary fired clay tablets that have survived time, giving us omens and accounts and king lists and dream reports and the world's first recorded literature.. Setting bones, plant medicine, and the healing of souls are not recorded, though we do hear about how to appeal to a god or exorcize a demon or an evil dream. We have over 1,000 tablets relating to Babylonian medicine but they tell us almost nothing about the belief system involved, partly because only 15 percent have satisfactory translations .
    Let us introduce Gula with duie ceremony, through one of her hymns  

Gula Hymn of Bullussa-rabi

I am the physician, I know how to heal
I take along all healing plants. I expel disease
I am girded with a bag containing life-giving incantations
I carry a scalpel for curing
I am giving medication to people:
the pure bandage softens the skin sore
the soft poultice eases the sickness.
My very glance at he moribund revives him,
my mere words make the weak stand up ...

I am merciful; even from afar I am listening
I bring back the moribund from the netherworld…
I am the Lady of Life
I am the physician, I am the seeress, and I am the exorcist [2]

In other texts, she is called Great Healer, Healer of the Land, Lady of Health, She Who Makes the Broken Whole, She Who Creates Life in the Land.At Nippur, Gula was called the Lady Who Gives Life to the Dead. 
     In religious art, Gula is often shown holding a lancet or scalpel in one hand and a bandage or swab in the other. The modern sculpture at the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in London [see photo]  is true to her spirit.This is the very image of a hands-on surgeon and physician. She is called “mother with the soothing hand” and “faithful hand of heaven”[3] She soothes with her hands, draws out infection, and her bandaging is so effective that the craft of the physicians is characterized as “laying on bandages” [4]
     Her greatest temple was in the city of Isin, south of Nippur.. Her vast precinct there  has been compared to a Mesopotamian Lourdes. It was always full of people, lots of pilgrims coming for healing, a glimpse of the goddess, a statue being carried through the streets.
    The streets were full of dogs, barking, sniffing, wandering, There were guard dogs at important portals and some evidence that dogs were included in sacred rites of healing. At Isin, Gula's title was Inisina, Lady of Isin and the name of her temple 
E-gal-makh means Exalted House.
    Within the vast temple complex, there was one space that had special cachet. It w
as  é-u-gi7-rathe Dog House, or Kennel. If you are in need of healing in this part of the world 3,000 or 4,000 years ago, you want to go the the dogs of the Lady of Isin. You may have your request for healing inscribed on the back of a little terracotta dog as a prayerful appeal to the goddess. Many such votive offerings have been found, along with human figurines holding organs that were in need of repair.
    In Isin archaeologists have disinteerred the remains of more than thirty dogs that were buried below the ramp leading up to the main entrance of the dog temple. [5] Here physicians were also dog keepers. 
A major function of city officials was to ensure a constant supply of sheep for the dogs of the goddess.
    There was a constant stir of activity here.The scene at the great temple complex has been compared to a "Mesopotamian Lourdes, a place of pilgrimage for the sick, maimed, and dying." [6] The temple provided midwives\). The temple complex was alive with sufferers seeking treatment, priests performing rituals and incantations, and of course the  dogs During festivals in the goddess's honor, her statue, freshly draped and annointed, would have been carried through the city to the music of drum and lyre and general rejoicing. 

Dreaming with Gula

Texts from the later Neo-Babylonian period, suggest that Gula was also revered as a mistress of dreams.. She was invoked in dream incubation and dreamers prayed to meet her in their night visions. [7]
    Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king (who reigned from 555-539 bce)  dreamed of the goddess "who restores the health of the deathly ill and bestows long life." He prayed for "lasting life for [him]self and that she might turn her face towards [him]." Then she "looked steadily upon [him] with her shining face (thus) indicating (her) mercy" [8]

Sending or Releasing

the goddess was not only beneficent, but could also inflict the miseries which, normally, people asked her to allay. The lawgiver Hammurabi invoked her under anther of her names, Ninkarak,  to bring disease to  those who violated his code Like the other healing goddesses, Ninkarak had Underworld associations, as her indicated by yet another of her titless:: Nin-E-ki-siga "Lady of the House of Offerings for the Dead."

Boundary Protector

Both Gula and her consort Ninurta were protectors of boundaries, and her name and image appeared often on kudurrus or boundary stones. Seated regally on a throne, she had her sacred dog beside her. Guard dog on duty.

The Journey to Gula

In a recent class, I invited a large group of active dreamers to make a shamanic journey to Gula and her Dog House at Isin. After reading her hymn and her praise name, I gave a general description of the Exalted House and the dog temple.
     I noted that Gula is sometimes depicted enthroned above sweet water. So there is a sense of the freshness, the life-giving qualities of sweet water with her and about her. Her dogs are with her.
     If you wish, you can imagine right now that you have been invited to enter her sacred city, the city of Isin, south of Nippur, in what is now Iraq. You can't go there right now in physical reality. But you can go there in imaginal reality. You may find yourself received and escorted by a dog. The dog might want to lick you. If that happens, you may be in real luck.
     You may be bathed and cleansed.You may want to make an offering to the temple attendants. Snacks for the dogs will be welcome. You be admitted to a space where you will be in the presence of a statue of the goddess, a "breathing image"that  may come alive. You might find that her dogs is taking away from you things that don't belong, shadows of dark place of your life, symptoms of pain and illness.
     For the group journey, we used the sounds of bubbling spring water rather than our usual drumming - tough drumming is profoundly Mesopotamian [9] - to power and focus our excursion. The journey was wonderfully successful for most who took part. We found ourselves blessed by a form of the sacred guide and healer that is feminine, soothing and gentle, and can raise souls from the dead. And of course we confirmed that going t the dogs is always a good idea when we are in need of loving care.


1. Paul T. Nicholson, Salima Ikram and Steve Mills, "The Catacombs of Anubis at North Saqqara" in Antiquity 89 (2015) 645-661
2.W.G. Lambert, "The Gula Hymn of Bulluta-râbi"in Orientalia 6 (1967) 105-32.
3. Barbara Böck, The Healing Goddess Gula: Towards an Understanding of Ancient Babylonian Medicine. (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2014) 15
4. ibid, 17
5. http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/amgg/listofdeities/gulaninkarrak/index.html. Accessed May 20, 2020
6.  Johanna Stuckey, "'Going to the Dogs': Healing Goddesses of Mesopotamia" in MatriFocus: Cross-Quarterly for the Goddess Woman" vol 5, no.2 (2006)
7. Reiner,"Fortune-telling in Mesopotamia." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 19 (1960) 23-54.
8. A. Leo Oppenheim in James B. Pritchard (ed) Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969) 310.
9. Uri Gabbay, “Drums, Hearts, Bulls, and Dead Gods: The Theology of the Ancient Mesopotamian Kettledrum” in Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 18 (2018) 1-47