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I ran across a curious sentence today, in a Mesopotamian prayer to a personal god (the grammar looked better in verse format):

"Daily worship your god with offerings, prayers and appropriate incense. Bend your heart to your god; That befits the office of a personal god, prayers supplication, pressing (the hand to) the nose (as greeting) shall you offer up every morning, then your power will be great, and you will, through your god have enormous success.”

The above translation, taken from Treasures in the Darkness (and according to Google also given in Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia) makes casual reference to greeting by pressing the hand to the nose. Was this a custom in ancient Babylonia? And if so, do we know if it was common practice, or only recorded in formal or religious contexts?

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It seems like this was the 'polite' gesture of greeting in ancient Sumeria, and is actually the meaning of a Sumerian phrase for greeting:

She faces in the direction of the cultic activity, her right arm bent at the elbow, hand raised before the face, in a well-known gesture of pious greeting, comparable to those depicted in presentation scenes, from Ur III seals to the Code of Hammurabi, and finding its literary referent in the Sumerian verb “to greet”—kiri šu-gal—literally, “to let the hand be at the nose.”

The above from On Art in the Ancient Near East Volume II: From the Third Millennium BCE By Irene Winter (emphasis mine)

I'm not sure, but this image may represent the above described gesture: enter image description here

From Code of Hammurabi


Another cylinder seal, this one linked to Ur-Nammu, (probably a little earlier then your preferred time), seems to show the same gesture:

enter image description here


Concerning comments questioning the exact position of the hand (and the number of hands used), another reference, Babylonian Poems of Pious Sufferers: Ludlul Bel Nemeqi and the Babylonian Theodicy by Takayoshi Oshima, suggests there is still some ambiguity concerning this:

Kiri Suga, literally 'to place the hand(s) (on) the nose', it is evident that the gesture involves both nose and hand, yet their exact positions have not yet been established.

  • Thanks for tracking that down, the context is still religious but the linguistic evidence seems telling. Do you know of any indications whether that custom persisted into the Old Babylonian period? The second millennium is my period of primary interest. – Flux Jun 22 at 18:42
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    … and then a second later you posted the Hammurabi relief. That seems like a suggestive link to the 2nd mil to me, and if so it also makes the gesture seem much more natural than how I had pictured it. Much appreciated. – Flux Jun 22 at 18:46
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    Is it actually to touch the nose, or just to put the hand near it? – Aaron Brick Jun 22 at 20:54
  • Typo: "finding its literary referent" – chrylis Jun 24 at 14:01
  • There's not enough dinding nowadays – Strawberry Jun 24 at 14:08

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