Two-Faced Gods

Detail of Usmu from the Adda Seal, c. 2300 BCE. Modern impression of an Akkadian greenstone cylinder seal in the collection of the British Museum. Image Credit: Bible Land Pictures.

The oldest known two-faced god was a Sumerian/Akkadian deity named Isimud/Usmu, who served as the chief minister of Enki/Ea, the Mesopotamian creator god of waters, wisdom, crafts, and magic. In the Sumerian myth of Inanna and Enki, he functioned as a high-level attendant and messenger, greeting Inanna at the gate of Enki’s temple, and later traveling back and forth between the two deities, relaying communication. In Akkadian cylinder seals, he was depicted as a bearded male with two faces, often standing between his master and approaching figures. His double visage highlighted his intermediary role in religious myths and rituals, and also underscored his liminal nature, suggesting ideas about thresholds and boundaries, as well as magic and deception.

Later representations of two-faced deities and other spiritual entities carried similar liminal associations, while reflecting different cultural belief systems. The Roman god Janus, for example, faced opposite directions, towards the past and future, as the god of doors, gateways, passages, transitions, and dualities. In India, the Vedic god of fire Agni was often portrayed as a male with two joined heads surrounded by flames, signifying the domestic and sacrificial hearth—with flames carrying burnt offerings and prayers to the gods, and conveying the souls of the dead for reincarnation. And in various African cultures, most notably the Ekoi/Ejagham, two-faced ancestral masks painted with white kaolin and black dye, traditionally worn in initiations, funerals, and other rituals to connect with the spirit world, have symbolized universal dualities such as light and dark, female and male, life and death. These are only a few of the many examples that come to mind.

Two-faced gods have long been envisioned as liminal entities, standing at the thresholds of spiritual realms, serving as guardians, messengers, and intermediaries. Like other ‘monstrous’ divinities, their physical appearance expressed complex concepts related to cultural myths, beliefs, and traditions. Looking backward and forward, with doubled gazes and voices, they have transmitted our spiritual prayers and hopes, and inspired our imaginations, for over four millennia.

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