WOMEN IN ANCIENT MESOPOTAMIA CIRCA 4000 B.C.E.-500 B.C.E.
People in the ancient Mesopotamian region are given credit for the foundations of our Western law codes, religious rituals, astronomy, mathematics, literature, and writing. Even the calendar and wheel are technologies that these people are given recognition for introducing. Whether all these ideas originated with the civilization that grew up in the lowlands between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, (Mesopotamia is Greek for the land between the rivers) scholars are continually debating. On-going archaeological work in this region and other areas of the world is uncovering fascinating facts regarding our ancient ancestors. As more evidence is being uncovered, it appears that the advent of civilization, whereby people settled into specific structures of government, agriculture, and religious festivals and beliefs, keeps getting older. Many other parts of the world are now vying for the honor of being the oldest site for the beginning of civilization. Until there are more consensuses on another place, ancient Mesopotamia will retain its honored number one place.
What did the land and society look like around 4000-3500 b.c.e. when the number of people increased significantly enough to become an urban society and civilization? The people who came into the region came as farmers, because of the rich alluvial soil created by the flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, did not find it an easy place to civilize like ancient Egypt because the flooding was unpredictable. This region received no rainfall for eight months of the year, and then came torrential spring showers that produced flooding of such magnitude that irrigation with canals was essential. Especially conducive to farming, the soil was neither rocky nor tree-laden. Cooperation and leadership were needed to harness the rivers and build canals, which then allowed the people to produce enough excess crops to sell. This allowed some of the farmers to venture into the production of goods that could be exchanged for food, and so the artisan crafts developed. This area is now in southern Iraq, and many of the marsh inhabitants of this region still live in almost identical housing and fish from almost identical boats. They tend their crops and flocks just like in ancient times. Over time this area developed into the modern countries of Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.
The sources available to us for reconstructing the lives of women in these ancient times are few in number, but lengthy in size. There are two famous works from these early centuries. One, The Epic of Gilgamesh, can give us some descriptive details on women, and the other, The Code of Hammurabi, can give us quite a lot of prescriptive passages regarding women’s legal standing. More law codes from later periods of history also give us additional information, including the Middle Assyrian Laws, from the fifteenth to the eleventh centuries b.c.e. More than twenty thousand clay tablets with writings on them have been uncovered, mainly from the city-state of Mari, but only recently have historians been analyzing them for women’s history. Included in these extant tablets are business dealings, poetry, songs, and laments.
Scholars refer to this oldest civilized area as Sumer, which was inhabited beginning around 4000 b.c.e. Over time, a city-state form of government was developed into twelve independent kingdoms covering an area the size of the state of Massachusetts. Uruk, Lagash, and Ur were some of their important cities ruled by a theocracy. Their priest/king led the army, administered the economy, served as judge, and was the intermediary between the people and their deities. Because there were no natural barriers as in ancient Egypt, quarrels over water rights and land led to the desire for conquest, making war endemic. The world’s first woman ruler came from the city-state of Kish. She was Kubaba, circa 2450 b.c.e. Apparently she started out as a tavern keeper. Many royal women helped legitimize the king’s succession to the throne, a practice found all over the world throughout history. Not only rulers, but their spouses were included in the records. Some queens had their own independent courts complete with ministers. This is attested to by their own seals and documents dated with their particular ruling years.
The Sumerians are given credit for the invention of the first written language in a cuneiform alphabet pattern. While the Sumerian language is neither Semitic nor Indo-European, their alphabet was used by those cultures following them into the region.
Women’s Legal Status in the Hammurabi Law Code
There are nearly three hundred laws to regulate society in Hammurabi’s Code, circa 1750 b.c.e. There were earlier law codes, but Hammurabi, the Akkadian ruler of a large Mesopotamian region, put together this uniform law code for the entire empire. This system of law codes was not being equaled until the Romans developed theirs nearly fifteen hundred years later. Hammurabi was praised by his subjects at the promulgation of this code: “he established justice in the land.” The two most famous principles underlying the code are “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” and “Let the buyer beware.” The code has definite class guidelines for nobles, commoners, and slaves; great emphasis was placed on the protection and maintenance of the family. Over one-fourth of the law codes have direct or indirect influence on women. Some of the areas of interest to women are adultery, divorce, rape, and business transactions. Interspersed in this chapter are incidents and conditions relating to the Hammurabi Code’s treatment of women. These law codes, however, cannot ferret out specific events, but we can use them as indicators for circumstances involving women. At the end of this chapter are those specific codes pertaining to women.
Women’s Role in the Family
Marriages were arranged by the prospective groom and father of the future bride, a practice that continued for thousands of years in most all cultures throughout the globe. Both a bridal gift and a dowry were part of the marriage. The groom-to-be offered the father a bridal gift, usually money. If the man and his bridal gift were acceptable then the father provided his daughter with a dowry, which belonged to her after the wedding ceremony although the husband usually administered it. Then a contract was made and engraved on a tablet, with the bride and groom signing it with their cylinder seals. This contract spelled out the duties of each spouse, and the penalties the husband was liable for if he decided to divorce his wife. Either party could break off the arrangement; the prospective groom having to forfeit the bridal gift money, and if the bride changed her mind then the groom could recover twice the amount. If the daughter was still very young, then she either lived with her father or her father-in-law. Once she and her husband came of age then they set up their own house.
The actual wedding was a time of rejoicing and celebration, lasting for days or even weeks. During the ceremony itself the bride wore a veil, but once married she did not. By the time of the Assyrians, their law codes circa 1076 b.c.e. mandated that married women must wear a veil in public and no veiling for prostitutes. This practice was followed by most all the ancient and medieval civilizations in the west and near east. After sexual intercourse, the bloody sheet was displayed to prove the bride’s virginity, an extremely important condition for marriages.
The husband legally could have a second wife, a concubine and slaves for a variety of reasons, including his sexual desires, and to ensure descendants if his wife was barren or ill. It was the childless wife’s responsibility to provide a concubine for her husband so that he could have children. This other woman served also as a slave/servant for the wife. Examples of this practice are in the Hebrew Bible, and were undoubtedly part of the indigenous culture of Mesopotamia. There is also evidence that if the concubine gave birth to a son, her status was raised, and even the potential for her freedom. Polygamy was an option for the rich. There is evidence of polyandry circa 2350 b.c.e., but the rulers condemned the practice and sought its extirpation. The sources indicate another interesting custom called a levirate marriage occurred. When the husband died, his brother married his widow to keep the dowry and property in the family. Following the wedding ceremony, the husband was legally recognized as the head of the family, with absolute power over his household. To honor a debt, the husband could pawn or sell his wife and children into slavery for up to three years.
Divorce for the husband was easy. He merely had to declare that his wife was barren, spent too much, or ridiculed him. For the wife to seek a divorce was a deadly gamble. The Hammurabi Code provided that she submit to an investigation: “If she has been discreet and has no vice and her husband has gone out and has greatly belittled her, she shall take her marriage portion and go off to her father’s house. But if she has been found indiscreet and has gone out, ruined her house, belittled her husband, she shall be drowned.” This same punishment was meted out to the wife if she was convicted of adultery: “If the wife of a man has been caught while lying with another man, they shall bind them and throw them into the water.” A husband could save his wife from drowning if he obtained a pardon for her from the king. Then too the husband could accuse his wife of adultery even if he had not caught her in the act. The wife then could go before the City Council, who investigated the charge. If she was found innocent, then she could take her dowry and leave her husband.
Extant evidence from ancient Mesopotamia indicates that women were knowledgeable about contraceptive and birth control measures including abortions and infanticide. Apparently anal intercourse was practiced by priestesses and prostitutes to avoid pregnancies. Infanticide, which continued for centuries, appeared to be by abandonment. There were even treatments for infertility and prenatal care. During the labor process, a variety of magical and efficacious methods were employed. Motherhood brought an added security to wives, but this was true only if they had sons, not daughters. A wife was still considered barren if she had daughters, but no sons. As in most other ancient cultures, the son was expected to support his parents in their old age and perform the proper rites after their death. After giving birth, the mother was declared ritually unclean for thirty days. Death in childbirth and infant mortality were two dangers that women faced then and for thousands of years thereafter. During her monthly period she was also ritually unclean, and it was thought that she contaminated everything she touched, including the bread she made. This idea that the monthly courses caused contamination continued up to the twentieth century.
One of the customary leitmotifs in ancient and medieval cultures was society’s responsibility for taking care of poor widows and orphans. Sacred scriptures in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament and the Koran, all charge their societies with being responsible for their care. It appears that this responsibility was first advocated in Sumerian times, where a ruler was to show compassion by charitable acts. It was the sons that inherited from their father’s estate, not his widow, but he could leave some of his property for her maintenance. This token provision was formalized over the centuries to be one-third, but not nearly what it was to become in the twentieth century. The widow was entitled to her dowry though, and could continue operating her husband’s business by herself, a custom that continued for a long time.
Women’s Rights of Property
Women could own, purchase, and inherit property. They could serve as witnesses in court.
Religion and Goddesses in Ancient Mesopotamia
Polytheism was practiced by the inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia, but the Sumerians believed in four main gods of heaven, air, earth, and water, with one reigning supreme. Usually the anthropomorphic deities were responsible for one or two areas, and their names were transformed as the languages were changed from Sumerian to Akkadian, and then to other Semitic dialects. At first the most powerful was An, ruler of the heavens/sky together with his consort Antum, circa the third millennium b.c.e. Enlil, initially the national god of Sumer, was lord of the wind, and his consort, Ninlil, was Lady of the Wind. Inanna was the goddess of love and sexuality, but she took on other gods’ power and was then called the Lady of Myriad Offices. When the Akkadians conquered and their language dominated, then Inanna’s name was transformed to Ishtar, whose name became the generic word for goddess. Ishtar was the most widely worshiped deity in the Old Babylonian period.
In these early centuries, practices were set for the ways these deities were worshiped and honored. Necklaces, pendants, rings, and amulets, carved out of wood, stone, gold, and silver of these goddesses were worn by the devotees. Statues of these goddesses and gods were placed inside the temples, where their followers would come to pray to them as if they were in the presence of the actual deity. These rituals to honor the deities were repeated for thousands of years.
Women’s Role in the Economy
Women worked in a wide variety of occupations, including food and cloth production, temple complexes, and slavery based on their social status.
The upper class women worked too, but in the highest status professions. Being a priestess was the most prestigious position for females, which meant that they were the chief attendants to the goddesses and gods. As was done later in Christianity, wealthy families sent one daughter with a considerable dowry, to be sequestered in the temple, whose duty was to offer up prayers for her family’s health and well-being. As the high priestess to the moon god, Nanna, at Ur and to An, the heaven god at Uruk and to Inanna, the goddess of love and war at Uruk, Enheduanna, circa 2300 b.c.e. was the earliest known priestess, and one of the most famous women in ancient history. While she was appointed by her father, the ruler Sargon the Great, her ability and administration of her duties was superb. As chief priestess she presided over a huge temple complex, including a library, granaries, schools, hostels, and large land ownership. The stepped mud-brick pyramidal structures were called ziggurats and could be as big as cathedrals. For instance, the temple in the city-state of Lagash circa 3000 b.c.e. provided daily bread and ale for 1200+ people. The temple to Nanna at Ur is extant. One of the chief priestess’s duties was to communicate the deity’s wishes to humans by way of omens. These omens could be found in the shape of the liver in sacrificed sheep. Failure to revere and propitiate the deities could bring catastrophes like floods, drought, pestilence, and enemy raids. It was Enheduanna’s devotion and composition of hymns to Inanna that has brought her lasting fame. In Enheduanna’s eulogies of Inanna, she described her as the equal in rank to the deity An, who became head of the Sumerian pantheon sometime in the third millennium, supplanting Inanna. Enheduanna wrote forty-two hymns to Inanna. In her Exaltation of Inanna, she relates how Inanna rescued the tree of life (like the biblical tree of knowledge) from the world flood and planted it in her garden. As the first known author by name, her poetry was copied and studied, greatly influencing the development of literature in the ancient Near East. While most literature from ancient Sumer was written in Sumerian, there was a special dialect called “language of women,” used for speeches of women and goddesses in various types of genre, including love poetry between the genders. Ten royal priestesses followed Enheduanna over the next five hundred years (some sources say one thousand years), with each holding office for life like Enheduanna. Written tablets exist recording the commercial activities of the priestesses, indicating their business acumen. Probably this relates to the middle and upper classes.
There were other types of priestesses and religiously- connected women, indicating the complexity of the religious practices of this polytheistic culture. Women composed music used in the dances and songs performed at the religious temples. There were several communities of celibate women in ancient Mesopotamia, but we do not know what their religious function was. Some of these women could marry, but still had to maintain their virginity. Later on in history, the Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome lived in a cloistered community too; whether there is any similarity or not between the ones in Mesopotamia are unknown at this time. There is indication that poor widows gave their children to the temples to save them from starvation, and other children, including orphans, might become slaves at these religious sites.
Lower-status women wove wool into cloth for sale in the important textile production. Apprenticeship programs were available, and it was the women of the highest status who were the supervisors and business owners in this textile trade. Even the queen mother participated in the export of finished cloth. The textile industry was a major source of wealth in much of the area. Weaving was a job compatible with child care as it could be interrupted when necessary without damage.
The perfume and other aromatic substances industry was another important employer of women. Medicines and cosmetics both utilized scents in their products. For the perfume-making process, women authored some of the recipes.
Brewing and selling of beer and wine were activities engaged in by women. Ninkasi was the goddess of ale making, and a recipe from these ancient times was found and successfully made into a date-flavored brew by a San Francisco micro brewery. Women managed the wine shops and taverns too.
In the health care field, women served as midwives, and there is a mention of a woman doctor, but there is not the information available as in ancient Egypt.
Some women were forced into labor gangs to work on public work projects. Other women plied their prostitution trade, dressing to attract customers in a special type of leather jacket. Wearing of distinctive clothing to distinguish a prostitute from another woman was done right up to modern times. Art renderings of these harlots early on became stereotyped as a woman leaning out of a window. There was no stigma for prostitutes in Sumerian times or in the later Babylonian era. Included in the written record of female professions, was that of a prostitute. The parents of a daughter could sell her into prostitution. Part of the temple complex included sacred prostitutes. While the exact purpose of sacred prostitution is obscure, it may well have had its origin in fertility rituals. Sacred prostitutes did not sell their sexual services, but represented the goddesses and their sexual union with the king to ensure the prosperity of the kingdom. This is similar to ancient India where the professional dancers served the various deities, and were called prostitutes. These women were also referred to as sacred courtesans, who were not allowed to marry. If they retired or resigned from their position, then they could marry. Many did resign to look after their children they had during the course of their career.
The Epic of Gilgamesh relates how the ancient Sumerians dealt with sexual relations and prostitution. In the first part of the tale, Gilgamesh’s amorous adventures are condemned: “His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior’s daughter nor the wife of the nobleman.” To take his mind off these sexual exploits, the goddess Aruru creates Gilgamesh a companion, Enkidu. As Enkidu symbolizes the uncivilized male from the nomadic tribes, huge and hairy, Gilgamesh’s solution was to send a “harlot from the temple of love, a child of pleasure” to tame him. “...for six days and seven nights they lay together and afterward Enkidu was grown weak...and she led him like a mother” away from the hills and down to the plains of civilization. Another way to perceive these events is that a woman is the one that brings civilization to a man. In ancient Egypt the goddess Isis was the inventor of marriage to make men settle down, and ancient Mesopotamia appears to be no different.
Of the various laws against rape, all stated that the injured party was the husband or the father of the raped woman, not the victim herself. The victim was obligated to prove she had resisted rape by struggling or shouting, otherwise she was guilty of fornication or adultery. If the rape occurred in the countryside or another isolated place, then the rapist was guilty not the victim. Other areas concerned with sexual relations had to do with incest. Hammurabi law punished incest between a mother and her son with death for both parties, but a father who committed incest with his daughter was only banished -- a sure sign of the double standard in operation. These double standard sexual relationships have continued into modern times.
Women’s status and economic contributions declined as the cultures changed. The ancient Sumerians allowed women the most freedom, and some historians conjecture that this was due to the higher status of goddesses. The next culture was Akkadians, or Old Babylonians, and there is a noticeable depreciation of women’s role. By the time of the Assyrians and New Babylonians, women definitely had less status. Women no longer could own property. All respectable women had to be veiled and secluded into harems, including queens. The crime of adultery had more severe repercussions for women. Under the Hammurabi Code, the wife could be let off if the husband chose, but in the Assyrian law code if the husband spared his wife’s life, then he could still cut off her nose, and then mutilate the lover with castration and disfigurement of his whole face. Cutting off a wife’s nose and castration of the male will be continued through the middle ages.
What caused the decrease in women’s status? Some historians state that as trade and wealth increased, patriarchal attitudes were reinforced. Increased warfare and permanent kingship, where women did not participate, further alienated women from positions of power. As the population steadily grew, then war and the struggle for political dominance perpetuated the need to protect one’s property, including the women. In tandem with the structure of society, in the religious realm, male gods took over from the goddesses more honored previous position.
The farther back we go, it appears that women had a higher status and more civil rights.