The Role of Women in Ancient Sumer


Since I’ve been doing a lot of research for my book based on Gilgamesh, the ancient Sumerian king, I ran across a lot of information concerning the role of women in ancient Mesopotammia. I aslo noticed that many internet sites replicate many misconceptions concerning just how much education, wealth and power women in the ancient world were entitled to share. As it often happens on the Internet, one false post begets many more as people cut and paste or refer to each other’s work without verifying with more reliable sources. In fact, while I am not going to declare that ancient people respected gender equality, I will say that women had much more influence than we commonly give credit to history for it.

I am going to make a disclaimer right here: I am not a scholar of ancient history. I am a writer and a professor who knows how to do research. Since I did my research for a novel, I wasn’t taking notes on page numbers, editions, and exact quotes, a thing I now regret because the amount of information I scoured would probably yield not one but many journal articles on the subject. Nonetheless, I am reporting here the material I read as best as I remember it from my voracious reading and note-taking I did over years.

For those who may be curious, the information that I am listing here is gleaned out of numerous sources: journal articles from JSTOR and mostly from the Chicago Oriental Institute, the many books of archeologists Samuel Noah Kramer, Jean Bottero and Diane Wolkstein, various articles from the University of Pennsylvania, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, and various ongoing archeological project sites and blogs written by Sumerology graduate students.

If you’re interested in the subject, I highly recommend pursuing the archives of the Chicago Oriental Institute or to read Samuel Noah Kramer and the others I mentioned. My purpose here is merely to give an overview of the various roles and privileges that women enjoyed in the ancient Mesopotamian world, not to give a scholarly lecture.

GENERAL EDUCATION:

Contrary to many misreported beliefs, women in ancient Sumer did attend schooling if they were rich and privileged, which was the same for boys: poor boys labored in the fields or with the goats, while privileged sons of wealthy merchants learned writing, arithmetics and astronomy. Many of the hymns written for Inanna were penned by one particularly prolific princess scholar by the name of Enheduanna. The prefix “en” indicated priestly status and power, which women were entitled to earn.

If they were not involved with a cult worship, women of the higher classes could also manage their own wealth. The royal tombs of Ur show headdresses of leaf gold which archeologist suspect served not just as decorations for the hair, but also as portable coffers (or head wallets). Women could detach leaflets of gold from their headdresses or pendants to purchase those things that they fancied as they “shopped”.

The royal tombs at Ur also show that women held cylinder seals, these were both royal signature seals and also an ancient version of the credit card, wherein the imprint of the seal would indicate an agreement to fulfill the detailed transaction of a contract, for services, goods, or other arrangements.

Several correspondences and accounts held by scribes show that powerful men allotted stipends to their wives and concubines. As far as I know, it is unknown whether these stipends were managed by the concubines and wives directly, or whether a minister or secretary was appointed to oversee the transactions on their behalves.

WEALTH:

Women were entitled to own and inherit land. This is known from various inscribed tablets and ditillums (contracts) that assigned parcels of land to women, both married and unmarried. There are so many of these still surviving in the libraries of ancient Sumerian cities that it is indisputable now that this was a practice, not a rarity.

Although many classes of priestess were allowed to have sex and, in some cases, even bear children, there was one particular class that was sworn to chastity. Those priestesses not only inherited lands from their families, but also lived on those properties rather than in the temple facilities like other priestesses, and if any man chose to violate their vow of chastity, that man would be buried alive for his offense.

POWER:

Women held an interesting share of power in the ancient Sumerian world. Although politics and power has always been influenced by strength, and therefore fell more often into the hands of men, women did fill a number of important political roles that influenced politics and history.

WOMEN AS GODDESS:

To start, the divine pantheon of the ancient Mesopotamians included many powerful female divinities, including the goddess of war and love, Inanna/Ishtar, who was the patroness goddess of the ruling city-state of Sumer, Uruk. Inanna was one of the leading divinities of the pantheon not just in Sumer, but also in bordering territories.

The high priests and priestesses usually reflected the gender of their divinity. Thus, it is unclear whether some mention of the active roles of goddesses like Ninsun or Inanna in epics and other writings were meant to be interpreted figuratively, or whether they were meant to indicate the actions of an avatar (a high priestess) acting on behalf of the goddess. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, goddess Ninsun, said to be the mother of Gilgamesh, freely consults with Gilgamesh throughout the narrative as a mother would consult with her son. Some writers and scholars have interpreted this to mean that certain people were designated to act as “god” or “goddess” for a period of time or for the duration of their service. This practice, incidentally, is still alive in certain regions of Himalaya, where prepubescent girls are selected to become “goddesses,” partaking in processions, sitting on sacred thrones, accepting offerings and prayers, and acting as live oracles until they reach puberty.

WOMEN AS ENTU (High Priestess):

The term is the feminine counterpart to the word “en” for males, which indicates priestly rulerships both in sacred and secular settings. There were different types of priests and priestesses: sacrifice priestesses, oracle priestesses, supervising priestesses, etc. The gender of laity depended on whether the divinity served was male or female. The actual hierarchy of the various priestly roles eludes me except in the most basic ways: there was a high priestess, and ceremony, sacrifice and oracle priestesses, and these were held above other types of priests, although without knowing the details of the cult practices it is difficult to discern what exactly these roles entailed. The important thing to remember is that these were political roles, as the temple had as much say in ruling a city state and managing its wealth as did the designated and elected priest-king (en).

WOMEN AS EN (king/ruler):

If the word entu indicated association with a divine cult, the words en/ensi/nin were associated with secular rulership as well. The widely accepted scholarly view is that most if not all kings (ensis or ens) were male. However, the title “en” was sometimes also elusively assigned to women, as in the case of Enheduanna, the priestess, scribe, poetess princess mentioned earlier.

More peculiar still is the case with a powerful figure that appears in many of the Sumerian literature and mythology, ENmebaraggesi. This particular ruler is credited in various literary and historical records as having “bent the weapons of Elam” and of ruling the mighty city state of Kish and the land territories of the north known as Akkad. For a long time, it was widely assumed that Enmebaraggesi was a man, but in the epic of Gilgamesh, the name is clearly and unequivocally associated with a woman, as Gilgamesh tries to pawn off the recently conquered Enmebaraggesi to his enemy monster the Humbaba, assuring him that she is his sister and offering her as a possible wife to Humbaba. Some speculate that the line in Gilgamesh is meant as a joke, to debase the might of the conquered king by referring to him as a woman, but of course, there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate that Enmebaraggesi was a man in that or any other scripture, therefore, whether the Gilgamesh epic is meant to be interpreted literally or humorously remains matter for dispute.

Another instance of female rulership happens several hundreds of years later when queen Bau rules the mighty city of Kish. It is therefore possible that women could inherit a throne, though it was probably under unusual circumstances that this occurred.

Finally, the myth of Semiramis is said to be based at least in part on Shammuramat, the wife of the powerful Assyrian king Shamsi Adad V (around 800 BC). Shammuramat inherited his throne when he died and ruled on behalf of her son for many years, winning many wars and annexing a significant chunk of territory to her husband’s original kingdom.

WOMEN AS NIN:

The title NIN was assigned to the lady or wife of a great lord. Some have noted that the title NIN was only assigned to those women believed to also be divine entities. The historical record is unclear on this count. Nonetheless, nins of all kinds appear in the Mesopotamian literature to rule over disputes, decide on important political matters, provide protection or withdraw it. Whatever they were, Nins were powerful chicks, no doubt.

WOMEN AS WIFE:

The historical record that the Sumerian common man was monogamous. Marriage occurred by way of an elaborate contract arrangement which required the groom to deliver a number of goods and valuables to the bride and her family. When the family and the groom came to accord, a ditillum (contract) was drawn in clay. The woman was usually expected to live in her husband’s household thereafter.

There is no evidence whatsoever that Sumerian valued virginity before marriage. There is, however, evidence of divorce aplenty. There is also evidence that extra marital affairs and abandonment of husbands (and wives) occurred without interference or interest from the law.

As an aside: there is also evidence not only of bisexuality as a natural practice, but also of same-sex marriages.

WOMEN AS CONCUBINES/JR WIVES:

Kings were allowed to keep a squadron of concubines if they so wished it. This role seemed to have been politically driven as many of these wives tended to be related to royalty in conquered or subservient lands. However, it is clear that the wife of the king/conqueror usually held far more authority than the junior wives. The junior wife seemed to occupy the role of a well-kept prostitute or mistress. This was, however, a practice that most likely began later in the history of ancient mesopotamia, not quite with ancient Sumer.

WOMEN AS SCRIBES:

The historical and literary record does show that some women did take on the role of scribe. Translations of hymns, historical chronicles and other documents were sometimes penned and signed by women.

WOMEN AS SINGERS:

This class of women pervaded both the temple and the palace. In the temple, singers were musical priestesses charged with leading the chants and/or paying the lyre. They also seem to be likely associated, at least in part, with sacred sexual rituals. (Holy sexual rituals were common in Sumer).

Singers are also mentioned in some kingly correspondences where it appears that this designation was also allotted to noble girls and women of conquered territories. Their role in the household was to prepare and serve food and to entertain musically, but it seems likely that they were also expected to perform more intimate duties.

It would be a cultural mistake, however, to attribute shame to this particular social class. Being a singer for a ruling lord or ruling cult was an honor, and these women enjoyed special privileges, personal stipends, and personal luxuries in their housing and attire. As holy prostitutes, they represented the goddess in ritual, and could only be approached through large donations by wealthy men or men in high political offices. Common prostitution was rampant and considered normal in Sumer among both men and women, but holy prostitutes (also performed by both men and women) were in a different class from the common prostitutes found near the walls of the city or in taverns.

WOMEN AS WEAVERS:

The temple held a number of women in this class. The weavers were a step below the singers, but important all the same — enough to enjoy a classification of their own. The role of weavers seems obvious enough: they were entrusted with the weaving of military and cultic apparel and paraphernalia and were highly valued for their skill, as the temple and the palace both depended on these women’s skills not just for essential needs but also for wealth creation through trade.

BUSINESS OWNERS:

Again in the epic of Gilgamesh, there is mention of a barmaid named Situri who owns a reputable drinking establishment on the edge of the known world. Whether or not this was a common practice, I cannot say one way or another, but it’s an interesting enough detail in the epic to be worth mentioning.

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3 Responses to The Role of Women in Ancient Sumer

  1. Mike Litoris says:

    This blog is so helpful for my report! I don’t know how you do it Laura but this is unbelievable helpful!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. This was interesting information on the Sumerian society. I had no idea it was so complex.

    • laura says:

      I know. When I say 2800 BC people think of mastodonts and caves, but really this was a fully flourished culture.

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