RECOMMENDED FOR READING
Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature
Book by Gwendolyn Leick; Routledge, 1994
For some years, the main concern of my publications has been to make the results of Assyriological research accessible for the non-specialist. Since the great wave of popular interest in the subject during the Victorian and Edwardian era, when the curly-bearded, giant bull-men drew the crowds in London, Berlin and Paris, the general awareness of Mesopotamian scholarship, even within academic circles, has dwindled remarkably. Although public enthusiasm for the ancient Near East never matched that for Pharaonic Egypt, in spite of the often spectacular archaeological discoveries, there was also a remarkable lack of communication between the specialists, toiling at the rock-face of the tablets, and the wider audience. The pressures of contemporary academic life make such a mediating role even more difficult. Consequently, most of the astonishing data of one of the great early and literate civilizations remains practically unknown outside the world of cuneiformists and biblical scholars.
The present work brings together as many original texts on love and sexuality, or relevant excerpts, as are available in published form. There has been considerable activity during the last twenty years in translating and collecting Mesopotamian love poetry. After all, the Old Akkadian, Sumerian and Old Babylonian sources are the oldest literary documents about love, predating the Egyptian material of the Middle Kingdom by several hundred years. But while in other academic disciplines, especially in the Classics, the subject has received a good deal of scholarly attention over the last twenty years, to some extent inspired by feminist thinking, 1 there has so far been no attempt to synthesize the available data from Mesopotamian sources. They are, as will become apparent, far from nave or primitive. Not all of them are poetry, some are myths, rituals, or incantations. Formally, this book is a collection of essays that focus on particular aspects of erotic love that are common to or characteristic of certain genres of Mesopotamian literature. I have approached the compositions from various angles, in order to offer different perspectives, but without feeling committed to a particular mode of interpretation, whether exclusively feminist, structuralist, psychoanalytical, or deconstructionist. I have sometimes used cross-cultural comparisons, based on anthropological data from very different cultures, in order to widen the customary conceptual constraint of Ancient Near Eastern scholarship. My comments on the text sometimes differ considerably from those of their editors, but such deviations are acknowledged in the notes. These refer the reader to the original sources, and also sometimes tackle linguistic matters for the attention of my colleagues.
My use of the term 'literature' is not meant to convey the notion of fiction or poetry as an aesthetic category as in the German Belletristik, but as a general corpus of written material that is not bureaucratic, documentary, or used for direct communication like letters, receipts, etc. By the word 'text' I mean the original written work or document without any deconstructionist or exegetic dimension. It is not possible to write about sexuality in the Ancient Near East. We know very little about people's private lives. But literature can tell us about cultural aspirations, general norms of thinking, and articulates emotion and desire. This book is only an attempt to do some justice to the complexity, ambiguity and subtlety of Mesopotamian literature on love and I hope that it will stimulate the debate within the field, and deepen the interest of the general reader.
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And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: And upon her forehand was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. These lines from the seventeenth chapter of the Book of Revelation associate Babylon with depravity of the senses and the iniquities of fornication. When Luther attacked the Roman Church for her low moral standards he compared her to the Whore of Babylon. 1 Seen through the perspective of post-exilic Hebrew literature, the civilization of Mesopotamia became synonymous with vice, and even Herodotus, though not generally given to moral judgements, remarks on the strangeness of local customs, especially what he believed to be the enforced, temporary prostitution of all women (I, 180).
It is only some hundred and sixty years ago that the modern world rediscovered the tangible remains of Assyria and Babylon. Since then, archaeologists and epigraphists, historians and linguists have been evaluating the reality of Mesopotamian civilization. Through a fortunate historical coincidence, the discovery of a trilingual rock-inscription on the Iranian hills, the key to the decipherment of Akkadian was achieved almost simultaneously (1851 by Rawlinson). 2 Layard's find of the remains of Ashurbanipal's great library, with its useful lists of signs, words, synonyms, etc. considerably furthered the advancement of epigraphy. The understanding of Akkadian texts is to some extent helped by the fact that the language is part of the Semitic group, and shares grammatical structures and vocabulary with related languages such as Hebrew and Arabic. The situation is quite different in respect to Sumerian, which has no discernible relation to any known language. We still have to some degree to rely on the attempts by ancient Akkadian grammarians to make sense of the Sumerian texts, as they provided the indispensable bilingual texts and lexical lists. The study of Akkadian has therefore progressed further and more rapidly. At the present time, the dictionary project undertaken by the University of Chicago is nearing completion for the Assyrian dictionary, while work on the Sumerian dictionary will continue until well into the next century. There is also no absolute agreement yet over the grammatical description of Sumerian, and the interpretation of literary texts is by no means unanimous.
The main reason for these difficulties is the medium of cuneiform writing itself. It is now clear that the impetus for the invention of writing in Mesopotamia was a desire not to communicate ideas but to facilitate bookkeeping. Some of these accounting tools are preserved in the form of marked tokens which referred to the standard commodities of exchange, sheep, grain, oil and cloth. The signs on these tokens represented the nature of the merchandise. 3 The use of seals, stamps as well as cylinders, widened the repertoire of communicable symbols, including now 'signs' for cities and individuals. The next step was to extend the semantic range of primary symbols by combining and juxtaposing individual signs. So, for instance, the sign for HEAD+sign for BOWL near the mouth part of HEAD means FOOD, or, by implication, TO EAT. Already at this stage, which is called pictographic because the references are primarily pictorial, the possibilities of some signs transcend the direct reference to the object depicted; as indicated above, the sign can include an activity as well as a commodity, a verbal idea as well as a noun. These texts were able to convey a message without reference to a particular language, in the same way as international traffic signs or mathematical notation can be 'understood' without having to be 'read'. A crucial development was the use of a sign representing a tangible object for its phonetic value. In Sumerian, the word AN meant 'heaven', but the sound corresponding to the syllable an had a variety of grammatical uses too. The sign AN could therefore stand for 'heaven', and also for 'God', or 'above', in a conceptual extension of the original symbol, as well as for the sound an, which would derive meaning from its grammatical or syntactic...