“Science is unrefined, life is subtle, and we need literature to bridge this gap”
Roland Barthes, 1978 (1)
The subjects of the texts that make up Mesopotamian literature are very diverse. The Dictionary of Mesopotamian Civilization speaks of "the wide field of intellectual aspects of Mesopotamian civilization: religious ideas and practices, pantheon, scientific techniques, cultural production, literary works, but also education, legal practice and social realities." (Joannès et al., 2001) (2)
In order to approach this vast program of Mesopotamian literature, we have decided to focus in five parts on five of the central themes of life in this period: love, intimate relationships, sacred marriage, pleasure and lamentations.
Why Should We Speak of the Sacred Dimension of Mesopotamian Literature?
Mesopotamians' relationship with the sacred is radically different from ours, focusing mainly on the basis of their being (Éliade, 1965) (3). As Juliette Pottier clarifies: "For Mesopotamians, humans place and role on earth are based on their cosmological and mythological vision of the universe. Sexuality is ontologically integrated there and has a highly eroticized carnal dimension. It represents in itself a celebration of the act of creation." (4)
Why Start with the Topics of Love and Sexuality?
For the Sumerians, sexuality is at the origin of creation. Eroticism and allusions to sexuality are therefore omnipresent throughout mythology. According to Véronique Grandpierre: "The inhabitants of Mesopotamia do not allow themselves to be constrained by the idea of primordial sin. In Mesopotamia, carnal love has a positive value because it enables procreation." (5)
This acceptance and even this sacralization of the carnal dimension would explain the absence of modesty in the erotic representations and in the descriptions of the hymns and myths. According to Grandpierre, it is the embraces of the divinities that give birth to the spatiotemporal frame of human beings. (5)
The Origin of the Writing
We are used to thinking that prehistory ends with the emergence of writing, and indeed it is with this cultural change that men have initiated history and begun to leave written traces.
Writing in pictorial form emerged 6000 years ago in Mesopotamia and Egypt, almost simultaneously but in different ways. Both Egyptian hieroglyphics and Sumerian pictographs consist of small images that are completely unique to their region. From 5700 BP onwards, the stylized forms disappear and are replaced by cuneiform scripts. By cutting their calamus (a type of pen) at an angle, the 'nail-shaped' impressions from which the name cuneiform is derived are imprinted into the clay, forming the first non-figurative writing system we speak of today. With the development of a hierarchical social system, the existence of central power and the emergence of religions, writing becomes a real "need". The 'calculus', the ancestor of our bills, is quickly replaced by clay tablets whose format makes it possible to indicate the owner of a good as well as to make an inventory of all goods.
"In order to write more quickly, the Sumerians turn their first graphic system upside down: they go from pictograms to cuneiform characters, from awls to beveled reeds, avoiding curves and changing the orientation of the tablets."
Roland Barthes, 1978 (1).
Sumerian writing consists of about 600 characters. These non-figurative signs evolve towards a sound: phonetics, by associating a series of sounds, make up a word. For example, the image "cat" followed by the image "pot" expresses the word "hat", which may be considered as a precursor of the rebus. To make reading easier, the Sumerians also used determiners to indicate the gender or context of the words used (Dominique Charpin, 2004) (6).
"The origin of writing is thus based on a strange process which consisted in externalizing the organ of speech, in materializing it externally as a thing. In this, writing is no different from other techniques that human has gradually developed."
Isabelle Klock-Fontanille, 2014 (7).
If, as André Leroi-Gourhan noted, tools extend the hand, the arm, the body; these extensions became increasingly complex and powerful. He states: "Man is gradually led to externalize higher and higher faculties." (8)
The Oldest Narrative Texts
If this new technology had led to early writings being used primarily as account books or inventories, people soon used this new medium of communication to tell stories. Literature (from Latin littera, meaning 'letters' and referring to knowledge of the written word) is the written work of a culture, subculture, religion, philosophy, or the study of such a written work, which may appear in poetry or prose. In the West, literature originated in the Southern Mesopotamian region of Sumer (c. 3200) in the city of Uruk and flourished in Egypt, later in Greece (where the written word was introduced by the Phoenicians), and from there in Rome (Joshua J. Mark, 2009). (9)
The oldest known narrative texts date back all the way back to the middle of the 3rd millennium BC-AD (c. 2600-2500 BC). From this period, a number of literary genres had developed and survived until the disappearance of cuneiform writing at the beginning of our modern era. These various genres, some of which are specific to this culture, include myths and epics, hymns and songs, historical chronicles, and texts of wisdom (Christopher E. Woods, 2010). (10)
The First Known Author
The first author of literature in the world was the high priestess of Ur, Enheduanna, "En-khedu-anna ",
(2285-2250 B.C.), daughter of Sargon the Princess of Akkad, to whom we shall refer in more detail in the second part of the series.
The main theme that the first author has used in her hymns was an honour that had been dedicated to the Sumerian goddess Inanna. Her text has become a focus of Assyriological and feminist research (11) as the feminist philosophy began to influence Assyriology, most notably in Wolkstein & Kramer's book Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth; Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer (1983) along with other notable works that transpose the stories to our modern world (12).
The First Known Poem in History
Most of the early writings are poems and hymns, but according to Samuel Noah Kramer there are a few lyrical poems as well. (13) For an introduction to Mesopotamian literature and the subject of love, sex, and pleasure, we have decided to end our discussion with the "first love poem" in history.
The 4,000-year-old poem, "Istanbul #2461", is inscribed on an ancient clay tablet discovered by archaeologists in the late 19th century at Nippur in Southern Iraq. If the name seems stern, it is because archivists at the Museum of the Ancient Near East in Istanbul, unable to decipher the tablet at the time, kept it in a drawer and gave it this number.
It was only after its rediscovery and its translation in 1951 by Samuel Noah Kramer, the tablet was given the full name of "The Love Song for Shu-Sin" since it was thought to had been written for the wife of the Sumerian king Shu-Sin who reigned between 2037 and 2029 BC. (13)
According to Samuel Noah Kramer, the poem is not only a secular love poem, but part of a very ancient Sumerian sacred rite, the "sacred marriage," in which the king symbolically married the goddess Inanna, mated with her, and thus ensured the fertility of the land and the prosperity of the country for the coming year. (13)
Bridegroom, dear to my heart,
Goodly is you beauty, honeysweet,
Lion, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet.
You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you.
Bridegroom, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber,
You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you.
Lion, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber.
Bridegroom, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savoury than honey,
In the bedchamber, honey-filled,
Let me enjoy your goodly beauty,
Lion, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savoury than honey.
Bridegroom, you have taken your pleasure of me,
Tell my mother, she will give you delicacies,
My father, he will give you gifts.
Your spirit, I know where to cheer your spirit,
Bridegroom, sleep in our house until dawn,
Your heart, I know where to gladden your heart,
Lion, sleep in our house until dawn.
Istanbul #2461, "The Love Song for Shu-Sin".
Barthes, Roland. "Leçon". OC, t. V, op. cit., p. 434. 1978.
Joannès, Francis., Michel, Cécile., et Bachelot, Lac. Dictionnaire de la civilisation mésopotamienne. Paris, R. Laffont. 2001.
Eliade, Mircea. Le sacré et le profane. Paris, Gallimard, 1965, 187 p. 3 F. (Idées, 76) . 2.
Pottier, Juliette. "Danse, Sacré et érotisme : étude anthropocosmogonique des pratiques de mouvement en Mésopotamie." Université de Quebec à Montréal, 2018. <https://archipel.uqam.ca/11909/>
Grandpierre, Véronique. Sexe et amour de Sumer à Babylone. Paris: Gallimard. 2012
Charpin, Dominique. "Lire et écrire en Mésopotamie : une affaire de spécialistes?" In: Comptes rendus des séances de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 148ᵉ année, N. 1, 2004. pp. 481-508.
Klock-Fontanille, Isabelle. "Penser l'écriture : corps, supports et pratiques ", Communication & langages, vol. 182, no. 4, 2014, pp. 29-43
Leroi-Gourhan, André. Le geste et la parole. La mémoire et les rythmes. Paris, Albin Michel, 1965, p. 67
Mark, Joshua. "Literature.", World History Encyclopedia, 02 Sep 2009. Web. 10 Oct 2021.
Woods, Christopher E. Visible Language: Inventions on Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond. Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2010.
Curthoys, Ann, and John Docker. Is History Fiction? University of New South Wales Press, 2010.
Wolkstein, Diane, Kramer, Samuel Noah. Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. 1983.
Kramer, Samuel Noah. History Begins at Sumer. London. Thames & Hudson, 1958.