Babylonian women and Sumer women had vital and specific roles in ancient Mesopotamia. From sex workers to homemakers to being divine fill-ins possessed by the great goddesses of their time and even having their rights protected and exploited by judicial law.
To the communal and early hunter-gatherer cultures in early Mesopotamia, the role of women was linked to motherhood and homemaking. Women were valued and prized as portals of creation, with mythology and religion at the time being matriarchal.
There are various statues and evidence of polytheistic mother goddesses being worshipped in early Mesopotamia. A famous example is a miniature statue known as the Venus of Willendorf.
There are various statues like this depicting plump women. It was associated with the standard that women had to uphold at the time: fertility and power. Tiamat was an early powerful creatrix, first appearing in the “Enūma Eliš” in the 13th century BCE, a primordial goddess of the sea.
She is depicted as a sea serpent or dragon. This treatment of women is similar to the way women in Sparta, Ancient Greece was valued: their chastity, fertility, and obedience were beauty and the standards for women to uphold.
Yet, this idea of women having a lot of say and power fizzles as the Mesopotamian culture began to form city-states and the patriarchy became apparent and dominant.
Role of Women in Mesopotamia
In the developed and thriving era of Mesopotamia, a woman’s role was defined by her father and her husband. The woman in Mesopotamia was not an autonomous individual. The common and poor women were the property of their fathers, husbands, brothers. Women of wealthy families and royal families had more individuality and independence comparably but were still being boxed into the property of the patriarchy.
Men and women in ancient Mesopotamia were communal and had a strong sense of togetherness and tradition. Women were in charge of the household and making sure to keep the family to the worship standards. They worshipped hearth and fertility goddesses in the home, making offerings and sacrifices to save their lives in order and receiving blessings from these divine.
The Greek historian Herodotus reports controversial Babylonian marriage markets. An auctioneer takes a look at a group of young women and would put them up for sale, their physical appearance and homemaking skills raising their price and values. Women were clearly treated as commodities instead of human beings. To quote Herodotus from “Herodotus’ Histories”:
“I now turn to their customs … Once a year, in every village, they used to collect all the young women who were old enough to be married and take the whole lot of them all at once to a certain place … An auctioneer would get each of the women to stand up one by one, and he would put her up for sale.
He used to start with the most attractive girl there, and then, once she had fetched a good price and been bought, he would go on to auction the next most attractive one. They were being sold to be wives, not slaves.
All the well-off Babylonian men who wanted wives would outbid one another to buy the good-looking young women, while the commoners who wanted wives and were not interested in good looks used to end up with some money as well as the less attractive women.”
The Rights Women in Mesopotamia Had
Hammurabi’s Code is the best source to see how women were treated in the developed eras of Babylon, Sumer, and the like. Out of the 282 written laws, some laws ordered cruel punishments to women who disobeyed the general society and their husbands. Women were not allowed to divorce their husbands, yet men were allowed to divorce any time they wanted. This law gave specific conditions for a woman to divorce her husband as well as to own property.
For example, if a woman’s father or husband were to become sick and she had no brother or son or appointed male in the household, she was able to inherit the land. For inherited family businesses, male children had the option to run and share the business with their sisters. But, in most countries in Mesopotamia, women were not allowed to do these things independently.
The Sumerian country of Mesopotamia was an exception in these cultures for women’s rights. Women were allowed to buy, sell, trade freely in the marketplace, attend juridical and legal assemblies, and worship freely in temples. Though, again, most women were obliged to do household and family duties. If a woman didn’t have a family to keep her or inherit property from, her two options were to become a priestess or a sex worker.
It could be said that women in Mesopotamia, especially Sumer, had a lot more freedom than other cultures of that time. In Sumer, they also had a female ruler around 2600 BC. Her name was Kubaba, and she ruled the city of Kish; she was even deified.
The Prostitute, the Whore of Babylon, and Lilith
In religious centers to deities of lust and power, like Inanna, priests and priestesses would hire prostitutes to service the men and kings who came to participate in fertility rituals. Sometimes these women were given the title of the sacred prostitute.
Some artifacts and statues depict couples, kings, priestesses, and prostitutes engaging in sexual intercourse. The statues will portray a man and woman in a bed, with the woman cupping her breasts.
When women are shown to be cupping their breasts or shown with belts, they are known to be prostitutes. The goddess Inanna was often depicted to be a prostitute as well. She was sculpted in the same positions and with identical signatures as prostitutes.
According to Sumerian Shakespeare, there are seven signs of the prostitute in Mesopotamian, specifically Babylonian, artwork.
- Cupping of the breasts
- Semi-nude with jewelry
- A cloth or leather belt
- A gesture of waving while the freehand cups the breasts
- Scenes of a prostitute in taverns and bars
- Prostitutes in bed with kings or noblemen
- Belly markings
Most prostitutes in Babylon were slaves, adulterers, and women who had no family or were sold by their families. These prostitutes were looked down upon, despite their goddess Inananna being depicted as a prostitute and celebrated. There were clear discriminations between temple prostitutes, being more revered than ordinary prostitutes.
Not every woman in Babylon and Mesopotamia chose prostitution willingly as it was a hard life for them to live. However, to outsiders who were enemies to Mesopotamians, especially the Babylonians, these prostitutes were seen as sinful and disgraceful. In the Bible Book of Revelations chapter 17, the term “Babylon the Great, the mother of harlots,” and more commonly known as “The Whore of Babylon,” emerged.
To quote the Standard King James Version of the Bible:
“And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet color, 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 forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration.”
This Bible passage captured the view of outsiders who didn’t understand the customs and polytheism of Babylon as there is another deity in Mesopotamian history that is seen in negative connotations.
This deity, Lilith, was seen as a rival of Inanna and was commonly evoked in sacred sex rituals in Babylon to ward off negativity from the spirit of Lilith. Lilith in prostitution rituals was also to be echoing the myth that Inanna sent Lilith to grab men from the streets and punish them.
Lilith first appeared in an Akkadian translation of the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” later being depicted in “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld.” Lilith was the spirit who lived in Inanna’s huluppu tree, which Inanna had to remove from her tree so she could ascend to her godhood. Lilith is depicted as an extremely seductive siren-bird. She was known to give women harsh labors and miscarriages and infect women’s breast milk for infants.
By more the Mesopotamian society, women who were disobedient and disloyal to their husbands would be labeled as Liliths or lilas. Adultery and infidelity were punishable by death. Lilith was often labeled onto women who were seen as lowly and evil.
Mesopotamian Women as the Priestess, Sumerian Women, and the Surrogate Goddess
The first author in history was a Sumerian woman named Enheduanna. Enheduanna means “high priestess” in Sumerian. She was the daughter of the Akkadian king Sargon and anointed to the temple of Ur, the moon god.
Enheduanna was an example of being exempt from harsher laws women had. Being the daughter of a king and anointed high priestess, she was expected to have incredible religious, social, and political influence. She wrote devotional poetry to the goddess Inanna, also known as Ishtar, to the Akkadians and Babylonians.
Women like Enheduanna were standards for other priestesses at the time. They were required to be invested in constant adoration, deep devotion, and overseeing temple activities. Priestesses carried out elaborate rituals of love, fertility, and war.
Priests and priestesses were urged to be ornamented in jewelry, headpieces, fabrics, and other accessories that resembled the divine to bring the gods and goddesses to life. Priestesses wore horned crowns, branches, animal bones, flowers, and fruits to be in accordance with the statues and artwork of the divine.
Big, fluffed, and curled hair with plump bodies symbolized fertility and abundance. In portraits and portrait sculptures, the priestess’s uniqueness and likeness to the divine were captured, depicting them with power, authority, and grace.
Priestesses were able to work with cuneiform and learned literacy. A lot of priestesses would write hymns and poems. Enheduanna’s famous works are “The Exaltation of Inanna,” “Inanna and Ebih,” and “A Hymn to Inanna.”
Since women were associated with fertility, priestesses were to engage in sacred fertility rituals. Priestesses were stand-ins for goddesses. These stand-in goddesses would have ritualistic intercourse with kings and noblemen, penning the ceremony as the “Sacred Marriage.”
- Women started as revered and worshipped as mother goddesses.
- Mesopotamian patriarchy became prominent, and women became the property of the males.
- Sumer had more flexible laws for women, even having a female ruler.
- Most women tended to the house and children, promoting traditions and togetherness.
- Women who were royal or a priestess had the most favorable positions as a woman.
- The Whore of Babylon and the legend of Lilith were often applied to Babylonian prostitutes for their gender and sexuality, perceiving them as evil.
Indeed, life as a woman in Mesopotamia and Babylon was difficult. They were seen as property, had minimal freedoms, and their physical sex appeal was the dominant factoring force of their worth.
Much has changed in today’s society as women have freedom, independence, individuality and are not legally seen as men’s property. Society has come a long way, gaining and leaving behind different values and traditions in the process.