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Marriage in Ancient Days Love Sex, and Mesopotamia. And the model days and how the world has changed

Medical texts from ancient Mesopotamia provide prescriptions and practices for curing all manner of ailments, wounds, and diseases. There was one malady, however, which had no cure: passionate love. From a medical text found in Ashurbanipal's library at Nineveh comes this passage:

Babylonian Marriage Market by Edwin Long, 1875 CE, Royal Holloway College, London.

When the patient is continually clearing his throat; is often lost for words; is always talking were supposed to keep a young couple on the desired path toward marriage and prevent them from engaging in romances under the stars. Once the couple was properly married, they were expected to produce children quickly. Sex was considered just another aspect of one's life and there was none of the modern-day embarrassment, shyness, or taboo involved in Mesopotamians' sex lives. Bottero states that “Homosexual love could be enjoyed” without fear of social stigma and texts mention men “preferring to take the female role” in sex. Further, he writes, “Various unusual positions could be adopted: `standing'; `on a chair'; `across the bed or the partner'; taking her from behind or even `sodomizing her' and sodomy, defined as anal intercourse, was a common form of contraceptive (101). He further notes:

it could happen that an eccentric setting was chosen…instead of keeping to your favorite place, the bedroom. You might take it into your head to `make love on the roof terrace of the house'; or `on the threshold of the door'; or `right in the middle of a field or orchard', or `in some deserted place'; or `a no through road'; or even `in the middle of the street', either with just any woman on whom you had `pounced' or with a prostitute. (Bottero, 100)

Erotic Plaque

by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin (CC BY-NC-SA)

Bottero further points out:

Making love was a natural activity, as culturally ennobled as the food was elevated by cuisine. Why on earth should one feel demeaned or diminished, or guilty in the eyes of the gods, practicing it in whatever way one pleased, always provided that no third party was harmed or that one was not infringing any of the customary prohibitions which controlled daily life. (97)

This is not to say that Mesopotamians never had affairs or were never unfaithful to their spouses. There is plenty of textual evidence which shows that they did and they were. However, as Bottero notes, “When discovered, these crimes were severely punished by the judges, including the use of the death penalty: those of men in so far as they did serious wrong to a third party; those of women because, even when secret, they could harm the cohesion of the family” (93). Bottero continues:

In Mesopotamia, amorous impulses and capabilities had traditionally been channeled by collective constraints with the aim of ensuring the security of what was held to be the very nucleus of the social body – the family – and thus to provide for its continuity. The fundamental vocation of every man and woman, his or her `destiny', as they said, referring matters to a radical wish on the part of the gods, was therefore marriage. And [as it is written in an ancient text] `the young man who has stayed solitary…having taken no wife, or raised children, and the young woman who has not been either deflowered, or impregnated, and of whom no husband has undone the clasp of her garment and put aside her robe, to embrace her and make her enjoy pleasure until her breasts swell with milk and she has become a mother' were looked upon as marginal, doomed to languish in an unhappy existence. (92)

Procreation as the Goal of Marriage

Children were the natural and greatly desired, consequence of marriage. Childlessness was considered a great misfortune and a man could take a second wife if the bride proved infertile. Bottero writes:

Once settled in her new status, all the jurisprudence shows us the wife entirely under the authority of her husband, and social constraints – giving the husband free rein – were not kind to her. In the first place, although monogamy was common, every man – according to his whims, needs, and resources – could add one or more `second wives, or rather, concubines, to the first wife. (115)

The first wife was often consulted in choosing the second wives, and it was her responsibility to make sure they fulfilled the duties for which they had been chosen. If a concubine had been added to the home because the first wife could not have children, the concubine's offspring would become the children of the first wife and would be able to inherit and carry on the family name.

As the primary purpose of marriage, as far as society was concerned, was to produce children, a man could add as many concubines to his home as he could afford. The continuation of the family line was most important and so concubines were fairly common in cases where the wife was ill, in generally poor health, or infertile.

A man could not divorce his wife because of her state of health, however; he would continue to honor her as the first wife until she died. Under these circumstances, the concubine would become first wife upon the wife's death and, if there were other women in the house, they would each move up one position in the home's hierarchy.

Queen of the Night Plaque

by Davide Ferro (CC BY)

Divorce & Infidelity

Divorce carried a serious social stigma and was not common. Most people married for life even if that marriage was not a happy one. Inscriptions record women running away from their husbands to sleep with other men. If caught in the act, the woman could be thrown into the river to drown, along with her lover, or could be impaled; both parties had to be spared or executed. Hammurabi's Code states, “If, however, the owner of the wife wishes to keep her alive, the king will equally pardon the woman's lover.”

Divorce was commonly initiated by the husband, but wives were allowed to divorce their mates if there was evidence of abuse or neglect. A husband could divorce his wife if she proved to be infertile but, as he would then have to return her dowry, he was more likely to add a concubine to the family. It never seems to have occurred to the people of the time that the male could be to blame for a childless marriage; the fault was always ascribed to the woman. A husband could also divorce his wife on grounds of adultery or neglect of the home but, again, would have to return her property and also suffer the stigma of divorce. Both parties seem to have commonly chosen to make the best of the situation even if it was not optimal. Bottero writes:

As for the married woman, provided she had a little `guts' and knew how to make use of her charms, employing all her guile, she was no less capable of making her husband toe the line. A divinatory oracle mentions a woman made pregnant by a third party who ceaselessly implores the goddess of love, Ishtar, repeating: `Please let the child look like my husband!' [and] we are told of women who left their home and husband to go gallivanting not just once, but two, three…as many as eight times, some returning later, crestfallen, or never coming back at all. (120)

Women abandoning their families was uncommon but happened enough to have been written about. A woman traveling alone to another region or city to begin a new life, unless she was a prostitute, was rare but did occur and seems to have been an option taken by women who found themselves in an unhappy marriage who chose not to suffer the disgrace of a public divorce.

Since divorce favored the man, “if a woman expressed the desire to divorce, she could be thrown out of her husband's home penniless and naked” (Nemet-Nejat, 140). The man was the head of the household and the supreme authority, and a woman had to prove conclusively that her husband had failed to uphold his end of the marriage contract in order to obtain a divorce.

Even so, it should be noted that a majority of the myths of ancient Mesopotamia, especially the most popular myths (such as The Descent of Inanna, Inanna and the Huluppu Tree, Ereshkigal and Nergal) portray women in a very flattering light and, often, as having an advantage over men. While males were recognized as the authority in both government and in the home, women could own their own land and businesses, buy and sell slaves, and initiate divorce proceedings.

Bottero cites evidence (such as the myths mentioned above and business contracts) which show women in Sumer enjoying greater freedoms than women after the rise of the Akkadian Empire (c. 2334). After the influence of Akkad, he writes, "if women in ancient Mesopotamia, even though regarded at all levels as inferior to men and treated as such, nevertheless seem to have enjoyed also consideration, rights, and freedoms, it is perhaps one of the distant results and vestiges of the old and mysterious Sumerian culture" (126). This culture remained prevalent enough, throughout the history of Mesopotamia, to allow a woman the freedom to escape from an unhappy homelife and travel to another city or region to begin a new one.

Living Happily Ever After

Throughout all of the difficulties and legalities of marriage in Mesopotamia, however, then as now, there were many happy couples who lived together for life and enjoyed their children and grandchildren. In addition to the love poems mentioned above, letters, inscriptions, paintings, and sculptures attest to genuine affection between couples, no matter how their marriage may have been arranged. The letters between Zimri-Lim, King of Mari, and his wife Shiptu are especially touching in that it is clear how much they cared for, trusted, and relied on each other. Nemet-Nejat writes, “Happy marriages flourished in ancient times; a Sumerian proverb mentions a husband boasting that his wife had borne him eight sons and was still ready to make love” (132), and Bertman describes a Sumerian statue of a seated couple, from 2700 BCE, thusly:

An elderly Sumerian couple sit side by side fused by sculpture into a single piece of gypsum rock; his right arm wrapped around her shoulder, his left hand tenderly clasping her right, their large eyes looking straight ahead to the future, their aged hearts remembering the past. (280)

Although the customs of the Mesopotamians may seem strange, or even cruel, to a modern-day western mind, the people of the ancient world were no different from those living today. Many modern marriages, begun with great promise, end badly, while many others, which initially struggle, endure for a lifetime. The practices which begin such unions are not as important as what the individuals involved make of their time together and, in Mesopotamia as in the present, marriage presented many challenges which a couple either overcame or succumbed to.


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