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In her work, Barbara Lesko recounts details from the region held by the Sumerians.  

from http://www.fsmitha.com/h1/map01mes.htm

The Sumerians, she explains, arrived in the lower Tigris and Euphrates valleys around the second half of the fourth millennium and fused with the aboriginal inhabitants. Their society was structured into city-states which centered around a temple dedicated to a local deity.  Industry arose surrounding these temples to provide for the citizens.  The leadership of these city-states was held by the priests and priestesses of the god or goddess of the city-state. In the early era, both men and women could have ritual roles in the worship of the deity or outside occupations.   

Lesko believes that two things happened to change this relatively equal status. First, private property developed, which caused families to become dedicated to monetary pursuits.  Once this happened, Sumerians formulated law codes to govern marriage, and marriage itself became contractual. Second, she believes, there began to be increasing pressure from bordering societies.  War became more common, and the clans seemed to unite somewhat under male leadership, which when united with the concept of private property put more power and wealth in the hands of the kings, who began to raise their own private armies of trained male warriors. Women, then, seem to be relegated to possessions that need to be protected along with property.

The myths of the culture show this change, she explains. The religion of the early Sumerians seemed to value or honor women, as well.  In the beginning, a female deity, Nammu, created the gods and the universe and was, accordingly the highest-ranking deity.  However, once the list of deities was drawn up, her ranking was decreased, and her son Enki was assigned the functions formerly ascribed to her. Another female deity of the culture with much respect was Inanna, the “queen of heaven,” who was the personification of female sexuality, who was involved in the annual sacred marriage rite the ruler participated in to ensure the ongoing fertility of nature and the continuance of the human race. The first known female poet, a Sumerian priestess named Enheduanna, composes "Exaltation of Inanna," a hymn to the Great Goddess.

Lesko explains that the Sumerians as a cultural group disappeared early in the second millennium after famine and invasion. 



Lesko shifts from Sumer to the Amorite peoples, largely dependent upon livestock breeding and trading, a male-associated profession, who took over the region.  In Assyria, she explains, misogyny borne out of a “patriarchy in the extreme” seems to be the rule of gender relations. Assyrians, unlike the Egyptians, expressed little or no faith in an afterlife; their law code then is extremely harsh as all penalties for improper behavior cannot be left for the “next” life.

from http://www.utexas.edu/courses/classicalarch/images1/mapANEprecip.jpg

Private property was extremely important, and women had no right to property.  Their fathers or their husbands controlled everything. A husband could give property his wife brought into their marriage to anyone at anytime. However, a woman could still be held responsible for her husband’s debts, and daughters could actually be enslaved for their father’s debts.

Lesko then goes on to explain some aspects of the culture which seem very cruel to women by modern American standards. Women who were victims of crime, she notes, usually suffered at the hands of justice.  A virgin who was raped by a man would be made to marry him, perhaps because he had claimed her only asset or perhaps because the rape was seen as being her fault. A rapist was punished by having his own wife raped by the victim’s father; the rapist of a married woman was put to death. Along with these instances of “justice,” Leko explains that female sexuality was intensely regulated.  As the descent was patrilineal, legitimacy was guaranteed by restricting women.  Virginity was prized for brides, and women needed to be veiled when in public.  Even queens were highly restricted, guarded by eunuchs along with their husbands’ concubines in the kings’ harems. Many offenses under the law code could result in a woman’s death, such as abortion, adultery, or “suspicious” activities outside the home.  

Even in this extremely patriarchal culture there is evidence that some noble woman could wield some power. Queen Sammuramat, or Semiramis, ruled the Assyrian Empire for five years following her husband's death, from 811-817 B. C. E.. Although she was officially her son's regent, records indicate that she held the actual power during that time.

As we will see with our study of the earliest creation myths across several societies, a pattern seems to emerge in ancient history: that of a creative mother goddess or a creative male/female deity pair that, over time and corresponding to the development and entrenchment of patriarchy, gets replaced with a male creative deity/deities.


Most text excerpted from:

Lesko, Barbara S. “Women of Egypt and the Ancient Near East.” Becoming Visible:
    Women in European History. Eds. Renate Bridenthal et al. Geneva, Illinois:
        Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987. 41-77.

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Contact Kimberly M. Radek, the instructor of Women in Ancient Cultures, at Kimberly_Radek@ivcc.edu

This page was last updated on 01 February 2008 . Copyright Kimberly M. Radek, 2001.