Though its gift of writing made possible
the recording of history, Sumer itself was lost to history. The
successors in Mesopotamia
- Babylonia and Assyria - have long
been familiar through the chronicles of the Near East, notably
as the hated conquerors of the Hebrews of the
Old Testament. It
was a century ago, after the decipherment of cuneiform writing,
did the Sumerians emerge, distinguished by a language far
from the Semitic tongues of the Babylonians.
Each Sumerian city had its main god or goddess who dwelt in a temple. The deity's image was fed, clothed, and anointed daily. It enjoyed music with its meals, sometimes went hunting in its game park, and entertained visiting gods from out of town.
The city ruler had priestly duties; among his many burdens was that of discerning the divine will. Gudea, ruler of Lagash, dreamed that the god Ningirsu wanted a new temple. Gudea checked with a dream interpreter, then rechecked by reading the liver of a freshly slaughtered kid. Divination was part of the fabric of life; scribes compiled numerous how-to-tablets. Other method of seeing the future included studying the patterns of oil on water, or the patterns of smoke rising; or reading omens in dice or lots, or in arrows thrown onto the ground.
After 2400 BC the city-states of Lagash and Umma battled over a border area. Umma, lying upstream, interrupted the supply of water. Lagash parried by cutting a canal from the Tigris. The rich gush of water lured Sumer into over-irrigation. The briny water table rose. By 2100, crop yields declined by half; wheat cultivation was all but abandoned, replaced by more salt-tolerant barley. Salt played an important part in the breakup of Sumerian civilization.
The earliest evidence from Sumeria reveals a culture which accorded women equal status with men, and which principally venerated Istar, lunar goddess of life and love, named the Whore of Babylon in the Bible.
Right, A Phoenician ivory plaque of Istar
Left, A Babylonian alabaster of Ishtar
Ishtar's sacred harlots belonged to an organized hierarchy, painstakingly recorded by the Babylonians. In addition to the activities of the sacred temple whores, there were sacramental sexual initiations as well. The Greek historian Herodotus (3 BC) tells us: 'Babylonian custom compels every woman of the land once in her life to sit in the temple of love and have intercourse with some stranger...the men pass and make their choice. It matters not what will be the sum of money; the woman will never refuse, for that were a sin, the money by this act made sacred. After their intercourse she has made herself holy in the sight of the goddess and goes away to her home; and there after there is no bribe however great that will get her. So then the women that are tall and fair are soon free to depart, but the uncomely have long to wait because they cannot fulfill the law; for some of them remain for three years or four. There is a custom like this in some parts of Cyprus."
Many of these women returned home to marry and have children.
Later Sumerian texts, however, advised against marrying a
temple prostitute since she would be too independent, besides
being accustomed to accepting other men, she would make an
New Sumerian Tablets Discovered
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