The Ancient Near East
Civilizations of Mesopotamia
The chief civilizations; Sumeria: city states often at war with one another, Babylonia and Assyria. 3rd
and 2rd millennia BCE
Spoke different languages, wrote the same general way
o Cuneiform: generally on clay, written with wedge shape stylus. Lots about women
Law codes: govern marriage, treatment of women, expectations, responsibilities of women.
o Sumerian laws of Ur-Namma of Ur (2100 BCE).
o Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (1750 BCE)
o Epic of Gilgamesh: Sumerian in origin, becomes generalized near eastern epic. Can see ideas
Private letters and other documents
Greeks did not write letters in same way, not a lot of private documentation from classical
Greece. Letters by women, about women, to women, marriage contracts
Art and artefacts
o Belonging to women, art that portrays women
Goddesses and Royalty
Women elevated to positions of importance, not hidden from public life
We know lots more about women at the top
People tend to think of certain qualities as being associated with female deities like sexuality and
fertility and love
Innana/Ishtar (Sumerian/Babylonian, Assyrian)
o Chief goddess, most important goddess
o Portrayed naked
o Surrounded by symbols of power: standing on two lions (power of natural world and goddess
o Looks part animal, has wings and bird feet
o Depiction of fertile female - Venus figurines. Able to identify as a particular goddess at this
o Goddess of fertility, sexuality, love. Associated with Mesopotamian myth of the dying god.
Deity that undergoes a form of death and is then resurrected. Persephone is the closest Greek
example (symbolic death by inhabiting the underworld), is a myth of vegetation. Cycle of
fertility and growth in natural world is embodied in deities.
o Innana's Journey to Hell (Sumerian): decides she will descend to the underworld, must pass
through several gates and give up a piece of clothing at each gate. By the time she gets to the
ruler of the dead she is naked, and is then turned into a rotten piece of meat being hung on a wall. Ends up being rescued, resurrected, and brought back to the upper world. Important
belief for people who rely on agriculture - main form of life, health and growth of natural
world is important.
Ereshkigal is the ruler of the dead and Innana's sister. Female deities tend to be associated
with death, women care for the dead, tend to the dead, mourn the dead. Symbolic level:
extension of life cycle; female deities associated with fertility and birth, would also be
associated with death. Greek: Hades and Persephone, important that he has his wife. Difficult
to find portrayals of the rulers of the dead (Hades).
o Lots of ancient lit on goddesses
Innana/Ishtar as Goddess of war
Presence of lion: power, mastery, ruler of beasts
o Greek culture: tends to separate aspects of sexuality and fertility with war, Aphrodite and
Athena. Sometimes Aphrodite is depicted in armour.
o Paradox of love and savagery, suggests psychological stereotyping
Spurned by hero Gilgamesh: Gilgamesh rejects her and humiliates her by reciting past lovers
and their ends. Demands Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh destroys the Bull of
Heaven. Illustration of ambivalence about a deity like this and about sexuality
o Known as a "Woman of the Palace"
o Roles: produce male heirs, marriage alliances (other kingdoms and cities), emergency
matrilineality (includes non royal people)
Not a lot known about individual royal women, better informed concerning Egypt.
o A few examples of ruling women
Kubaba of Kish: barmaid, said to have strengthened the foundation of Kish, "became
king and ruled for 100 years". Devoted to god Marduk, gave him gifts, so he chose her to
become king. 2500 BCE. Difficult to establish validity, highly mythologized, over time she
obtained characteristics of a goddess; possibility that she was always a goddess. !!The
fact that she became king: no ruling position for women, in order to rule she must be a
Sammu-ramat: more securely historical. Wife of Assyrian king Shamshi Adad V (824-810
BCE), mother of Adad Nirari III. May have acted as regent for her son, not historically
remarkable. Inspired powerful and long lasting Greek myth of Semiramis (5th century
BC); beautiful, power, and licentious. Is given a heroic life in Diodorus, child of goddess
and mortal, abandoned at birth, taken in by a shepherd (classic hero story), becomes
powerful ruler. (