Ancient History & Civilisation

4. Religion and Morality

The Sumerian Pantheon—The food of the gods—Mythology—Education—A Sumerian prayer—Temple prostitutes—The rights of woman—Sumerian cosmetics

King Ur-engur proclaimed his code of laws in the name of the great god Shamash, for government had so soon discovered the political utility of heaven. Having been found useful, the gods became innumerable; every city and state, every human activity, had some inspiring and disciplinary divinity. Sun-worship, doubtless already old when Sumeria began, expressed itself in the cult of Shamash, “light of the gods,” who passed the night in the depths of the north, until Dawn opened its gates for him; then he mounted the sky like a flame, driving his chariot over the steeps of the firmament; the sun was merely a wheel of his fiery car.39 Nippur built great temples to the god Enlil and his consort Ninlil; Uruk worshiped especially the virgin earth-goddess Innini, known to the Semites of Akkad as Ishtar—the loose and versatile Aphrodite-Demeter of the Near East. Kish and Lagash worshiped a Mater Dolorosa, the sorrowful mother-goddess Ninkarsag, who, grieved with the unhappiness of men, interceded for them with sterner deities.40 Ningirsu was the god of irrigation, the “Lord of Floods”; Abu or Tammuz was the god of vegetation. Even Sin was a god—of the moon; he was represented in human form with a thin crescent about his head, presaging the halos of medieval saints. The air was full of spirits—beneficent angels, one each as protector to every Sumerian, and demons or devils who sought to expel the protective deity and take possession of body and soul.

Most of the gods lived in the temples, where they were provided by the faithful with revenue, food and wives. The tablets of Gudea list the objects which the gods preferred: oxen, goats, sheep, doves, chickens, ducks, fish, dates, figs, cucumbers, butter, oil and cakes;41 we may judge from this list that the well-to-do Sumerian enjoyed a plentiful cuisine. Originally, it seems, the gods preferred human flesh; but as human morality improved they had to be content with animals. A liturgical tablet found in the Sumerian ruins says, with strange theological premonitions: “The lamb is the substitute for humanity; he hath given up a lamb for his life.”42 Enriched by such beneficence, the priests became the wealthiest and most powerful class in the Sumerian cities. In most matters they were the government; it is difficult to make out to what extent the patesi was a priest, and to what extent a king. Urukagina rose like a Luther against the exactions of the clergy, denounced them for their voracity, accused them of taking bribes in their administration of the law, and charged that they were levying such taxes upon farmers and fishermen as to rob them of the fruits of their toil. He swept the courts clear for a time of these corrupt officials, and established laws regulating the taxes and fees paid to the temples, protecting the helpless against extortion, and providing against the violent alienation of funds or property.43 Already the world was old, and well established in its time-honored ways.

Presumably the priests recovered their power when Urukagina died, quite as they were to recover their power in Egypt after the passing of Ikhnaton; men will pay any price for mythology. Even in this early age the great myths of religion were taking form. Since food and tools were placed in the graves with the dead, we may presume that the Sumerians believed in an after-life.44 But like the Greeks they pictured the other world as a dark abode of miserable shadows, to which all the dead descended indiscriminately. They had not yet conceived heaven and hell, eternal reward and punishment; they offered prayer and sacrifice not for “eternal life,” but for tangible advantages here on the earth.45 Later legend told how Adapa, a sage of Eridu, had been initiated into all lore by Ea, goddess of wisdom; one secret only had been refused him—the knowledge of deathless life.46 Another legend narrated how the gods had created man happy; how man, by his free will, had sinned, and been punished with a flood, from which but one man—Tagtug the weaver—had survived. Tag-tug forfeited longevity and health by eating the fruit of a forbidden tree.47

The priests transmitted education as well as mythology, and doubtless sought to teach, as well as to rule, by their myths. To most of the temples were attached schools wherein the clergy instructed boys and girls in writing and arithmetic, formed their habits into patriotism and piety, and prepared some of them for the high professsion of scribe. School tablets survive, encrusted with tables of multiplication and division, square and cube roots, and exercises in applied geometry.48 That the instruction was not much more foolish than that which is given to our children appears from a tablet which is a Lucretian outline of anthropology: “Mankind when created did not know of bread for eating or garments for wearing. The people walked with limbs on the ground, they ate herbs with their mouths like sheep, they drank ditch-water.”49

What nobility of spirit and utterance this first of the historic religions could rise to shines out in the prayer of King Gudea to the goddess Bau, the patron deity of Lagash:

O my Queen, the Mother who established Lagash,

The people on whom thou lookest is rich in power;

The worshiper on whom thou lookest, his life is prolonged.

I have no mother—thou art my mother;

I have no father—thou art my father. . . .

My goddess Bau, thou knowest what is good;

Thou hast given me the breath of life.

Under the protection of thee, my Mother,

In thy shadow I will reverently dwell.50

Women were attached to every temple, some as domestics, some as concubines for the gods or their duly constituted representatives on earth. To serve the temples in this way did not seem any disgrace to a Sumerian girl; her father was proud to devote her charms to the alleviation of divine monotony, and celebrated the admission of his daughter to these sacred functions with ceremonial sacrifice, and the presentation of the girl’s marriage dowry to the temple.51

Marriage was already a complex institution regulated by many laws. The bride kept control of the dowry given her by her father in marriage, and though she held it jointly with her husband, she alone determined its bequest. She exercised equal rights with her husband over their children; and in the absence of the husband and a grown-up son she administered the estate as well as the home. She could engage in business independently of her husband, and could keep or dispose of her own slaves. Sometimes, like Shub-ad, she could rise to the status of queen, and rule her city with luxurious and imperious grace.52 But in all crises the man was lord and master. Under certain conditions he could sell his wife, or hand her over as a slave to pay his debts. The double standard was already in force, as a corollary of property and inheritance: adultery in the man was a forgivable whim, but in the woman it was punished with death. She was expected to give many children to her husband and the state; if barren, she could be divorced without further reason; if merely averse to continuous maternity she was drowned. Children were without legal rights; their parents, by the act of publicly disowning them, secured their banishment from the city.53

Nevertheless, as in most civilizations, the women of the upper classes almost balanced, by their luxury and their privileges, the toil and disabilities of their poorer sisters. Cosmetics and jewelry are prominent in the Sumerian tombs. In Queen Shub-ad’s grave Professor Woolley picked up a little compact of blue-green malachite, golden pins with knobs of lapis-lazuli, and a vanity-case of filigree gold shell. This vanity-case, as large as a little finger, contained a tiny spoon, presumably for scooping up rouge from the compact; a metal stick, perhaps for training the cuticle; and a pair of tweezers probably used to train the eyebrows or to pluck out inopportune hairs. The Queen’s rings were made of gold wire; one ring was inset with segments of lapis-lazuli; her necklace was of fluted lapis and gold. Surely there is nothing new under the sun; and the difference between the first woman and the last could pass through the eye of a needle.

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