The 4,000-Year-Old Sumerian Love Poem and the Sacred Ritual of Marriage
'Bridegroom, dear to my heart; goodly is your beauty, honeysweet; lion, dear to my heart'. These are the passionate words of a lover to a king, from more than 4,000 years ago, in the oldest known love poem ever found.
The loving words were passed down over generations, eventually inscribed on an 8 th century BC Sumerian cuneiform tablet small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand. It was uncovered in the 1880s in Nippur, a region in what is now Iraq, and has been held by The Istanbul Museum of the Ancient Orient ever since.
Historians say the words were recited by a bride of Sumerian King Shu-Sin, fourth ruler of the Third Dynasty of Ur, who reigned between 2037 and 2029 BC, and used as a script for a ceremonial recreation of the sacred marriage. It would have been sung at the New Year festival, and at banquets and festivals accompanied by music and dance.
Uruk Vase, with procession of naked priests carrying gifts to Inanna's shrine. Inanna greeting them at its door marked by her gateposts. Alabaster. 3'. Uruk, Mesopotamia. Fourth millennium BCE. Credit: S. Beaulieu
The full translation of the poem is as follows:
Bridegroom, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet,
Lion, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet.
Bridegroom, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey,
In the bedchamber, honey-filled,
Let me enjoy your goodly beauty,
Lion, let me caress you.
My precious caress is more savory than honey.
Bridegroom, you have taken your pleasure of me,
Tell my mother, she will give you delicacies,
My father, he will give you gifts.
You, because you love me,
Give me pray of your caresses,
My lord god, my lord protector,
My SHU-SIN, who gladdens ENLIL's heart,
Give my pray of your caresses
According to the Sumerian belief, it was a sacred duty for the king to marry a priestess every year in order to make the soil and women fertile. The ritual of sacred marriage involved the re-enactment of the union of two deities, usually Inanna/Ishtar and Dumuzi/Tammuz. Thus, the priestess represented Inanna, the goddess of fertility and sexual love, while the king represented Dumuzi, on the eve of their union.
J. Stuckey (2005) describes the ritual of the sacred marriage:
From extant hymns, we can piece together what happened in the ritual. First, Inanna was bathed, perfumed, and adorned, while Dumuzi and his retinue processed towards her shrine. The famous Uruk vase may represent this procession. All the while, temple personnel sang love songs, many of which are extant. Resplendent Inanna greeted Dumuzi at the door, which, on the Uruk vase, is flanked by her signature standards (gateposts), and there he presented her with sumptuous gifts. Subsequently, the pair seated themselves on thrones, although sometimes the enthronement took place only after sexual consummation. The deities entered a chamber fragrant with spices and decorated with costly draperies. Lying down on a ceremonial bed constructed for the occasion, they united in sexual intercourse. Afterwards, pleased by and with her lover, Inanna decreed long life and sovereignty for him and fertility and prosperity for the land.
Muazzez Hilmiye Cig, a retired historian at the Museum, who worked with Professor Samuel Noah Kramer in 1951 to identify and translate the text, explained that the Sumerians “believed that only love and passion could bring them fertility, and therefore praised pleasures”.
In the agriculture-based Sumerian community, she said, lovemaking between the king and the priestess would have been seen as a way to ensure the fertility of their crops, and therefore the community's welfare, for another year.