Love, Sex, and Marriage in Ancient Mesopotamia

Love, Sex, and Marriage in Ancient Mesopotamia


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Medical texts from ancient Mesopotamia provide prescriptions and practices for curing all manner of ailments, wounds, and diseases. There was one malady, however, which had no cure: passionate love. From a medical text found in Ashurbanipal's library at Nineveh comes this passage:

When the patient is continually clearing his throat; is often lost for words; is always talking to himself when he is quite alone, and laughing for no reason in the corners of fields, is habitually depressed, his throat tight, finds no pleasure in eating or drinking, endlessly repeating, with great sighs, `Ah, my poor heart!' – he is suffering from lovesickness. For a man and for a woman, it is all one and the same. (Bottero, 102-103)

Marriage in ancient Mesopotamia was of vital importance to the society, literally, because it ensured the continuation of the family line and provided social stability. Arranged marriages were the norm, in which the couple had often never met, and - according to Herodotus - there were even bridal auctions where women were sold to the highest bidder, but human relationships in ancient Mesopotamia were just as complex and layered as those today and part of that complexity was the emotion of love. The historian Karen Nemet-Nejat notes, “Like people the world over and throughout time, ancient Mesopotamians fell deeply in love” (132).

The popularity of what, today, would be called `love songs' also attests to the commonality of deep romantic attachment between couples. A few of the titles of these poems illustrate this:

`Sleep, begone! I want to hold my darling in my arms!'

`When you speak to me, you make my heart swell till I could die!'

`I did not close my eyes last night; Yes, I was awake all night long, my darling [thinking of you].' (Bottero, 106)

There are also poems, such as an Akkadian composition from c. 1750 BCE, which depicts two lovers arguing because the woman feels the man is attracted to another and he must convince her that she is the only one for him. In the end, after they have discussed the problem, the couple reconciles and it is made clear that they will now live happily ever after together.

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The Business of Marriage

Contrasted with romantic love and a couple sharing their lives together, however, is the `business side' of marriage and sex. Herodotus reports that every woman, at least once in her lifetime, had to sit outside the temple of Ishtar (Inanna) and agree to have sex with whatever stranger chose her. This custom was thought to ensure the fertility and continued prosperity of the community. As a woman's virginity was considered requisite for a marriage, it would seem unlikely that unmarried women would have taken part in this and yet Herodotus states that `every woman' was required to. The practice of sacred prostitution, as Herodotus describes it, has been challenged by many modern-day scholars but his description of the bride auction has not. Herodotus writes:

Once a year in each village the young women eligible to marry were collected all together in one place; while the men stood around them in a circle. Then a herald called up the young women one by one and offered them for sale. He began with the most beautiful. When she was sold for a high price, he offered for sale the one who ranked next in beauty. All of them were then sold to be wives. The richest of the Babylonians who wished to wed bid against each other for the loveliest young women, while the commoners, who were not concerned about beauty, received the uglier women along with monetary compensation…All who liked might come, even from distant villages, and bid for the women. This was the best of all their customs but it has now fallen into disuse. (Histories I: 196)

So while romantic love did play a part in Mesopotamian marriages, it is true that, according to the customs and expectations of Mesopotamian society, marriage was a legal contract between the father of a girl and another man (the groom, as in the case of the bride auction where the groom paid the girl's father the bride-price) or, more commonly, between two families, which functioned as the foundation of a community. Scholar Stephen Bertman comments:

In the language of the Sumerians, the word for `love' was a compound verb that, in its literal sense, meant `to measure the earth,' that is, `to mark off land'. Among both the Sumerians and the Babylonians (and very likely among the Assyrians as well) marriage was fundamentally a business arrangement designed to assure and perpetuate an orderly society. Though there was an inevitable emotional component to marriage, its prime intent in the eyes of the state was not companionship but procreation; not personal happiness in the present but communal continuity for the future. (275-276)

This was, no doubt, the `official' view of marriage and there is no evidence to suggest that a man and woman decided to simply get married on their own (although there is evidence of a couple living together without marrying). Bertman writes:

Every marriage began with a legal contract. Indeed, as Mesopotamian law stated, if a man should marry without having first drawn up and executed a marriage contract, the woman he `marries' would not be his wife…every marriage began not with a joint decision by two people in love but with a negotiation between representatives of two families. (276)

Once the marriage contract was signed in the presence of witnesses, the ceremony could be planned.

The wedding ceremony had to include a feast in order to be considered legitimate. The course of the marriage process had five stages which needed to be observed in order for the couple to be legally married:

  1. The engagement/marriage contract;
  2. Payment of the families of the bride and groom to each other (the dowry and bride-price);
  3. The ceremony/feast;
  4. The bride moving to her father-in-law's home;
  5. Sexual intercourse between the couple with the bride expected to be a virgin on her wedding night and to become pregnant.

If any one of these steps was not performed, or not performed properly (such as the bride not becoming pregnant), the marriage could be invalidated. In the event the bride turned out not to be a virgin, or could not conceive, the groom could return her to her family. He would have to return her dowry to her family but would get back the bride-price his family had paid.

The Engagement

Special attention was paid to the engagement. Bertman notes:

Engagements were serious business in Babylonia, especially for those who might have a change of heart. According to Hammurabi's Code, a suitor who changed his mind would forfeit his entire deposit (betrothal gift) and bride-price. If the prospective father-in-law changed his mind, he had to pay the disappointed suitor double the bride-price. Futhermore, if a rival suitor persuaded the father-in-law to change his mind, not only did the father-in-law have to pay double, but the rival wasn't allowed to marry the daughter. These legal penalties acted as a potent deterrent against changes of heart and a powerful incentive for both responsible decision making and orderly social behavior. (276)

These incentives and penalties were particularly important because young people in Mesopotamia, as young people in the present day, did not always wish to comply with their parents' wishes. A young man or woman might well love someone other than the `best match' chosen by their parents. A poem featuring the goddess Inanna, known for her penchant for `free love' and doing as she pleased, and her lover Dumuzi, is thought to illustrate the problems parents had in guiding their children, daughters in particular, in proper conduct resulting in a happy marriage (although, as Inanna and Dumuzi were a very popular couple in religious and secular literature, it is doubtful that young people interpreted the poem in the same way their parents may have). The scholar Jean Bottero describes the work, pointing out how Inanna was encouraged to marry the successful farmer god Enkimdu but loved the shepherd god Dumuzi and so chose him. Bottero elaborates:

She furtively left the house, like an amorous teenager, to go to meet her beloved beneath the stars, `which sparkled as she did', then to dally beneath his caresses and suddenly wonder, seeing the night advance, how she was going to explain her absence and lateness to her mother: `Let me go! I must go home! Let me go, Dumuzi! I must go in! /What lie shall I tell my mother? /What lie shall I tell my mother Ningal?' And Dumuzi suggests an answer: she will say that her girl companions persuaded her to go with them to listen to music and dance. (109)

The penalties and incentives, then, were supposed to keep a young couple on the desired path toward the marriage and prevent them from engaging in romances under the stars. Once the couple was properly married, they were expected to produce children quickly. Sex was considered just another aspect of one's life and there was none of the modern-day embarrassment, shyness, or taboo involved in Mesopotamians' sex lives. Bottero states that “Homosexual love could be enjoyed” without fear of social stigma and texts mention men “preferring to take the female role” in sex. Further, he writes, “Various unusual positions could be adopted: `standing'; `on a chair'; `across the bed or the partner'; taking her from behind' or even `sodomising her' and sodomy, defined as anal intercourse, was a common form of contraceptive (101). He further notes:

it could happen that an eccentric setting was chosen…instead of keeping to your favourite place, the bedroom. You might take it into your head to `make love on the roof-terrace of the house'; or `on the threshold of the door'; or `right in the middle of a field or orchard', or `in some deserted place'; or `a no through road'; or even `in the middle of the street', either with just any woman on whom you had `pounced' or with a prostitute. (Bottero, 100)

Bottero further points out:

Making love was a natural activity, as culturally ennobled as food was elevated by cuisine. Why on earth should one feel demeaned or diminished, or guilty in the eyes of the gods, practicing it in whatever way one pleased, always provided that no third party was harmed or that one was not infringing any of the customary prohibitions which controlled daily life. (97)

This is not to say that Mesopotamians never had affairs or were never unfaithful to their spouses. There is plenty of textual evidence which shows that they did and they were. However, as Bottero notes, “When discovered, these crimes were severely punished by the judges, including the use of the death penalty: those of men in so far as they did serious wrong to a third party; those of women because, even when secret, they could harm the cohesion of the family” (93). Bottero continues:

In Mesopotamia, amorous impulses and capabilities had traditionally been channeled by collective constraints with the aim of ensuring the security of what was held to be the very nucleus of the social body – the family – and thus to provide for its continuity. The fundamental vocation of every man and woman, his or her `destiny', as they said, referring matters to a radical wish on the part of the gods, was therefore marriage. And [as it is written in an ancient text] `the young man who has stayed solitary…having taken no wife, or raised children, and the young woman who has not been either deflowered, or impregnated, and of whom no husband has undone the clasp of her garment and put aside her robe, to embrace her and make her enjoy pleasure, until her breasts swell with milk and she has become a mother' were looked upon as marginal, doomed to languish in an unhappy existence. (92)

Procreation as the Goal of Marriage

Children were the natural, and greatly desired, consequence of marriage. Childlessness was considered a great misfortune and a man could take a second wife if the bride proved infertile. Bottero writes:

Once settled in her new status, all the jurisprudence shows us the wife entirely under the authority of her husband, and social constraints – giving the husband free rein – were not kind to her. In the first place, although monogamy was common, every man – according to his whims, needs, and resources – could add one or more `second wives', or rather, concubines, to the first wife. (115)

The first wife was often consulted in choosing the second wives, and it was her responsibility to make sure they fulfilled the duties for which they had been chosen. If a concubine had been added to the home because the first wife could not have children, the concubine's offspring would become the children of the first wife and would be able to inherit and carry on the family name.

As the primary purpose of marriage, as far as society was concerned, was to produce children, a man could add as many concubines to his home as he could afford. The continuation of the family line was most important and so concubines were fairly common in cases where the wife was ill, in generally poor health, or infertile.

A man could not divorce his wife because of her state of health, however; he would continue to honor her as the first wife until she died. Under these circumstances, the concubine would become first wife upon the wife's death and, if there were other women in the house, they would each move up one position in the home's hierarchy.

Divorce & Infidelity

Divorce carried a serious social stigma and was not common. Most people married for life even if that marriage was not a happy one. Inscriptions record women running away from their husbands to sleep with other men. If caught in the act, the woman could be thrown into the river to drown, along with her lover, or could be impaled; both parties had to be spared or executed. Hammurabi's Code states, “If, however, the owner of the wife wishes to keep her alive, the king will equally pardon the woman's lover.”

Divorce was commonly initiated by the husband, but wives were allowed to divorce their mates if there was evidence of abuse or neglect. A husband could divorce his wife if she proved to be infertile but, as he would then have to return her dowry, he was more likely to add a concubine to the family. It never seems to have occurred to the people of the time that the male could be to blame for a childless marriage; the fault was always ascribed to the woman. A husband could also divorce his wife on grounds of adultery or neglect of the home but, again, would have to return her property and also suffer the stigma of divorce. Both parties seem to have commonly chosen to make the best of the situation even if it was not optimal. Bottero writes:

As for the married woman, provided she had a little `guts' and knew how to make use of her charms, employing all her guile, she was no less capable of making her husband toe the line. A divinatory oracle mentions a woman made pregnant by a third party who ceaselessly implores the goddess of love, Ishtar, repeating: `Please let the child look like my husband!' [and] we are told of women who left their home and husband to go gallivanting not just once, but two, three…as many as eight times, some returning later, crestfallen, or never coming back at all. (120)

Women abandoning their families was uncommon but happened enough to have been written about. A woman traveling alone to another region or city to begin a new life, unless she was a prostitute, was rare but did occur and seems to have been an option taken by women who found themselves in an unhappy marriage who chose not to suffer the disgrace of a public divorce.

Since divorce favored the man, “if a woman expressed the desire to divorce, she could be thrown out of her husband's home penniless and naked” (Nemet-Nejat, 140). The man was the head of the household and the supreme authority, and a woman had to prove conclusively that her husband had failed to uphold his end of the marriage contract in order to obtain a divorce.

Even so, it should be noted that a majority of the myths of ancient Mesopotamia, especially the most popular myths (such as The Descent of Inanna, Inanna and the Huluppu Tree, Ereshkigal and Nergal) portray women in a very flattering light and, often, as having an advantage over men. While males were recognized as the authority in both government and in the home, women could own their own land and businesses, buy and sell slaves, and initiate divorce proceedings.

Bottero cites evidence (such as the myths mentioned above and business contracts) which show women in Sumer enjoying greater freedoms than women after the rise of the Akkadian Empire (c. 2334). After the influence of Akkad, he writes, "if women in ancient Mesopotamia, even though regarded at all levels as inferior to men and treated as such, nevertheless seem to have enjoyed also consideration, rights, and freedoms, it is perhaps one of the distant results and vestiges of the old and mysterious Sumerian culture" (126). This culture remained prevalent enough, throughout the history of Mesopotamia, to allow a woman the freedom to escape from an unhappy homelife and travel to another city or region to begin a new one.

Living Happily Ever After

Throughout all of the difficulties and legalities of marriage in Mesopotamia, however, then as now, there were many happy couples who lived together for life and enjoyed their children and grandchildren. In addition to the love poems mentioned above, letters, inscriptions, paintings, and sculpture attest to genuine affection between couples, no matter how their marriage may have been arranged. The letters between Zimri-Lim, King of Mari, and his wife Shiptu, are especially touching in that it is clear how much they cared for, trusted, and relied on each other. Nemet-Nejat writes, “Happy marriages flourished in ancient times; a Sumerian proverb mentions a husband boasting that his wife had borne him eight sons and was still ready to make love” (132), and Bertman describes a Sumerian statue of a seated couple, from 2700 BCE, thusly:

An elderly Sumerian couple sit side by side fused by sculpture into a single piece of gypsum rock; his right arm wrapped around her shoulder, his left hand tenderly clasping her right, their large eyes looking straight ahead to the future, their aged hearts remembering the past. (280)

Although the customs of the Mesopotamians may seem strange, or even cruel, to a modern-day western mind, the people of the ancient world were no different from those living today. Many modern marriages, begun with great promise, end badly, while many others, which initially struggle, endure for a lifetime. The practices which begin such unions are not as important as what the individuals involved make of their time together and, in Mesopotamia as in the present, marriage presented many challenges which a couple either overcame or succumbed to.


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In ancient Mesopotamia, sex among the gods shook heaven and earth

The “Burney Relief,” which is believed to represent either Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war, or her older sister Ereshkigal, Queen of the underworld (c. 19th or 18th century BC). Credit: BabelStone

Sexuality was central to life in ancient Mesopotamia, an area of the Ancient Near East often described as the cradle of western civilisation roughly corresponding to modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, and parts of Syria, Iran and Turkey. It was not only so for everyday humans but for kings and even deities.

Mesopotamian deities shared many human experiences, with gods marrying, procreating and sharing households and familial duties. However when love went wrong, the consequences could be dire in both heaven and on earth.

Scholars have observed the similarities between the divine "marriage machine" found in ancient literary works and the historical courtship of mortals, although it is difficult to disentangle the two, most famously in so-called "sacred marriages", which saw Mesopotamian kings marrying deities.

Gods, being immortal and generally of superior status to humans, did not strictly need sexual intercourse for population maintenance, yet the practicalities of the matter seem to have done little to curb their enthusiasm.

Sexual relationships between Mesopotamian deities provided inspiration for a rich variety of narratives. These include Sumerian myths such as Enlil and Ninlil and Enki and Ninhursag, where the complicated sexual interactions between deities was shown to involve trickery, deception and disguise.

In both myths, a male deity adopts a disguise, and then attempts to gain sexual access to the female deity—or to avoid his lover's pursuit. In the first, the goddess Ninlil follows her lover Enlil down into the Underworld, and barters sexual favours for information on Enlil's whereabouts. The provision of a false identity in these myths is used to circumnavigate societal expectations of sex and fidelity.

Sexual betrayal could spell doom not only for errant lovers but for the whole of society. When the Queen of the Underworld, Ereshkigal, is abandoned by her lover, Nergal, she threatens to raise the dead unless he is returned to her, alluding to her right to sexual satiety.

Ancient Sumerian cylinder seal impression showing Dumuzid being tortured in the Underworld by the galla demons. Credit: British Museum

The goddess Ishtar makes the same threat in the face of a romantic rejection from the king of Uruk in the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is interesting to note that both Ishtar and Ereshkigal, who are sisters, use one of the most potent threats at their disposal to address matters of the heart.

The plots of these myths highlight the potential for deceit to create alienation between lovers during courtship. The less-than-smooth course of love in these myths, and their complex use of literary imagery, have drawn scholarly comparisons with the works of Shakespeare.

Ancient authors of Sumerian love poetry, depicting the exploits of divine couples, show a wealth of practical knowledge on the stages of female sexual arousal. It's thought by some scholars that this poetry may have historically had an educational purpose: to teach inexperienced young lovers in ancient Mesopotamia about intercourse. It's also been suggested the texts had religious purposes, or possibly magical potency.

Several texts write of the courtship of a divine couple, Inanna (the Semitic equivalent of Ishtar) and her lover, the shepherd deity Dumuzi. The closeness of the lovers is shown through a sophisticated combination of poetry and sensuousness imagery—perhaps providing an edifying example for this year's Bad Sex in Fiction nominees.

In one of the poems, elements of the female lover's arousal are catalogued, from the increased lubrication of her vulva, to the "trembling" of her climax. The male partner is presented delighting in his partner's physical form, and speaking kindly to her. The feminine perspective on lovemaking is emphasised in the texts through the description of the goddess' erotic fantasies. These fantasies are part of the preparations of the goddess for her union, and perhaps contribute to her sexual satisfaction.

Female and male genitals could be celebrated in poetry, the presence of dark pubic hair on the goddess' vulva is poetically described through the symbolism of a flock of ducks on a well-watered field or a narrow doorway framed in glossy black lapis-lazuli.

The representation of genitals may also have served a religious function: temple inventories have revealed votive models of pubic triangles, some made of clay or bronze. Votive offerings in the shape of vulvae have been found in the city of Assur from before 1000 BC.

In ancient Mesopotamia, a goddess’ vulva could be compared to a flock of ducks. Credit: Shutterstock.com

Happy goddess, happy kingdom

Divine sex was not the sole preserve of the gods, but could also involve the human king. Few topics from Mesopotamia have captured the imagination as much as the concept of sacred marriage. In this tradition, the historical Mesopotamian king would be married to the goddess of love, Ishtar. There is literary evidence for such marriages from very early Mesopotamia, before 2300 BC, and the concept persevered into much later periods.

The relationship between historical kings and Mesopotamian deities was considered crucial to the successful continuation of earthly and cosmic order. For the Mesopotamian monarch, then, the sexual relationship with the goddess of love most likely involved a certain amount of pressure to perform.

Some scholars have suggested these marriages involved a physical expression between the king and another person (such as a priestess) embodying the goddess. The general view now is that if there were a physical enactment to a sacred marriage ritual it would have been conducted on a symbolic level rather than a carnal one, with the king perhaps sharing his bed with a statue of the deity.

Agricultural imagery was often used to describe the union of goddess and king. Honey, for instance, is described as sweet like the goddess' mouth and vulva.

A love song from the city of Ur between 2100-2000 BC is dedicated to Shu-Shin, the king, and Ishtar: "In the bedchamber dripping with honey let us enjoy over and over your allure, the sweet thing. Lad, let me do the sweetest things to you. My precious sweet, let me bring you honey."

Sex in this love poetry is depicted as a pleasurable activity that enhanced loving feelings of intimacy. This sense of increased closeness was considered to bring joy to the heart of the goddess, resulting in good fortune and abundance for the entire community—perhaps demonstrating an early Mesopotamian version of the adage "happy wife, happy life".

The diverse presentation of divine sex creates something of a mystery around the causes for the cultural emphasis on cosmic copulation. While the presentation of divine sex and marriage in ancient Mesopotamia likely served numerous purposes, some elements of the intimate relationships between gods shows some carry-over to mortal unions.

While dishonesty between lovers could lead to alienation, positive sexual interactions held countless benefits, including greater intimacy and lasting happiness.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Love in Ancient Rome

Although romantic love between husbands and wives is attested to in letters, inscriptions, and epitaphs, a great deal of what is known of love in ancient Rome comes from the poets in praise of women or boys they were involved with sexually, usually an extramarital affair on the part of one or both. The most famous poet in this regard is Catullus (l. c. 85 – c. 54 BCE) whose surviving work includes 25 poems addressed to his lover Lesbia, the pseudonym of a woman named Clodia, wife of the statesman Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer (l. c. 100-59 BCE).

Metellus Celer and Clodia were unhappily married and fought in public frequently, showing no sign of the passion she experienced with her lover. Catullus’ poems to Lesbia express the highest adoration and the hope that she will leave her husband and live with him forever. In Poem 5 he writes:

Lesbia, come, let us live and love and be

Deaf to the vile jabber of the ugly old fools

The sun may come up each day but when our

Star is out, our night, it shall last forever.

Give me a thousand kisses and another hundred,

Another thousand and, again, a hundred more

As we kiss these passionate thousands, let us

Lose track in our oblivion, we will avoid

The watchful eyes of stupid, evil peasants

Hungry to figure out

How many kisses we have kissed.

Catullus’ hopes were in vain, however, as Clodia would not have been able to divorce her husband for another man. Divorce was an acceptable social option and could be initiated by either party but the grounds for divorce had to meet societal norms such as infertility on the part of the wife or abuse and neglect on the part of the husband. Adultery could be grounds for divorce but could not be brought by a wife engaged in an extramarital affair. After Augustus Caesar (r. 27 BCE – 14 CE) came to power, he enacted laws concerning adultery which would have allowed Metellus Celer to kill both Clodia and her lover.

Erotic fresco from the south wall of the brothel (Lupanar) of Pompeii. 1st century CE. / Photo by Carole Raddato, AHE, Creative Commons

Other male poets, such as Ovid (l. 43 BCE – 17 CE) express similar feelings for their lovers who are either married or in some way unattainable. Some of the only poems regarding romantic love which differ from this paradigm come from the single female Roman poet whose work has survived: Sulpicia, daughter of the author and jurist Servius Sulpicius Rufus (c. 106-43 BCE). Sulpicia addresses her love poems to her boyfriend, a youth she calls Cerinthus, almost certainly a pseudonym since she states her family did not approve of him. Even so, she lives in hope that she and Cerinthus will be together one day. In Poem 1 she expresses her feelings about the beginning of their relationship:

I have finally fallen in love.

This is the kind of love that, if kept hidden, will benefit my reputation more

But revealing it to someone else is likely to damage it.

I prayed to Venus with my poetic talent and she brought it

And dropped it in my bosom.

Venus fulfilled her side of the bargain

Now let me tell my story so that everyone can know.

I did not want to put any of it down in sealed documents just for my beloved to read.

It is nice to go against the grain

As it is tiresome for a woman to constantly force her appearance to fit her reputation.

I only want to be thought worthy of my worthy love. (Harvey, 77)

Unfortunately, as her later poems make clear, the relationship did not last because Cerinthus was unfaithful to her. She chastises him for making her feel like a fool when he clearly is “more concerned for that low-class whore in her slutty outfit than for Sulpicia, the daughter of Servius!” (Poem 4, Harvey 77). What happened to Sulpicia afterwards is unknown but, in keeping with the paradigm of Roman patriarchy, she probably was given in marriage to some other youth her father approved of. Scholar Brian K. Harvey comments on women’s status in ancient Rome and how their lives were defined in relation to males:

Unlike men’s virtues, women were praised for their home and married life. Their virtues included sexual fidelity (castitas), a sense of decency (pudicitia), love for her husband (caritas), marital concord (concordia), devotion to family (pietas), fertility (fecunditas), beauty (pulchritude), cheerfulness (hilaritas), and happiness (laetitia)…As exemplified by the power of the paterfamilias, Rome was a patriarchal society. (59)

Husbands, or males in general, were not held to these same standards of virtue and this was as true of sex as of any other aspect of male-female relationships.


Marriage in Sparta

In contrast to the weddings of Athens, Spartan marriage was certainly not a big affair involving family and friends. What traditions did exist were designed to be secretive and took place at night with the wife in disguise. Women were around the age of 18-20 and men were usually in their mid-twenties when they married. According to Plutarch in his Life of Lycurgus, in preparation for the marriage ritual, the bride would “cut her hair off close to the head” and “put a man’s cloak and sandals on” (book 15, section 3.) The bride would then be left in a dark room and the groom would ritually capture her. After this, husbands were supposed to visit their new wives in secret and at night.

A painted Greek vase depicting marriage preparations. A female figure is seated, with her right hand outstretched to accept a box from the woman standing before her. Behind the seated figure stands a woman with a beaded necklace. The jewellery, flowers, mirrors and decorations on the vase are inlaid with gold. Attributed to the Eretria Painter, c. 440BCE-415BCE. Attica, Greece. / British Museum, Creative Commons

Like the wedding traditions, the life of a Spartan wife after marriage also differed greatly from that of a wife in Athens. In Sparta, men were expected (under threat of being social outcasts) to spend the majority of their time either at war or with their comrades and were not allowed to live with their wives at all until they were 30. Due to this, the wife would have been the head of the household, taking on the responsibility to manage the land and helots (semi-enslaved agricultural labourers) given to the husband by the state. Such freedom and responsibility was not bestowed upon an Athenian wife, whose life was that of confinement. Despite their role in the daily running of the household, primarily raising children and making clothes, they were not by any means the head of the household and were, for the most part, prohibited from leaving the house without an escort. Though, in a rare similarity to Athens, bearing children was seen as the most important role of a woman in Sparta. Many of the laws for women codified by Lycurgus, Sparta’s legendary law-giver, were made to ensure that women would produce healthy children. One of these laws was making women participate in physical exercise to make them stronger for childbirth.


Love In Ancient China — Brothers Over Wives!

Romance was prevalent in ancient Chinese writings a range of literature focuses on ‘love at first sight,’ and the power of that love.

While from a distance, this might look as though the ancient Chinese culture was full of romance, but this was far from the case in practice. Even the literature itself ended up with tragic endings, telling the reader that this sort of electrifying love is not worth it. It reinforced the narrative that true happiness during the marriage could only be achieved if strong familial structures are upheld.

Confucian ideals also had a lot to do with how love was perceived. Under its values, the utmost importance was given to male relationships. Father and Son, Brother and Brother relationships were always more important than a Husband and Wife relationship.

Not only was the wife secondary to other men, but it was also as if she was unimportant altogether. A man was considered weak if he was romantically expressive towards his wife. This caused a greater stigma on romantic relationships between couples.


Liberal Attitudes For Choice Of Sexual Partner

As has been proven already, Ancient India was a remarkably open and accepting society when it came to sexuality and eroticism. This philosophy of tolerance was even extended to the choice of sexual partner.

One illustrative example of this open attitude was the acceptance of pre-marital sex in Ancient India. This has been rare in history as most civilizations and religions tend to enshrine marriage as a prerequisite for sex. In Ancient India, however, epics such as the Mahabharata, describe the story of Rishi Parashar and Satyavati Matsyangandha, a couple that not only engaged in premarital sex but even went all the way and had a child out of wedlock.


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To violate a Vestal Virgin’s vow of chastity was to commit an act of religious impurity (incestum), and thereby to undermine Rome’s compact with the gods, the pax deorum (‘peace of the gods’).

In turn, a Vestal Virgin ran the very real risk of being buried alive if ever convicted of fornication.

Roman religion reflected, and at the same time regulated, sexual mores, with the male-female duality enshrined in the pairings of the twelve Dii Consentes, or major gods (the Roman equivalent of the Greek Olympian gods): Jupiter-Juno, Neptune-Minerva, Mars-Venus, Apollo-Diana, Vulcan-Vesta, and Mercury-Ceres.

A number of annual religious festivals, such as the Liberalia, Floralia, and Lupercalia, to say nothing of the banned Bacchanalia, incorporated an important and ritualized element of sex.

The Vestal Virgins tended to the cult of the fascinus populi Romani, the sacred image of the divine phallus and male counterpart of the hearth of Vesta. Like the eternal flame, also guarded by the Vestal Virgins, or the Palladium, Lares, and Penates of Troy, the fascinus populi Romani assured the ascendancy and continuity of the state.

Similarly, during the Liberalia, devotees of the god Liber Pater carted a giant phallus through the countryside to fertilize the fields and safeguard crops—after which a virtuous matron would crown the phallus with a garland or wreath.

Smaller talismans in the shape of a penis and testes, often winged, invoked the protection of the god Fascinus against the evil eye. These charms, or fascini, often in the form of a ring or amulet, were most commonly worn by infants, boys, and soldiers.

As you are no doubt aware, the Romans often lost sight of their high ideals—although later Christian writers may have exaggerated the extent of their depravity.

In particular, it was entirely accepted, and even expected, for freeborn men to have extramarital relations with both female and male partners, especially adolescents, provided that they:

  • Exercised moderation,
  • Adopted the active, or dominant, role, and
  • Confined their activities to slaves and prostitutes, or, less commonly, a concubine or ‘kept woman’.

Married or marriageable women who belonged to another freeborn man, and young freeborn males, were strictly off limits.

The Stoic philosopher Musonius (d. c. 100 CE), a rare voice at the time, criticized the double standard that granted men much greater sexual freedom than women, arguing that, if men are to presume to exercise control over women, they ought, surely, to exercise even greater control over themselves.

Most extramarital and same-sex activity took place with slaves and prostitutes.

Slaves were considered as property and lacked the legal standing that protected a citizen’s body.

A freeman who forced a slave into having sex could not be charged with rape, but only under laws relating to property damage, and then only at the instigation of the slave’s owner.

Prostitution was both legal and common, and often operated out of brothels or the fornices (arcade dens) under the arches of a circus.

Most prostitutes were slaves or freedwomen. A freeborn person who fell into prostitution suffered infamia, that is, loss of respect or reputation, and became an infamis, losing her or his social and legal standing.

Other groups that incurred infamia—a concept that still retains some currency in the Roman Catholic Church—included actors, dancers, gladiators, and other entertainers, which is why Roman women were forbidden from being seen on stage.

Members of these groups, which had in common the pleasuring of others, could be subjected to violence and even killed with relative impunity.

A freeborn man’s libertas, or political liberty, manifested itself, among others, in the mastery of his own body, and his adoption of a passive or submissive sexual position implied servility and a loss of virility.

Homosexual behaviour among soldiers not only violated the decorum against sexual intercourse among freeborn men, but also compromised the penetrated soldier’s sexual and therefore military dominance, with rape and penetration the symbols, and sometimes also the harsh realities, of military defeat.

According to the historian Polybius (d. c. 125 BCE), the penalty for a soldier who had allowed himself to be penetrated was fustuarium, that is, cudgelling to death, the same punishment as for desertion.

By some twisted Roman logic, a man who was anally penetrated was seen to take on the role of a woman, but a woman who was anally penetrated was seen to take on the role of a boy.

In one of the censored poems of Martial (d. c. 103 CE), the poet’s wife catches him with a boy. When she offers him anal sex to encourage fidelity, he replies that anal sex with a tight boy is beyond compare to anal sex with a woman: ‘you, my wife, have got no more than two cunts.’

Latin does not have a strict equivalent for the noun ‘homosexual’, which is relatively recent both in coinage and concept but a minority of men did, then as today, express a clear same-sex preference or orientation—most famously the poet-emperor Hadrian, who founded a city in memory of his beloved Antinous and even had him deified.

Since Roman men could and often did indulge in extramarital sex, it might be assumed that Roman marriage was all duty and dour.

However, the houses and bedrooms of the nobility were often decorated with erotic scenes ranging from elegant dalliance to explicit pornography.

The poet Horace (d. 8 BCE) had a mirrored room for sex, and the emperor Tiberius (d. 37 BCE) stocked his bedchambers with the saucy sex manuals of Elephantis.

In Ancient Rome as in Victorian England, virtuous restraint often went hand in hand with licentious abandon, the one put on display in the public arena and the other hidden away in closed rooms and shady nooks.

And so, according to Seneca, the Stoic philosopher and unhappy tutor to Nero:

Virtue you will find in the temple, in the forum, in the senate house, standing before the city walls, dusty and sunburnt, her hands rough pleasure you will most often find lurking around the baths and sweating rooms, and places that fear the police, in search of darkness, soft, effete, reeking of wine and perfume, pallid or else painted and made up with cosmetics like a corpse.


Uncovering Sex In Medieval Europe

In a time where the Church had a lot of say in state affairs, it was only logical that attempts were made to curb who, when and where one could have sex. People could not have sex on Sundays, Thursdays, or Fridays due to religious reasons. There were also long periods of abstinence that were to be observed when practicing Christians were fasting. If anyone was to deviate from the set rules while having intercourse, they were committing a grave sin.

These kinds of beliefs were reflected in various literature throughout the Middle Ages. There was a complete ban on oral and anal sex in parts of Europe, and masturbation was also considered immoral. These bans were part of the Penitentials, which were books that indicated what was allowed under the Church rules and what was not. In Medieval Europe, the Church banned pre-marital sex, and one could only have sex with their spouse.

There were wide-ranging taboos that were now part of Medieval Europe. Some good stigmas like those on incestuous relationships meant that there would be less interbreeding. However, stigmatization of homosexuality meant that people that expressed love towards the same gender were subjugated to punishments. Dante’s Inferno places homosexuals in a tier lower heterosexual lustful individuals.


Love, Sex, and Marriage in Ancient Mesopotamia - History

Inanna and the "Sacred Marriage"

The king goes with lifted head to the holy lap,
Goes with lifted head to the holy lap of Inanna,
[Dumuzi] beds with her,
He delights in her pure lap.
(Sefati 1998: 105)

The "Sacred Marriage" was "joyously and rapturously" celebrated in the ancient eastern Mediterranean for over two thousand years (Kramer 1969:49). "Sacred Marriage" translates Classical Greek hieros gamos, originally the marriage of Zeus and Hera, but Classicists used the term for alliances between other deities or deities and humans, particularly when marked by ritual. Sir James Frazer (1854-1941), author of The Golden Bough, expanded the term to mean "mythic and ritual sexual acts" connected with fertility (Cooper 1993:82).

Although, for ancient Mesopotamia, the term refers to "the ritual enactment of the marriage of two deities or a human and a deity" (Cooper 1993:82), the participants were understood as deities: usually Inanna-Ishtar and Dumuzi-Tammuz. [1] In historic times, the main aim was "to decree a good fate for the king and his country" (Lapinkivi 2004:7). [2] Nonetheless, as I shall speculate later, early priests could have appropriated to their own ends a rite which, originally, had a very different function.


From extant hymns, we can piece together what happened in the ritual (Lapinkivi 2004:47,#2950,#35). 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 (Sefati 1998:25,120-364). 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 (Jacobsen 1976:38).

The deities entered a chamber fragrant with spices and decorated with costly draperies. Lying down on a ceremonial bed constructed for the occasion (Jacobsen 1976:38), they united in sexual intercourse (Henshaw 1994:238). Afterwards, pleased by and with her lover, Inanna decreed long life and sovereignty for him and fertility and prosperity for the land. She might also have presented him with the ring, rod, and line, emblems of royal power. The ritual over, the people celebrated in a huge festival.

The earliest "detailed direct evidence" of the ritual comes from the time of King Shulgi of Ur (2095-2048), but the first ruler named "beloved of Inanna" reigned in Uruk around 2700 BCE, a hint that the ritual was already occurring by then (Lapinkivi 2004:2 Sefati 1998:30-31).

How do we know that the ritual actually took place? Some consider this question "controversial" considering the paucity of evidence (Henshaw 1994:239). When and how often it occurred is also controversial. However, since a number of poems describe the ritual in detail and some of the details are supported in "important and reliable evidence" such as "royal inscriptions, economic texts, etc." (Sefati 1998:32), we can assume that Sumerians did celebrate the "Sacred Marriage."

Did the participants actually engage in sexual intercourse? Again the subject is controversial, some scholars arguing that they did (Frayne 1983, Kramer 1969 see Cooper 1993:87-88), others insisting that the act was "purely symbolic" (Steinkeller 1999:133).


Who, then, were the participants? It appears certain that, at Uruk, the priest-ruler, the en, spent at least one ritual night in the high-priestly residence, the gipar, "during which [period] he consummated the marriage with Inanna" (Steinkeller 1999:132). Further, poems name two historically identifiable kings as participants in the rite, but only for the period 2100-2000 BCE. A king of Sumer could take part only if he held the office of en of Uruk and bore the title "spouse of Inanna" (Steinkeller 1999:130-131). By 2000 BCE, according to some scholars, the monarch of Sumer normally represented Dumuzi in the rite. As a result of the ceremony, he received the authority to manipulate "the natural and human environments for greater productivity and security" (Wakeman 1985:13).

The texts refer to the female participant only as Inanna (Frayne 1985:14), a possible indication that Inanna had incarnated herself in a priestess. [3] The likeliest candidate would be the priestess known as nin-dingir, Sumerian for "Lady Deity" or "Lady Who Is Goddess." [4]

A man could achieve authority in Inanna's temple community at Uruk as either her "trusted servant" or her consort or both. Indeed, traditionally, the ruler of Uruk and its goddess co-habited in the gipar. The "Sacred Marriage," which at first conferred authority temporarily on one man, eventually provided religious sanction for male exercise of power (Wakeman 1985:12).

Around 2900 BCE, Inanna, incarnated in the nin-dingir, [5] "chose [Uruk's] en" (Wakeman 1985:23-my emphasis). By around 2300 BCE, however, the Mesopotamian king had appropriated the right to appoint an en. [6] Eventually, around 2100 BCE, the nin-dingir/entu became merely spouse of the city god she served and/or the consort of Dumuzi. Furthermore, after about 1700 BCE, the title entu disappeared from archival texts (Frayne 1985:22). Concomitantly, the "Sacred Marriage" also altered, until, in its latest form, it probably involved two statues (Cooper 1993:91 Frayne 1985:22).

According to Steinkeller, "the earliest Sumerian pantheon was dominated by female deities," and a goddess, the divine "owner" of most early cities, "controlled . fertility, procreation, healing, and death." Paired with each was a god, "a personification of male reproductive power." Over time, the power of male deities increased, "though never superseding that of goddesses" (1999:113). Perhaps Inanna's domination of much "Sacred Marriage" material (Jacobsen 1976:39-40) reflects those earliest times, when the "Sacred Marriage" centred on goddesses. Is it possible that the ceremony originally dealt with her concerns alone?

Part of the answer lies, I think, in an exciting theory propounded by Sumerologist Douglas Frayne, who presents a convincing explanation of the evidence. [7] After showing that nin-dingir and entu refer to the same office, Frayne suggests that this priestess was the Inanna of the "Sacred Marriage" poems. He then re-examines the available evidence and concludes that the ritual was integral to the installation of "new entu priestesses" (Frayne 1985:12ff.,14-18).

In supporting his theory, Frayne discusses what scholars call "year formulae" the Mesopotamians named a year by its significant event and recorded it on, for instance, building bricks (Cohen 1993:4). One such happening was the installation of an en: for instance, "The year the entu of Nanna was chosen by omens" or "The year Nur-Adad installed the entu of Utu [the sun god]" (Frayne 1985:15). The latter correlates with a passage in a "literary letter of Sin-Iddinam" who describes significant occurrences in the early reign of his father Nur-Adad:

An entu priestess who perfected the immaculate lustration rites, he installed for [Utu] in her gipar. From evening to morning he added [offerings?], and filled it with abundance (Frayne 1985: 15) .

The last sentence recalls the ruler's bringing gifts to Inanna in the "Sacred Marriage."

Frayne then points to archival texts that "record disbursements of materials that were used to construct cult objects, or were used in ceremonies . " (1985:17). One, almost certainly relating to the installation of an entu, lists as cult objects: "[One] lady's throne/one bed . " "Sacred Marriage" hymns often describe the setting up of a bed and a throne before the ritual (Frayne 1985:18ff.). Thus, Frayne concludes that the installation of a nin-dingir/entu entailed the celebration of the "Sacred Marriage."

The question is: Why? The nin-dingir/entu was probably the priestess who, at Uruk, incarnated Inanna, and in other cities she sometimes embodied the female half of the divine couple that protected the city (Steinkeller 1999:123). If her installation necessitated the "Sacred Marriage," she might also have incarnated Inanna. The Mesopotamians clearly understood Inanna to be closely connected with fecundity. Originally, then, the ritual might have been a fertility rite, a possibility supported by Wakeman's suggestion that the "Sacred Marriage" was central to an early Urukian harvest festival. [8]


My high field that which is well watered,
My own nakedness, a well-watered, a rising mound--
I, the maiden-who will plough it? . . . .
Young lady, may the king plough it for you,
May Dumuzi, the king, plough it for you!"
(Sefati 1998:225)

The agricultural Sumerians metaphorically equated ploughing of land with sexual intercourse (Jacobsen 1976:46). Therefore, it seems reasonable to theorize that "Goddess on Earth" Inanna, whose body was identified with arable land, would not be able to bring about the land's fertility until she herself, at least potentially, became fertile. Thus, the "Sacred Marriage" might have been integral to the installation of nin-dingir/entu as Inanna because, I suggest, like the land, she had to be "ploughed" to be fertile and to bring fecundity and prosperity to Sumer.

Possibly, then, the "Sacred Marriage" rite was not originally concerned with king-making at all, but rather with "goddess-making" perhaps it was a ritual for, as it were, "activating," making fertile a "Goddess on Earth." To that end, the ceremony entailed ritual mating between the entu-designate and, say, a temple priest, since, for the Mesopotamians, fertility on earth, as in heaven, resulted from the union of male and female.

The ritual would, I theorize, have confirmed the priestess as Inanna — permanently — and, for a short time, the priest would have incarnated a divine lover. However, to have embodied a deity, if only temporarily, would have set him apart: for a time he had been a god!

At some point, one priest might have seen the advantage of continuing to incarnate the goddess's lover, of using the role's charisma to achieve power in the community. Indeed he could have been the first en!

According to Kramer, the "Sacred Marriage" was being celebrated for several generations before the Sumerians associated Dumuzi with it (1969:57-8). Furthermore, Dumuzi occurs in the Sumerian "King List" as an early en of Uruk (Kramer 1969:328). Could it have been this very Dumuzi who appropriated the mating ritual for the validation of kingship? As en, he would have been the main administrative officer of the temple complex and its estates, in effect the ruler of the city (Steinkeller 1999:105 Henshaw 1994:44). Possibly also a talented general, he could slowly have increased the significance of his role through military activity at the city's need. Nevertheless, he would have remained aware of the importance of continuing his relationship with Inanna and of keeping the title en to indicate that connection.


Succeeding male ens, now perhaps also using the title lugal "big man," could have followed suit, until gradually they became kings in their own right. [9] Steinkeller's view, that "enship apparently was the original form of Sumerian kingship," supports this theory (1999:112). However, as many later Mesopotamian kings appear to have done, early en/lugals would still have had to rely on a relationship with Inanna to confirm their kingship. Although eventually Mesopotamian kings ruled without reference to an entu or a "Sacred Marriage" rite, many of them continued to style themselves "beloved" or "spouse" of Inanna or her counterpart Ishtar (Lapinkivi 2004:59-62).

As we saw, Mary Wakeman argues that the "Sacred Marriage" originated in early Uruk to provide religious sanction for male exercise of power. Although this explanation throws light on how an increasingly male-dominated city might have exploited the ritual, it does not explain why the city would have needed to use this particular rite instead of developing another which was less empowering of the goddess. Nor does it really speak to the origin of the ritual. I have hypothesized, however, that the "Sacred Marriage" originated as a ritual for activating a nin-dingir/entu to ensure the fertility of her land. Not only does this suggestion explain the historically attested references to the association of the "Sacred Marriage" with the installation of entus, but it also illuminates the powerful fertility elements in the ritual.

The inviolability of religious tradition would explain why an increasingly male-dominant society would have been forced to continue to use the time-honoured ritual to achieve its own ends why the ritual survived for so long and why, even after the entu had disappeared from archival texts, most kings of Mesopotamia continued to call themselves "spouse/beloved of Inanna-Ishtar."


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