Once upon a time, Puritan-Feminism did not exist. At least not in its modern manifestation. When that was the reality, the sex lives of humans were by far superior to what they are now; and therefore, it would do all of us good to learn what sex was like during those ancient times. Here are a few pieces from an article written by a scholar, Joshua J. Mark, about sex/marriage in Mesopotamia.

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 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.

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. The historian Bertman writes,

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).

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.

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 writes:

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). Further,

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 notes that, “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).

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.

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.

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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Marriage markets: a practical and capitalism-compatible solution to the problem of involuntary celibacy.

Let’s sum up what we’ve got here.

The purpose of marriage was to transfer the authority over the woman from her father to the groom, her future husband. Therefore, women — being like ‘property,’ essentially — could be sold in market auctions to whoever was willing to pay for them. You buy the woman from her father.

There may, or may not, have been a practice of “Temple prostitution,” in which women were required to sleep with whoever came to visit. We just don’t know if Herodotus’ account about this practice is reliable.

Social harmony was vital, so everything was geared towards ensuring that there would be families, that the families would be stable, and that plenty of children would result from the family unit. Fertility — its maximalization — was of prime importance, so that that which contributed to fertility was considered positive, and that which hindered fertility was considered negative; and patriarchal monogamy was the norm.

“Free Love” was not unheard of, and in fact, might have been quite common. Teenagers and young people in general were correctly perceived as very sexual entities. All kinds of sexual positions, including anal, were wildly practiced; and unlike in modern-day Iraq, the gays weren’t driven out of society – people simply didn’t care about them. As in pre-Enlightenment Europe, there was public sex, and privacy wasn’t a concern at all. Sexual pleasure was “culturally ennobled.”

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The Ancient Mesopotamians knew that sex is a positive thing, and did not seek to criminalize it.

Infidelity was not allowed. Husbands had absolute control over their wives, and society enforced that control. Therefore, the notion of women denying sex in marriage was probably inconceivable. Concubinage was allowed, and a husband could add women to his own personal harem, though his first wife would always be the superior to the other ones. Personally, I think that polygyny should be discouraged, because when one man takes several women, another man is left with none at all. I want all men to own women. So, on this point I have to disagree with the Ancient Mesopotamians.

Celibacy and solitude were looked down upon, and society wanted there to not be any celibacy or solitude. One’s purpose in life is procreation, and sterility was recognized as a social ill. Women could not parasitize on their husbands’ wealth through divorce – a woman initiating divorce “could be thrown out of her husband’s home penniless and naked.” Modern society is absolutely inverted.

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Ancient civilizations were genuinely pro-sexual, unlike contemporary society with its endless, totalitarian, extremely intrusive, and ever-growing list of “sexual crimes.”

Marriages were generally monogamous, life-long, and happy. And people married young. Indeed, a father could sell off his daughter at any age: while Mark did not write it here explicitly, late marriage was heavily discouraged and early marriage was greatly incentivized, again, to maximize fertility (the earlier you start, the more you’ll have), and also to ensure virginity on the part of the females when they are married off – the longer you wait to sell off your daughter, the likelier it is that she’ll end-up having sex pre-maritally, and that was not desired. The solution then was to marry them off very young, likely before puberty – before the sex-drive hits hard.

That’s an excellent system, and we need to replace the modern system with what the Ancient Mesopotamins had.

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They had sex in many positions.
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It was often exhibitionist.
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And society approved of it and encouraged it.