In This Issue
Inanna and the "Sacred Marriage"
The king goes with lifted head to the holy
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. In historic times, the main aim was "to decree a good fate for the king and his country" (Lapinkivi 2004:7). 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,#29;50,#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. The likeliest candidate would be the priestess known as nin-dingir, Sumerian for "Lady Deity" or "Lady Who Is Goddess."
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, "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. 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. 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.
My high field that which is well watered,
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. 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."