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Inanna and the "Sacred Marriage"



Couple on terracotta bed, perhaps representing the "Sacred Marriage." Object could have been bought at the festival. Mesopotamia 3rd. millennium BCE.
© S. Beaulieu, after Teubal 1983: 117.
larger view of image

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.



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.
© S. Beaulieu, after Gadon 1989:137.

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).



Couple on terracotta bed, perhaps representing the "Sacred Marriage." Object could have been bought at the festival. Mesopotamia 3rd. millennium BCE.
© S. Beaulieu, after Teubal 1983: 117.

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?



Detail, 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.
© S. Beaulieu, after Gadon 1989:137.
larger view of image

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]



Couple on terracotta bed, perhaps representing the "Sacred Marriage." Object could have been bought at the festival. Mesopotamia 3rd. millennium BCE.
© S. Beaulieu, after Teubal 1983: 117.
larger view of image

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.



Dumuzi (man in net kilt; see Steinkeller 1999: 104-111) approaching Inanna at shrine, procession of naked priests following, with gifts. Reconstruction. Alabaster Vase. 3'. Fourth millennium BCE. Uruk, Mesopotamia.
© S. Beaulieu, after Meador 2000: 59.
larger view of image

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.



Inanna holding date frond. Fragment of a relief vessel. Mesopotamia. About 2400 BCE.
© S. Beaulieu, after Gadon 1989:134.

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."

Notes

  1. Or a city goddess normally, but not always, identified with Inanna and a city god normally, but not always, identified with Dumuzi (See Steinkeller 1999:130-131).
  2. For a review of interpretations of the ritual, see Lapinkivi 2004:3-13.
  3. Incarnation or spirit possession is a phenomenon of many religions today and in the past. A deity or spirit takes over the body of a medium (often incorrectly called shaman) in order to have direct communication with worshippers (Bowker 1997:884-885,1083-1084). There is no reason to think that Mesopotamian religions were exempt from this practice.
  4. Also see Steinkeller (1999:120-121) for a different interpretation of the role of this religious functionary.
  5. In Sumerian, a non-gendered language, en could be feminine or masculine (Henshaw 1994:44). In gendered Semitic languages, the equivalents of en are enu and entu, the latter meaning nin-dingir, "Goddess on Earth" (Frayne 1985:14; Henshaw 1994:45-51).
  6. For example, Mesopotamian king Sargon (ca. 2300 BCE) appointed his daughter Enheduanna as entu of the god Nanna, protector deity of Ur. See previous column.
  7. Jerrold Cooper disagrees with Frayne's thesis, as do some other scholars (Cooper 1993:88-89).
  8. Following Jacobsen, Wakeman says that, at Uruk, Dumuzi was "the power inherent in seasonal foods (grain, milk, dates)" and Inanna, in whose temple the produce was deposited, was the power in the storehouse (Wakeman 1985:12; Jacobsen 1976:36).
  9. The Sumerian word lugal eventually came to mean "king." See Steinkeller 1999:105,112 and following.

Works Cited

  • Bowker, John, ed. 1997. The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. Oxford: Oxford University.
  • Cohen, Mark E. 1993. The Cultic Calendars of the Ancient Near East. Bethesda, MY: CDL Press.
  • Cooper, Jerrold S. 1993. "Sacred Marriage and Popular Cult in Early Mesopotamia," 81-96, in Matushima, E., ed. Official Cult and Popular Religion in the Ancient Near East: Papers of the First Colloquium on the Ancient Near East -- The City and its Life held at the Middle Eastern Culture Center in Japan (Mitake, Tokyo) March 20-22, 1992. Heidelberg: Winter.
  • Frayne, Douglas 1985. "Notes on the Sacred Marriage Rite," Bibliotheca Orientalis 42:5-22.
  • Gadon, Elinor W. 1989. The Once and Future Goddess: A Symbol for Our Time. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
  • Henshaw, Richard A. 1994. Female and Male, the Cultic Personnel: The Bible and the Rest of the Ancient Near East. Allison Park, Pennsylvania: Pickwick.
  • Jacobsen, Thorkild 1976. The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion. New Haven: Yale University.
  • Kramer, Samuel N. 1969. The Sacred Marriage: Aspects of Faith, Myth and Ritual in Ancient Sumer. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University.
  • Lapinkivi, Pirjo 2004. The Sumerian Sacred Marriage in the Light of Comparative Evidence. Helsinki: The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, University of Helsinki.
  • Meador, Betty D. S. 2000. Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna. Austin, TX: University of Texas.
  • Sefati, Yitschak 1998. Love Songs in Sumerian Literature: Critical Edition of the Dumuzi-Inanna Songs. Ramat Gan, Israel: Bar-Ilan University.
  • Steinkeller, Piotr 1999. "On Rulers, Priests and Sacred Marriage: Tracing the Evolution of Early Sumerian Kingship," 103-137, in Priests and Officials in the Ancient Near East: Papers of the Second Colloquium on the Ancient Near East, The Middle Eastern Culture Center in Japan, ed. K. Watanabe. Heidelberg: Winter.
  • Teubal, Savina 1983. Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis. Athens, OH: University of Ohio Swallow.
  • Wakeman, Mary K. 1985. "Ancient Sumer and the Women's Movement; The Process of Reaching Behind, Encompassing and Going Beyond," Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 1/2:7-27.

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