Article by Christine Carr (EANES)
My research analyses a group of erotic literary texts written in Sumerian, dated to the Old Babylonian period (c.1800BC), from southern Babylonia (modern Iraq).
These compositions use abundant and sensuous metaphorical language that weaves and interacts between the literal and the figurative to present the human sexual and erotic experience. In many ways, these extended, metaphorical portrayals are one of our earliest sources for understanding the construction of complex concepts such as sexual desire and pleasure. The ‘Love Songs’ also present vivid imagery of the gendered human body and the lovers of these compositions are further gendered through speech (the use of the Emesal ‘dialect’ for women’s speech), dress, and social dynamics.
The Sumerian ‘Love Songs’ are mostly written from the female point of view, and a female voice, as well as imagery of the female body, dominates many of the texts. From the ancient world, the explicit presentation of female desire and pleasure in the Sumerian ‘Love Songs’ seems extraordinary:
Inanna’s song of her vulva, from Inanna-Dumuzi P
‘Like a horn bound to a great wagon…
This boat of heaven, hung with ropes,
Like a new crescent moon, filled with sexual allure,
This uncultivated land…in the steppe,
This field of ducks where my ducks sit,
My flooded field of heaven,
Me, my vulva, a flooded, spreading mound,
I am a young woman, who will plough it?’
While modern studies of these texts have often framed them as an aspect of a proposed cultic event, the Sacred Marriage Ritual, I am more interested in what these compositions can tell us about how gender and its relationship to experiences of desire, pleasure, and love was conceptualised at the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC. My research takes its approach to metaphor in Sumerian literature from cognitive linguistics, conceptual metaphor theory, that understands abstract concepts as mapped from embodied experiences. As the Sumerian ‘Love Songs’ deal explicitly with human embodiment, namely sex, desire, and pleasure, conceptual metaphor theory offers a theoretical framework for uncovering aspects of the human sexual and erotic experience in the early second millennium BC through analysis of the texts’ metaphorical language.
Online translations of many of the Sumerian ‘Love Songs’ can be found on the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature: https://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=c.4.08*#