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Gender and Religion: Gender and Ancient Near Eastern Religions

GENDER AND RELIGION: GENDER AND ANCIENT NEAR EASTERN RELIGIONS

The remarkable continuity of Mesopotamian civilization can be traced in its literature, public architecture, and city planning from the late fourth millennium bce, when, almost simultaneously, urbanism and writing appeared, to 323 bce and the death of Alexander the Great in Babylon. Mesopotamia's economic base was agricultural, but the social foundation was the city, embodied by the temple of the city god or goddess. Prosperity depended on a two-way relationship in which divine benevolence was encouraged by correct human ritual and ethical behavior. The largest temples owned much of the city's lands and employed thousands of people. From the end of the third millennium, kings asserted enough control over temples that important religious establishments became political extensions of the palace. The religious lives of common people, however, revolved around the patriarchal family's ancestral spirits and patron god or goddess.

The earliest writings from Mesopotamia are in Sumerian, a linguistic orphan unrelated to any known language. By the middle of the third millennium, however, Akkadian, a Semitic language related to Hebrew, began to displace Sumerian. Cuneiform, a wedge-shaped script written on clay tablets, was invented by the Sumerians but adapted for writing Akkadian. Some half-million cuneiform tablets recovered from ruined cities, supplemented by archaeological discoveries, have been the main sources of information about ancient Mesopotamia.

Ugarit on the northeastern Mediterranean coast is one of several Bronze Age cities in north Syria (also among them are Ebla, Emar, and Alalakh) with rich caches of cuneiform texts written in Akkadian or Ugaritic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew. Each Syrian city and its temples reflect a mix of Mesopotamian, Hittite, north Syrian, and local traditions. In Syria as in Mesopotamia, family religion centered on a patron deity and ancestral spirits.

Gender in Ancient Near East Studies

A systematic study of gender and religion in Mesopotamia or northern Syria has yet to be written. Assyriology, the technical (albeit imprecise) term for the study of ancient Mesopotamia, has been only minimally affected by gender analysis. Beyond innate conservatism, the abundance of available data, especially textual data, can daunt the most stouthearted of Assyriologists. The genealogy of gender studies in Assyriology begins in the 1970s with feminist scholars who focused on the retrieval of women's lives in textual and archaeological sources. Studies of women at Ugarit and other north Syrian cities have barely ventured beyond this level of inquiry largely because so much data is still lacking. Although only men are mentioned as praying at Ugarit, one cannot conclude women did not pray, for example.

Since the late 1980s a growing number of Assyriologists have demonstrated an awareness that gender and sexuality are human creations, or "constructions," operating within a social matrix of power relations, a matrix in which religion is an active ingredient. Assyriologists have begun to question their own scholarly assumptions, categories, and methodologies, acknowledging that even ostensibly objective worksthe standard dictionary of Akkadian, for exampleexhibit gender bias. As such, gender theory promises to open up new directions of inquiry. For example, gender is not marked in Sumerian; however, in literary Sumerian, goddesses use a distinct dialect called Emesal whose dynamics might be clarified by the application of gender theory. Archaeologists, too, have set aside their earlier confidence that artifacts are value-neutral, for they are aware that ideology and biases of many types inform the questions asked in the process of excavation and data analysis.

The Nature of the Evidence

Textual sources for goddesses and the religious experience of women in Mesopotamia include traditional mythological texts, liturgical hymns and temple liturgies, god lists, offering lists, omen lists, votive dedications, seal inscriptions, and personal and place names. With far fewer texts from north Syrian cities such as Ugarit, Alalakh, or Emar, the application of gender theory there constitutes a greater challenge.

Writing was invented to manage and control economic records. However, almost simultaneously, writing became an instrument for managing and controlling society. Thus, texts preserve traditions about deities and kings, but they do not necessarily represent the experience or mindset of the average Mesopotamian or Ugaritian whose temples were run by the city's upper class. Cuneiform texts generally reflect the concerns of an exclusive group of male elites from royal, administrative, and/or land-holding circles who either could read themselves or employed scribes. Few women, even in the third millennium when the goddess Nisaba was the patron of scribes, were literate, and still fewer became scribes. Nevertheless, the same administrative system that produced the texts affected every level of society.

Archaeologists' interests have in the past mirrored the subjects of the texts they excavated: temples and palaces, city plans and fortifications, elite burials. However, beginning in the 1960s, archaeologists began to investigate the ecology of the cultivated countryside, diet, domestic architecture, and gendered space in the farmhouses, city neighborhoods, temples, and palaces. These new avenues of inquiry complement the data from cylinder seals, amulets, votive sculpture, and figurines that provide a visual record of gendered imagery in the ancient Near East. Mesopotamian grave goods, personal ornament, body image, and nudity have all been subjects of gender theory-based studies.

Goddesses, Women, and Power

Twentieth-century scholars under the influence of Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough believed that ancient Near Eastern religion centered on a "cult of fertility" characterized by lurid sexuality, an impression informed more by the fantasies of male scholars than by the data, although, to be fair, this view derived ultimately from biblical discourse against non-Israelite religion and from Herodotos. Fertility is now considered to be one of many interwoven principles in ancient Near Eastern religion, just as scholars recognize three interconnected spheres of religious activity: temple/priest religion, royal religion, and folk/popular religion. Of the three, popular religion seems to have been the primary locus of female religious activity. Also untenable today are claims (uncritically endorsed by the contemporary "goddess movement") that ancient Near Eastern goddesses could be equated with one original divine "Mother," or that all goddesses' powers derived from their biology. Across the ancient Near East, both male and female deities bestowed fertility.

Four deities of one family consistently lead Mesopotamian god lists: An/Anu (father and sky god); Ellil/Enlil (god of kingship and executive action); Enki/Ea (god of wisdom and fresh water); and Inanna/Ishtar (goddess of sexual love and war). In the third millennium there were a multitude of prominent goddesses besides Inanna, some with family-based roles such as mother (e.g., Ninhursaga), spouse (e.g., Ninlil), or sister (e.g., Geshtinanna). Other goddesses supervised activities such as grain cultivation, sheep herding, writing, weaving, and pottery and jewelry making. Gula was one of several healing goddesses (male gods brought pestilence); divination, purification, and supplication all had patron goddesses. The queen of the underworld was Ereshkigal, Inanna's sister.

In the old Akkadian period (23502150 bce) some 39 percent of city deities were female. Yet by the middle of the second millennium, most of the leading goddesses seem to have been eclipsed by male gods. The tradition of goddesses as creators did not disappear, but, except for Inanna/Ishtar, male deities came to dominate the world of the gods. The reasons for this are debated; a leading theory connected the transformation with the rising power of Semitic populations whose chief deity was the warrior storm god. More recently, scholars suspicious of ethnic arguments and aware of the role gender can play in the discourse of power have looked instead to changes in political structure with the rise of militarism. When Sargon of Akkad (23342279 bce) united the Mesopotamian cities into the first empire, a new imperialist/royalist discourse, in which human women and goddesses had less influence, entered the Mesopotamian consciousness. The exclusion of women may relate to their exclusion from warfare; Inanna/Ishtar's continued prominence is explained by her association with war. It is unclear, however, whether the disappearance of goddesses from texts of this period reflects a change in popular perception, or a conscious attempt to shape a new "imperialist" ideology.

The three most prominent north Syrian goddesses in the second millennium textsAsherah, Anat, and Astarteare usually described as fertility goddesses. Asherah was consort of the high god, El; Anat, sister and consort of the storm god, Baal, was also goddess of war. Baal was also paired with Astarte. At Ugarit, unlike in Mesopotamia, the sun was a goddess, Shapshu, who was associated with wisdom and life and death transitions and also controlled human fate and ruled the world of lesser divinities. The goddess Usharaya supervised oaths, justice, and divination, the latter an exclusively male profession in the human realm. Ugaritic texts mention only royal women as sacrificing or otherwise officiating in the cult, reinforcing the impression, from a probably skewed text-base, that official religion reinforced the ideology of royal religion.

As the second millennium progressed in Mesopotamia, even royal women lost their former high positions in the cult, just as so many goddesses seem to have lost theirs. Inanna/Ishtar's ongoing popularity has been attributed not only to her martial qualities but also to her gender-transgressive nature; in her physical violence, insatiable sexual appetite, freedom from pregnancy, and flouting of patriarchal family mores, the divine Inanna defines by negative example the proper behavior of mortal women in a patriarchal societya dynamic that also underlies the Greek Amazon tradition. In first-millennium Assyria, for example, Ishtar was preeminent, but women were not. In the visual record, too, women appear less often.

The Babylonian Enuma elish, the most famous Mesopotamian creation myth (dating to the second half of the second millennium), serves as a central witness to this so-called marginalization of the goddesses. This was an essentially political myth exalting Babylon, its god Marduk, and kingship. In the myth the gods are created first, beginning with a sexual mingling between the goddess/matrix Tiamat (salt water) and the god Apsu (fresh water). In the second part of the myth, the active younger generation of gods disturbs the more passive Apsu and Tiamat and, roused to anger, Apsu tries unsuccessfully to destroy them. Tiamat marches out with her army to avenge her spouse's defeat. As the other younger gods quail, Marduk taunts them for fearing to fight a woman, and he becomes king by single-handedly battling Tiamat to the death. His victory is narrated in language reminiscent of rape, with phallic arrows flying into Tiamat's mouth to pierce her distended belly. Marduk creates the ordered universe from Tiamat's carcass and sets up a barrier to confine Tiamat's waters, now considered to be the embodiment of chaos. Goddesses are absent from all the creative activity that follows the killing of Tiamat. Tiamat, acknowledged at one point in the myth as "she who gave birth to them all," may represent the religious order of Mesopotamia's past when goddesses and women enjoyed more power.

Nevertheless, it is far from clear whether Mesopotamian worship of powerful female deities correlates with higher status for mortal women. On the one hand, in Sumer each city god or goddess was "married" to a human of the opposite sex called an En who administered the temple. There is also evidence for women (notably Enmebaragesi of Kish) ruling in their own name rather than as wife of a king. On the other hand, according to Sumerian and Akkadian royal ideology, the king ruled by virtue of being the chosen spouse of Inanna, a case of a man empowered by a female deity. A woman could achieve priestly power and status as En of a prominent malenot femalecity god. Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon of Akkad and perhaps the first named author in history, was the En of Nanna, the moon god at Ur, and supervised his temple. On a contemporary votive disk from Ur she oversees a ritual, accompanied by a male priest and two male attendants. Yet Enheduanna's authority, like that of her En grandnieces, must also be assessed through the lens of her royal status and Sargon's political policies.

Sacred marriage (Hieros gamos ), perhaps the most famous Mesopotamian religious ritual, represented an empowering union of the human and the divine. It served politically to demonstrate the king's leading role in mediating social and political harmony, of which fertility was one essential aspect. Into the early second millennium the ritual may have involved an actual act of sexual intercourse between the king and a human representative of the goddess Inanna. However, the failure of scholars, despite their best efforts, to determine the identity of Inanna's surrogate suggests the ritual may have been a poetic metaphor. In later centuries the sacred marriage rite flourished, but as an explicitly symbolic encounter centered on the cult statue.

Several Ugaritic ritual texts (all of the second millennium) hint at a symbolic sacred marriage between the king and Pidray, daughter of the royal family's patron deity, Baal. The marriage, as in Mesopotamia, served the political purpose of affirming an alliance between the human and divine royal families. In Emar, the Nin-Dingir priestess, chosen from a leading family, "married" the storm god, but only through symbolic ritual gestures, and here, too, the marriage ritual reinforced social integration among the elites of the city.

Sexuality, Fertility, and Creation

In Mesopotamian mythology creation comes about by procreation or by manufacture. The Enuma elish includes both techniques. In the earliest Sumerian sources of the third millennium, creation resulted when the god An (heaven) and the goddess Ki (earth) "talked" to each other; a slightly later text celebrates the goddess Nammu (subterranean waters) as the creator "who gave birth to the universe." Another story tells how Enki created the world by modeling bits of clay, the same technique used by mother goddesses Nammu and Aruru to create humans. Different Mesopotamian myths credit various male and female deities with the creation of humans; in the Enuma elish the god Ea (Sumerian Enki) fashions humans to free the gods from work. Two Sumerian myths, "Enki and Ninmah" and "Enki and Ninhursag," describe a fertility contest between Enki and a mother goddess. The first story ends by acknowledging the necessity for semen and womb alike, but Enki, the male principle, triumphs in the second.

In Syria, too, both goddesses and gods are associated with creation and fertility. Although no Ugaritic creation myth has yet been identified, El was creator of all and Asherah was progenitress of the gods. In mythic texts Baal and El rather than fertility goddesses bestow children on their human (male) protégés. Anat, like Inanna/Ishtar, transgressed gender conventions with her extravagant violence and exuberant sensuality.

Among gods and humans fertility depended upon male sperm and divine blessing, yet goddesses and female spirits ensured safe pregnancy and childbirth in both Mesopotamia and Ugarit. Mesopotamian divination texts and women's petitionary prayers for pregnancyto deities of both sexesexpress an anxiety that sin on the woman's part has caused her infertility. On the other hand, men were likely to blame their own sexual dysfunction on women, perceiving dangers from female power out of proportion to women's marginal status; the problem could be the Evil Eye, a female bird-like creature, or it could be gender-inappropriate behavior, such as the woman on top in sexual intercourse, or it could be witchcraft, a power associated with women as well as foreign men or other socially marginal groups.

A careful reading of mythological texts reveals distinctive sexualities for men and women. The lyrics of the Sumerian Love Songs celebrating the courtship of Inanna and her consort, Dumuzi, arguably speak in a "woman's voice," employing a feminine discourse of sexuality that exults in the pleasures of the vulva. Popular (male) expressions of sexuality are more evident. In Sumerian texts gods (notably Enki/Ea) satisfy their supercharged sex drives by raping goddesses. Therapeutic metaphors based on animal sexual behavior pre-dominate in male potency incantations. Frustrated by love, a man could resort to sexually explicit love magic, and despite claims to the contrary in modern anthologies, no such texts can be interpreted unambiguously as expressions of female desire.

The Complexities of "Patriarchal" Culture

In Mesopotamia and Syria the patriarchal family (bit abim "father's house") was the essential construct of social order, operative no less in the king's court or divine households. Families were patrilinear (descent traced through the father) and patrilocal (the wife lives with her husband's family). In contrast to the modern concept of the person as an independent individual, each man or woman shared a family group identity, a notable factor when considering gender and sexuality. The paterfamilias maintained and managed the family's property, which included the sexuality and fertility of its women as well as family honor, an essential, if intangible social currency. Although society condemned a wife who engaged in sex outside of marriage, married men could resort to prostitutes of both sexes without legal sanction.

Marriage, even the sacred marriage, was a social and economic contract between two families. Religion played a role in the wedding ceremonies, most visibly when the bride relinquished her own family gods and ancestors along with her family identity to realign herself with her husband's family and gods. The veilings that ritualized the bride's transformations demonstrate how gendered clothing (the veil) symbolized both identity and male-female dynamics within a marriage. Similarly, at Emar, the "marriage" of the Nin-Dingir priestess to Baal required a veil, shaving, and anointing.

Gender roles followed expected patriarchal trajectories, with women's lives centered on home and family. For most women, status and security depended on marriage and fertility, and in the Mesopotamian textual record, women's religiosity is most apparent in these contexts. Across the ancient Near East, women were particularly visible and active in connection with birth and death: as midwives skilled in magic, medicine, and purification; as birth goddesses and spirits; as female mourners, both familial and professional. By being "not-male" and thus possibly less "human," women possessed a liminality that could mediate between modes of being. They participated in but did not lead the domestic cult of the family god or goddess and spirits of foremothers and fathers. Yet these spirits and divinities required feeding with food prepared by family women, a phenomenon which points to complex interconnections between food, religion, and gender.

Public position and power were primarily male prerogatives, although in the third millennium and in the Old Babylonian period (early second millennium) women are more visible in the textual and visual record and seem to have enjoyed greater access to recognized positions of power. Only men inherited prominent priestly offices or owned a share in lucrative priestly prebendaries ("time-shares"). Nevertheless, women comprised a sizable portion of the workforce in vast temple and palace complexes that functioned essentially as wealthy extended households. These institutions were usually headed by men, but womenboth enslaved and freecontributed as agricultural workers, craftspeople, and cultic functionaries, particularly dancers and singers. (At Ugarit, nonroyal women appear only as cult musicians.) Temples also supported destitute widows and the poor who had "given" themselves to the deity. How these women's "professional lives" should be understood in the context of the patriarchal family is unclear.

Whereas scholars formerly saw female "sacred prostitutes" all over the Near East, they now detect a complex range of female cultic offices whose exact nature remains elusive. Terms once thought to refer to "sacred" prostitution are now understood to describe women who worked in the cult establishment. Some may have been prostitutes not because the cult required ritual sex but because of monetary vows women, even married women, had made to the deity in exchange for a pregnancy, cure from illness, or other favor. Some female cult functionaries, such as the Sumerian female Ens or Old Babylonian naditu priestesses, were "dedicated to the god" and barred from childbearing.

In Mesopotamia and north Syria, only men were professional incantation priests, exorcists, or diviners, although there were female prophets at Mari. Male practitioners scorned the female diviners, necromancers, and other women skilled in magic arts to whom unsatisfied clients or the poor could turn. (Although the practice of folk religion by women at Ugarit or Emar is probable, no texts mention them.)

The dynamics of gender and sexuality in Mesopotamia often preclude simple binary oppositions such as male-female, wife-prostitute, or domestic-public. Categories for men and women might seem fixed in Mesopotamian legal texts, but they were more nuanced in real-life situations. For example, the stereotyped harimtu of literature (e.g., the harlot Shamhat in Gilgamesh ) was in real life not a prostitute but a single woman independent of the patriarchal household and thus a person whose sexuality was not regulated. Her nonconformity to conventional gender expectations comes across in the primary texts as disturbing and problematic.

Gendered status fluctuated for men and women along a spectrum of innate and acquired characteristics including age, marital status, class, and race. At birth a Mesopotamian child's gender had to be ritually fixed by placing a spindle and hair ornament before a baby girl, a baton or axe before a baby boy. Besides male and female, Mesopotamian gender categories included also the castrated male and even a nonmale/nonfemale. Female homosexual activity is unrecorded, but male homosexual intercourse is well attested, although treated in omen and legal texts with ambivalence. Male functionaries in the cult of Inanna/Ishtar (goddess of love and war) practiced ritual transvestitism. Cross-gendering discourse makes a striking appearance in Assyrian treaty curses and war rhetoric: defeated soldiers are said to "turn into women"; from the male perspective, a man's gendered identity turns upon the public perception of his honor, itself a social construction.

Imagery

In Mesopotamian art, images of the male and female bodiesclothed or unclothedreflected and reinforced concepts of gender. In the third millennium, somewhat squat-figured nude or seminude male priests pour libations or carry offerings while a clothed woman priestess/official (viz., the Warka Vase; the Enheduanna disk) may preside but not visibly "act." The priests are gendered male by their genitalia or distinctive short skirt; the women not so much by the subtle swell of breasts as by clothing and hairstyle. For male priests, the shaved head and beard signal ritual purity, a state from which women were excluded by virtue of their biological "lack."

Depending on the context, male nudity could mean purity, quasi-divine heroism with a touch of the erotic, or humiliation and death. From the later third millennium on, the tall, nude, bearded male hero with rippling muscles who kills monsters is physically indistinguishable from male gods in "Battle of the Gods" scenes, hence the convention of clothed but godlike, "hypermasculine" kings who mediated between humans and the divine (e.g., the Naram Sin stele or Assyrian royal stelae). Across the ancient Near East, the only passive/submissive nude males are defeated, dead, and/or captive enemy soldiers whose bodies lack the careful definition of divine or "noble" males.

Votive portrait statues commissioned by elite Sumerian women to serve as substitute selves in the temple before the statue of the deity embody elite Sumerians' ideals of conventional womanhood. Like male votives, they are clothed with no emphasis on sexual attributes. Male votives are more plentiful, but access to the god seems to have been equally available to these male and female stand-ins. Only Inanna/Ishtar (or associated goddesses) was shown nude or semiclothed. Rather than fertility per se, female nudity seems to have represented the mysterious divine power (Sumerian: me ) of eroticism and sexuality, arguably a female-gendered symbol of access to or proximity to the divine. Unfortunately, no one has yet satisfactorily determined whether the countless frontally nude female figurines of popular culture represent goddesses or mortals. Textual evidence confirms that images of female nudity could serve to stimulate male libido. By contrast, when a woman or goddess is clothed, her breasts and torso are hardly articulated at all. In the first millennium, clothed women appear only as captives on Assyrian reliefs, in whose gendered visual language "woman" signified humiliation.

Although Ugarit and north Syria shared close cultural affinities with Mesopotamia, their artistic repertoire was Egyptianizing. Ugaritic bronze figurines of the seminude "smiting god" (probably Baal) recall pharaonic images that shared Mesopotamia's visual discourse of heroic maleness. Kings, both human and divine, are clothed. Female imagery consists primarily of small pendants and plaques with a frontally nude female figure reminiscent of the Egyptian goddess Hathor but of uncertain identity, although she is often identified as Asherah.

Conclusion

Precisely because modern Western culture conceives itself as the direct heir of biblical and classical cultures, feminists and gender theorists in these fields have pursued an open agenda of exposing"deconstructing"ancient discourses of oppression in order to identify similarly unacknowledged discourses in the contemporary world. The perceived remoteness of Mesopotamia from modern culture (with the exception of the contemporary goddess movement) may diminish the urgency with which similar issues are addressed by assyriologists; nevertheless, representations of femaleness, maleness, and even transgenderedness within the complex cultures of Mesopotamia and north Syria have a role to play in the ongoing human quest for self-understanding.

See Also

Astarte; Baal; El; Feminine Sacrality; Goddess Worship, article on Goddess Worship in the Ancient Near East; Hieros Gamos; Homosexuality; Human Body, article on Human Bodies, Religion, and Gender; Inanna; Marduk; Marriage; Masculine Sacrality; Mesopotamian Religions, overview articles; Nudity; Patriarchy and Matriarchy; Temple, article on Ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean Temples; Thealogy; Witchcraft, article on Concepts of Witchcraft.

Bibliography

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Westenholz, Joan Goodnick. "Goddesses of the Ancient Near East, 30001000 bc." In Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and the Evidence, edited by Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris. London, 1998. Proposes that ancient Near Eastern goddesses cannot be reduced to biologically determined "mother goddess" functions, but must be seen in their complex variety and specific social contexts.

Winter, Irene J. "Women in Public: The Disk of Enheduanna, the Beginning of the Office of EN-Priestess, and the Weight of Visual Evidence." In La femme dans le proche-orient antique (Compte rendu de la XXXIII rencontre assyriologique internationale), edited by Jean-Marie Durand. Paris, 1987.

Winter, Irene J. "Sex, Rhetoric, and the Public Monument: The Alluring Body of Naram-Sin of Agade." In Sexuality in Ancient Art: Near East, Egypt, Greece, and Italy, edited by Natalie Boymel Kampen. Cambridge, U.K., 1996. "Masculinist" study of the intersection of the male body, divinity, and royal rhetoric.

Mary Joan Winn Leith (2005)

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