Women’s Roles

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Women’s Roles


The Position of Women. In a hymn to the goddess Gula (the patron of doctors and healing), the stages of a woman’s life were described as follows: “I am a daughter, I am a bride, I am a spouse, I am a housekeeper.” Once she was married, a woman’s most important role was to bear children, especially sons. A tablet of Middle Assyrian Laws (circa 1400 - circa 1050 b.c.e.) has fifty-nine clauses relating to women.

Women in the Third Millennium b.c.e.. Mesopotamian women were never equal to men before the law. The position of women in the early Sumerian city-state was higher than in later periods, perhaps because goddesses were important in Sumerian religion. Later, during the reign of king Sargon (circa 2334 - circa 2279 b.c.e.), the Akkadians continued Sumerian religious observances. Sargon appointed his daughter Enheduana high priestess of the moon god, Nanna, at Ur, a position which succeeding kings filled with royal princesses for the next five hundred years. A gifted poet, Enheduana is the first author whose name is known. She wrote religious and personal poetry in Sumerian, using traditional Sumerian literary forms. Thirteen hundred lines of her poetry have survived. Her poetry was catalogued, studied, and copied in Mesopotamian scribal schools. Many succeeding kings emulated Sargon by appointing their daughters to high religious positions.

Women in the Second Millennium b.c.e. . During the mid-second millennium b.c.e. free women at Nuzi, a Mesopotamian provincial town with a substantial Human population, were active in the economy and the courts. In Nuzi a wife could be involved in business activities with her husband’s permission. When they were permitted to engage in business, women performed the same jobs as men. They were considered the legal equals of men and could sue and be sued in cases related to landownership. One free woman of Nuzi owned at least six towns. Elsewhere, widows who were responsible for minor children could be involved in economic activities. As head of such a family, a widow could inherit and administer the family estate. Though a woman had no control over her dowry, a woman from a rich family might be given silver or other precious metals apart from her dowry. She was allowed to keep whatever profit she made from investing or lending these assets. During different periods, the property a woman built up by herself was described as in her “hand,” “tied in the corner of her garment,” or “in her basket.” Middle Assyrian Laws permitted widows to cohabit with a man without a formal marriage contract, but after two years, she legally became that man’s wife (MALA §34).

Female Scribes. The kings of the Ur III Dynasty (circa 2112 - circa 2004 b.c.e.) were praised in songs written by their queens. Lullabies for the crown prince, long songs to the king, and laments were also written by female scribes. Though most scribes were men, there were woman scribes in Old Babylonian Sippar and Mari, some of them daughters of male scribes. At least ten female scribes are known to have worked in Mari. Nine of them were slaves, women of low status who received small rations. Sometimes slave scribes were given to princesses as part of their dowries. One fragment of an Old Babylonian vocabulary text lists female scribes as scholars. There were also female equivalents of diviners, physicians, performers, and artists. All these female professionals were considered secondary to males in the same jobs, and women were paid less.

Cloistered Women. Priestesses were wealthy women who lived in cloisters. Except for priestesses of Shamash (the sun god), these women were not allowed to marry, and even the women who served Shamash were celibate and bore no children. According to the Laws of Hammurabi (§§144–147), these priestesses gave their husbands female slaves to provide children. Cloisters were established in the Old Babylonian period. The best known was in Sippar, where the cloister staff included managers, officials, scribes, laborers, and female personal slaves. A wealthy family might send one daughter with a considerable dowry consisting of houses, fields, orchards, and household slaves. In return, her family expected her to pray for them. In Sippar the cloister also functioned as an entrepreneurial institution. Female scribes recorded business transactions for the members of the cloister. Priestesses took part in various business activities, such as buying, selling, and leasing fields. The many records of such transactions reveal that the priestesses at Sippar were talented businesswomen.


Late in the reign of Sargon (circa 2334 - circa 2279), her father, as revolts spread throughout his empire, Enheduana, the chief priestess of the moon god Nanna, was driven from office and fled the city of Ur. In a poem to the goddess Inana, she lamented her situation:

Verily I had entered my holy gifaru at your behest,

I, the high priestess, I, Enheduana!

I carried the ritual basket, I intoned the acclaim.

(But now) I’m placed in the lepers’ ward, I, even I, can no longer live with you!

They approach the light of day, the light is obscured about me,

The shadows approach the light of day, is covered with a (sand)storm.

My mellifluous mouth is cast into confusion.

My choicest features are turned to dust.

Source: William W. Hallo and J. J. A. van Dijk, The Exaltation of Inanna, Yale Near Eastern Researches, volume 3 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968).


Benjamin R. Foster, “The Birth Legend of King Sargon of Akkad,” in The Context of Scripture, volume 1, edited by William W. Hallo, with K. Lawson Younger Jr. (New York & Leiden: Brill, 1996), pp. 518–521.

Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat, Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, Daily Life through History (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998).

Nemet-Nejat, “Women in Ancient Mesopotamia,” in Women’s Roles in Ancient Civilizations: A Reference Guide, edited by Bella Vivante (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999), pp. 85–114.

Martha T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, second edition, Society of Biblical Literature, Writings from the Ancient World Series, volume 6 (Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1995).

Marten Stol, “Private Life in Ancient Mesopotamia,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 4 volumes, edited by Jack M. Sasson (New York: Scribners, 1995), I: 485–501.

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