Rostovtzeff Lecture Series: Sumer in the Mesopotamian World: Reading Traditions & Traditions of Reading, IV

Photo by the Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Courtesy of Richard Zettler, Associate Curator-in-Charge of Near East Section

Rostovtzeff Lecture Series: Sumer in the Mesopotamian World: Reading Traditions & Traditions of Reading, IV

Reading Early Cult Then: Sex & the Temple in Mesopotamian Memory

Gonzalo Rubio, Pennsylvania State University

RSVP Required.

NOTICE: Admission to the ISAW Lecture Hall closes 10 minutes after the scheduled start time.

In a distinctively modern understanding, the term Sumerian often appears essentialized (the Sumerian World, Sumerian Art, etc.). This practice, however, reflects a construct, which is at odds with the original sources and stems from conflating linguistic realities and perceived identities. Instead, the civilization that blossomed in the southernmost region of Ancient Mesopotamia can be approached in accordance with categories that attempt to reflect (or at least not to ignore) their own original, explicit and implicit, discourses, inasmuch as they can be reconstructed. Any such reconstruction has to deal primarily with the nature of textual production in Sumerian and constitutes an endeavor defined and defied by the inherent writtenness of these traditions already in the third-millennium BCE.

In this regard, our own reading of the Sumerian corpus and its tradition can be contrasted with the ancient readings enacted in Mesopotamia itself, particularly long after the Sumerian language had become a cultural relic to which only a few scholars and bureaucrats had access.

According to Herodotus, every Babylonian woman had to have sexual relations with a stranger at least once in her lifetime in the temple of Aphrodite; this stranger would then pay the woman with a coin, which immediately became sacred. This is the basis for the assumption of the existence of “sacred prostitution” in Ancient Mesopotamia. In fact, some native Mesopotamian sources seem to place priestesses in the same context as prostitutes. In Early Dynastic texts (mid-third millennium BCE) from Fāra, both regular prostitutes and priestesses are mentioned in the same lists of rations as dependants of a high temple official. Similar examples can be found in documents from various Babylonian cities in the first half of the second millennium BCE. This raises the question of whether there was a direct relation, cultic or economic, between temples and prostitution in southern Mesopotamia, or whether earlier functions performed by priestesses and cultic practitioners were misconstrued or recontextualized in later periods. As we strive to interpret ancient records on their own terms, so the ancient Mesopotamians themselves struggled to make sense of roles and institutions whose nature and functions evolved and mutated throughout three millennia.

-- Reception to follow

Dr. Rubio is an Assyriologist whose work focuses on the languages and literatures of Ancient Mesopotamia (Sumerian and Akkadian).  His research and publications deal with Sumerian grammar and literature, early Semitic languages (particularly Eblaite), comparative Semitic linguistics, the cuneiform writing system, Mesopotamian history, and various aspects of language and cultural contact in the Ancient Near East. His edition of the Sumerian literary corpus from the Ur III period will be published soon. He is currently working on a project on Early Dynastic literary texts from Ebla and Mesopotamia, for which he received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities (2012-13). He is also finishing a volume on Sumerian grammar, as well as coordinating and editing a large handbook of Ancient Mesopotamian studies to be published by De Gruyter. Dr. Rubio is a Senior Fellow of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, at New York University.  He is also the editor-in-chief of the monograph series Languages of the Ancient Near East (published by Eisenbrauns) and Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Records (published by De Gruyter).