AGRICULTURAL FERTILITY AND THE SACRED MARRIAGE

 

Source: Frymer-Kensky, Tikva, In the Wake of the Goddesses: women, culture and biblical transformations of pagan myth, (1992) Fawcet Columbine, New York. © All rights reserved to author. Text presented here for aid in studies and research purposes. Not included copious references.


The mother goddess controls human and animal reproduction, but She is not a fertility goddess in the conventional sense, for She has no power over agricultural fecundity. Despite our own use of the word fertility to describe both the ability of humans and animals to reproduce and the ability of the earth to bear fruit, and despite the Bible´s linkage of the two capacities, the Sumerians treated the two as analogous but not identical. Neither Mother Earth nor Mother Goddess has a controlling role in ensuring agricultural fertility. Much religious activity was focused on concern and celebration of the he-gal (abundance). Many gods were involved in assuring the fertility of the land and the cooperation of all the forces of nature was needed for success. But as in human reproduction, the forces of agricultural renewal were set in motion by sexual action. Among the prayers for abundance was one striking ritual, the Sacred Marriage, which has occasioned considerable interest in modern times.

The Sacred Marriage was an elaborate ritual that can be reconstructed in great detail. There is no single text that describes the whole ritual, but we can reconstruct it painstakingly from the allusions in the Sacred Marriage songs. As we do so, we begin to get a sense of the importance of this ritual, and of its significance for Sumerian ideas about the interaction of humans, gods and goddesses. The Sacred Marriage began with a journey and procession by the king to the giparu of Inanna´s temple, the site of the marriage, and the preparation of the bride by washing, anointing and adorning. The procession and meeting of the partners was accompanied by the singing of love songs and other festivities, and finally, a great wedding banquet celebrated the marriage. But the core of the ritual was an act of sexual congress between the king and the goddess figure. To the holy lap of Inanna, the king went with lifted head (proudly), as a desired, awaited partner rather than as a supplicant. He came to the great fertile bed, which had been set up for the ritual, strewn with grasses and covered for Inanna. There, in bed, Inanna gazed at him with shining countenance, caressed him and embraced him. This sexual union was intended to promote the fertility of the land.

The Sacred Marriage was a state occasion, a royal ritual, in which the king played the male role, and in which he figures as the god Dumuzi, the spouse of Inanna. The texts do not mention what woman played Inanna. She is called nugig, which has been translated as hierodule and has given rise to the idea that the female role was played by a sacred prostitute. But, in fact, nugig is a term for a woman of high rank. One of the love lyrics addressed to King Shu-Sin of Ur, which may have been recited on the occasion of a sacred marriage, are written by Kubatum, here called a lukur (normally a type of priestess), which would suggest that a priestess played the female role. But the lukur Kubatum, who wrote this lyric, was also the wife of King Shu-Sin; it may be her queen-ness rather than her priestesshood that qualified her to play the role of Inanna in the sacred marriage ceremony. The identity of the woman is not specified because it was not crucial. It was important to the king to participate in this marriage as both god and king, for it bore directly on his kingly role; his female partner was important only as she became the goddess.

The sacred marriage ritual was an ancient rite, which dates back to prehistoric times. There is a vase found in Uruk which dates from the 4th millennium Before Common Era that has a sculpted relief whose iconography is close enough to later sacred marriage texts to indicate that the vase illustrates the ritual of the sacred marriage as it was performed in Uruk in the 4th millennium. In Sargonic times, an inscription from the city of Lagash indicates that the sacred marriage was performed there also, for it records bridal gifts brought by the god Ningirsu for the goddess Baba. A little later in Lagash, the inscriptions on statues of King Gudea of Lagash also talk about the bridal gifts brought by both god and king for the goddess Baba. The Gudea Temple Hymn records the building of a temple for Ningirsu. In this hymn, a bed is prepared for Ningirsu, and on that bed Baba and Ningirsu "made the bed good together". Baba and Ningirsu may have celebrated such a union, and it is possible that various cities of Sumer celebrated sacred marriages between their city deity and his/her spouse.

The actual literary compositions all concern the marriage of Inanna and Dumuzi. This marriage of the king to Inanna had ancient roots. The title beloved spouse of Inanna had been claimed by the kings of Sumer since King Eannatum of pre-Sargonic Lagash. The kings of Mesopotamia may have practiced the sacred marriage rite from earlier times on. According to the Sumerian Epic tradition, written much later than events of the epics), the legendary kings of the first dynasty of Uruk performed this marriage as an integral part of their kingship. In fact, one of these kings was king Dumuzi, who is clearly identified with the god Dumuzi, Inanna´s spouse.

The Sacred Marriage of Inanna and Dumuzi is reconstructed from five compositions. The first datable text is a Shulgi Hymn, Shulgi X, in which King Shulgi relates how he came by boat to the quay of Uruk-Kullab with gifts for the Eanna temple. He arrived, put on festal garments and a special wig, and came before Inanna. She, struck by his glory, sang a song in which she recounted her sacred marriage with Shulgi and then she blessed him.

The most elaborate sacred marriage composition is a long Hymn to Inanna by King Iddin-Dagan of Isin (ca. 1900 Before Common Era), in which he describes Her benevolent role as evening star, and Her monthly festival. The culmination of the hymn deals with the New Year´s festival, when the people of the land prepare the marriage bed. Inanna bathes and anoints herself, the king approaches her lap proudly, they lie down and make love, and Inanna pronounces Iddin-Dagan Her true beloved. The third text, The King and Inanna, does not name the king (at least not in the non-broken sections). This poem tells about the fruitful bed, and how Inanna desired it. Ninshubur (the divine vizier of Inanna) brings the king to the holy lap of Inanna and invokes blessings on the king. The king then goes proudly to the lap of Inanna.

The next text, Plow my Vulva, is very fragmentary. It begins with a song by Inanna in which She praises Her vulva, how She called Dumuzi to godship over the land, and then prepared herself by washing and adornment. After a break, the text records the festival, where the gala and the singer changed, and Dumuzi lay by Her side. At that point, Inanna exalts him and sings a song about Her vulva, the essence of which is "my vulva is a well-watered field - who will plow it?", to which the answer is "Dumuzi will plow it for you". Inanna then pronounces blessings upon Dumuzi.

The last text to refer to an actual ritual is a fragmentary song of Inanna, "Your breast is your field". After a hymn of self-praise by Inanna, the song records how the linen-weaving priests in the Eanna have prepared an altar, and brought water and bread for Dumuzi. They ask Dumuzi to approach Inanna with a chant, which he does, praising the breasts of Inanna as a fertile field and asking to drink from them. In addition to these five texts, there is a whole cycle of songs that refer to the love, courtship and wedding of Dumuzi and Inanna. Despite the fact that they make no reference to the actual ritual event, we assume that these texts were sung on the occasion of the sacred marriage ceremony.

The encounter between king and goddess was sexual, and the ancient texts describe their embrace. The Iddin-Dagan Hymn is a clear example:

The king approaches the pure lap with lifted head,
With lifted head he approaches the lap of Inanna.
Amaushnungalanna lies down beside Her,
He caresses Her pure lap.
When the Lady has stretched out on the bed, in the pure lap,
When Inanna has stretched out on the bed, in the pure lap,
She makes love to him in Her bed,
She says to Iddin-Dagan, "You are surely my beloved".

This suggestive language leaves open the possibility that the statue of Inanna was to be laid on the bed, and the king lay with this statue. The language of the Shulgi Hymn is more descriptive. Of Inanna, it relates that "by his fair hands my loins were pressed", "he ruffled the hair of my lap", "he laid his hands on my pure vulva". Here it is clear that the king is having intercourse with a human partner who represents the Goddess.

This sexual union brought fertility to the land. The sexual conjoining of king and goddesses demonstrated the metaphysical connection between human sexuality and the survival and regeneration of the world. When King Gudea of Lagash prepared the bedquarters of the goddess Baba, his goal was to evoke fertility. The temple hymn relates that when Baba entered Her room and lay down, She caused green gardens to bear fruit. Fertility is the main focus of the King and Inanna. Inanna´s divine steward, Ninshubur, comes to Her and urges Her first to give the king a firm royal throne, and then:

May he like a farmer till the fields,
May he like a good shepherd make the folds teem.
May there be vines under him, may there be barley under him,
In the river, may there be carp-floods,
In the fields, may there be late barley,
In the marshes, may fishes and birds chatter
In the canebrake, may dry and fresh reeds grow,
In the high desert, may shrubs grow
In the forests, may deer and wild goats multiply.
May the watered garden produce honey and wine,
In the vegetable furrows may the lettuce and the cress grow high
In the palace may there be long life. 
May the Tigris and the Euphrates bring high-riding waters
On their banks may the grass grow high, may they fill the meadows
May holy Nisaba pile high the heaps of grain;
O, My Lady, Mistress of Heaven and Earth, Mistress of all Heaven and Earth,
May he spend long days in your holy lap!

Other sacred marriage texts echo this wish. In Plow my Vulva, the very imagery of Inanna as a well-watered field is an agricultural metaphor, as is the image of Inanna´s breast in "Your breast is your field":

O Lady, your breast is your field,
Inanna, your breast is your field.
Your wide, wide field which pours out plants,
Your wide, wide field which pours out grains
Water flowing from on high for the lord, bread from on high
.... I will drink it from you!

In this prayer, the imagery is directly sexual; it makes explicit the parallel inherent in this ritual between the female body and the earth, between human sexuality and cosmic reproduction.

Agrarian and pastoral fertility were matters of considerable concern to Mesopotamian religion. Many temples are praised for their role in helping produce he-gal, the fertility and prosperity of their cities; many gods are invoked for fertility; many kings are lauded for their role in the bringing of fertility. The vegetation goddess Nissha was, of course, vital to the process, but the great gods Enki and Enlil were also clearly involved with fertility - Enki as the phallic image of the fructifying waters, and Enlil as the Lord who makes the barley sprout froth, the Lord who makes the vines sprout forth, the lord who makes yields be, lord of the Earth". Enlil´s sons Ningishzida and Ninurta were in part fertility gods, with Ningizzida (Ningishzida) the power in trees and Ninurta both rainstorm god and possibly plough god.

The religious preoccupation with fertility reflects the ecology of Sumer. In Mesopotamia, surplus production resulted from irrigation. This surplus then allowed society to combine technological, demographic and economic expansion. The early temple, which coordinated irrigation and collected surpluses, was the institution for doing this. Furthermore, religion was the way in which people were motivated to produce this surplus and ultimately, the king was the figure who enabled the community to control, centralize and keep a complex balance among scarce resources. Rituals and prayers for fertility decreased anxiety about harvest, motivated people for agricultural labor, and enabled them to express awe and gratification at the existence of a stable agricultural surplus and the benefits it brought.

The sexual congress of king and goddess-figure in the sacred marriage ritual provided a powerful symbol for the union of forces involved in the creation of fertility. From the perspective of Western culture, this ritual seems alien and bizarre. We are not used to sexual behavior as part of religious ritual, and find such acts alien to our Judeo-Christian traditions. We also think of sexual intimacy as a consequence of an ongoing relationship, rather than a sole constituent act of a relationship, which has no other expression. Despite the strangeness of the concept, when we look beyond the cultural differences to understand this sacred Sex in its own terms, we find a powerful symbolic drama. The sacred marriage is a multileveled metaphor with powerful and poetic dimensions of meaning. It is significant that the prime divine figure in this drama is not a fertility or mother goddess. Instead, the ritual involves sexual union with the goddess who represents the lust which allows for sexual union. This gives sexuality a prominent place in the cosmic order as an important pathway to fertility. Just as sexual intercourse leads to human and animal fertility, so too the sexual congress of the sacred marriage could led to the agricultural fertility of the land of Sumer. Human sexuality, familiar for its domestic importance, is seen in this ritual as the known, visible component of the world´s regenerative processes; it is the anatomical analogue or aspect of cosmic renewal.

Sexuality is such an important force for renewal because Sex unites. The Sacred Marriage is about union, about the coming together of the many elements that together make a fertile world. Through this act, renewal and regeneration occur when the male component of fertility (Dumuzi) combines with the female component (Inanna), thus unifying the various aspects of cosmos. Male and Female appear as the interlocking pieces which combine to open the riches of the universe. The union of the two principals in the sacred marriage signifies, expresses and effects the meeting of the male-female axis of the world.

To go a step further into the metaphor, the union takes place at the sacred storehouse of Inanna, and Inanna, the goddess-partner, is not only the goddess of sexuality but also the deity of the storehouse. Dumuzi, Her Divine partner, which whom the king is identified, probably represents the living spirit within vegetation and animals. Through their union, civilized endeavor is mated to this regenerative ability, and their combination enables the true surplus abundance upon which urban civilization depends.

In this Sumerian ritual, Dumuzi was enacted by the king, who became the god in the performance of the ritual. The king was the avatar of Dumuzi, but at the same time, he was also the human king of the state. Through this act, he received from Inanna the blessing of a fertile and prosperous reign. In this way, the sacred marriage symbolizes yet another necessary union, for it underscores the important principle that it is through the concerted effort of the gods and humans that the fertility of the world is assured. The gods bring fertility through their control over rain, air, sun and soil. Humans bring abundance through their work in fields, canals and storehouses. The sacred marriage of the king and the goddess is a dramatic expression of this divine-human partnership.

Yet another layer of symbolism lies in the fact that the human/divine partner is the king. The sacred marriage brings together the king and the goddess in the most intimate possible ways, and thereby allows the king access to the world of the gods impossible for other humans to achieve. In this way, goddesses mediate between the world of the gods and the world of the king, a subject that is discussed in the next chapter.

The role of the goddess in the sacred marriage is graphic and immediate: She is the Sex-partner. At issue here is not gender, but organic Sex. The goddess is important precisely because She is female, because She possesses female sexual organs and can participate in the sexual act. Not surprisingly, it is the goddess of sexuality, the goddess-as-Sex-partner, who is the Divine partner in the sacred marriage. The graphic language in the sacred marriage hymns is not an indication of sexual prurience or pornographic interest. On the contrary, these hymns are a celebration of Inanna as vulva, of the goddess as "cosmic cunt".

The sexual organ of goddesses provides the best way for goddesses to be active in the cosmos, in procreation and agriculture. Even though we know the relationship between copulation and birth, our experience of them is separate and different. And the goddesses are different: it is the mother who produces children, and the Sex goddess whose sexual activity brings fertility to earth. But in each case, it is the Sex organ of the Sex-partner through which the universe is regenerated. In ancient Sumer, divine vaginas bring birth and renewal. When, as in the Bible, the divine has no vagina, how can the world be renewed? Clearly the entire conception of nature has to undergo fundamental change.

 

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