A fruit salad full of ancient desire

Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature
May 26, 1995

It is the avowed intention of the author of this book (and indeed of her other books) to "make the results of Assyriological research accessible for the non-specialist". This ambition is one that few enough Assyriologists share, especially in so delicate and intangible a field as ancient sex and eroticism, and I strongly applaud it. Gwendolyn Leick's book will be welcomed by any reader who wishes to get beyond the typical range of rather dessicated works on ancient Mesopotamian culture or literature.

The problems involved are, of course, monumental. A general problem with this book is a perplexing lack of definition. On one page, for example, l'amour and sex seem to be equated. Everyone will comprehend "sex", but "eroticism" is elusive in any context, all the more so when it is the eroticism of more than 2,000 years ago - yet the term is nowhere defined, and one is left uncertain as to whether it has any relevance here at all.

Leick has opted to divide the evidence from Sumerian and Akkadian sources, and to treat the former by subject matter, the latter chronologically. She pleads for her own resonances but decries her qualifications as a Sumerologist in particular, and thus presents a fruit salad of other people's translations. Her scrupulous evaluation of her predecessors' work and interpretations will be of interest to specialists, but the lack of a decisive editorial and interpretative personality behind the book is often obvious, while the careful results are perhaps a trifle heavy-going for the merely interested reader.

Leick's view is that the gods and goddesses of Sumerian literature behaved like animals, and she is happy to see humour in many passages that are usually taken seriously by Sumerologists. Sumerian literature will always profit from a fresh look, but it is surely doubtful how far humour and genuine eroticism can belong in one and the same literary passage.

A group of texts that must necessarily have been erotic are the Potency Incantations, yet few modern readers will experience a quickening of the blood on reading them ("make love to me with the love-making of a goat; make love to me with the love-making of a stag" etc.), even allowing for some loss in translation.

Then, one wonders, what was the Mesopotamian attitude to nudity? A glance at the index reveals two references, both to nakedness alone, with no broader consideration. Omitted, for example, is the extraordinary sculpture of a nude woman now in the British Museum, one of a number set up by King Assur-bal-kala (1073-56bc), with an inscription pertinent to any investigation of the erotic in Mesopotamian life: "I (says the king) made these sculptures in the provinces, cities and garrisons for titillation", to quote the 1976 translation by A. K. Grayson. (Recent conservation work prior to the exhibition of this unique female figure has revealed unmistakeable pubic hair delicately carved by the sculptor).

The author does however rightly stress the importance of one direct literary source for eroticism, the so-called Love Lyrics, to which she devotes some seven pages.

New textual sources for this fascinating composition, with its earthy dialogues sparked by sexual jealousy, have recently come to light; and an entirely new study is currently being prepared in London by Renuka Madan.

This is a book to be read for atmosphere and impression, rather than for reference; perhaps it was never meant as a reference work. The curious reader wishing to investigate a specific subject in ancient Mesopotamia, such as homosexuality, will feel a lack of detailed discussion and perhaps be unsatisfied with the small selection of references in the index; other significant possible entries, such as "circumcision," "embarrassment", let alone "sexual complexes", are entirely missing from the index, and not covered in the text.

There are some misprints which are tiresome, given the book's substantial price, and the adjective "clitorial" is unsupported by the dictionaries. The typeface is not easy to read, and the fussy diacriticals, hardly relevant in the context, are often a mess in the text, although standards in the notes are better.

On the whole, though, the author has covered a broad, not to say straggling field with great competence, and her book will never lead the reader astray. Small points can of course be disputed. The useful Babylonian spell designed "to make a woman talk", according to Leick "probably implies an emotional disposition that will make her willing to be seduced". It is likely to be nothing of the kind; Erica Reiner's recent ingenious suggestion that the magic was to make a woman talk in her sleep and reveal the name of a rival bedfellow is much to be preferred.

Irving Finkel is assistant keeper, department of Western Asiatic antiquities, British Museum.

Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature

Author - Gwendolyn Leick
ISBN - 0 415 06534 8
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00
Pages - 320

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