Cheryl Morgan

Without your consent, no destiny is determined, the most ingenious solution finds no favour.
To run fast, to slip away, to calm, to pacify are yours, Inanna,
To dart aimlessly, to go too fast, to fall, to get up, to sustain a comrade are yours, Inanna.
To open high road and byroad, safe lodging on the way, helping the worn-out along are yours, Inanna.
To make footpath and trail go in the right direction, to make the going good are yours, Inanna.
To destroy, to create, to tear out, to establish are yours, Inanna.
To turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man are yours, Inanna.

Those are the words of Enheduanna, High Priestess of the Moon in the Sumerian city of Ur. They are part of her poem, Passionate Inanna, which she wrote in the 23rd Century BCE. Enheduanna is the earliest known example of someone signing their name to a literary work.

wiki-disk
Enheduanna (3rd from right) as depicted on the Disk of Enheduanna (Wikimedia Commons)

Inanna, who became, or merged with, Ishtar in the successor civilizations of Babylon and Assyria, is a fascinating character who is often described as liminal, paradoxical or contradictory. Some commentators have even described her as androgynous, though this appears to be a misunderstanding of the source material made by people unfamiliar with gender theory.

There have been suggestions that Inanna has been described as bearded. In some cases this is probably no more than gender performance, an indication of her might. In others it is a misunderstanding of references to the appearance of Inanna’s astronomical aspect, the planet Venus.

Translators of ancient languages wisely tend towards literal renderings so as to avoid interpretation, but Enheduanna’s words might be referring to gender stereotypes. A possible interpretation might be simply, “To make a man meek and a woman brave are yours, Inanna.” Besides, the actions of gods belong in the realm of myth, not real life. Do we have any evidence of actual gender transition in Sumerian society?

One well known text of similar antiquity to Enheduanna’s work describes a religious festival held in honour of Inanna. It describes the celebrants as follows:

The people of Sumer parade before you.
[…]
The male prostitutes comb their hair before you.
They decorate the napes of their necks with coloured scarfs.
[…]
The women adorn their right side with men’s clothing.
[…]
The men adorn their left side with women’s clothing.
[…]
The ascending kurgarra priests raise their swords before you.

This has led commentators to state that Inanna’s temples employed “transvestites.” Can we cite these comments as evidence for the existence of trans people in the earliest human civilization? That rather depends upon what we mean by “trans people.” In modern parlance the term “transvestite” would usually refer to people who identify as male but wear women’s clothing at times for various reasons. However, many of these commentators, especially those from the twentieth century and earlier, may not have seen any difference between such cross-dressers and other trans people who identify strongly as female and seek to live as such for their entire lives.

We must be careful not to impose modern ideas of identity on the ancient world. The Western concept of the transsexual relies in part on medical technology not available to the ancients. However, people such as two spirits from North America and hijra from India have traditions dating back into antiquity. And even modern non-binary people often don’t identify as transsexual. The use of trans as an umbrella term allows us to encompass a variety of identities, including those from history.

The description of the festival appears to show the people of the city cross-dressing specifically for the purpose of the celebration. Indeed the whole thing sounds very like a gay pride parade, with lots of people just dressing up for the party. We must be careful to exclude any recreational cross-dressing, but look instead for evidence of lives lived outside of the narrow gender binary.

Gwendolyn Leick speculates that some of Inanna’s gender variant cult workers may have played a role similar to that of the hijra in Indian society. There is certainly evidence to support the suggestion. To find it we need to look for other references to the gender of Inanna’s followers. The myth of Inanna’s Descent into the Underworld, thought to be a mythic explanation of where Venus goes in between being the morning star and evening star, survives in different versions from different periods of Mesopotamian history. In all of them Inanna is captured by Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld, and has to be rescued by the other gods.

A Sumerian version of the myth explains how the god Enki sends two emissaries, a kurgarra and a galatur, to rescue the goddess by tricking Ereshkigal into granting them a boon. There is a temptation to assume that these are simply types of demon, except that both are known from other texts as names for people associated with Inanna’s cult. The kurgarra march in the festival brandishing swords, so they are not meek and girly, but then they do serve a goddess who is often shown bristling with weapons and riding on a lion. We shouldn’t make gender-normative assumptions about anything to do with Inanna.

The gala, on the other hand, appear more effeminate. A gala is a temple employee whose job it is to sing lamentations, and a galatur is simply a junior gala. They appear to have spoken a Sumerian dialect called Emesal which was possibly reserved for women.

One well-known statuette of a person named Ur-Nanshe was found in the Sumerian city of Mari. An inscription on the back describes this person as a master singer and includes a dedication to a version of Inanna. The statuette has a soft face, a suggestion of eye make-up, is clean-shaven, has long hair and a suggestion of breasts. Although Ur-Nanshe is a male name, the statuette has variously been gendered as female and a eunuch as well. The original dig report  has a lengthy section on the gender of the person depicted.

queen-of-night
Ereshkigal celebrates her triumph over Inanna (British Museum)

Singers of lamentations, of course, might well be required to have a high-pitched voice, suggesting possible castration in childhood. Then again, the inscription states that Ur-Nanshe is a “naru,” a singer, not specifically a “gala.” Also we can’t be certain that the Sumerians followed our own conventions for gendered representation of people. Man-boobs do exist, and the statuette’s maker might simply have shown them honestly. All of this makes precise interpretation very difficult.

Another clue might be the mention of male sex workers in the description of the festival. One Sumerian proverb refers to a gala wiping “that which belongs to my mistress” from his backside. That’s presumably a reference to semen as Inanna is a fertility goddess. A possible literal translation of the word “gala” is “penis-anus.”

In an Assyrian version of the story the kurgarra and galatur are replaced by an assinnu. Stephanie Dalley coyly translates this as “Good-looks the playboy,” but the word “assinnu” is often translated as “feminine man” and there are references in other documents that have been taken to indicate assinnu doing sex work.

Further evidence comes from the Babylonian poem, The Epic of Erra. This also references kurgarra and assinnu, of whom the poet says, “Whose maleness Ishtar turned female, for the awe of the people.”

A complication is that some Sumerian sources refer to women who are the wives of gala, and even a few gala that have children (ironically one of the best known examples is a gala called Dada). Possible explanations for this include that gala are associated with more than one god, and only Inanna requires castration; or that we are seeing a change in the status and function of gala over time.

I note also that it is probable, given a sizeable population of gala, that they would have exhibited a range of gender identities and sexualities. Babylonian law has extensive provision governing adoption, so the concept is likely to have been known in Sumer. Therefore queer families were not out of the question.

Possibly the clearest evidence, however, comes from a fragment of a statue held in the archives of the British Museum, dating probably from the late third millennium BCE. It is only the right shoulder and arm, but it bears an inscription. The British Museum’s Dr. Irving Finkel translated this as: “Silimabzuta, hermaphrodite of Inanna.”

The term hermaphrodite is, of course, of post-Sumerian invention, and these days carries a specific biological meaning. The literal translation is more like, “person-man-woman.” The term “man-woman” is found in many cultures when referring to trans people. It doesn’t necessarily mean that Silimabzuta was a eunuch or intersex. It may simply indicate social gender transition. What it does say very clearly is that someone in Sumer recognized the existence of people who were neither man nor woman.

The presence of people living outside of the gender binary in the ancient world doesn’t necessarily imply social acceptance, and over thousands of years attitudes can change. In the Assyrian version of The Descent, Ereshkigal curses the assinnu to be shunned by the rest of society. This is an addition to the Sumerian text, implying a possible downgrading of the status of gender diverse people in Assyria as compared to Sumer. What does seem probable is that in the cradle of human civilisation people were not only living lives outside of the gender binary, but in doing so played a key role in important religious ceremonies.

My thanks are due to Monica Palmero Fernandez (University of Reading), Sophus Helle (Aarhus University) and Omar N’Shea (University of Malta) for their kind and expert assistance with this essay. Thanks to Alexandra Llado for the lead on Dada, and special thanks to Monica for finding Silimabzuta for me.

cheryl-morganCheryl Morgan  is a writer, publisher and broadcaster. She is co-chair of OutStories Bristol, an LGBT local history organisation. She has delivered papers on many aspects of trans history and trans characters in literature, and is a regular speaker at LGBT History Month events. She tweets from @CherylMorgan.



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9 Comments

  1. Cheryl Morgan

    Not all of the references that I used for this article are available online. For the benefit of anyone who would like to read more, here is a bibliography:

    Bahrani, Zainab (2001). Women of Babylon, Routledge, New York.

    Cooper, Jerrold S. (2006). “Genre, Gender, and the Sumerian Lamentation”. Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. 58, 39-47. Retrieved from

    Dalley, Stephanie (1989). Myths from Mesopotamia, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

    Foster, Benjamin R. (2016). The Age of Agade: Inventing Empire in Ancient Mesopotamia, Routledge, New York.

    Harris, Rivkah (1991). “Inanna-Ishtar as Paradox and a Coincidence of Opposites”. History of Religions, 30(3), 261–278. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1062957

    Helle, Sophus (2017). “The Dynamics of a Three-Sex Model”. Gender, Methodology and the Ancient Near East conference, Barcelona.

    Jastrow, Morris (1911). “The ‘bearded’ Venus”. Revue Archéologique, 17, 271–298. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41021741

    Leick, Gwendolyn (1994). Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature, Routledge, New York.

    Michalowski, Piotr (2006). “Love or Death? Observations on the Role of the Gala in Ur III Ceremonial Life”. Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. 58, 49-61. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/40025223

    Reade, Julian (2002). “Early monuments in Gulf stone at the British Museum, with observations on some Gudea statues and the location of Agade”. Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und vorderasiatische Archäologie Vol 92(2), 258-29.

    Taylor, Patrick (2010). “The GALA and the Gallos” in Anatolian Interfaces: Hittites, Greeks and their Neighbours, Collins, Billie Jean, Bachvarova, Mary R, & Rutherford, Ian (eds.), Oxbow Books, Woodbridge Connecticut.

    Westenholtz, Joan Goodnick (2007). “Inanna and Ishtar – the dimorphic Venus goddesses ” in The Babylonian World, Leick, Gwendolyn (ed.), Routledge, New York.

    Westernholtz, Joan Goodnick (1998). “Goddesses of the Ancient Near East 3000-1000 BC” in Ancient Goddesses, British Museum Press, London.

    Westernholtz, Joan Goodnick (2007). “Inanna and Ishtar – The Dimorphic Venus Goddess” in The Babylonian World, Routledge, Abingdon.

    Wolkstein, Diane & Kramer, Samuel Noah (1983). Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth, HarperCollins, New York.

    The commentary on Silimabzuta is in the Reade paper.

    The translations were sourced as follows:

    Passionate Inanna from Foster
    Parade description from Wolkstein & Kramer
    Epic of Erra from Helle

  2. Thanks for your thought-provoking piece! I just read and have some initial feedback for you; I might have some more after I mull it over a little while. (FYI, I wrote the “Women and gender in Babylonia” chapter in the Babylonian World volume, Leick ed., that you cite. I fully agree that I did not deal with gender/sexuality as much as I would have liked; as always with projects like that one, I had space constraints, and my priority was to include material about slave women.)

    From the least to the most substantial:
    1. The city of Mari was not Sumerian. It was Semitic (but which, in its use of cuneiform script, by necessity also used some Sumerograms in writing), and lay some 500 km away from the Sumerian heartland, along the river Euphrates. I think it’s more reasonable to say it was the capital of a neighboring, coeval society.
    2. As I wrote in my Babylonian World piece, “I will note simply that none of the many recent studies on the subject of cultic prostitution has found clear evidence that it existed in Mesopotamia (cf. Assante 1998), and scholars have instead focused on critiquing the passage in Herodotus that describes routine prostitution in Babylonian temples (cf. Budin 2003: 153).”
    Citations: Assante, J. (1998) The kar.kid/harimtu: prostitute or single woman? A reconsideration of the evidence. Ugarit-Forschungen 30: 5–96
    Budin, S.L. (2003) Pallakai, prostitutes, and prophetesses. Classical Philology 98: 48–159.
    3. Finally (for now), I am surprised that you wait until near the end of your piece to mention the possibility that GALA and (e.g.) Silimabzuta were born intersex, and then you almost immediately dismiss that possibility without further discussion. It certainly makes sense that intersex people would be considered divine intermediaries in Sumer, as they were elsewhere in pre-modern societies across the globe.

    Like you, I have struggled with finding real-life (or prosopographical) corollaries to the literary allusions in ancient works like “Inanna’s Descent” – my focus having been to try to document the lives of domestically enslaved women and of women in same-sex romantic and/or sexual relationships. We have plenty of evidence for male same-sex desire from Sumer and Akkadian-speaking Mesopotamian cultures – that might make a good Notches post sometime! – but not so much regarding women: the late J. Bottéro mentioned an unpublished text in the Berlin museum addressing the latter in his book Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods (1995), but by the time I wrote him to ask for further clarification, he was no longer able to respond. So I don’t mean to derail your project of finding evidence for Trans lives in Sumer, but rather I hope that we find clearer sources (both textual and material) to assist that project.

    Now I’m off to rack my brain on additional sources on Trans identity from other Mesopotamian cultures… 🙂

    • I meant *wrack my brain above, but I suppose “rack” works now as well. A lesson in textual multivalence, brought to us by Autocorrect (TM)…
      Also, I should say that I have not done new research in this field in some years now, so I am not the most-informed commentator. While I am not currently in touch with Dr Leick or other Sumerologists/Assyriologists, I will try to draw their attention to this piece.

  3. Cheryl Morgan

    Thanks Laura, that was very interesting. Very quickly:

    1. I’ll leave comment on Mari to Monica – she’s doing her PhD on the city.

    2. Stephanie Budin is a friend, so I know where you are coming from with regard to sacred prostitution.

    3. Intersex conditions are certainly a possibility, but most of them don’t cause an active transformation in the way that castration (and Inanna?) does. Silimabzuta might have exhibited 5-ARD, but terms that translate literally as “man-woman” are found in other ancient and tribal cultures referring to both eunuchs and to social transition. My instinct is that most ancient cultures had neither the science nor the language to distinguish what was biological and what wasn’t.

    I’m all in favour of clearer sources. The above is based in large part on discussions with Assyriologists at a couple of academic conferences this year, and the link should be going out through academic channels. With any luck someone else will have new material.

  4. Monica Palmero Fernandez

    Just a quick note as my name has been mentioned in the text:

    Yes, Mari is not a “Sumerian city”, so completely my fault for not flagging that one when Cheryl kindly asked me to read her initial draft. The question of what exactly “Sumerian” means is rather controversial. The usual convention (as used by the ARCANE Project) now is to designate these regions as Southern and Central Mesopotamia, with a “cut-off” border north of Abu Salabikh and south of Kish. Mari is thus strategically positioned on the northernmost border of Central Mesopotamia with the Middle Euphrates and Jazirah regions. While Mari was not “Sumerian”, it was clearly a city at a crossroads and unique in that sense. However, it was not always independent or a capital city. Its history is very much intertwined with the north-south fluvial trading route.

    For those interested in a longer discussion on Mari (without wanting to bore you, and this is just a very rough sketch):

    Mari is a complex settlement located at a trading crossroads between Southern Mesopotamia and the North and Northwest regions. It had 3 distinct occupation levels spanning over 1,000 years of history and which likely had a changing political structure over time, both under the rule of foreign kings (such as during the Akkadian Empire or under the rule of the Amorite kings) and as an independent political entity (such as immediately before the conquest by Sargon of Akkad, when Mari became strong enough to defeat Ebla, or under the independent rule of Zimri-Lim, its last king before Mari’s destruction at the hands of Hammurabi). Its foundation in the Early Dynastic I period (ca. 2900 BC) is not fully understood (buried under many occupation layers, it is often difficult to excavate the early levels), but given its “ex-nihilo” character, the strongest suggestion sees it as a strategic enclave in the trading routes, which means it was probably under the control of another political entity, most likely northern, rather than southern, however. The second foundation in the Early Dynastic III period (ca. 2500 BC), probably after a short period of abandonment, involved the complete redesign and construction of monumental architecture across the site, including a palace and a series of temples. Once again, the wealth necessary to carry out such a well thought out and large construction project points towards some external force playing a part. How and when Mari went on to become an independent polity later in this period has been discussed but is not always well-understood (see Archi and Biga’s 2003 “A Victory over Mari and the Fall of Ebla” for details on the political relationships between Ebla and Mari during this period).

    The excavators of Mari initially saw it as a Sumerian enclave further north given some of the artefacts they found, especially the Early Dynastic statuary and the “Ur Treasure”, which contained objects in the same style as those found in the Royal Cemetery of Ur excavated by Woolley, including an inscribed lapis lazuli bead of king Mesanepeda. At the time, there were not many excavations in that region and interpretation was largely modelled on the southern excavations in Telloh and Ur. The general view at the time was that Sumer was the centre of “civilization” (see Gordon Childe’s classic from 1936 “Man Makes Himself” in which he coins the term “The Urban Revolution”). Parrot, who dug Mari, envisioned a northern extension of the Sumerian civilization despite marked differences in the architectural remains, for example, to the point that it was suggested that “the gods in Mari are Sumerian, but the architecture is Syrian” (I can’t remember the exact reference for this off the top of my head). Mari in the Early Dynastic III period is now understood to belong within a wide network that both stretches south (through Kish), as well as towards the north (to Nagar and Tuttul) and northwest (to Ebla), maybe even northeast towards Nineveh and Assur.

    As Laura points out, the language spoken at Mari was Semitic, as evidenced in the use of syllabic writing in administrative texts in the proto-Akkadian period. However, we simply don’t have any evidence from the earlier period, and linguistic identity does not preclude cultural identity. Furthermore, it seems plausible to hypothesise that, at Mari, people from a wide variety of backgrounds met and cohabited. Interestingly, the votive inscriptions are usually written in Sumerian, thus we have dMUŠ3.NITA (“male(?) Inanna”) for “The Ishtar Temple” and dMUŠ3xZA.ZA (?) for “The Ninnizaza Temple”. Employing Sumerograms was probably a sign of knowledgeability and tradition even at the time. An “older” (ED IIIa?) administrative text (list of offerings to deities) recently published by Cavigneaux employs Sumerograms including dMUŠ3 (“Inanna”) and dMUŠ3xZA.ZA, while those from the proto-Akkadian period (written syllabically) have what appear to be regional “variations”: Aštar of Ṣarbat, Aštar of Pakabi, etc. The former has now been identified with dMUŠ3xZA.ZA, suggesting that the scribes were trying to identify local/regional deities by adapting already established writing formulas (This new identification by Colonna d’Istria has not yet been published, and was kindly explained to me by Camille Lecompte). This is probably how the “Sumerian gods and Syrian architecture” statement stems from, since at first these deities were naively equated with the Sumerian ones, instead of exploring concepts of borrowing and syncretisation. The identity of these deities is very much disputed and I discuss the controversy surrounding this “male Inanna” in my research, but I won’t bore you with that.

    The idea that Mari was “Sumerian” in the sense of an ethnic or cultural background is now, thankfully, dismissed, even though “The Sumerian Question” remains very much open to debate and cannot be answered based on art historical or philological arguments (as was the case in the past). Mari was certainly very much a part of a larger intercultural exchange network of luxury items during the Early Dynastic Period, as evidenced by the presence of steatite vessels decorated in the “intercultural” style, as well as the tradition of dedicatory sculpture. Jean Evans has discussed the similarities and differences between the various sites across the South and Central Mesopotamian regions, including the Diyala, in her book “The Lives of Sumerian Sculpture”. In particular, chapter six deals with Gender and Identity in Early Dynastic Temple Statues. There was also an active international musical scene, as evidenced in the archives from Ebla (cities mentioned include Mari, Nirar, Kish, Emar, Tuttul, Nagar and Aleppo).

    With regards to the specific example of Ur-Nanshe from Mari, it is interesting that the style of representation is linked with the title/occupation of the individual portrayed. This sculpture parallels the figure accompanying a musician in the upper register of the banqueting side of the so-called Standard of Ur. Therefore, there appears to be at least some shared cultural identities between north and south. The name of this individual is Sumerian (it means “servant of the goddess Nanshe”, a deity from the region of Lagash). It has been suggested that he/she originated from the south, although names could have been changed in the life course of an individual for various reasons. The names of musicians in Ebla texts are also sometimes foreign. Once again, while Sumerian musical titles were regularly used by the scribes of Ebla, it is unclear how far this reflects actual Sumerian musical influence, rather than mere orthographic convention.

  5. Cheryl Morgan

    Monica – Thank you! Much appreciated.

    Everyone else: this is why I a) this is why I try to consult experts, but b) not go into detail in posts such as this.

  6. Sujay Kentlyn

    “. . . may not have seen any difference between such cross-dressers and other trans people who identify strongly as female and seek to live as such for their entire lives.”
    I’m always puzzled by the apparent lack of attention to people on the FTM spectrum – as in this example following a quote which includes “The women adorn their right side with men’s clothing”, and the possibility of Inanna’s beard – and why is the importance of gender performance downgraded? Perhaps the Sumerians had an insight into the performativity of gender!

    • Cheryl Morgan

      Very good point re transmasculine. I would have loved to have included some examples, but right now I don’t have enough evidence to do so.

      The Sumerians undoubtedly had an interest in the performance of gender, but there’s a difference between someone who cross-dresses solely for a religious festival (or a football game) and someone for whom gender transition is an important part of their life. We don’t need to make a case for cross-dressing – it’s right there in the text – but we do need to make a case for trans lives.

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