January 21, 2018
It is as tiny as the sleekest mobile phones that fit in the palm of the hand, but its message is anything but modern. A small tablet is thought to be the oldest love poem ever found, the words of a lover from more than 4,000 years ago.
The ancient Sumerian tablet was unearthed in the late 1880's in Nippur, a region in what is now Iraq, and has been held by The Istanbul Museum of the Ancient Orient ever since. The poem sits among Sumerian documents such as a court verdict from 2030 B.C. breaking an engagement, a property sale and documentation of a murder.
"It must be written by a man desperately in love with the rich princess," guessed Choi Na Kyoung, 27, a tourist from Korea, examining the love poem on clay, but she was mistaken.
Left:Inanna on the Ishtar Vase French museum Louvre; Right: A modern illustration depicting Inanna/Ishtar's descent into the Underworld taken from Lewis Spence's Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria (1916)
The tablet in fact contains a daring - and risqué - ballad in which a priestess professes her love for a king, though it is believed that the words are in fact a script for a ceremonial re-creation of a fable by the priestess and the king, Su-Sin. The priestess represents Inanna, the Goddess of Love and Fertility, and the king represents Dumuzi, the God of Shepherds, on the eve of their union.
Bridegroom, dear to my heart, Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet, Lion, dear to my heart, Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet. You have captivated me, Let me stand tremblingly before you. Bridegroom, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber, You have captivated me, Let me stand tremblingly before you. Lion, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber. Bridegroom, let me caress you, My precious caress is more savory than honey, In the bedchamber, honey-filled, Let me enjoy your goodly beauty, Lion, let me caress you, My precious caress is more savory than honey. Bridegroom, you have taken your pleasure of me, Tell my mother, she will give you delicacies, My father, he will give you gifts. Your spirit, I know where to cheer your spirit, Bridegroom, sleep in our house until dawn, Your heart, I know where to gladden your heart, Lion, sleep in our house until dawn. You, because you love me, Give me pray of your caresses, My lord god, my lord protector, My Shu-Sin, who gladdens Enlil’s heart, Give my pray of your caresses. Your place goodly as honey, pray lay your hand on it, Bring your hand over like a gishban-garment, Cup your hand over it like a gishban-sikin-garment.
Turkey is second only to the United States in its collection of Sumerian documents. Muazzez Hilmiye Cig, 93, a retired historian at the museum who is one of only a few people in Turkey who can read the text, said she was fascinated by the way Sumerians perceived love. "They did not have sexual taboos in love," she said. "Instead, they believed that only love and passion could bring them fertility, and therefore praised pleasures."
In the agriculture-based Sumerian community, she said, lovemaking between the king and the priestess would have been seen as a way to ensure the fertility of their crops, and therefore the community's welfare, for another year.
A depiction taken from an ancient Sumerian cylinder seal showing Dumuzid being brutally tortured in the Underworld by the galla demons
Ms. Cig said she worked with Professor Samuel Noah Kramer in 1951, and that he had identified the tablet, among 74,000 others, during years of studies in the Istanbul museum. Their translation of this tablet also shed light on the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament, she said, because some phrases are similar to poems sung during Sumerian weddings and fertility feasts. "This filled the missing link between religious texts of the different periods," she said.
As she held the transcription of the poem, Ms. Cig smiled. "After all these years, very little has changed," she said. "There's still jealousy, unfaithfulness and sexuality in affairs of love as in the times of Sumerians. I just wished whoever has written the poem could see how popular the tablet has now become."
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