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Part V: Punishing Eve: Tracing the Shift in Sumer

This series focuses on the region from where the roots of Western Judaic and Christian civilization of today are traced: the northeastern, eastern, and southeastern region surrounding the Mediterranean  from Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestine,  Jordan, Iraq, (western) Iran, and Egypt).  A similar evolution and change happened in the (farther) East that became dominated by Islam and Hinduism.

For other commentaries by Janet Wise, visit and for the complete series of Punishing Eve, as they continue to be posted,  

Note: The term androcracy is used to describe a social system ruled through force, or threat of force by men. This term derives from Greek root words Andros or “man,” and kratos (as in democratic), or “ruled.”


It is only logical, that when the deity was a female and She was revered for new life, regeneration, renewal and rebirth, her human counterparts’ reproductive capacities elevated them to a high role in the tribe and community. In the Old Religion women partnered in making the rules about the social organization of their communities and they controlled their reproductive systems. The invasions of the Kurgan/Indo-Europeans and the later Hebrews ushered in a previously unknown violence against women. It was when everything began to change. Though, as has already been described, this change took a few thousand years, evidence of how the denigration and replacing of the Goddess by male gods traces correspondingly with the lowered status and violence perpetrated against women by the male dominated cultures who invaded the Neolithic.

The land of the rivers Euphrates and Tigris stretching from what is today through southeastern Turkey, northeastern Syria, Iraq, and southwestern Iran is widely considered by historians to be the cradle of civilization. During this period when recorded history began, it became what we now refer to as Mesopotamia and it housed some of the ancient world’s most highly developed and socially complex states. It is in the evidence left behind by this region where we can trace the shift from the Old Religion when the Goddess reigned to when male gods took her place and chaos began with states acquiring wealth and power through war and destruction. The oldest culture of the region dates back to the Neolithic, 7500 B.C.E.; if the Sumerians were not the original indigenous people (which some historians argue they were not) they were a goddess-worshiping, woman-centered Neolithic culture and merged with them very early.

Sumerians were the first people known to have devised a scheme of written representation as a means of communication. From their earliest writings, which were pictograms, the Sumerians gradually created cuneiform. Through writing, they were able to pass on complex agricultural techniques to successive generations; this led to marked improvements in agricultural production and management.  The highly developed food producing system and the refined irrigation and water and flood-control systems that enabled Sumer to achieve surplus food supply also led to the growth of large cities with organized forms of labor.

Western culture attributes early medical knowledge to the Greeks. However it was the much earlier Sumerians who had astounding levels of knowledge of body functioning, disease, and medicinal healing and who passed it on to the Greeks, Phoenicians and Egyptians, who would then much later pass it to the Hebrews. The oldest medical text known today is from two Sumerian tablets; based on what has been recovered to date, they had recorded over 800 prescriptions.[1]

Another important Sumerian legacy was the recording of literature. Already mentioned is the most famous Sumerian epic and the one that has survived in the most nearly complete form, that of Gilgamesh; a moving story of a ruler’s deep sorrow at the death of his friend and of his consequent search for immortality. Laden with complex abstractions and emotional expressions, the epic of Gilgamesh reflects the intellectual sophistication of the Sumerians.[2]

The oldest texts recovered come from the temple dedicated to the goddess Inanna.  In existence well before Sumer’s shift to androcracy, the temple was built in the city of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia on the Euphrates River. From these texts come the Sumerian’s most humane laws; they are attributable to the Goddess. These excavated tablets tell us that the Goddess Nanshe of Lagash was worshiped as “She who knows the orphan, knows the widow, seeks justice for the poor and shelter for the weak.” On New Year’s Day it was She who judged all of humankind. And in tablets from nearby Erech, we read that the Goddess Niaba was known as “The Learned of the Holy Chambers, She who teaches the Decrees.” Such ancient names of the Goddess as the Giver of Law, of Justice, and of Mercy, and the first Judge also indicate the existence of some earlier codification of laws, and possibly even a judicial system of some complexity, in which the Sumerian priestesses who served the Goddess adjudicated disputes and administered justice.[3]

As already explained, through millennia the deities evolved and multiplied.  At first, there was only the Goddess, but in time the Horned God appeared, to be followed by their off-spring. Different ages and cultures, languages and dialects gave her different names – their legends gave her a multitude of functions – but her essence and renown as the Creatrix was always the same.  Throughout the entire period of Sumerian civilization the Sumerian goddesses and their later gods personified the forces of nature. The well-being of the community depended upon close observation of natural phenomena. They developed not only: their advanced agricultural systems of production, irrigation, and flood control; their knowledge of medicine and healing; their systems of social justice and literature, but sophisticated and complex systems of math and astronomy. They believed that each of their deities was represented by a number. The number sixty, sacred to the god of the heavens, was their basic unit of calculation. The minutes of an hour and the notational degrees of a circle were Sumerian concepts. The emergence of urban life, made possible by advanced agricultural production and surplus food supply, led to further technological advances. Lacking stone, the Sumerians made marked improvements in brick technology, making possible the construction of very large buildings such as the famous ziggurat of Ur. The Sumerians developed the wheeled chariot. At approximately the same time, they discovered that tin and copper when smelted together produced bronze – a new, more durable, and much harder metal.[4] These were undoubtedly important innovations prompted by their attempts to ward off the Kurgan Indo-European invasions.

In one of the oldest recorded Sumerian stories, the Goddess Inanna went down into the netherworld. There, as she passed through the gates, she was divested of all of her divine powers. According to the laws of the nether region, she could not return to the land of the living. Or, if she was somehow retrieved, she must appoint a substitute to remain in her place below. Inanna going into the underworld and losing her power was a curse to all humankind. Enki, the god of wisdom, interpreted this as meaning that if Inanna should not return, the progress of civilization would be reversed to its most primitive stages. Enki’s interpretation of the myth was prophetic. Civilization did retreat when the feminine spirit was forced underground.[5]

In agreement with Enki (and other scholars of the much later European age of enlightenment) both early American scholars and feminists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Josyln Gage whose organizational work and writings were instrumental in bringing about the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution giving women the right to vote as well as organizing for the end to child labor, and labor rights and economic and educational equity for women, spoke and wrote passionately and eloquently that the advent of patriarchy ushered in cultural regression;  that the Christian Church descended Western civilization into a patriarchal dark age of war, pestilence, destruction and death of masses of humanity, intolerance, and extreme repression and violence against women.[6] The voices and writings of these two women of 125 years in the past are ominous harbingers today.

But back to the more ancient past, by 3100 B.C.E. onward, the cultures of the Euphrates and Tigris river system were comprised of Sumerians that were by then co-existing and thus repressed by androcratic cultures. For a period of time, the Akkadians merged with and took over Sumer. They were a Semitic speaking people while the Sumerians were a (Sumerian) language isolate: a natural language with no genealogical relationship with other languages demonstrated to descend from an ancestor common with any other – and probable evidence that they were the original indigenous people. Although the two cultures became bi-lingual, Semitic Akkadian gradually replaced Sumerian as a spoken language between the 3rd and 2nd millennium B.C.E.  But Sumerian continued to be used as the sacred, ceremonial, literary and scientific language in this cradle of civilization until the 1st century A.D. Then, it was forgotten until the 19th century, when archaeologists and historians began deciphering the cuneiform inscriptions on the excavated tablets left by these phenomenal innovators.

Another very brutal and Semitic speaking culture, the Assyrians, rose to power in Sumer in late 2500 B.C.E. (by this date the region referred to as Mesopotamia) followed by numerous others, virtually all Semitic speaking peoples and all warlike.  The Babylonian culture arose around 1800 B.C.E. in what is now Iraq. Mesopotamia fell to Alexander the Great of Greece in 331 B.C.E. and would later become a battle ground with both the Persians and the Romans.

Though Sumer was historically a Neolithic matriarchal Goddess-centered culture, by late in the 3rd millennium B.C.E. all of Mesopotamia was by force, blending more with the androcratic. This was true even of the native Sumerians. While they had multiple deities representing aspects of nature, by the late Sumerian period (2800 B.C.E. on) male gods held higher power over consort goddesses; simultaneously, man was emerging more powerful over woman, and their written codification of laws exemplified this. It is in Sumer that we can literally trace the shift from the female deity being supreme to being over-run and forced to a lesser role by the male gods and the corresponding lowering in the status of women and violence against women as a result.

Wherever androcratic tribes overtook the Goddess-centered Neolithic, women became property of men, just as were livestock and other forms of wealth. And as the Goddess Nunlil was raped, by the 2nd millennium B.C.E., in many locales in the region, women were owned, raped, and bartered for profit or mutilated and murdered if their behavior did not conform to male rules, particularly their sexual behavior. Written examples of the violence perpetrated against women appear in the Hebrew Old Testament, and as well, have survived from the late Sumerians, the Akkadians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the many other Semitic-speaking tribes that would invade Mesopotamia, and the lands of Canaan and Palestine on the eastern Mediterranean Coast. This also became true of the later Egyptians, and later still – but to a lesser degree – from the androcratic Mycenaean Greeks who over-ran the woman-centered Minoans of  Mediterranean Crete between 1500 – 1100 B.C.E., and, of course the Romans who would ultimately over-run them all.

Because the female was property, virginity became a commodity with a high price; not for the virgin herself, but the male who owned her – typically her father. If she was a slave, the male-owner of the slave either used her himself or profited by selling her, or used her first then sold her for sex. That’s what slaves were for. Recorded history from about 2100 B.C.E. and later, shows that more laws proliferated over regulating female sex than anything else and all were designed to protect its male owner’s property and profit rights.  Examples from the Assyrians: a man who raped a betrothed virgin was put to death. The punishment did not address the violence against the girl, but rather the theft of her prized maidenhead, its value to be sold to the highest bidder – in this case, her prospective bridegroom. Assyrian law addressed not only the loss of virginity of a betrothed female, but also the rape of females who had not yet been promised in marriage. In such cases, compensation was due to a father for his lost chance of marrying his daughter off at the high price virgins commanded. He could sue the rapist and collect three times his virgin daughter’s marriage value, and then either force the rapist to marry the girl or keep her to sell off to someone else. A sullied girl would fetch a smaller bride-price, but the father still realized a profit. Assyrian fathers also had the option of taking a rapist’s wife as a slave to rape and abuse as often as he wished to extract revenge and further resurrect family (male) honor; thus two women were made to suffer for a crime of sexual violence perpetrated upon a female.[7]

The restrictions on married women were as unrelentingly grim as on females who were to remain virgins until marriage; their fidelity of utmost concern with strict laws to enforce it. Virtually nothing consumed androcratic lawmakers and the male-dominated-by-force societies than female infidelity, and few crimes were so severely punished. Assyrian law allowed husbands to beat, whip, and mutilate their wives for misbehaving – slitting or cutting off their nose was a favorite – even put them to death. Since prostitutes were required to go about unveiled, any wife who went about unveiled was signaling her availability, or looseness; she was risking mutilation or death. Married Assyrian women who followed the rules and wore their veils but had any association with other men were also running big risks – risks of beating, mutilation and death. A respectable woman’s entire life was lived within the confines of her male owner’s house. Leaving it without permission, or not chaperoned carried the same risky penalties. [8] Prostitution was a large part of all androcratic societies, but prostitutes had no rights; their money-making activities were governed and controlled by the male-dominated culture. They served men’s desire for sex while making a profit for them at the same time (a quaint androcratic custom that has survived well-intact to present day.)

The over-riding goal of all of these laws was to prevent even the appearance that a wife was committing adultery – the wife was the mother of the husband’s legitimate off-spring, his bloodline.[9] Note: the shift from matriarchy to androcracy meant that the matrilineal custom of bloodlines and heritance being passed through the woman was shifting (by conquest and force) to being passed through the male, though there is evidence it remained in flux and matrilineal inheritance didn’t disappear in the southern European crescent until well after Christian A.D. But in these cultures where males were taking control at the point of a sword, their laws indicated that woman was to be controlled at all costs, or put into the commercial class of prostitute. These male dominated societies did not disapprove of prostitution. It was a legal and much frequented business where men could enjoy sex with multiple partners and not claim any off-spring produced; abortion and infanticide by prostitutes was widely tolerated.

At this point it should be explained that for thousands of years in the “cradle of civilization” it had been customary for many women to live within the temple complex; in earliest times, this was the core of the community. The temple owned much of the arable land and domesticated animals, kept the cultural and economic records and generally functioned as the controlling offices of society. Merlin Stone writes, “Women who resided in the sacred precincts of the Divine Ancestress chose their mates from among the men of the community. Among these people the act of sex was considered to be sacred, so holy and precious that it was enacted within the house of the Creatress of heaven, earth and all life. As one of her many aspects, the Goddess was revered as the patron deity of sexual love. This reverence for the sexual act undoubtedly stemmed from an age-old consciousness and comprehension of the relationship of sex to reproduction. This connection most likely initially recognized by women, it was integrated into the religious structure as a means of ensuring procreation among women who chose to live and raise children within the temple complex, as well, possibly, as a method of regulating pregnancies.”[10] What was changing with the Indo-European invasions was the attitude of what constituted Goddess revered female sexual activity. As the male god worshippers installed male kings “by god-divined right” (by conquest and force) the temple priestesses’ sexual relations began shifting to priest-controlled prostitution.

Although the Goddess and her human priestesses continued to hold a lot of power (power shared with male gods), and thus had status even in these cultures shifting to androcratic rule, by about 450 B.C.E., in the city of Babylon, the temple, now under jurisdiction of male priests, had become a place of prostitution with the temple prostitutes the most desirable and the most expensive: they worked both as skilled pleasure-givers and as intermediaries between customers or worshippers and temple deities. The belief that the path to godly favor could be channeled through sex with the body of a woman was a profitable form of male worship and the prostitutes’ earnings added greatly to the temple’s revenues managed by male priests. According to Greek historian and story-teller Herodotus (484 – 425 B.C.E.), the Babylonians forced all women to put in time as a temple prostitute: every woman who was a native of the country must once in her life go to the temple and give herself to a strange man. Only after they had performed the duty were they permitted to leave. Once a woman had taken her seat among the delectable array of choices, she was not allowed to go home until a man, from the throngs strolling amongst them, had paid his fee and taken her to lie with him. After the service was done, the women were off-limits again, with their strict dress codes of who was to be unveiled and who must be veiled back in place.[11] This custom was a great profit center. Whereas fathers and husbands owned daughters and wives, the male gods now ruled everyone, with the priests making the rules, including those on how to raise revenues – and what better way than putting women on their backs.


[1] Jeanne Achterberg, Woman as Healer, p. 17

[2] Helen Chapin Metz,  Iraq, A Country Study,( Washington, DC: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, 1988)

[3] Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade, 65-66 referencing Stone, When God Was a  Woman, p. 82

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jeanne Achterberg, Woman as Healer, p. 17 as referenced from Carl Olson, ed., The Book of the Goddess (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1983).

[6] Matilda Joslyn Gage, Woman, Church, and State: A Historical Account of the Status of Woman through the Christian Ages: With Reminiscences of the Matriarchate (already quoted in previous chapters) (1893; rpt. edn., New York, 1972), and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Matriarchate or Mother-Age, in Transactions of the National Council of Women of the United States, Rachel Foster Avery, ed. (Philadelphia, 1891), p. 223; see also the same text in Free Thought Magazine 19 (June 1901): pp. 267–272; (July 1901)

[7] Elisabeth Meyer Tetlow, Women, Crime and Punishment in Ancient Law and Society: The Ancient Near East (New York: Continuum, 2004, Laws of Lipit-Ishtar p. 33, in Roth, Law Collections.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, Tetlow, Women Crime and Punishment, Frymer-Kensky, Tikva Simone, Virginity in the Bible, (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998) pp. 81 – 89; Genesis 34:25-31; Deuteronomy 22: 13-21, Leviticus.

[10] Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman, pp. 154-155

[11] Ibid, Herodotus, Book II

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Janet Wise

Janet Wise