women in ancient Mesopotamia strove to overcome men’s impotence

Women in ancient Mesopotamia delighted in love with men. In an Akkadian poem from the Old Babylonian period about 3800 years ago, a woman proclaims:

The beating of your heart is joyful music.
Rise and let me make love with you.
In your soft lap
in waking-time,
how sweet is your lovemaking.
Your fruits are profuse!

Stretch your left hand and touch my vagina.
Play with my breasts.
Enter, I have opened my thighs!

{ [tu-ru-uk] ⌈li⌉-bi-ka ni-gu-[tu/ta/ti…]
ti-bé-ma lu-⌈ur⌉-ta-ma-[ka-ma]
i-nu-ut-li-ka ra?-ab-bi?
ši mu-na-ma-ti
da-du-⌈ka⌉ṭà-a-bu
mu-úḫ!-ta-an-bu in-bu-ka

bi-la-ma šu-me-le-ek lu-pí-it-ma ḫu-ur-da-at-ni
me-li-il tu-li-i-ni
[er-ba ḫa-al]-la ap-ti }[1]

In another Akkadian poem from about 3300 years ago, a woman declares to her beloved:

Become erect! Feed yourself! Become erect!
Feed yourself with my lovemaking! My lap is like the best of oils!

{ [ti?-i?]-⌈bi⌉ et-pe-er ti-⌈i-bi⌉ et-pe-er ṣi-ḫa-ti-ia sú-ú-ni ki-i-ma ul-⌈ša?⌉-[ni-i]m }[2]

Men throughout history seldom have been paid for their sexual labor for women. Money isn’t, however, the ultimate measure of worth. Many men value seeing joy on a beloved woman’s face more than any money wage.[3]

In ancient Mesopotamia, women didn’t passively allow men to become impotent. Women in ancient Mesopotamia actively participated in progressive efforts to empower men. To overcome a man’s impotence, a woman in ancient Mesopotamia spoke an incantation that included these imploring lines:

May the wind blow! May the mountains quake!
May the cloud be gathered! May the moisture fall!
May the ass mate and mount the jenny!
May the buck arise and repeatedly mount the goat!
At the head of my bed I have tied a buck.
At the foot of my bed I have tied a ram.
The one at the head of my bed, rear up, make love to me!
The one at the foot of my bed, rear up, bleat for me!
My vagina is the vagina of a female dog. His penis is the penis of a male dog.
As the vagina of a female dog takes the penis of a male dog, so may I do!
May your penis become as long as a fighting stick!

{ lillik šāru Sadü linü[sü]
liktassir urpatum-ma tīku littuk
limgug imēru-ma atāna lirkab
litbi daššu lirtakkaba unīgēti
ina rēš eršīya lū urakkis daššu
ina šēpīt eršīya lü urakkis puhalu
ša res ersiya tibá ramanni
ša šēpīt erSiya tibá hubbibanni
ūrūya ūrū kalbati ušaršu usar kalbi
kīma ūrū kalbati isbatū ušar kalbi
ušarka līrika mala mašgaši
ašbāku ina bunzerri ša sīhāte
bu”ura ay ahti tē šipti }[4]

Men have long been disparaged as being sexually like dogs. In addition, men’s penises historically have been brutalized through figuring them as weapons. This incantation redeems those hurtful metaphors through the woman’s vigorous effort to empower her beloved man. She would recite this incantation seven times. Then the woman and man would prepare a mixture of powdered iron and magnetic ore in oil. She would anoint her vagina with it, and he, his penis. Then the man would be empowered to have sex repeatedly with the woman.

ancient Roman phallic pendant

Classic literature recognized the epic disaster of men’s impotence. Lacking sufficient appreciation for classics, many person now promote and revel in men’s impotence. Those who have recognized negative welfare effects have only interpreted men’s impotence in various ways. The point is to change it.[5] In ancient Mesopotamia, women took extraordinary action to empower men. So too should caring, public-spirited women today.

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Notes:

[1] The Beating of Your Heart – A Pleasant Tune (PRAK 1 B 472) / Your Heartbeat is My Reveille, tablet siglum Ki. 1063, from Arkeoloji Müzerleri, Istanbul, found in Kiš (now called Tell el-Uhaymir), ll. i2-i7, i13-15, Akkadian transliteration and English translation (modified) from Wasserman (2016) pp. 150-2 (No. 13). In texts from Wasserman, I’ve simplified the editorial presentation and made minor changes in the diction of the English translation. Wasserman’s translation is available online in Sources of Early Akkadian Literature. For an alternate translation, Foster (2005) p. 169.

[2] My Heart Is Awake Though I am Sleeping (The Moussaieff Love Song) (LAOS 4), l. 11, Akkadian transliteration and English translation from Wasserman (2016) pp. 133, 135.

In another Akkadian love song, a woman implores:

Where is my loved one? He is so dear!

{ [e?]-⌈eš?⌉ra-a-mi-i° šu°-qú-úr }

Fs. Renger 192–193, tablet siglum MAH 16056, held Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva. l. 1, Akkadian transliteration and English translation from Wasserman (2016) pp. 104, 106. She subsequently finds him and enjoys his “bird”:

I have thrown my coop on the young man,
so that I may catch the dove.

{ qú-pí ad-di eṭ-la-am-ma°
ù sú-ka-an-ni-na
⌈lu°⌉-uṣ-ba-at-ma }

Id. ll. 16-8. For an alternate translation of this poem, Foster (2005) pp. 165-6. At least twenty-four love poems in early Akkadian have survived. For an overview, Nissinen (2016).

[3] As literary scholars repeatedly remind readers, women should not abuse men who love them, or any other men. In one ancient Mesopotamian poem, a woman physically assaults a man in order to make him love her. She herself declares:

I have hit your head. I have changed your mood.
Place your mind with my mind!
Place your decision with my decision!

{ am-ta-ḫa-aṣ mu-úḫ-ḫa-ka uš-ta-an-ni ṭe-e-em-ka
šu-uk-nam ṭe-e-em-ka a-na ṭe-e-mi-ia
šu-uk-nam mi-li-ik-ka a-na mi-il-ki-ia }

Place Your Mind with My Mind! (ZA 75, 198–204a), tablet siglum IB 1554, from Isin, preserved in Iraq Museum, Baghdad, ll. 11-3, Akkadian transliteration and English translation from Wasserman (2016) pp. 257-8. A woman in another Old Babylonian poem exalts:

I have hit your head. You keep crawling on the ground towards me like ….
You, like a boar, lay on the ground,
until I gain my victory like a child!

{ am-ta-ḫa-aṣ mu-úḫ-ḫa-ka ki-ma x (x)]-KI-[x x] ta-ap-ta-na-aš-ši-lam qá-aq-qá-[ra-am]
at-ta ki-ma ša-ḫi-i-im qá-aq-qá-ra-am [x x x]
a-di ki-ma ṣé-eḫ-ri-im e-le-eq-qú-ú er-ni-[it-ti] }

I Have Opened for You My Seven Gates! (ZA 75, 198–204i), tablet siglum IB 1554, from Isin, preserved in the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, ll. 109-111, Akkadian transliteration and English translation from Wasserman (2016) pp. 273-4. A woman having power and control over a man is far inferior to her having his true love.

[4] Incantation No. E.1 (KAR 236, KAR 70, KAR 243), ll. 1-11, Akkadian transcription and English translation (modified) from Zisa (2021) pp. 314-5. For an earlier edition, Biggs (1967) pp. 32-3. This incantation is found in tablets dating from the eighth to seventh centuries BGC.

Zisa translated mašgaši as “mašgašu-weapon”: “it is to be understood as a weapon, perhaps a club, and not a pestle.” Zisa (2021) p. 329, n. 557. For ease of reading, above I have used “fighting stick.” While using this conventional violent metaphor, the woman surely regards the man’s penis as delightful, not hurtful.

The term šà.zi.ga (Sumerian) / nīš libbi (Akkadian) literally means “rising of the heart.” It has been understood as meaning “sexual potency.” Biggs (1967) p. 2. It’s better understood as “sexual desire.” Zisa (2021) pp. 37-52. Willed sexual desire isn’t necessary for a man’s sexual potency. Put differently, men sometimes get erections when they don’t want to have an erection. Moreover, men can get raped.

All surviving “sexual desire {nīš libbi}” incantations treat men. Men’s failure in sexual performance is physiologically much more obvious than women’s failure, particularly in instances where the woman and man use common modern contraceptives, e.g. a lubricated condom. Women were actively involved in helping to overcome men’s impotence:

The absence of sexual desire manifests itself in the man, but he is not the only recipient of therapy: the woman is fully involved. The ritual practice has to incorporate all members of the community directly involved, for this reason the woman is an important ritual actor.

Zisa (2021) p. 211. Here’s a collection of Old Babylonian love incantations. For more scholarly work on the important issue of men’s impotence, Hoppe (2016).

Another incantation underscores the woman’s appreciation for the man’s past sexual performance and her current disappointment:

Incantation: Wild ass who is reared-up for mating, who has dampened your desire?
Impetuous horse, whose sexual excitement is a devastating flood, who has bound your limbs?

{ Siptu: akkannu ša ana rakābi tebū [man]nu unihlka]
sisū ezzu ša tībūšu našpan(du m]annu mešrētīka ukassi }

A rev. 12-19 (A.2 / LKA 95 r. 12-19), transliteration and translation (modified) from Zisa (2021) pp. 238-7, with the translation incorporating some more descriptive understanding from Biggs (1967) p. 17.

In another incantation, the woman both implores the man and seeks to allay his anxiety:

Incantation: Copulate! . .. Do not be afraid!
Get an erection! Do not worry!

{ ÉN gu-ru-uš ka-na-a sar e ta-a’-dir
ti-ba-a e ta-šu-uš }

LKA 97 (D ii 18-26 / No. D.4), transliteration and English translation from Biggs (1967) p. 38. Zisa (2001), p. 291, provides a more literal translation. Much more so than in ancient Mesopotamia, men now have reason to worry about having sex with women.

[5] Recognizing objective truth helps to guide progress toward social justice. Zisa claimed:

Any consideration of the “truth” of Mesopotamian medical practices from a biomedical perspective is inappropriate. It is not possible to establish the effectiveness of other medical practices on the basis of (scientific) “truth.”

Zisa (2021) p. 212. Scholars nonetheless commonly claim that “patriarchy” is a true description of gender relations in ancient Mesopotamia. If initiatives purporting to serve public health and social justice don’t recognize the truth of men’s impotence, those initiatives can easily be delusional, unjust, and regressive.

[image] Ancient Roman phallic pendant (fascinus). Cast copper-alloy object made between 43 and 410 GC. Found in Suffolk. Source image via the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme and Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Biggs, Robert D., ed. and trans. 1967. ŠÀ.ZI.GA: Ancient Mesopotamian Potency Incantations. Locust Valley, N.Y: J.J. Augustin.

Foster, Benjamin R. 2005. Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature. Third Edition. Potomac, MD: CDL Press.

Nissinen, Martti. 2016. “Akkadian Love Poetry and the Song of Songs: A Case of Cultural Interaction.” Pp. 145-170 in L. Hiepel and M-T Wacker , eds. Zwischen Zion und Zaphon: Studien im Gedenken an den Theologen Oswald Loretz. Alter Orient und Altes Testament, vol. 438. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag.

Hoppe, Marius. 2016. Texte zur Behandlung von Impotenz. Doctoral Disseration. Freien Universität Berlin.

Wasserman, Nathan. 2016. Akkadian Love Literature of the Third and Second Millennium BCE. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Zisa, Gioele. 2021. The Loss of Male Sexual Desire in Ancient Mesopotamia: Nīš Libbi Therapies. Berlin: De Gruyter.

4 thoughts on “women in ancient Mesopotamia strove to overcome men’s impotence”

  1. The sentiment expressed in the incantation (May the ass mate and mount the jenny! May the buck arise and repeatedly mount the goat!) is timeless, as evinced by the contemporary “No Cock Like Horse Cock” by Pepper Coyote:

    “My neighbors ask me why I’m limping down the way
    And who that fellow was who came by yesterday
    … (rest of lyrics omitted because they don’t contribute further to the commenter’s substantive point in relation to the post. Moreover, reproducing them here might violate Pepper Coyote’s artistic rights.)

    The equine as a symbol of virility transcends both time and culture, and in both instances the nature of the animal itself has largely been ignored in favor of focusing solely on its sexual aspects (behavioral and anatomical). Even so, it remains a worthy subject for poetic expression.

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