men in love with women in Sumerian proverbs

In ancient Mesopotamia, proverbs inscribed in Sumerian on stone tablets provide wisdom for men in love with women. Sumerian love poems use specific, physical referents. Sumerian proverbs similarly refer to specific, typical aspects of ordinary life. These proverbs acknowledge relational difficulties in love, express motifs of men’s sexed protest, and realistically affirm the importance of women to men.

Emotional relations affect human welfare fundamentally. A pair of ancient Sumerian proverbs declare:

A loving heart builds houses.
A hating heart destroys houses.

{ cag4 ki-aj2 nij2 e2 du3-du3-u3-dam
cag4 hul-gig nij2 e2 gul-gul-lu-dam }[1]

In this context, “houses” functions as a physical metaphor for “families.” Men have hearts and feelings. As these proverbs affirm, men’s hearts and feelings matter for families’ welfare. In fact, each member of a family has a heart, and each heart’s orientation to the others affects the family’s welfare. It’s not just the superficial, modern gynocentric proverb: “happy wife, happy life.”

Cuneiform tablet inscribed with the Instructions of Shuruppak, a Sumerian proverb collection

Happy in their love for men, women in ancient Mesopotamia appreciated men’s love for them. A Sumerian proverb declares:

A plant as sweet as a husband does not grow in the steppe.

{ u2 dam-gin7 ze2-ba edin-na nu-un-mu2 }[2]

Sumerian “edin-na,” here translated as “steppe,” could also be translated as “open country” or “desert.” The point seems to be that human cultivation is necessary to develop sweet husbands. Most men naturally love women. Men, however, need to learn how to love women in the way of a sweet husband. Another Sumerian proverb explains:

My husband picks the bones from the fish for me.

{ [mu]-/ud\-na-[ju10] [jiri3-pax(PAD)-ra2] /cag4 ku6-ta\ […]-/de5\-de5-ge }

A sweet husband elaborated:

With my mouth I cool the hot soup for you.
I pick the bones from the fish for you.

{ ka-ju10 tu7 bil-la2 ma-ra-sed-de3-en
ku6-ta jiri3-pax(PAD)-ra2 ma-ni-ib-rig5-rig5-ge-en }

Women in ancient Mesopotamia appreciated not only men’s kindness towards them, but also the physical qualities of men’s bodies:

A shepherd’s sex appeal is his penis.
A gardener’s sex appeal is his hair.

{ sipad jic3-a-ni
nu-jickiri6 suhur-ni }

A shepherd carries a long staff. A gardener raises plants with lush crowns. A staff and a crown are metaphors for men’s sexually distinctive penis and hairy genitals, respectively. Men historically have commonly been valued instrumentally, i.e. as tools for doing tasks.[3] Women in ancient Mesopotamia appreciated men for their masculine being itself.

Men in ancient Mesopotamia appreciated women broadly. Men appreciated women’s sensual bodies, their sexual receptivity, and their reproductive potential:

May Inana make a hot-limbed wife lie with you!
May she bestow upon you broad-shouldered sons!
May she find for you a place of happiness!

{ dinana-ke4 dam ur2 kum2-ma ha-ra-an-nu2-e
dumu a2 tal2-tal2-la ha-ra-an-ba-e
ki nij2 sag9-ga ha-ra-ab-kij2-kij2-e }

Men in ancient Mesopotamia also appreciated women’s hearts:

My girlfriend’s heart is a heart made for me.

{ cag4 ma-la-ja2 cag4 ma-dim2-/ma\ }

Moreover, women’s economic contributions to the household improved men’s welfare:

The married man is well equipped.
The unmarried man makes his bed in a haystack.

{ lu2 dam tuku a2 cu im-du7-du7
dam nu-un-tuku ce-er-tab-ba mu-un-nu2 }[4]

Most importantly, men in ancient Mesopotamia regarded women not as goddesses, but as human beings like themselves. With an ironic nod to gyno-idolatry, a Sumerian proverb celebrates women’s full humanity:

Something which has never occurred since time immemorial:
a young woman did not fart in her husband’s embrace.

{ nij2 ud-bi-ta la-ba-jal2-la
ki-sikil tur ur2 dam-ma-na-ka ce10 nu-ub-dur2-re }[5]

Men in ancient Mesopotamia, like men in medieval Europe, surely understood that a husband’s sexual obligation to his wife is much more important than an occasional fart.

Both men and women in ancient Mesopotamia chose whether to marry a particular person. A Sumerian proverb declares:

Young woman, your brother cannot choose for you.
Whom do you choose to marry?

{ ki-sikil cec-zu saj nu-mu-re-eb-kal-le
a-ba-am3 saj mu-e-kal-le-en }

Men were similarly advised:

Marry the wife of your choice.

{ igi il2-la-za dam tuku-ba-ni-ib }[6]

Given the importance of a man’s wife, a man should choose a wife wisely:

Don’t choose a wife during a festival!

{ ezem-ma-kam dam na-an-tuku-tuku-un-e-ce }

Sumerian wisdom literature further elaborates on the danger of choosing a wife at a festival:

You should not choose a wife during a festival.
Inside, it is all borrowed. Outside, it is all borrowed.
The silver on her is borrowed. The lapis lazuli on her is borrowed.
The dress on her is borrowed. The linen garment on her is borrowed.

{ ezem-ma-ka dam na-an-tuku-tuku-e
cag4-ga huj-ja2-am3 bar-ra huj-ja2-am3
kug huj-ja2-am3 za-gin3 huj-ja2-am3
tug2? huj-ja2-am3 gada? huj-ja2-am3 }[7]

A festival isn’t ordinary life. While many men enjoying gazing upon alluring dressed women, a prudent man marries a wife for her authentic self.

In ancient Mesopotamia, voices of men’s sexed protest weren’t harshly and comprehensively suppressed. A Sumerian proverb characterizes actual hierarchies of class and gender:

As a slave girl, I have no authority over my mistress.
So let me pull on my husband’s hair.

{ gi4-in-jen ga-ca-an-/ra\ /ce-er\ /nu-mu-un-na-ma-[al]
/mu-[ud-na-ju10] [ga-an-ze2-e-ce] }[8]

Despite the modern myth of patriarchy, husbands are typically subordinate to their wives. Men are taught not to complain — “take it like a man.” Nonetheless, in ancient Mesopotamia, husbands sometimes complained about demanding wives:

Like a sow was she not treated to luxury?
Was she not accustomed to demanding barley in the middle of the night?

{ megida2!-gin7 hi-li nu-mu-ni-in-ak
ji6 MAC-a-ka ce al nu-mu-ni-in-dug4-e-ce }

A common motif of men’s sexed protest is wives betraying their husbands’ secrets. A Sumerian proverb expresses that concern:

What has been spoken in secret will be revealed in the women’s quarters.

{ puzur5 u3-bi2-dug4 ama5-e he2-bur2-re }[9]

Ancient Mesopotamian wisdom realistically recognized husbands’ vulnerability in relation to their wives:

A malicious wife living in the house
is worse than all diseases.

{ dam nu-jar-ra e2-a til3-la-am3
a2-sag3-a2-sag3-e dirig-ga-am3 }

Many men don’t consider carefully the advantages and disadvantages of marrying. A proverb from ancient Mesopotamia highlights a man’s foolishness:

For his pleasure, he got married. On thinking it over, he got divorced.

{ sag9-ga-ni-ce3 tuku-am3 jalgaga-ni-ce3 taka4-am3 }

Men endure acute anti-men bias in divorce proceedings. Ancient Mesopotamian wisdom wisely urges men to think before they marry.

Sumerian proverbs offer a realistic perspective on ordinary life in Mesopotamia more than four thousand years ago. Like the Hebrew Bible, Sumerian proverbs affirm life as a fundamental blessing despite difficulties of lived experience:

Although the number of unhappy days is endless,
life is better than death …..

{ ud nu-dug3-ga cid-bi [nu]-til3
/nam-til3 nam-uc2-a dirig X […] }

Difficulties of lived experience, such as diarrhea and marital strife, require prudent, appropriate responses. A proverb provides a counter-example:

A fool who was overwhelmed by his backside
stuck his hand up his backside.

{ is-hab2 ki-bid3-/da\ [(X)] cu ca-an-ca-[ca-da]
cu-ni bid3-/da\ [ba-ni-in-gid2] }

Although a wife and having children might create difficulties for men, in ancient Mesopotamia these personal relations were regarded as fundamentally important to men’s lives:

He who does not support a wife, he who does not support a child,
has no cause for celebration.

{ dam nu-il2 dumu nu-il2
giri17-zal-ce3 nu-il2 }

This Sumerian proverb isn’t referring to “child support” as the term is known today. Being subject to paying “child support” surely isn’t reason for a man to celebrate. This Sumerian proverb concerns a husband building a home together with his wife and supporting their child with his time, attention, and work. In ancient Mesopotamia, fathers hadn’t been transformed legally into merely wallets. The ancient Mesopotamian legal regime encouraged men to marry and have children.

Inscribed in stone, Sumerian proverbs are the oldest written records of wisdom to have survived to the present. The emerging scholarly field of meninist literary criticism shows that some Sumerian proverbs speak to men as distinctively gendered, fully human beings. One must, however, avoid anachronistic literary interpretations. The pressing need to affirm men’s gender distinctiveness and intrinsic goodness has emerged only recently. Far removed from hateful social constructions such as “toxic masculinity,” the relatively wise culture of ancient Mesopotamia appreciated men’s distinctiveness and goodness even without the benefit of meninist literary criticism.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Sumerian Proverbs t.6.1.11 11.147 (ll. 3-4), Sumerian transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, second edition (ETCSL). All Sumerian proverbs are similarly sourced and cited by their corpus numbers in ETCSL.

Alster (1997) is the most important scholarly reference on Sumerian proverbs, but regrettably difficult to access. For an overview of Sumerian proverb collections, Taylor (2005). For an outdated but still informative study, Gordon (1959). For an idiosyncratic selection of Sumerian proverbs, Saltveit (2007).

Subsequent proverbs above, unless otherwise noted, are similarly from ETCSL. They are t.6.1.01 1.126 (l. 6), “A plant as sweet…”; t.6.1.22 (l.33), “My husband picks the bones…”; t.6.1.03 3.112 (ll. 204-5), “With my mouth I cool…”; t.6.1.16 16.b4 (ll. 8-9), “A Shepherd’s sex appeal…”; t.6.1.19. 19.c5 (ll. 7-9), “May Inana make…”; t.6.1.01 1.91 (l. 51), “My girlfriend’s heart…”; t.6.1.01 1.12 (ll. 15-16), “Something which has never occurred…”; t.6.1.01 1.148 (ll. 18-9), “Young woman, your brother…”; t.6.1.19 19.c4 (l. 6), “Marry the wife of your choice”; t.6.1.11 11.150 (l. 7), “Don’t choose a wife during a festival”; t.6.1.11 19.d11 (ll. 14-15), “As a slave girl…”; t.6.1.08 8.b3 (ll. 5-6), “Like a sow was she not…”; t.6.1.01 1.82 (l. 37), “What has been spoken in secret…”; t.6.1.01 1.154 (ll. 31-32), “A malicious wife…”; t.6.1.02 2.124 (l. 203), “For his pleasure, he got married…”; t.6.1.25 25.5 (ll. 16-7), “Although the number of unhappy days…”; t.6.1.19 19.e3 (ll. 4-5), “A fool who was overwhelmed…”; t.6.1.01 1.153 (ll. 29-30), “He who does not support a wife….”

[2] In a testament to current intellectual narrow-mindedness, this proverb is included in Halton & Svärd (2017) because a woman apparently wrote it. Id. p. 214.

[3] In a Sumerian proverb, a man lamented:

All day long, oh penis, you ejaculate
as if you have blood inside you, and then you hang like a damp reed.

{ ud cu2-uc jic3-e a ab-ra-an
uc2 cag4-ba-gin7 gi duru5-a ab-la2-en }

Sumerian Proverbs, ETCSL t.6.1.04. 4.7 (ll. 8-9). This man apparently had an infection causing discharge from his penis and impotence. While men’s impotence is appropriately regarded as an epic disaster, a man’s being is greater than merely his sexual potential.

[4] The Instructions of Shuruppak {Šuruppag} (Old Babylonian / Standard Sumerian version), ll. 185-6, Sumerian transliteration and English translation from ETCSL t.5.6.1. For text, translation, and commentary on The Instructions of Shuruppak, Alster (2005). For an overview of the text and its development, Samet (2023) and Sallaberger (2018).

The earliest surviving version of The Instructions of Shuruppak, recorded on the Abu Salabikh tablet from about 2550 BGC, declares, “To have a wife is perfect.” Line 123, translation from Sallaberger (2018) xii.

[5] According to current scholarship, this proverb is “certainly misogynistic.” De Zorzi (2019) p. 224. In current scholarship, any literature that doesn’t support gyno-idolatry is disparaged as “misogynistic.”

[6] Of course, a man needed a woman’s agreement to marry her. In ancient Mesopotamia, just as in many other places and times, mothers arranged their sons’ marriages and were crucial advocates for sons:

My fate is her voice, and my mother can change it.

{ nam-tar-ju10 gu3-nam ama-ju10 mu-da-an-kur2 }

Sumerian Proverbs, ETCSL t.6.1.02. 2.6 (l. 17).

[7] The Instructions of Shuruppak, ll. 208-11, Sumerian transliteration from ETCSL t.5.6.1, English translation adapted from those of ETCSL and Alster (2005) p. 92. Šimâ Milka / The Instructions of Šūpê-amēli, a Late Bronze Age (1500-1200 BGC) wisdom text found in Ugarit, Emar, and Hattusa, is formally similarly to The Instructions of Shuruppak and offers similar advice about choosing a wife at a festival:

Do not buy an ox in springtime. Do not marry a young nubile woman
made up for a festival.
Even a sick ox will look good in springtime.
An unworthy young nubile woman will dress up for a festival. She will
dress up in a loaned garment and she will anoint herself with
oil that has been borrowed.

Hittite Parallel Text D (= ll. 96ʹ–100ʹ), English translation (modified) from Cohen. For ease of understanding, I have replaced “karšanza girl” with “young nubile woman” based on Cohen (2015) pp. 52-3, n. 31.

[8] Across class hierarchies in ancient Mesopotamia, women and men had similarly positions within their respective genders. A Sumerian proverb thus declared:

The ruler’s wife kneels, the female slave dies.
The ruler kneels, the male slave dies.

{ dam u3-mu-un-/si\ [gam-am3 geme2 ug5-ga]-/am3\
u3-mu-un-/si\ gam-/am3\ [arad ug5-ga-am3] }

Sumerian Proverbs, ETCSL t.6.1.09 9.a14 (ll. 18-9), English translation modified to gender-identify explicitly the male slave. Throughout history and trans-culturally, kneeling is understood as an act of status deference. This proverb suggests that the status of a slave, whether female or male, is correspondingly lowered through death.

[9] Cf. Matthew 10:27, “what you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops {ὃ εἰς τὸ οὖς ἀκούετε κηρύξατε ἐπὶ τῶν δωμάτων}.” Similarly, Luke 12:3.

[images] (1) Cuneiform tablet inscribed with The Instructions of Shuruppak, a Sumerian proverb collection. This tablet was written 2600–2350 BGC in Bismaya, Adab (present-day Iraq). Preserved as accession # 83 in the Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago. Source image via Wikimedia. More about this tablet. (2) “Proverb: Don’t Choose a Wife During a Festival,” a song by the Lyre Ensemble from their album The Flood (2015). On YouTube.


Alster, Bendt. 1997. Proverbs of Ancient Sumer: The World’s Earliest Proverb Collections. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press. Review by Gwendolyn Leick.

Alster, Bendt. 2005. Wisdom of Ancient Sumer. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press.

Cohen, Yoram. 2013. Wisdom from the Late Bronze Age. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature.

Cohen, Yoram. 2015. “The Wages of a Prostitute: Two Instructions from the Wisdom Composition ‘Hear the Advice’ and an Excursus on Ezekiel 16,33.” Semitica. 57:43-55.

De Zorzi, Nicla. 2019. ‘“Rude Remarks not Fit to Smell:” Negative Value Judgements Relating to Sensory Perceptions in Ancient Mesopotamia.’ Pp. 217-252 in Annette Schellenberg and Thomas Krüger, eds. Sounding Sensory Profiles in the Ancient Near East. SBL Ancient Near East Monographs Series 25. Atlanta, G: SBL Press.

Gordon, Edmund I. 1959. Sumerian Proverbs: Glimpses of everyday life in ancient Mesopotamia. New York, NY: Greenwood Press.

Halton, Charles and Saana Svärd, eds. 2017. Women’s Writing of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Anthology of the Earliest Female Authors. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sallaberger, Walther. 2018. “Updating Primeval Wisdom: The Instructions of Šuruppak in its Early Dynastic and Old Babylonian Contexts.” Pp. vii-xxvii in Mordechai Cogan, ed. In the Lands of Sumer and Akkad. New Studies. A Conference in Honor of Jacob Klein on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday. Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Saltveit, Mark. 2007. “The Gecko Wears a Tiara: Rude wisdom from Ancient Sumer.” Online.

Samet, Nili. 2023. “Instructions of Shuruppak: The World’s Oldest Instruction Collection.” Chapter 15 in Mordechai Cogan, Katharine J. Dell, and David A. Glatt-Gilad, eds. Human Interaction with the Natural World in Wisdom Literature and Beyond: Essays in Honour of Tova L. Forti. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark.

Taylor, Jon. 2005. “The Sumerian Proverb Collections.” Revue d’Assyriologie et d’Archéologie Orientale. 99(1): 13-18.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *