Women in Ancient Sumeria/Babylonia/Assyria

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Posted by Turkish Delight from ? ( on Wednesday, April 10, 2002 at 3:33AM :

Women in Ancient Sumeria/Babylonia/Assyria

The ancient Sumerians and Babylonians worshipped both male and female
gods. Although the most powerful god (Marduk) was a male, there was also
an important goddess named Ashur (Ishtar) who was worshipped by men and
women alike. Sumerian and Babylonian society can be seen to parallel the
hierarchy of the deities they worshipped.-- While the males held the most
important roles within society, still the females also enjoyed significant
legal/social rights and independence. In ancient Sumner, women were given
dowries by their husbands upon marriage--which the woman still controlled
and could bequest after marriage. Upper class women could hold property and
conduct business on their own. As the male gods became more powerful among
the Sumerian city-states, women appear to have correspondingly declined in
social status.

In ancient Babylonia, women were granted important marital rights. If a wife
left her husband, or was divorced by him, she took her dowry with her.
Although a husband could divorce his wife at will, the wife could still
divorce her husband based upon charges of cruelty or adultery in the marriage.
Divorced women received custody of the children, and could receive financial
support from their ex-husbands. Laws protected women from rape, by proscribing
the death penalty as punishment. If a married woman engaged in adultery, she
was expected to take an oath of fidelity at the Temple, and return home to her
husband. Although women had less legal rights than the men, still historians
have noted that in many ways the status of ancient Sumerian and Babylonian
women were higher than in nineteenth century England or America. (John
Langon-Davis, A SHORT HISTORY OF WOMEN, London: Watts & Co., 1928, pp. 86-7
as quoted by June Stephenson, WOMEN'S ROOTS, Diemer, Smith Publishing Co.,
Napa California, 1985, p 63)

In stark contrast, the laws of Assyria did not have such egalitarian laws
for their women. The ancient Assyrians worshipped a strong male god figure,
while demeaning the earlier female worship of the goddess. In 1500 BC,
following the conquest by the Assyrians, the myth was introduced that the
god Marduk murdered the Goddess Ashur in order to gain supreme power in
Babylon. Women were required to be veiled in public, and strict fidelity was
expected upon penalty of death.

If a woman was raped, her attacker was not directly punished. Instead the
victim's closest male relative (ie her husband or father) received the right
to rape the attacker's wife or daughter--in an "eye for an eye" version of
justice. Alternatively the victim's father could marry his daughter to the

As an interesting comparison, if a woman was raped in ancient Israel,
hebrew law ordered the rapist to pay 50 shekels of silver to the woman's
father, and then to take his victim for his wife. As further punishment, he
was not allowed to "put her away"--ie divorce her. Both the Assyrian and
hebrew laws gave the husband the right to murder his adulterous wife and
p 58-9)

The Assyrians were also the first known ancient peoples in the area to
specifically outlaw abortion.--Their laws declared the penalty to be death
by impalement for the woman, if her child was aborted. (Even if a woman
died during an abortion attempt, her corpse was impaled to denigrate it.)
In contrast, the ancient hebrews had no direct laws outlawing abortion.

Women in Ancient Egypt

In ancient Egypt, women held the highest known status within the ancient
world. They held property, participated in public life, and mixed freely with
men within society. Women even kept their maiden names after marriage, as
opposed to taking the names of their husband's family. All children belonged
to their mothers, so that there was no stigma attached to illegitimacy for
the children. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (first century C.E.) noted
that queens were held in higher honor than kings, and that women ruled the
household among the general population.

In some respects women had secondary rights to the men. Adultery was a
sin for Egyptian women, for which she could lose her dowry to her husband.
A woman could not divorce her husband, although a man could divorce his wife.
While women were expected to be monogamous, men could marry multiple wives and
have concubines.

Still, women could hold and bequeath property, testify in court, and obtain
injunctions against men without the use of a guardian. They were allowed to
move freely around in public, without recourse to a veil and without an
attendant. According to Ramses II, "The foot of an Egyptian woman may walk
where it pleases, and no one may deny her." Helen Diner, MOTHERS AND AMAZONS,
New York: Doubleday and Co., Inc 1973, p 173 as quoted by June Stephenson,
op cit., p 82)

Isis, the mother goddess of the ancient Egyptians was the most important
of all the goddesses of antiquity. As wife to the reincarnated god Osiris,
Isis was seen as a powerful divine goddess with powers over love and
matchmaking, curing the sick, and resurrecting the dead back to life. As the
mother of Horus, she symbolized the role of life-giver and nurturer. Isis'
powers included dominion over lightning, thunder, and the winds--areas usually
reserved for male gods. She was believed to have given the people their
laws, medicine, religion and writing. It was Isis who imparted knowledge in
agricultural matters of turning food into grain. She was also credited with
the invention of the sail boat, and was the patroness of navigation and
commerce in port cities. Her cult especially appealed to women and slaves,
and was popular well into the Christian Roman era.

Women's high status in ancient Egyptian society appears to have been, at
least partially, due to the worship of the powerful Egyptian goddess Isis.
Indeed, in a hymn to Isis dating from the second century C.E. (and found in
Oxyrhynchus, Egypt) can be found praises made to the goddess Isis, because
"she made the power of women equal to that of men."

-- Turkish Delight
-- signature .

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