Example poetry

Desire, action and gender are important in ancient Near Eastern love poetry


The best-known work of love poetry from the ancient world is the Song of Songs, a collection of erotic poetry from the last centuries before the common era, known to the modern reader as part of the Jewish and Christian Bible. However, the culture of love poetry preceding the Song of Songs in the Near East and Egypt is less well known.

“The Biblical Song of Songs is most likely part of the ancient Near Eastern tradition of love poetry, with poems written in Sumerian, Akkadian and Egyptian,” says Professor Martti Nissinen.

While the Song of Songs has long been intensively investigated from various angles, Nissinen posits that examples of ancient Near Eastern love poetry have been seriously understudied.

Sources written in Akkadian in particular, most of which have only recently been published, are poorly known despite their potential to reveal new aspects of the ancient tradition of love poetry.

Need for multidisciplinary research on love poetry in the ancient Near East

According to Nissinen, the tools of gender studies have been insufficiently used in the study of ancient love poetry, with the partial exception of the Song of Songs.

For these reasons, there is an urgent need for in-depth, multidisciplinary and methodologically up-to-date research on ancient love poetry. The construction and interpretation of gender is an emerging topic in ancient Near Eastern studies.

“Love poetry should be an indispensable part of the study of the ancient construction of gender. The orientation, purpose, and emotional world of love poetry are different from other sources from which ancient genre constructions are reconstructed, such as literary works and legal documents.

According to Nissinen, love poetry is particularly apt, thanks to the personalized mode of expression, to reveal the constructions of desire, a subject clearly underdeveloped in the study of ancient sources from the Near East. At the same time, desire is intertwined with the gendered roles assumed by woman and man, and the human and divine actors in love poems.

The critical analysis of desire and agency opens a new window on gendered language and the ideology of love in the patriarchal world of the ancient Near East. It reveals fractures in patriarchal gender classification and can be used to interpret love poems in terms of religion and politics.

Song of Songs and Love Poetry Written in Akkadian as Sources

The Song of Songs is a love poem originally written in Hebrew. The oldest manuscript evidence comes from the Dead Sea Scrolls and dates to around the turn of the Common Era, but the text itself is probably two or three hundred years older. Babylonian and Assyrian love poems written in Akkadian can be verifiably dated from cuneiform manuscripts to the 18th to 3rd centuries BCE.

“Today, we have more than 20 individual compositions at our disposal, especially thanks to the new publications of Nathan Wasserman”, rejoices Nissinen.

Like the Song of Songs, many Akkadian love poems are composed as dialogues between a male and female voice, sometimes interrupted by an anonymous third party, a sort of “chorus”. Implicit speakers are either anonymous human individuals or deities, who appear with their proper names.

“Even single-speaker poems usually involve the voice of another speaker. The speaker is always of a different gender than the person being addressed or spoken about,” Nissinen explains.

Female voices are quite prominent in both Song of Songs and Akkadian love poetry, even more so than male voices.

An obvious patriarchal social model in the background

“The genre matrix of the poems is heterosexual and based on the patriarchal social model. At the same time, it does not adhere to the patriarchal hierarchy, but makes the speaker independent and remarkably active.

Lovers can be human or divine. In some poems both lovers are human, while in others both are divine, and in yet another group one lover is divine and the other human. Depending on the gender of the speaker, the perspective is male or female, expressing both male and female gaze and male and female desire.

“The range of emotions is wide, including sexual desire, longing, lovesickness, and jealousy.”

Desire in love poetry is not only sexual

In love poetry, desire is not only used as a synonym for sexual pleasure, but refers to everything that expresses fantasy, repression, pleasure, fear and the unconscious in a gendered relationship. Desire is largely linked to the interactions and expectations between the lover and the loved one, the way the speaker (the lover) positions the other (the loved one) as well as the way the speaker wishes to be perceived by the loved one. ‘other. It could even be described as an “ontological” desire to imitate a certain identity, which is closely related to the agency of the individual.

By agency, Nissinen refers to a person’s ability to function in a social environment. In love poetry, it means the lover’s ability to express themselves and communicate with the loved one. Types of agency typical of love poetry include familial, political, and ritual agency, both in the human and divine spheres.

Research Findings May Surprise – Patriarchal Gender Roles Are Blurred in Love Poems

Nissinen’s analysis will lead to a general theory of the construction of gender relations in the ancient Near East, particularly in the light of love poems. So far, no such theory covering both Biblical and Mesopotamian sources has been formulated.

According to preliminary results, male actors may not conform to the ideal of hegemonic masculinity. Women can have a louder voice and more powerful roles than thought to have been allowed by the patriarchal hierarchy.

Masculine and feminine gazes are presented in a way that may go beyond conventional ideas of the expression of feminine and masculine desire in ancient Near Eastern societies. While the gendered relationships between divine protagonists are constructed after the human model, divine beings are not bound by the constraints of human society, giving them agencies beyond the reach of humans.

The interface between the human and divine realms is actively supported in the love poetry of the ancient world, either explicitly or implicitly. Love can be both human and divine. This dismantles the divide between the sacred and the profane and leaves room for various interpretations and uses of poetry. Love-based relationships aren’t just about mutual emotions. Instead, they emerge from a multifaceted web of gender, desire, and action.

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