Sumerian Religion and Early Human Presence in Art

  September 26, 2021   Read time 3 min
Sumerian Religion and Early Human Presence in Art
There were important political aspects to Sumerian religion. All land belonged ultimately to the gods; the king, probably a king-priest as much as a warrior-leader in origin, was but their vicar.

No human tribunal, of course, existed to call him to account. The vicariate also meant the emergence of a priestly class, specialists whose importance justifi ed economic privilege which could permit the cultivation of special skills and knowledge. In this respect, too, Sumer was the origin of a tradition: that of the seers, soothsayers and wise men of the East. They also had charge of the first organized system of education, based on memorizing and copying in the cuneiform script.

Among the by-products of Sumerian religion were the first true likenesses of human beings in art. In particular, at one religious centre, Mari, there seems to have been something of a fondness for portraying human fi gures engaged in ritual acts. Sometimes they are grouped in processions; thus is established one of the great themes of pictorial art. Two others are also prominent: war and the animal world. Some have detected in the early portraiture of the Sumerians a deeper signifi cance.

They have seen in them the psychological qualities which made the astonishing achievements of their civilization possible, a drive for pre-eminence and success. This, again, is speculative. What we can also see for the fi rst time in Sumerian art is much of a daily life in earlier times hidden from us. Given the widespread contacts of Sumer and its basic similarity of structure to other, neighbouring peoples, it is not too much to infer that we can begin to see something of life much as it was lived over a large area of the ancient Middle East.

Seals, statuary and painting reveal a people often clad in a kind of furry – goatskin or sheepskin? – skirt, the women sometimes throwing a fold of it over one shoulder. The men are often, but not always, clean-shaven. Soldiers wear the same costume and are only distinguishable because they carry weapons and sometimes wear a pointed leather cap. Luxury seems to have consisted in leisure and possessions other than dress, except for jewellery, of which quantities have survived. Its purpose often seems to be the indication of status and it reveals a society of growing complexity. There survives, too, a picture of a drinking-party; a group of men sit in armchairs with cups in their hands while a musician entertains them. At such moments Sumer seems less remote.

Sumerian marriage had much about it which would have been familiar to later societies. The crux of the matter was the consent of the bride’s family. Once arranged to their satisfaction, a new monogamous family unit was established by the marriage which was recorded in a sealed contract. Its head was the patriarchal husband, who presided over both his relatives and his slaves. It is a pattern which was until very recently observable in most parts of the world. Yet there are interesting nuances. Legal and literary evidence suggest that even in early times Sumerian women were less downtrodden than their sisters in many later Middle Eastern societies. Semitic and non-Semitic traditions may diverge in this.

Sumerian stories of their gods suggest a society very conscious of the dangerous and even awe inspiring power of female sexuality; the Sumerians were the fi rst people to write about passion. It is not easy to relate such things to institutions, but Sumerian law did not regard women as mere chattels. It gave them important rights; even the slave mother of a free man’s children had a certain protection at law. Divorce arrangements provided for women as well as men to seek separations and for the equitable treatment of divorced wives. Though a wife’s adultery was punishable by death, while a husband’s was not, this difference is to be understood in the light of concern over inheritance and property. It was not until long after Sumerian times that Mesopotamian law begins to emphasize the importance of virginity and to impose the veil on respectable women. Both were signs of a hardening attitude and more cramping role for them.