Desire, agency and gender important in ancient Near Eastern love poetry

Long before the Song of Songs in the Bible, a culture of love poetry flourished in the Near East and Egypt.

The best-known work of love poetry from the ancient world is the Song of Songs, a collection of erotic poetry dating back to the last centuries before the Common Era, known to the modern reader as a 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, together with poems written in Sumerian, Akkadian and Egyptian,” says Professor Martti Nissinen.

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

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

Multidisciplinary research on love poetry in ancient Near East needed

According to Nissinen, the tools of gender studies have been insufficiently utilised 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 constitute an indispensable part of the study of the ancient construction of gender. The focus, purpose and emotional world of love poetry is different from other sources from which ancient gender constructs are reconstructed, such as literary works and legal documents.”

According to Nissinen, love poetry is particularly apt, thanks to the personalised mode of expression, for revealing constructions of desire, a clearly underdeveloped topic in the study of ancient Near Eastern sources. At the same time, desire is intertwined with gendered roles assumed by the female and male, and the human and divine actors of the love poems.

The critical analysis of desire and agency opens a new window into the gendered language and ideology of love in the patriarchal world of the ancient Near East. It reveals fractures in the patriarchal gender classification, and it can be used to interpret love poems in terms of both 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 is from the Dead Sea Scrolls and dates to 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 back to cuneiform manuscripts from the 18th to the 3rd century before the Common Era.

“Today, we have more than 20 individual compositions at our disposal, thanks above all to the new publications of Nathan Wasserman,” says a happy 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 ‘choir’ of sorts. The implied speakers are either anonymous human individuals or deities, who appear with their proper names.

“Even the poems with only one speaker usually imply the voice of another speaker. The speaker is always of different gender than the person addressed or spoken about,” Nissinen says.

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

A patriarchal social model evident in the background

“The gender 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 female speaker independent and remarkably active.”

The 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 either male or female, expressing both the male and female gaze and male and female desire.

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

Desire in love poetry is not only sexual

In love poetry, desire is not used solely as a synonym for sexual pleasure, but it refers to everything that expresses fantasy, repression, pleasure, fear and the unconscious in a gendered relationship. Desire is broadly linked to interactions and expectations between the one who loves and the beloved, the way in which the speaker (the one who loves) positions the other (the beloved) as well as how the speaker wishes to be perceived by the other. This could even be described as an ‘ontological’ desire to emulate a certain identity, which is intertwined with the individual’s agency.

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

Research findings can surprise – Patriarchal gender roles are blurred in love poems

Nissinen’s analysis will result in a general theory of the construction of gendered relationships in the ancient Near East, specifically in the light of love poems. So far, no such theories covering both biblical and Mesopotamian sources have been formulated.

According to preliminary findings, male actors may not conform to the ideal of hegemonic masculinity. Women may be given a stronger voice and more powerful roles than is thought to have been permitted by the patriarchal hierarchy.

Both the male and female gaze are presented in a way that may go beyond conventional ideas of the expression of female and male desire in ancient Near Eastern societies. While the gendered relationships between divine protagonists are constructed after the human model, the divine beings are not bound by the constraints of human society, which gives them agencies beyond the reach of humans.

The interface between human and divine realms is actively upheld in the love poetry of the ancient world, either explicitly or implicitly. Love can be simultaneously human and divine. This dismantles the divide between the sacred and the profane, and gives space to various interpretations and uses of poetry. Relationships based on love are not only about mutual emotions. Instead, they emerge from a multifaceted network of gender, desire and agency.