On Life, Relationships and Marriage

Evelien Vanderstraeten researches for her PhD project the social institution of marriage in Mesopotamia during the first millennium BCE.

Marriage at the heart of a story

As I write this, snow is falling outside, turning the Finnish landscape into a white, winter wonderland. I decided to make it nice and cosy inside, by lighting some candles and making some typically Finnish pastries, a perfect remedy against the cold and grey winter months. As the scent of freshly baked pulla (a cinnamon bun) filled the air, I looked at my treasure cove of books and could not help but notice how marriage had a central place in all these stories. Through marriage, Alice, the protagonist in the book The Giver of Stars by author Jojo Moyes (2019), tries to escape her dreary England life. However, life with her family-in-laws in Kentucky USA turned out to be all but rosy as she struggles to adhere to her father-in-law and husband’s expectations of what a good wife is and does. “Elikem married me in absentia; he did not come to the wedding”. With this riveting first sentence, Dr. Peace Adzo Medie, senior lecturer in gender and international politics at the University of Bristol, starts her debut novel His Only Wife (2020), set in Ghana. Afi steps into an arranged marriage with Elikem to secure a better life for her mother and her extended family. Elikem does not show up to his own wedding, instead his brother Richard acts as a proxy groom. Throughout the story we learn how the lead character Afi, but also other women like Evelyn and Muna, or men like Elikem and Richard, wrestle, comply or oppose, each in their own way, the social norms, beliefs, traditions and practices about marriage and relationships in Ghanaian society.

PhD project “Connected through Marriage”

Seeing how marriage is at the heart of these novels, being part of these fictional characters’ hopes and dreams for their relationships, made me wonder how the individuals in my field of study, Mesopotamia in the first millennium BCE, experienced marriage. A year ago, I moved to Finland to start my PhD “Connected through Marriage: a Social History of Marriage in Mesopotamia (c. 934-141 BCE)” at the University of Helsinki and the Centre of Excellence in Ancient Near Eastern Empires (ANEE). How would it have been for the men, women and children living and breathing more than 2500 years ago in Mesopotamia? Who married whom? Why did these men and women connect themselves through marriage? How did marriage limit or expand their connections and the grip on their social environment? How did people from different social strata follow or oppose the social norms, beliefs and practices about marriage? Important contributions to establishing these people’ social identities is Caroline Waerzeggers (2020) article “Changing Marriage Practices in Babylonia from the Late Assyrian to the Persian Period” who looked into the marriage practices of the elite and non-elite families in Babylonia and Bastian Still’s (2019) “The Social World of the Babylonian Priest” who explored the marriage practices of the Borsippean priests.  

Starting point: A Genealogical Database

This study takes it a step further by examining the social identities of the men, women and children directly or indirectly involved in or connected to a marriage in first millennium BCE Mesopotamia. To this purpose, I am in the process of creating a genealogical database that will be published open-access. The database will provide an overview of the marriages attested in all the cuneiform clay tablets, not solely the marriage contracts, and from different social strata and population groups, present in the societies of first millennium BCE. The database not only generates family trees, but also matrimonial and kinship networks. 

Towards a social history of marriage

My idea for this PhD budded in 2018 during the Neo-Babylonian Network Meeting held at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice. I presented my paper “Towards a social history of Neo-Babylonian Women” where I talked about my dream of publishing a social history of Babylonia with chapters for each identifiable social group. Topics on legal, religious, scholarly and economic matters have deserved (and rightfully so) lots of attention. Nevertheless, to this date, Assyriology only paid limited, but promising attention on the social institutions and structures. We still lack a comprehensive social history of Mesopotamia. Because marrying or not marrying is at the heart of our social relationships, I hope that my current PhD research that studies marriage as a social institution in a long diachronic perspective can provide a stepping-stone towards the social history that is now lacking. The social institution of marriage holds a key position between the individual, groups and society. Social institutions with their sets of roles, statuses, values and norms influence the decisions, actions and behaviours of individuals and, in turn, the wider political, economic, social and ideological processes effect the social institutions. Consequently, each individual marriage hints at larger marriage systems embedded in the societies of first millennium BCE.

I will continue to post updates on my PhD project via Blogs on the ANEE website. I would like to thank my supervisors Saana Svärd, Jason Silverman and Caroline Waerzeggers for their support and guidance.