Summary of the ’Men and Women in Ancient Texts’ AMME Seminar

The year’s second AMME seminar, held on February 23rd, examined hegemonic masculinity and women’s agency in Mesopotamia.

Opening the seminar, Dr. Patricia Bou Pérez presented her research into hegemonic masculinity in the Old Babylonian period based on literature and letters, specifically letters from the Mari archives. The theory of hegemonic masculinity, coined by R. W. Connell, was built on top of A. Gramsci’s ideas about cultural hegemony. It was chosen to account for the complexity of the genres used and the variance in masculinity across time, culture, social status, and other factors. According to the theory, the ideology of a specific, hegemonic way of being a man is used to subjugate and dominate men and to justify the dominance of men over women and other genders.

Several signifiers of masculinity repeated within the sources examined. Masculinity was connected to sexual qualities and fertility, brought up for example in the Epic of Zimri-Lim. A man was expected to take on an active, controlling role, whether in sex or in managing his household. As a leader of his household, he was expected to be protective, exemplified in the Code of Hammurabi which assigns to Hammurabi a shepherd-like role. It did not do to be merciful to enemies, however; a “real man” was expected to go to war for his king and family. Despite this, Hammurabi was depicted as merciful; was this for propagandistic reasons, or did the view of mercy as emasculate vary? Going to war seems to have been most important, even taking a ritualistic significance in the Epic of Gilgamesh which describes war as “the rite of a warrior, the task of a male” and compares men at war to women in childbirth.

Dr. Agnès Garcia-Ventura and Dr. Fumi Karahashi went further back in time to Presargonic Lagash, where they looked into women donors of maš-da-ri-a, “festival provisions”. Scholarship so far has recognized these women’s participation, but it has not been sufficiently explored until now. Quantitatively, there are more male givers, with 120 male contributors and 20 female. This study, however, looked qualitatively into women’s maš-da-ri-a donations in order to tease out what they say about women’s agency at the time.

As women are usually identified by their husband’s name, it is commonly assumed that they are working as proxies. However, looking into the other activities of these women reveals that they had varied assets from which they could draw the resources for their own donations. One maš-da-ri-a donor, a prominent figure in her community, is to known have owned leased fields, which could have produced the wealth for her donation of flour and beer. In addition to holding fields, elite women also fostered diplomatic relations, had domestic animals, held titles, bought and sold property, and overall had varied, productive economic roles. One must also consider that gestating and giving birth to children is also productive work and should be counted as such. Overall, female contributors in Presargonic Lagash had the socio-economic means to produce their own maš-da-ri-a goods, not just act as proxies for others; there is no qualitative difference between male and female agency in maš-da-ri-a contribution.

Why research women’s agency specifically? As mentioned earlier, women are often assumed to work as their husband’s proxy. This is an example of a wider bias where women are associated with passive, private roles as opposed to the active, public roles of men. Studies like this one are important for gathering evidence to counteract this assumption. Unfortunately, the burden of proof needed to establish women’s agency is greater than for men’s agency; men are assumed to have agency whereas women’s agency needs to be “proven”. Even when they are shown to be agents, this tends to be downplayed as something rare or exceptional. This is why agency still needs to be studied to highlight women’s active, effective roles.

The talks were followed by a veritable flood of questions and comments. It was fantastic to hear the contributions of everyone at the seminar, and the discussion would have gone on for much longer had there been time for it. Thank you to the speakers and to all the attendees and see you at the next seminar on March 16th when our theme is ‘Embodied Emotions in the Ancient World’!