The making of the Mesopotamian sex class

Fourth and final part of my history sequence which was cut from my thesis!

Part one: A history of honour
Part two: The cradle of patriarchy
Part three: The castrated woman

Part four: The making of the Mesopotamian sex class

You search a house with a large family,
You enter this house like a good omen,
You make the house prosper, purify it…
(Wife), housekeeper, young girl, daughter of the house…
O, you, you are the stability of the town…

The one who stands at the cross-roads and roams the streets,
The one who sits in men’s assemblies and finds out about the man’s house…
You make friend quarrel with friend!

Babylonian poem  ((Leick, G. 1994. Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature. Routledge: London., p. 61.))

In the antediluvian Golden Age within the Mesopotamian mythos, we read that ‘[i]n gardens and waysides / A wife and her husband choose each other’1. Yet after the Flood2, women’s sexuality came under broader social controls, noted through the creation of a caste of chaste priestesses3.

Women became delineated as ‘good’ inasmuch as they practised restraint and ‘bad’ when they express ‘illicit’ desire. Prostitution and concubinage were well established in Ancient Mesopotamia long before Hammurabi, where widows and female orphans of conquered peoples were trafficked into sexual slavery, either in private households or brothels. By the middle of the second millennia BCE, within a society which was increasingly stratified by class, prostitution became a profitable trade for free-born women of low status. Under Middle Assyrian law (c. 14th-13th BCE), veiling was first established to mark the distinction between wives and harīmtu —preponderantly translated as ‘prostitute’, but which, Assante4 insists, refers to all single women, from barmaids to priestesses — with severe penalties for any harīmtu who claimed the wife’s privilege of wearing the veil5.

The most curious aspect of the Middle Assyrian veiling directive is that there are inventively sadistic public punishments for men who fail to inform authorities of a harīmtu who is ‘passing’ as a wife, but not the converse situation, of apprising authorities of wives engaged in adultery. Holding men responsible for reporting wives engaging in casual sex or prostitution would have reinforced the growing sexual, reproductive and economic control men expected to have over their wives and female kin. That authorities were more eager to legislate the converse situation raises some intriguing considerations.
In order that punishments could reasonably be allocated to men who failed to disclose the status of an ‘unmarried’ woman wearing a veil, the burden of proof would have been likely to include:

  1. the man must be aware that the woman is classified as harīmtu, thus assuming a prior acquaintanceship;
  2. the man and woman must be in a situation together which affords the man sufficient contact to make an identification of her status.

A mere passing glance in the market-place would seem an insufficient basis for the public flogging and mutilation which awaited a man who failed to report a veiled harīmtu. It seems likely, then, that the violation of such a law could only be witnessed if the couple had a degree of complicity; the most likely situation being that the veil was used to communicate a quasi-marital relationship with him, one which not legitimised by familial approval, given that the marriage ceremony for concubines in Middle Assyrian Law was the practice of veiling the bride before witnesses. The Code Lipsit-Ishtar (c. 1870-1860 BCE) granted judges the licence to forbid the marriage of men with harīmtu, even allocating this power over men who had divorced their legitimate wives for the purpose of marrying their paramours. There are several surviving legal documents suggesting that such informal couples were forcibly separated by the authorities, under the urgings of the family of the male partner6.

This is most likely to represent an attempt to reduce the ability of women to entice men into relationships which do not bear the seal of parental approval . In Ancient Mesopotamia, a courtesan whose only social asset was an appealing manner could be so beguiling as to threaten the social order, disrupt the structures of marriage arrangement, diminish the status of legitimate wives and complicate lines of inheritance to such a degree as to occasion specific laws designed to contain her power thus ensuring gerontocratic control over marriage.

Enkidu and Shamhat

While mythically, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the harlot Shabhat deployed her sexuality to civilise the wild Enkidu, in the streets and temples, women’s sexual and personal appeal became perceived as a vivid threat to a civilisation which was becoming increasingly invested in the repression of sexual autonomy.

The secular mandate for distinctions in dress between wives and harīmtu, through requiring wives to veil, and forbidding other women to do so, according to Lerner, marks the starting point of the division of women into classes according to their relationship to their sexuality and reproductivity, a division which has subsequently been elaborated . All women thus become to be perceived in relation to their sexuality — the formation of women into the ‘sex class’, to use Firestone’s7 term — which was effected through the dualistic creation of two separate and impermeable divisions: wives, who supply reproductive sexual services in the domestic realm, and prostitutes, who supply non-reproductive sexual services to the public.

As the ‘patriarchal bargain’ of marriage decreases in value to women, which can be seen in the increasing restrictiveness of laws regulating wives’ conduct from Urukagina to Hammurabi8, modes of survival which are alternative to the ‘patriarchal bargain’ exchange of sexual/reproductive/domestic services for maintenance and ‘protection’ become socially disparaged in order to prevent more women availing themselves of the possibility of living without subordinating themselves to a husband. These divisions thus become concretised, delimiting any movement or ambiguity between the two categories of wife and harīmtu: through making it difficult for a harīmtu to ‘retire’ into marriage without approval from her lover’s patriline, it discouraged females who valued the prospect of living under a husband’s protection and raising children with a father’s financial support from imitating the sexual autonomy of the harīmtu, despite the increasingly restrictive nature of the laws defining wifely conduct.

As these identifications were disseminated across the Eurasian continent, and successively reinterpreted, accreting various cultural inflections, the wife/harīmtu dichotomy became elaborated into the familiar virgin/whore, namûsi/bênamûs ((ie, Kurdish for with honour/without honour)) binaries which underlies so many sexist attitudes to women’s sexuality across Eurasia, from the legal codes of the Ottoman Empire9, to the anti-sex attitudes of abstinence advocates in the US10, to differential attitudes to victims of rape.

While Schloen11 does not examine issues around gender and sexuality, he deploys a wealth of archaeological evidence to suggest that the corporate patricentric family is paradigmatic of patrimonial political relations. He uses Weber’s12 concept of patrimonialism in order to argue that the structuration of the patriarchal household — ‘familiar household relationships born of personal ties of kinship and master-slave interaction’13— formed and legitimated the model for early Eurasian civilisations. These relations are based within asymmetric expectations of reciprocity in which subordination is exchanged for protection, an asymmetry which is core to the patriarchal model of marital relations.

Schloen suggests a fractal political development, in which the model of the patriarchal household was a kind of seed crystal which reproduced its patterns of dominance on larger and larger societal scales14. Whether or not the household served as a model, or was itself shaped by the first states, or the two were mutually constitutive, it is undeniable that developing political systems have long used the idioms and symbols of kinship and imitated and extended many structures of the patriarchal family. These were certainly deeply integrated into the first bureaucratic states of Mesopotamia and Iraq, where, while the influence of the individual household waxed and waned somewhat, tribal/lineage groupings and elite families remained significant wielders of power15.

  1. Ipiq-Aya. c. 1700 BCE/2008. Atrahasis. In: Dalley, S. ed. Myths from Mesopotamia.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 1-39. p. 17 

  2. There is little archaeological evidence for any specific cataclysm in Ancient Mesopotamia. Interestingly, Ipiq-Aya conceptualises the flood as a punishment from the gods for overpopulation, and positions it as following a famine of increasing severity over several years. This suggests the Malthusian pressures of pastoral/agrarian societies. The Neolithic transition to sedentary farming reduced the opportunity costs of childbirth and thereby removed traditional limitations upon demographic growth. Intensive agriculture also raises the likelihood of seasonal famine, through dependence upon a harvest. 

  3. ibid p. 35 

  4. Assante, J. 1998. The kar.kid/[kh]ariımtu – Prostitute or Single Woman? A reconsideration of the evidence. Ugarit-Forschungen 30(5). 

  5. Lerner, G. 1987. The Creation of Patriarchy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 135 

  6. Westbrook, R. 1984. The Enforcement of Morals in Mesopotamian Law. Journal of the American Oriental Society 104(4), pp. 753-756; Roth, M T. 2005. ‘Marriage, Divorce and the Prostitute in Ancient Mesopotamia’ pp 21-40 in Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World, Christopher A. Faraone, Laura K. McClure, University of Wisconsin Press 

  7. Firestone, S. 1970. The Dialectic of Sex. New York: The Woman’s Press. 

  8. Fisher, E. 1979. Woman’s Creation: Sexual evolution and the shaping of society. Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday., p. 277 

  9. Pierce, L. 1999a. ‘The Law Shall Not Languish’: Social class and public conduct in sixteenth-century Ottoman legal discourse. In: Afsaruddin, A. ed. Hermeneutics and Honor.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 140-159. 

  10. Valenti, J. 2009. The Purity Myth: How America’s obsession with virginity is hurting young women. Jackson, Tennessee: Seal Press. 

  11. Schloen, J. D. 2001. The House of the Father in Fact and Symbol: Patrimonialism in Ugarit and the Ancient Near East. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns. 

  12. Weber, M. 1922/1978. Economy and Society: An outline of interpretive sociology. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 226-241 

  13. Schloen, ibid, p. 58 

  14. ibid p. 72 

  15. Gibson, M. and Biggs, R. D. eds. 1991. The Organization of Power: Aspects of bureaucracy in the ancient Near East. Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. 


  1. […] Part one: A history of honour Part two: The cradle of patriarchy Part three: The castrated woman Part four: The making of the Mesopotamian sex class […]

  2. […] Part one: A history of honour Part two: The cradle of patriarchy Part three: The castrated woman Part four: The making of the Mesopotamian sex class […]