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Ku-Baba

 

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A little too much eye makeup! (Source)

A long while ago, I wanted to write about Ku-Baba, the only woman on the Sumerian King List. I went first to my go-to source on anything Sumerian, Sumerian Shakespeare, and found that Jerald Starr, the brain behind the site, had not mentioned Ku-Baba at all. It was as if I was just imagining this rather intriguing figure.

Nonetheless, I wrote to Starr with the hope he would have some information about Ku-Baba, or at least a good source he could point me toward. His response, which was basically doubt that she existed at all, left me feeling like I was at a dead end at the time, so I abandoned the idea of writing about her.

Fast forward to today, and Starr has changed his mind. “I had to revise my opinion,” he wrote to me in a surprise email. He also included a link to a new post on his website, in which he explains in detail how he arrived at the conclusion that Ku-Baba might have existed after all.

“For a long time I doubted that Ku-Baba even existed,” he writes in the post. “I believed the reference was a sly mean-spirited joke by the scribe who wrote the King List.”

What changed Starr’s mind was an alabaster statue at the Louvre from Girsu, with a little too much eye makeup to be just your run-of-the-mill Sumerian priestess, as he had initially believed. “When I first saw the statue, I believed it was a Sumerian priestess because she seems to be wearing a circular headband,” he writes, “. . .although for a priestess I thought she was a bit heavy-handed with the makeup.”

From the eyes, Starr traveled back up to the head, where it became clear to him that it was no headband this statue was wearing–that it was a hat he’d never seen on a Sumerian woman before. “The hat on the statue most closely resembles a shepherd hat, the crown of a Sumerian king,” he writes.

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That’s no headband! (Source)

And from there, Starr writes as only he can about the minutest details to put Ku-Baba, the first woman ruler in history, back into the realm of possibility, giving me a chance to write about Ku-Baba like I had originally wanted.

The First Woman Ruler

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Ku-Baba. (Source)

Ku-Baba, Kug-Bau in Sumerian, is the only female monarch on the Sumerian King List. She ruled between 2500 BC and 2330 BC. On the list itself, she is identified as:

… the woman tavern-keeper, who made firm the foundations of Kish, became king; she ruled for 100 years.

Every source I came across in my research, including Starr, questioned how a woman who was a tavern-keeper became king. They then went on to explain that tavern keeping was one of many occupations Mesopotamian women could hold. Now, aside from Starr, said sources all described tavern keeping as a well-respected occupation, even while some mentioned that taverns in Sumer were pretty much brothels. This complicates further the rationale of a woman tavern-keeper becoming king, but in her About.com article titled, “Kubaba, A Queen Among Kings,” Carly Silver writes, “Regardless of what kind of show they were running, women often ran taverns, holding perhaps one of the only independent female positions of power in ancient Sumer.”

Silver drives home the rather high status of the tavern-keeper profession by mentioning Siduri, the female tavern-keeper Gilgamesh meets in the Underworld in his quest for immortality in the epic of his namesake. In it, the tavern-keeper gives Gilgamesh, a powerful god-king, sage advice about the nature of human life, how short it is, and how one ought to enjoy it.

“So, in what was probably a very important epic even in antiquity,” she writes, “a female tavern-keeper was seen as a guide along perilous paths and a figure worthy of veneration.”

Conversely, Starr’s description of the status of a tavern-keeper, or barmaid, is one that is very different from Silver’s. He writes, “Throughout history, a barmaid was typically considered to be a woman of loose morals, freely available to the patrons of the tavern, and little better than a common prostitute.”

So, how can this be? Several sources commend tavern keeping as a respectable occupation, almost making it sound like it was a foot in the door for Ku-Baba to become queen in her own right, while one all but ascribes it to prostitutes.

It helps that Starr does mention a distinction between a mere barmaid who slings drinks and provides patrons with her company, and someone who owns the establishment where this business takes place, a distinction other sources do not mention. Starr also classifies an owner of a tavern as “middle class,” while iterating that the employee slinging the drinks is “a commoner, and a lowly commoner at that.”

Furthermore, in order to see more clearly how tavern keeping relates to Ku-Baba’s rise to royalty, it helps to look at the picture in a different way.

According to Starr, even though there is no question Ku-Baba was a commoner, she might not have been a tavern-keeper. Starr states in his post that it was her parents who were tavern-keepers, a nugget he says her enemies distorted and used against her to tarnish her reputation and legacy. “I believe Ku-Baba was unfairly characterized as a bawd (the usual description of a female barkeeper) for propaganda reasons,” Starr writes. “I believe it was a deliberate attempt to sully her reputation. It is the kind of thing her enemies would say about her.”

Bottom line, we must let go of the idea that Ku-Baba was a tavern-keeper to get to the bottom of how she became a queen in her own right, because everything is questionable when you have an enemy, which she did, according to Starr.

And who was that enemy, you ask? Sargon of Akkad, our favorite baby in a basket here at AllMesopotamia.

Again, I point you toward Starr’s article for a more comprehensive telling of this story and presentation of the case involving Ku-Baba’s previous profession, but Sargon of Akkad usurped the throne of Kish from Ur-Zababa, Ku-Baba’s grandson, 31 years after her death, serving as background for Starr’s conclusion.

But how did Ku-Baba take the throne?

In her article titled “Ku-Bau, the First Woman Ruler,” Darci Clark writes, “In general, other women in Mesopotamian society would only be able to exert any political influence through their relationships to the king.”

Starr echoes Clark’s statement: “Sumerian queens were always the wives of kings. They never governed on their own.”

Okay, but would a king marry a commoner?

“Although it is highly unlikely that a king would marry a commoner,” Starr explains, “it is certainly within the realm of possibility.”

It’s possible Ku-Baba married a king, but there is no mention of such a thing happening in ancient texts. Nevertheless, a king was involved. According to Clark, Ku-Baba became lugal of Kish after performing an act of kindness. It seems that a king–Puzur-Nirah, king of Akshak, namely–awarded Ku-Baba her kingship for a “pious deed.”

Researching this further, I came across an article on the website History Hustle, titled “Kubaba, the Bartender Who Became the First Woman Ruler in History,” which pointed me toward the Weidner Chronicle, an interesting ancient Babylonian religious text, where the deed and its reward are described:

In the reign of Puzur-Nirah, king of Akšak . . . Kubaba gave bread to the fisherman and gave water, she made him offer the fish to Esagila. Marduk the king, the prince of Apsu, favored her and said: “Let it be so!” He entrusted to Kubaba the tavernkeeper, sovereignty over the whole world. (Lines 43-45, Weidner Chronicle)

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The city of Kish. (Source)

A Feminine Legacy

Very little is known about Ku-Baba’s reign. We do know that she made Kish strong, and that she reigned for 100 years. It is easy to conclude then that she was a successful monarch. Really, there’s no way she could have not been.

Starr writes, “Any female pretender to the throne who didn’t do an excellent job would quickly find herself in the middle of a coup d’état. She was capable enough, and respected enough, to stay in power and establish a dynasty.”

That dynasty, the 4th Dynasty of Kish, lasted for two generations, ending with the above-mentioned Ur-Zababa, son of Puzur-Suen, son of Ku-Baba. Not bad for a woman living in a man’s world, and a man’s world it was.

Carly Silver writes that Ku-Baba’s was remembered by later generations as an improper usurper. They would also refer to Ku-Baba when describing things that are not as they should be–women taking on men’s roles has never been popular. “By taking on the duties of a man – a king – Kubaba was seen to have crossed a boundary and transcended gender divisions in an improper fashion,” Silver writes.

Ku-Baba was also referenced when a lung didn’t look so good, or a child was born with both male and female genitalia. “Combining male and female genitalia in an individual would echo her reign as lugal, or king, which the ancients saw as violating the natural order of things,” Silver writes.

Nonetheless, Ku-Baba lived in people’s memories until Babylonian times, becoming a goddess. “But she was still a barmaid,” Starr explains. “She is portrayed as a kindly woman in all of the stories about her . . . Ku-Baba never lost the ‘common touch’. Queen Ku-Baba was always ‘the people’s queen’.”

Whether her legacy when she was an actual memory was a positive or negative one, today, in 2017, Ku-Baba’s legacy is that of (written) history’s first woman ruler, one who could only be slandered by a past that might have been falsified by her enemy, and one whose ascendancy to the throne was built upon kindness.

How feminine. How fitting.

P.S. Make sure you read Starr’s Ku-Baba post, as there are things and photos I did not include here that are sure to pique your interest further in this interesting lady. And while you’re at it, if you haven’t already, read our Q&A interview with Sumerian Shakespeare himself!

Sources and Further Reading:

Queen Ku-Baba – Sumerian Shakespeare  http://sumerianshakespeare.com/748301/769001.html

Sumerian King List – http://www.livius.org/sources/content/anet/266-the-sumerian-king-list/

Ku-Bau: The First Woman Ruler – Darci Clark http://semiramis-speaks.com/ku-bau-the-first-woman-ruler/

Kubaba, A Queen Among Kings – Carly Silver  http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/sumer/fl/Kubaba-A-Queen-Among-Men.htm

Kubaba, the Bartender Who Became the First woman Ruler in History http://historyhustle.com/kubaba-bartender-became-worlds-first-woman-ruler/

Weidner Chronicle http://www.livius.org/sources/content/mesopotamian-chronicles-content/abc-19-weidner-chronicle/?

 

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Part IV: Gilgamesh!

A statue of Gilgamesh overpowering a lion. It was found in Khorsabad, Iraq, at the palace of Sargon II. Now housed at the Louvre. (Source)

He’s the other guitarist with The Mesopotamians band, wearing a pointy helmet. He can’t seem to be able to keep himself together- he plays his guitar and his arm falls off, he joins Hammurabi at the microphone and his teeth start flying out of his mouth, his jaw falls off, and at one point he ends up a heap on the floor.

He is Gilgamesh! (And our last king in The Mesopotamians series of kings!)

Gilgamesh is a name steeped in myth, but there are some things sprinkled here and there that support the idea that Gilgamesh, or Izdubar as his name was erroneously translated in 1872, was an actual historical figure we can discuss, albeit briefly when not talking about the oldest story the world has ever known…

An Epic King

Most people know Gilgamesh through the Epic of Gilgamesh, which holds great importance to humanity today as the world’s oldest piece of literature. It appears to have been just as important to humanity in ancient times, too. For one thing it was written down centuries after the death of the enigma that is its hero, and was circulated in the ancient world so much, that aside from various sites across Mesopotamia (most notably in the Library of Ashurbanipal), fragments of it were also found written in non-Mesopotamian languages, in non-Mesopotamian regions.

This means that Gilgamesh was a figure known across the Ancient Near East for centuries, which leads us to asking: why was Gilgamesh so important?

Before we delve into the Epic, it’s important to know that Gilgamesh’s name appears in material other than the Epic, like the Sumerian King List, which identifies him as the fifth king of Uruk. According to the List, his reign took place between 2500 and 2800 BC (a date I have been unable to pinpoint exactly because of differing dates from different sources), and lasted for 126 years. Bilgames, as he is known in the earliest Sumerian texts, also appears on tablets that list deities, like this one. Gilgamesh also appears in Mesopotamian mythology as a demigod, and a judge of the dead. Although Gilgamesh’s parents had cult followings and temples built for their worship, nothing other than a god’s epitaph in texts has been found to prove that Gilgamesh himself was an actively worshiped deity.

Going back to the The Epic, which paints the clearest picture of this mysterious man, we are presented with Gilgamesh as the king of Uruk, the builder of its great walls and its all-powerful ruler. The Epic begins with a prologue that introduces us to Gilgamesh, part of which is:

He had seen everything, had experienced all emotions,

from exaltation to despair, had been granted a vision

into the great mystery, the secret places,

the primeval days before the Flood. (Mitchell, 69)


“Gilgamesh between two Bull-Men with Sun-Disc (Wikimedia Commons)” (Source)

The Epic’s Gilgamesh possesses incredible physical strength, thanks to his parentage and demigod status, with two-thirds god and one-third human DNA. He needs no sleep and can complete a six weeks’ journey in three days. He need only eat after covering 400 miles, and pitch a camp after 1,000.

But he is also described as an arrogant ruler, and does what he wants to those he rules, including bedding all brides on their wedding night, even before their husbands do.

The people of Uruk cry out to the heavens from such tyranny, and the gods respond by sending down Enkidu, a wild man who lives with the animals in the wilderness. He is Gilgamesh’s equal in strength and ability, he is sent down to balance Gilagamesh. After a series of fantastical and sexually explicit events involving one of the most enigmatic women represented in literature, Enkidu is tamed and brought to Uruk, where he and Gilgamesh face off and become the best of friends. Together, they take on challenges that defy vengeful gods and end with a tragic loss that sends Gilgamesh on a journey in search of immortality. Gilgamesh’s journey to the Great Deep in search of immortality brings him face to face with Utnapishtim, a figure whose description of the biblical Flood marks him as a non-biblical representation of Noah.

“This, the eleventh tablet of the Epic, describes the meeting of The Gilgamesh with Utnapishtim. Like Noah in the Hebrew Bible, Utnapishtim had been forewarned of a plan by the gods to send a great flood.” Source: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/t/the_flood_tablet.aspx

In his article titled “The Flood of Noah and the Flood of Gilgamesh,” for the Institute for Creation Research website, the archaeologist Frank Lorey, M.A. writes of Gilgamesh’s deeds, which are also listed in the Epic: “He was one who had great knowledge and wisdom, and preserved information of the days before the flood. Gilgamesh wrote on tablets of stone all that he had done, including building the city walls of Uruk and its temple for Eanna,” Lorey writes.

The Eternal Significance of Gilgamesh to Humanity

It is safe to say that Gilgamesh represents a most human hero, despite his supernatural credentials. What could be more human than arrogance, or love, or fear of death?

In his essay, “Storytelling, the Meaning of Life, and The Epic of Gilgamesh,” Arthur A. Brown writes, “We read stories — and reading is a kind of re-telling — not to learn what is known but to know what cannot be known, for it is ongoing and we are in the middle of it.”

To this day, Gilgamesh’s story resonates with us, not with its fantastical and ancient details, but with its profound reflection on the human condition that seems to have changed little over the centuries.

Gilgamesh’s surviving legacy, beyond the Epic or the walls he built around the city he ruled is his humanity.

Sources and further reading:

Mitchell, Stephen. Gilgamesh: A New English Version. New York: Free Press, 2006. (Version used for the Prologue except.)

http://homeschoolcourses.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/gilgamesh_louvre.jpg (First picture)

http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/hero-overpowering-lion (Louvre description of Gilgamesh statue)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilgamesh (Wikipedia)

http://novaonline.nvcc.edu/eli/eng251/gilgameshstudy.htm (Study guide that talks about Epic)

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/t/the_flood_tablet.aspx (The Flood Tablet at the British Museum website)

http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/mesopotamian/gilgamesh/ (Translated text of the Epic of Gilgamesh tablets)

http://eawc.evansville.edu/essays/brown.htm (Storytelling, the Meaning of Life,
and The Epic of Gilgamesh
essay by Arthur A. Brown)

http://www.pantheon.org/articles/g/gilgamesh.html (Brief biography on Encyclopedia Mythica)

http://www.icr.org/article/noah-flood-gilgamesh/ (The Noah Flood and the Epic of Gilgamesh, by Frank Lorey, M.A., who is believes the Genesis was preserved as an oral tradition before it was handed down to Moses, who finally wrote it down, making the Genesis the influence for the Epic of Gilgamesh, and not the other way around.)

http://www.jasoncolavito.com/epic-of-gilgamesh.html (Translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh with an introduction that includes a bit of the history behind the historical aspects of the story and the tablets and translations.)

http://www.mesopotamia.co.uk/geography/story/sto_set.html (Gilgamesh and the Cedar Forest interactive story.)

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/233644/Gilgamesh (Encyclopaedia Britannica entry that talks about the Epic of Gilgamesh and its hero. Gives titles of each poem in the Epic.)

http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/csgeg/background-gilgamesh-epic (Background of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which has footnotes and sources.)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumerian_King_List (Wikipedia entry about Sumerian King List.)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uruk (Wikipedia entry about Uruk.)

http://www.magyarsag.org/uruk13.jpg (Picture of Walls of Uruk.)

 
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Posted by on June 5, 2012 in Kings, Mythology, Tablets

 

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