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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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Q&A: Shining a Light on Starr

The Standard of Ur.

One of the things we try to do here at All Mesopotamia is shine a light on the not-sung-enough heroes doing great things for Mesopotamian history.

This time we’re shining a light on someone you might remember being mentioned in a few of our posts or tweets, or you might have his awesome website bookmarked. He is Mr. Jerald J. Starr, aka sumerianshakespeare.com.

Simply put, Starr is your (and our) go-to guy for anything Sumerian, like the Standard of Ur (pictured above). His passion for the rockers of the cradle of civilization is what drives him to not only gravitate toward what’s already known about them, but also to make his own fascinating discoveries of a people long gone, but whose all-encompassing legacy of civilization still reverberates thousands of years later.

Now, I asked Starr a few questions to find out what he is all about.  I was pleasantly surprised by all his answers, and think you will be too!

1. You’re kind of an enigma. I communicate with you regularly about the history I cover on the blog, but I hardly know anything about you. Who is this enigmatic expert I’m talking to and what is his background—what makes him the expert he is on everything Sumerian?

Your readers may be surprised to learn that I am not a “properly accredited” Sumerologist. I am just an amateur. I have no formal training in the field, neither do I have a college degree in the subject; although with the thousands of hours I’ve spent researching Sumerian history I could have easily earned a PhD, perhaps several.

“…my mind is 4,000 years away, in the land of ancient Sumer.”

If I am to be considered any kind of “expert” (your word, but thanks) it’s only because Sumerology is my obsession, my sole preoccupation. Often when my friends are talking to me, I barely hear what they are saying because my mind is 4,000 years away, in the land of ancient Sumer.

It also helps that there are very few other experts in the field. At last count, there were only about 400 Assyriologists in the entire world, of which only a few are dedicated to the Sumerians exclusively. One day it suddenly occurred to me that I am probably “the world’s foremost expert on the Standard of Ur.” Then I realized that I am probably the world’s only expert on the Standard of Ur!

2. Ever since I came across sumerianshakespeare.com, it has been my go-to website for reliable information and great pictures. In fact, my only complaint about your website is that you only cover the Sumerian material. Having said that: what drew you to the Sumerian civilization in particular out of all the others that thrived in Mesopotamia, and do you ever delve into any other group of Mesopotamian peoples?

When I was in college, I read The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. It wasn’t part of a reading assignment for a class I was taking; I was reading it for my own pleasure. I remember how impressed I was that the Sumerians seemed to invent civilization entirely on their own, when the rest of the world was still living in the Stone Age. I didn’t pay much attention to the Sumerians after that; I had other interests to pursue.

Fast-forward several decades later to about five years ago. I was with a girlfriend, Loring. We were looking at a display of cuneiform tablets at the Frist Museum here in Nashville, Tennessee. I said, “Wouldn’t it be great to own one of these tablets? I’d love to own something so ancient, when writing and civilization were first invented.” Those were the exact words I used, “when writing and civilization were first invented.” I didn’t give the remark a second thought until two months later when Loring gave me a cuneiform “tablet” for my birthday. At first I didn’t know what it was. It was an odd cylindrical shape with writing down the sides. I later found out that it was actually a Gudean “foundation cone” from the temple of the god Ningirsu. I decided to write a thank-you note to Loring, in Sumerian, to show my appreciation for her sweet and thoughtful gift. Nothing fancy, just a few signs written on notebook paper. Little did I know what I was getting into.

The Gudea Foundation Cone was Starr’s inspiration.

It’s not for nothing that Sumerian is known as the world’s most difficult language. Even the Sumerian scribes had difficulty writing it! I was immediately frustrated by the fact that it was difficult to learn even a few Sumerian words, much less learn enough grammar to write a complete sentence. I could have just strung some words together like beads, they didn’t have to be grammatically correct; but noooo, that wasn’t good enough. So then it became an intellectual challenge. As described in “Adventures in Cuneiform Writing,” it became an all-consuming passion, to the exclusion of everything else – like eating, sleeping, and bathing. Even at the time I would sometimes wonder, “Why am I so obsessed? Who cares about this stupid dead language?” Sometimes I seemed more “possessed” than merely obsessed. It was a lot like that scene in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where Richard Dreyfuss feels compelled to create a huge clay mountain on his kitchen table, without knowing why. As it turns out, there was a predestined purpose for all of this. If I had not been so completely obsessed with writing Sumerian correctly, I never would have learned enough of the language to translate (“decode”) Tablet #36, the story of The Great Fatted Bull. This tablet would not give up its secrets to just anyone, to some sort of “dilettante.” It was Tablet #36, along with my reawakened interest in Sumerian history inspired by the Gudea cone, that led to all my other discoveries in Sumerology.

Starr cracked the code of the mysterious Tablet #36.

This leads me (finally!) to the second part of your question. I consider myself to be a Sumerologist, in particular, rather than an Assyriologist (someone who studies Mesopotamian history in general). As a matter of fact, I make a deliberate effort to sort out the Sumerians from the Akkadians and the Babylonians, who are routinely jumbled together in the history books. I usually write about the Akkadians and Babylonians only in reference to the Sumerians. I feel called upon to be an advocate for the Sumerians, to be their voice. So for the time being I will continue to dedicate my efforts solely on their behalf.

As for the rest of Mesopotamian history, we have All Mesopotamia for that.

Starr concluded that this otherwise anonymous statue bears the actual true face of Gudea. Read about Starr’s research here.

3. What does your research on the subjects you discuss on your website entail? Do you work alone, or are you a part of a team or organization?

I quickly exhausted the limited selection of books on Sumerian history at the local library. I mostly use the Internet for my research. I use the CDLI, ePSD, ETCSL, and Sumerian.org for the language studies. Museum websites are also a good source of information. I enjoy seeing Sumerian artifacts in museums all around the world without leaving the comfort of my living room. One of my favorite research methods is image searches on the Internet, since I’m always trolling for good pictures to use on my website. This is how I found Tablet #36 in the Library of Congress, Ur-Namma in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gudea in the Barakat Gallery, and other original discoveries.

The man behind Sumerian Shakespeare. Starr told me this is where you will find him most of the time, sitting in front of his computer, researching and discovering everything Sumerian. (Photo courtesy of Jerald J. Starr)

The man behind Sumerian Shakespeare. Starr told me this is where you will find him most of the time, sitting in front of his computer, researching and discovering everything Sumerian. (Photo courtesy of Jerald J. Starr)

I work entirely alone. This is partly my preference. I am in contact with a few professional Sumerologists, but I am being boycotted by the other Sumerologists. I am the pariah of Sumerology. I have to admit, it’s my own fault. On December 6, 2008, I proudly posted my translation of Tablet #36, the story of The Great Fatted Bull. It was my first major discovery. The very next day, Bendt Alster, a world renowned Sumerologist, posted on his website that Tablet #36 wasn’t really about The Great Fatted Bull. He thought it was “A Dialogue between Two Women.” Mr. Alster was a pioneer in the field of Sumerology. If he said Tablet #36 wasn’t about The Great Fatted Bull, then who was going to listen to an amateur like me? So I might have over-reacted just a tad. I posted a new page on my website challenging him to a “Sumerian Showdown,” my translation against his. I am usually not so confrontational, but I was deliberately being provocative. I was hoping that someone would try to refute my translation, and failing that, would be forced to confirm it. I also thought I was being very clever and funny; satirical, like the scribe who wrote Tablet #36 (I was defending his work as well as my own). But I soon realized that I was just being a smart-aleck, to use the polite term. After all, Mr. Alster was merely expressing his academic opinion, which he stated in a polite and civilized manner (unlike me). Eventually I deleted the page from my website and sent a letter of apology to Mr. Alster. He made a gracious reply, so all was well between us. He was a really nice guy about it, which doubly made me feel like a heel. He passed away suddenly and unexpectedly a few years later, so I am grateful that I was able to make amends with him. But the damage had already been done. I had thoroughly alienated other Sumerologists. They still hold it against me and I can’t say that I blame them. In the meantime, the story of The Great Fatted Bull remains the only proven translation of Tablet #36.

4. The Sumerian civilization is where our modern world began to take shape. Writing, literature, the wheel, agriculture, and according to a very enthusiastic Discovery Channel documentary, earth-shattering beer…all these things and more. And yet it’s not nearly as popular as the Egyptian or Greek civilizations, which as great as they were with their own innovations and inventions, in my mind, they were mostly reinforcing and building upon foundations laid by Mesopotamians. Drawing from my frustrating experience, I must ask: why do you think my Western Civilization class in college detailed the Egyptian mummification process, but only briefly mentioned that writing was invented in Mesopotamia and very little else about the land between two rivers?

I know what you mean. When I try to talk to someone about the Sumerians, they get a blank look on their face and say, “Who?” I always want to reply, “The Sumerians; you know, the ones who invented civilization.” I don’t actually say this, of course; that would be rude. If people don’t know much about the Sumerians it’s probably because so little Sumerian history has survived to the present day. You can read all that remains of Sumerian history in a single afternoon. On the other hand, the Egyptian civilization continued for 2,000 years after the Sumerians had disappeared, so there is a lot more Egyptian history to cover. I think that’s why a class in Western Civilization gives a brief introduction to the Sumerians and then quickly skips over to the Egyptians. Surprisingly, very few Egyptian artifacts date back to the time of the Sumerians. If we only had Egyptian artifacts dated before 2000 B.C., we would know as little about the Egyptians as we do about the Sumerians. Only the Pyramids are as old as the Sumerians.

I agree that the Sumerians don’t get proper credit for their inventions. How many people today know that the Sumerians are the reason why we still divide a circle into 360 degrees? (The Sumerians used the sexagesimal number system, based on the number 60.) How many businessmen know that the Sumerians created formal bookkeeping methods? I think the problem is that people have been using these inventions for so long they’ve forgotten who invented them. For instance, I doubt that anyone using a handsaw would think, “This works great. I’m glad the Sumerians invented it.” I doubt that anyone sipping on a beer would say, “Thank you, Sumerians, for this wonderful gift.”

You are right in pointing out that the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians built upon the foundations of the Sumerian civilization. So even if we don’t always realize it, the Sumerians are still with us today, 4,000 years after they passed into history.

5. What are, or are there, challenges that you or any other Sumerologist face in this discipline, as opposed to an Egyptologist, for example?

The main challenge for a Sumerologist is that he/she doesn’t have a lot of material to work with. Very few Sumerian artifacts have survived the millennia — a few ruined temples, some pottery shards, a few statues, some jewelry. This is the opposite problem faced by Egyptologists. They cannot sink a spade in Egypt without hitting an artifact. A modern Egyptologist has tons of artifacts to work with (literally); more than can process in several lifetimes. Of course, a Sumerologist has access to countless cuneiform tablets, hundreds of thousands of them. The problem is that 97% of these tablets are “Administrative” (receipts, ledgers, inventories, etc.). Only 3% of the tablets are “Literature” (history, hymns, poems, proverbs, etc.) where the Sumerians actually tell us something about themselves. Imagine an archaeologist 4,000 years in the future trying to reconstruct 21st century America by using business accounting records.

Egyptology is a very old science; many ancient Greeks and Romans were “Egyptologists.” By comparison, Sumerology is relatively new. The modern world didn’t know about the Sumerians until the late 19th century. The world is still in the process of discovering the Sumerians. As a result, much of the information about the Sumerians is either contradictory or just plain wrong. Even the experts don’t always agree on it. You and I both know from personal experience the difficulty in finding reliable information on the subject. It’s hard to know who to trust when every major museum in the world includes some erroneous information about the Sumerians, even the Iraq Museum!

6. What do you think most distinguishes sumerianshakespeare.com from the other Sumerian websites?

First of all, it is the number of pictures I have on my website. The other websites have only a few, with the exception of All Mesopotamia. I realized that most people have no idea what the Sumerians looked like. We can easily imagine the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians because we’ve seen so many pictures of them, but most people have no “visual concept” of the Sumerians. By including a lot of pictures of the Sumerians, I hope to make them more familiar to the modern reader.

The face of Ur-Namma, one of Starr’s original discoveries.

Second, and more important, are my original discoveries. Many people think that I am merely parroting information I got from other sources, but most of my website is devoted to my own discoveries. Some of my major discoveries include Tablet #36, the portraits of Gudea and Ur-Namma, both Sargon victory steles, and everything about the Standard of Ur, among several others. I have also made a lot of minor discoveries, more than I can keep track of. I have to admit, I am very proud of these discoveries. They are the most noteworthy things I have ever done in a life that is otherwise devoid of accomplishments.

A detail from one of Sargon’s victory steles that Starr wrote about on his site, here.

7. What’s next?

More of the same, I guess. I’m hoping I can make some more discoveries. In any case, I will continue to write about the extraordinary civilization of the Sumerian people. It’s my new-found calling in life. This is what I was meant to do.

***

And we all agree that this is what you were meant to do, Mr. Starr.

 
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Posted by on May 8, 2013 in Q & A, Sumerian

 

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