Women in World History
MIDDLE SCHOOL/HIGH SCHOOL
WOMEN IN THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST
Stories and Primary Sources from
the Sumerians through the Early Israelites
Sample from a longer Primary Source Activity
Interpreting Ancient Words
"My Mouth Makes Me Comparable to Men"
Pretend you are a scholar trying to figure out as much as you can about the lives and concerns of women in the Ancient Near East. All you have are snippets of information written at the time. What can these glimpses into the past tell you? What can you infer from them about what life might have been like?
In pairs or small groups, use the information from the following data sheets to write down your inferences. Each group should work with one data sheet. After working, the groups should share their inferences with others. The Data Sheets are:
(Included in this Sample Activity)
Data Sheet A: Proverbs, Advice, Chants & Oracles.
(NOT Included in this Sample Activity)
Data Sheet B: Letters.
Data Sheet C: Old Testament Bible.
Data Sheet D: Contracts, Work Accounts & A Murder Trial.
After reading your data, explain in your own words what each piece of information means, or implies. Next, categorize the information by identifying sources that reveal:
- Areas where women could exercise some authority - or were given status, rights, or were honored.
- Areas where women had little power.
- The treatment and conditions of service of slave women.
- The types of work women engaged in - household labor or work outside the home.
- Ways women expressed themselves in public.
- Things women owned or considered important.
- Expectations on married women.
- Things women complained about - that worried or bothered them.
- Situations that a woman might find herself in today.
In presenting a summary of your findings, give quotes from the sources which support your interpretations.
DATA SHEET A
PROVERBS, ADVICE, CHANTS, AND ORACLES
"My Mouth Makes Me Comparable to Men"
- Sumerian Proverb
"The desert canteen is a man's life,
The shoe is a man's eye,
The wife is a man's future,
The son is a man's refuge,
The daughter is a man's salvation,
The daughter-in-law is a man's devil."
- Sumerian proverb, ca. 2000 B.C.
"Since my wife is at the outdoor shrine, and since by mother is at the river, I shall die of hunger."
- Sumer, 2000 B.C.
"A house without an owner is like a woman without a husband."
"The one who does not support a wife, who does not support a son, is a dishonest person who does not support himself." - Akkadian proverb
"My husband is my honor"
"Hear, my son, your father's instruction, and reject not your mother's teaching."
- Biblical Proverb
"Do not honor a slave girl in your house;
She should not rule your bedroom like a wife.
Do not give yourself over to slave girls.
Let this be said among your people:
'The household which a slave girl rules, she disrupts.'"
- Akkadian Wisdom Literature
"[Be on your guard against any palace woman]...Do not go too near her, do not ever say a word to her. Nor shall your man servant, nor your maid go too near her. Beware of her. Whenever a palace woman appears, jump as far as possible out of her way, leave the path free for her."
- Advice from Hittite King Shuppiluliuma to his new brother-in-law
"Since for the king, for the lord, I bathed,
Since with paste my sides were adorned,
Since with balsam my mouth was coated,
Since with kohl my eyes were painted."
- Chant from the third dynasty of Ur
"Come Sleep, come Sleep,
Come to my son...
Put to sleep his restless eyes,
Put your hand on his kohl-painted eyes,
And as for his babbling tongue,
Let not the babbling hold back his sleep...
I will make sweet for you the little cheese,
Those little cheeses that are the healer of man...
In my song of joy - he will grow stout,
Like the irina-trees he will grow stout of root,
Like the sakir-plant he will grow broad of crown....
In my song of joy - I will give him a wife
I will give him a son...
The son will lie in his outstretched arms
The wife will be happy with him,
The son will grow big on his wet knee.
You are in pain,
I am troubled..."
- Chant for a sick son, perhaps uttered by
Shulgi-simti, queen of King Shulgi, Third Dynasty of Ur
"I am Ishtar of Arbela, Oh Esasrhaddon, king of Assyria. In the cities Ashur, Nineveh, Calah, Arbela, I shall grant you many days, endless years. I am the great midwife who helped at your birth, the one who gave you suck, who has established your rule under the wide heavens for many days, endless years. From a golden chamber in the heavens I will watch...Fret not, O king! Because I have spoken to you (in an oracle), I will not abandon you. I shall not let you come to shame. I will help you cross the river safely...With my own hands, your foes I shall annihilate."