Saturday, September 14, 2013


        The Ancient Near East has a wide variety of love poems and songs - ranging from Sumerian sacred marriage texts, the Song of Songs, the Egyptian love songs, and the occasional declaration of love/passionate desire of Ugaritic poetry. Not only does each of these cultures have different styles of poetry, but they also attach different meanings to words like love and marriage. Moreover, each culture's love songs served different purposes in their culture. However, although these literary works encapsulated the norms of their cultures well, none of these works were quite as profound and passionate as the Hebraic Song of Songs. Admittedly, the Song of Songs does share some themes of love with similar literature of the Ancient Near East, yet many of these overlapping themes do not have the same meaning, usage, or context as other Ancient Near Eastern cultures.  Thus, while there are some similarities between the Song of Songs and the ancient Egyptian and Sumerian literature, the Song of Songs is still a separate piece of literary work, with certain unique attributes that make it unlike any other.
The Purpose of Love Songs in the Ancient Near East
            When reading through Egyptian and Sumerian love poetry and the Song of Songs, one thing becomes quite clear - they all served quite different functions. The Sumerian love songs were epic
literature around the idea of sacred marriage. Moreover, they were not really love songs, but "Sexual lyric[s]" or "sex poetry."[1] The sacred marriage was where gods Dumuzi (Amaushumgalanna)[2] and Inanna (Ishtar[3])[4] would perform some cultic ritual through human participants - usually a king and a priestess. The pair would perform "sexual acts that were supposed to restore fertility to the sun-scorched earth."[5]   The function of this sacred marriage by Inanna and Dumuzi or Baal and Anet was to make some form of sexual bond or love connection. This love connection will directly affect the fertility of the land and of individuals. Both Egyptian love poetry and the Song of Songs do not fit this concept of Sumerian love literature.
            The Egyptian songs were secular and used for "diversions" or for individuals and groups in the form of "entertainment."[6] While fertility was an important issue for the Egyptian people, there was no connection to a sacred marriage ritual fertility cult in Egyptian literature.[7]  Like the Song of Songs, the Egyptian love songs were based on the relationship and interaction between lovers, rather than on the topic of gods and their affect on fertility.
            The Song of Songs is also a love song, with no religious overtones relating to the cultic sacred marriage. However, this has not stopped scholars from trying to link the Song of Songs to these rituals. One idea that was postulated by Theophile Meek was that the reason why the Song of Songs was not admitted into the cannon immediately and then allegorized, was because it was linked to the "Tammuz-Ishtar cult," which was then unpopular because the prophets created an unfavorable view of the cult.[8] He basically goes through the text looking for words to link to this theory. The theory is also based on the Hebrew word dod (דּוֹד), which is translated throughout the song as "my beloved." Meek argues that the word dod is not properly translated as "my beloved," but that this is a name of a god, which can be "variously rendered Dod, Dad, dodo, Dadu, and ...Addu or Adad, the Palestinian counterpart of Tammuz."[9] He would interpret these passages then as "my Dod" and that is similar to "my Damu" or "My Tammuz."[10] Furthermore, Meek interprets metaphorical language as literal. For example, he understands Song of Songs 4:8 to be the bride literally living in the mountains, or being from the mountains, rather than understanding it as the author comparing his beloved to the sex symbol of the day.[11] The inherent flaw of Meek's arguments is that he is looking for parallels[12] in the love and passions found in the sacred marriage text. This is very possible, because it is in the very nature of the literature to convey themes like love, passion desire, gardens, praise for the lover and so on. At the end of the day the "song never alludes to myth or ritual."[13]
            In general, the Song of Song seems to also be a secular song, like the love songs of the Egyptian. However, the song is a part of the inspired Word of God and is categorized in the wisdom literature. It should be translated literally within it historical context.  Thus, the Song of Songs is probably best understood to be an “instruction on and celebration of [the] physical nature of human beings…extol[ling] the God-ordained goodness and virtue of sexual love between man and woman united in matrimony.”[14] Moreover, the Song of Songs is a biblical explanation of what biblical love can and should be like, and that it is indeed biblical to enjoy both physical and emotional intimacy with one's husband/wife in marriage.

The Thematic Similarity of Longing
            In the Ancient Near East as in any other time period in history, there are passions and emotions that embody universal aspects of humanity. Love songs are perfect case studies for these specific universal emotional aspects like passion, longing and desire. Yet, just because these themes overlap does not mean that they must be conveying the same cultural, religious or even cultic understanding contained in the text. Rather, these songs, by their very genre, convey human nature; specifically, the aspect of love, which is an emotion which would be understood by today's readers just as much as readers of the past.
            They all have songs of desire or longing.  For instance, in one of the Egyptian love songs, there is a boy who wishes he was a specific girl's door keeper so that he could be closer to her. He also wishes to get her angry so that he can hear her voice. It states,
(A)The mansion of (my) sister: her entry is in the middle of her house, her double-doors are open, her latch-blot drawn back, and (my sister incensed! (B) If only I were appointed door keeper, I'd get her angry at me! Then i'd hear her voice when she was incensed--(as) a child in fear of her![15] (P Harris 500, group A: No 7)

            Then there is an Egyptian love song of a girl who misses her love and longs for him - so much that she even goes to seek him out, possibly because she is afraid she has lost him to another woman.[16] It states,
(A) My heart thought of your love, while (only) half my side-locks were done up. (B) I have come hastily to seek you, the back of my hairdo [loose]. (C) My cloths and my tresses have been ready all the while.[17] (P. Harris 500, group B: No 16)

            Out of the Sumerian love songs that were found, there seems to be only one where the main actor of the literary piece genuinely is missing or longing for a lover. This proves to be rare, since Sumerian love songs are based off cultic fertility rituals and that leaves little room to depict passionate longing. In the song "Oh That I Might Know the Way to my Beloved (DI R)" there are three fragmentary sources. Source A states,
Oh that I might know the way of the bridegroom, my milk, my cream! Oh that I might know the way to my Amausum, my milk, my cream! Oh that I might know the way to Amausumgalanna, my milk, my cream! O that I might know the way to the rushes, to my milk, my milk! Oh that I might know the way to the poplar, the cool place, (to) my milk ! Oh that I might know the way to the inus-plant, the purifying plant, (to) my milk ! Oh that I might know the way to the meadow, the freezing place, (to) my milk ! Oh that I might know the way to the pure sheepfold, my bridegroom's Sheepfold! Oh that I might know the way to the pure sheepfold, my Dumuzi's sheepfold![18](Lines 20-28)

This passage is about Inanna longing for her bridegroom who is portrayed as the farmer and sheepherder. The problem is that the groom is missing, which is depicted in section b of this fragment of text. This portion of text alludes that the groom was handed over to the "evil ones", which might indicate a reference to the underworld.
Baal-Ugaritic  God
            This also could be a parallel to the mythological love presented in the Baal Cycle where Baal's love, Anat, longs for him after he dies and goes to the underworld. For example, this mythological poem shows the longing of the goddess Anat, who like the girl above, is seeking out her love. However, in this case, Baal has not left Anat, but he has descended into the underworld. In the Baal Cycle Anat[19] states,
[A day, two days] pass, and [Maiden Anat] seeks him. Like the heart of the c[ow] for her calf, like the heart of the ew[e] for her lamb, so is the heart of an[at] for Baal. She grabs Mo[t] by the hem of his garment, she seizes [him] by the edge of his cloak. she raises her voice and [cri]es: "You, O Mot, give up my brother, "...A day, two day pass from days to months Maiden Anat seeks him. Like the heart of a cow for her calf, like the heart of the ewe for her lamb, so is the heart of Anat for Baal. She seizes Divine Mot, with a sword and splits him, with a sieve she winnows him. With fire she burns him, with millstones she grinds him, in a field she sows him. The birds eat his flesh, fowl devour his parts, flesh to flesh cries out. [20]

This passage seeks to depict the goddess Anat, longing for her love,
Anet-Ugaritic goddes
although the passion shown is monotonous. It is not as obvious until you see how she reacts to the loss of her love Baal to Mot[21] in the underworld. Anat in response to her loss, seizes Mot and splits him in half and burns him, and feeds him to the birds, because of her longing love for Baal that is not satisfied because he is gone.
            Song of Songs 3:1-2 also depicts this powerful emotion of longing. Moreover, Othmar Keel seems to think that this passage directly parallels with the Ball cycle text above, and that this particular song was originally written to a goddess and modified. Song of Songs 3:1-2(ESV) states, "On my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not. I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves. I sought him, but found him not." As in the previous songs, this passage also shows a passion a longing desire that the players in these works have towards the ones they loved. Furthermore, even though Keel compares Song of Song 3:1 specifically to the goddess Anet, when looking at the greater context, it is doubtful that this conclusion can be made from so few lines.  Fox, on the other hand, compares this passage to the Egyptian Text P. Harris 500 group B: No13 section c, which states, "For are you not health and life (itself)? The approach [of your face will give (me)]joy for your health, (for) my heart seeks you."[22] The key here is that her heart misses her beloved so much that she is sick without him. This concept of being sick in love also parallels Song of Songs 5:8.
Differences Among Ancient Near East Love Songs
            The first major difference was their understanding of love, as the Sumerians and Akkadians had a sense that love could be directed towards anything; thus, love can be directed at people, things, places, animals and even abstract nouns.[23] For instance, "Ishtar is said to have had an affair with her horse and Sin was in love with his cow."[24] Meanwhile, the Hebrew word for love (אַהֲבָה) is used to refer to humans or a love between a man and a woman, and to refer to Yahweh's love for his people.[25] Westenholz also makes an interesting point that the Hebrew concept of love was one that is "limited to children, spouses, and God, while parents are to be 'honored' rather than loved."[26] Meanwhile, the Egyptian view of love was "an emotion that is generally expressed" quite hierarchically - from the top down, where people were to be in reverential awe or respect for those over them - whether it be gods or kings.[27]
            Second, there is a difference in several key futures of these love songs. For instance, in the Sumerian text there is a song titled the "The Lovers' Quarrel (DI I)" where Inanna is fighting with her groom - basically belittling him because of his inferior lineage.[28] This theme is not found in either the Song of Songs or in Egyptian love poetry. This clearly contradicts the Song especially when compared to Song of Songs 6:3ab which states, “I am my beloveds and my beloved is mine.” This passage conveys a sense of humility and mutual love given by both parties.
            Moreover, the Sumerian love songs tended to be centered almost entirely on something to do with fertility - whether it is preparing for harvest, or preparing a bed for sex, or sex, itself. Egyptian literature does not fit thematically with the context of the cultic practices of the Inanna-Dumuzi cult. Nor does the Song of Songs convey the concepts found within Inanna-Dumuzi cultic practices, whether one understands the Song as an anthology or a unity. While Solomon is a king, there is no proof that Shulamith is a priestess. Rather, Shulamith was instead some princess from some nomadic people.  
            Furthermore, the Egyptian love songs also have several problematic themes. One of the clearest examples of this is the "love trap" theme.[29] It is in essence a theme where a girl ensnares her lover. This concept can also be seen in the Sumerian love song, "Love by the light of the moon (DI H)," where not only does the maiden gets seduced, but her lover then teaches her to lie to her mother.[30] This theme is clearly not found within the text of Song of Songs. In fact, just as there is no cultic theme in the Song of Songs, Egyptian love poetry does not have cultic themes either. According to Hector Patmore, "Two of the most prominent themes of canticles, the seeking of the beloved...and the invitation of the one lover to another to come away....are entirely absent in the Egyptian corpus."[31] 
            Another clearly noticeable difference is that the word "brother" is never used in reference to the male lover in the Song of Songs. On the other hand, "brother", is used many times in both Egyptian and Sumerian love literature in reference to male lovers and all three use the word, "sister" to refer to female lovers. Furthermore, Egyptian love poetry only consists of monologues; there are no examples of dialogue at all in the poetry.[32]
            In conclusion, the Song of Songs is a unique and individual love song that has incorporated many foreign elements into it. This can be seen by the sheer number of foreign concepts that are not even present in the ancient Sumerian or Egyptian songs, and by the manner in which the Song incorporates facets of all three cultures within its text. An example of this can be seen in Song of Songs 4:9 where the Hebrew word mumo (מוּם) meaning blemish is used, which brings with it Jewish cultic ramifications. The word deals with both inner and outer purity. For example, if a priest was to have a physical flaw, he was to be excluded from "priestly service"(Lv 21:17-23) and the same went for animal sacrifices (Lv 22:20, 21, 25 Nu 19:2 Dt 15:21; 17:1).[33] Furthermore, the word can be taken figuratively to mean a "moral blemish."(Dt 32:5).[34] The Song also incorporates aspects of Sumerian love poetry. For instance, when Solomon in Song of Songs is asking Shulamith to come down from the mountains which are in Lebanon, this is a reference to Ishtar's throne or home, which is referenced in the Epic of Gilgamesh.[35]Moreover, Solomon gives reference to leopards and lions and both are related to Inanna/Ishtar.[36] In fact, in the Sumerian love song, "She Painted Her Eyes with Kohl (DI E1)," Ishtar is actually riding a lion.[37]
       In the end, the Song of Songs is a perfect example of how Solomon utilized his knowledge of the cultural realities of his day. Solomon's incorporation of these realities into the Song shows the expansion of thought and understanding that went beyond the basic concepts found in both the Egyptian loves songs and the Sumerian sacred marriage text. Therefore, because of this incorporation and loosely fit unity strung together with dialogue, this makes the Song of Songs the most unique and distinct masterpiece of Ancient Near Eastern love literature. 

                [1]Gonzalo Rubio, "Inanna and Dumuzi: a Sumerian Love Story," JAOS 121, 2(2001):268.
                [2] Inanna originally was the goddess of date storehouses and she would then marry Amaushumgalanna, the god of date harvesters, hence why Inanna is considered the "goddess of storehouses";  Dumuzi was the god of the shepherds, eventually both Dumuzi and Amaushumgalanna became interchangeable names. Also combined the "divine pair Dumuzi-Inanna." becomes the "goddess of rain."Yiṣḥāq Sefātî, Love Songs in Sumerian Literature: Critical Edition of the Dumuzi-Inanna Songs.( Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan Univ. Press, 1998)80.
                [3] Ishtar is inanna's Akkadian Counterpart, Joan Goodinck Westenholz, "Love Lyrics from the Ancient Near East," in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East  vol 2.  (ed. J. Sasson; Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 2000)2471.
                [4] Inanna's original name was "queen of the date clusters" and later "Queen of heaven"( Ṣefātî, Love Songs, 79-80, or  "lady of Heaven'("/"'Lady of the date Clusters'(nin.ana.ak)" Abusch, "Ishtar," DDD,(Liden: Brill, 1998)452.   Overall, Inanna/Ishtar is basically a goddess of love, war, sex, fertility, passion and anger.  Julye M. Bidmead, "Ishtar", in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible ( ed. David Noel Freedman et al.; Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000), 654.
                [5] Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985) 244.
                [6] Fox, Ancient Egyptian Love Songs, 244.
                [7] Fox, Ancient Egyptian Love Songs, 239-240.
                [8] Theophile James Meek, "Canticles and the Tammuz Cult," AJSL 39,9(1922):2-3.
                [9] Meek, "Canticles," 4-5.
                [10]Meek, "Canticles," 5.
                [11] Meek, "Canticles," 7.
                [12]Others who argue for parallels that link the Song of Songs to Ugaretic text would be, Jerrold S. Copper, who links Song of Songs 5:10-16 with, "the 'second sign' of the 'Message of Ludingira," and Song of Songs 4:12-15 with "the 'third sign,' of the "Message of Ludingira." Jerrold S. Cooper, "New Cuneiform Parallels to the Song of Songs," JBL 90, 2(1971)157-162.      The problem with these comparisons is that again the comparison is scant; you are taking a song that is not meant to be an epic/mythological and comparing it to a mythological figure. 2. Again just because a passage mentions mountains, gold, ivory and so on does not mean that they are intrinsically linked.
                Then there is Loren Fisher and Brent Knutson who builds off Meek's arguments. They argued that, Text 603 (rs 24.245) is supposedly one love song mixed in with other liturgical/magical text. The
gist of the argument is that there is possibly a physical depiction of Baal that uses key words like head(2), eyes, leg, mouth, and the beloved. It is because of these key words found on this Ugarit fragment that Fisher and Knutson find Baal's enthronement love song possibly  parallel to Song of Songs 5:10-16. This leads to the idea that the Song of Songs was inspired by an ancient sacred marriage text. Loren R. Fisher & F. Brent Knutson, "An Enthronement Ritual at Ugarit," JNES 28, 3 (1969):157-167.   The problem with Fisher and Knutson's argument is that 1: this is a love song to Baal supposedly given by Anet, who celebrates her love for Baal with a cannibalistic feast after slaughtering people before cleaning up and then playing love music in passionate desire for Baal. Simon B. Parker,"The Baal Cycle," in Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, (trnas. M. S. Smith vol 9 in the SBL Writings from the Ancient World Series; Georgia: Scholars Press, 1997 )107-109.  The fact is many of these text have parallels that were probably imported into Israel and possibly influenced the imagery in the Song that said, the themes in the Ugaritic text and Sumerian text predominantly are dealing with fertility cults or the mythological love between gods. Neither of these two major themes of Sumerian poetry is found in the text of Song of Songs beyond metaphorical language and that is within the context of a love song between two lovers, no more.
                [13] Fox, Ancient Egyptian Love Songs, 242.
                [14]Andrew Hill & John Walton, A survey of the Old Testament, (Michigan:Zondervan, 2009):475.
                [15] Fox, Ancient Egyptian Love Songs, 14.
                [16] Fox, Ancient Egyptian Love Songs, 25.
                [17] Fox, Ancient Egyptian Love Songs, 25.
                [18] Ṣefātî, Love Songs, 239.
                [19] Anet is a Warrior Goddess, "Daughter of El", and sister/lover of Baal (Parker, "Glosary," in Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, 246.)
                [20] Parker,"The Baal Cycle," in Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, 155-156.
                [21] Mott is the "god of death and the underworld," and is the enemy of Baal. (Parker, "Glosary," in Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, 250.)
                [22] Fox, Ancient Egyptian Love Songs, 22.
                [23] Westenholz, "Love Lyrics from Ancient Near East", in Sasson, Civilizations, 2471.
                [24] Westenholz, "Love Lyrics from Ancient Near East", in Sasson, Civilizations, 2471.
                [25] Francis Brown et al.," אַהֲבָה" , BDB (electronic ed.; Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 2000), 13.
                [26] Westenholz, "Love Lyrics from Ancient Near East", in Sasson, Civilizations, 2472.
                [27] Westenholz, "Love Lyrics from Ancient Near East", in Sasson, Civilizations, 2472.
                [28] Ṣefātî, Love Songs, 197,201.
                [29] Fox, Ancient Egyptian Love Songs, 289-290.
                [30] Ṣefātî, Love Songs, 185-193.
                [31] Hector Patmore, "'The Plain and Literal Sense': On Contemporary Assumptions about the Song of Songs," VT 56, 2 (2006), 240.
                [32] Patmore, "The Plain and Literal Sense," 240; and: Michael Fox, "Love Passion, and Perception in Israelite and Egyptian Love Poetry," JBL 102, 2 (1983).220.
                [33] Francis Brown et al.," מוּם " , BDB, 548.
                [34] Francis Brown et al.," מוּם " , BDB, 548.
                [35] Othmar Keel, The Song of Songs: A continental commentary (Minnesota: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1994)155.
                [36]Keel, The Song of Songs, 158.
                [37] Sefātî, Love Songs ,313,316.
Abusch, T. "Ishtar," Pages 452-56. Dictionary of Demons and Deities in the Bible, Liden: Brill, 1998.

Bidmead, J. M. "Ishtar", Pages 654 in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible.. David Noel Freedman et al. ed; Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000.
Brown, F. et al., Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. electronic ed.; Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 2000.
Cooper, J. S.  "New Cuneiform Parallels to the Song of Songs," Journal of Biblical Literature 90, 2(1971)157-162.
Fisher, L. and Knutson, L. "An Enthronement Ritual at Ugarit," Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 28, 3 (1969):157-67.
Fox, M. The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs . Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.
Fox, M. "Love Passion, and Perception in Israelite and Egyptian Love Poetry," Journal of Biblical Literature 102, 2 (1983):219-228.
Keel, O. The Song of Songs: A continental commentary, Minnesota: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1994.
Patmore, H. "'The Plain and Literal Sense': On Contemporary Assumptions about the Song of Songs," Vetus Testamentum 56, 2 (2006), 239-250.
Hill, H. and Walton, J. A survey of the Old Testament, Michigan: Zondervan, 2009.
Meek, T. J. "Canticles and the Tammuz Cult," The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literature 39,9(1922):1-14.
Parker, S. B. ed. "The Baal Cycle,"  Pages 87-176 in Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, Translated by M. S. Smith vol 9 in the SBL Writings from the Ancient World Series; Georgia: Scholars Press, 1997.
Rubio, G. "Inanna and Dumuzi: a Sumerian Love Story," Journal of the American Oriental Society 121, 2(2001):268-74.
Sefātî, Y. Love Songs in Sumerian Literature: Critical Edition of the Dumuzi-Inanna Songs. Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan Univ. Press, 1998.
Westenholz, J. G. "Love Lyrics from the Ancient Near East," Pages 2471-2484 in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East  vol 2.  J. Sasson ed; Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 2000.


  1. This is interesting because how many times do we as Christian do not view Song of Songs as a biblical way to view marriage. We typically think of it as a love letter to God or something that has nothing to do with the original context.Thanks for shedding light with this.

  2. Thanks Becky, Yes, I really enjoyed studying this book it is great. Yes as interpreters we should be looking for the original intent of the authors and those who would be reading it.