Monday, March 24, 2014

Marriage in Ancient Babylon

selling women in ancient Babylon

Generally, marriage in ancient Babylon was monogamous, although secondary wives could be chosen from among the slaves, particularly if the first wife was barren or too ill to satisfy her marital obligations. Both custom and law allowed the barren wife to supply a slave-girl as her surrogate to bear children. The resulting children were legally considered the wife's children. A childless wife could also adopt a second woman as her sister and permit her to marry her husband.

Until the time of her marriage a girl was under the protection of her father. He was free to marry her to whomever he thought fit and she was dependent on him for getting married. If her father died, her brothers took over his responsibility.  If she was in service in another household as security for a debt of her father's, the creditor was only free to dispose of her as he liked if she had neither father nor brothers. In theory, wives were not bought and sold but there are texts which make it clear that purchase in a disguised form did in fact take place. One would think a girl would prefer to remain single rather than be forced into marriage, particularly marriage with an undesirable partner.  But, according to the thinking of the time, it was a woman's 'destiny' to marry and provide sons to perpetuate the male line of her husband's family and it was a duty most women took seriously.

Marriage was preceded by a ceremony of betrothal. The girl's future husband poured perfume on her head and brought her presents. After this small ceremony, although she could remain in the home of her parents if young, she was considered a full member of her future husband's family; so much so that if he died she would marry one of his brothers or if he had no brothers, one of his near relatives.

Both families brought a financial investment to the table - the groom's family were contracted to provide a bride-price in silver and the bride's family were contracted to provide a dowry of equal value. The dowry consisted of household items, silver rings, slaves and even fields. It could also include furniture, textiles and jewelry. Not infrequently the dowry included the bed used to consummate the marriage. Both the bride-price and the dowry could be paid in installments until the first child was born, at which time the balance of both payments was due and the marriage was legally finalized.

prostitute in ancient Babylon

The virginity of the bride was a matter of concern. The 'best men' of the bride were a group of friends who protected her and were responsible for her chastity. After the wedding night it was their responsibility to display 'the bloody sheets'. If the virginity of the bride were in dispute, expert female witnesses were called upon to offer testimony. In one letter from Mari a betrothed girl was pursued by another man. There had been some kissing and intimate touching but the young woman  insisted that she did not sin against her betrothed because she had denied the man intercourse. This seemed to be the criteria for establishing whether a woman was raped or seduced, in order to determine culpability.

The actual marriage was simply a delivery of the wife to her husband. The husband declared, 'she is my wife', in the presence of witnesses and that was that.

There were, of course, 'specialists' who engaged in what we would call prostitution. Taverns run by alewives were houses of pleasure where men drank, listened to music and had intercourse with prostitutes. The walls of the taproom were decorated with clay plaques of naked women or other erotic scenes. Married women took lovers but it was a dangerous business. While a husband's sexual escapades were punishable only if they seriously harmed a third party, those of the wife and her lover were dealt with much more harshly. If the lovers were caught they were bound together and thrown into the water. The husband could be granted permission to have both parties killed or mutilated. He could cut off his wife's nose and make her lover a eunuch. If the wife told her husband she no longer wanted him, once again, death by drowning and if it were proven that she had been  disobedient or a manhunter, breaking up the home and bringing discredit on her husband, you guessed it, she was thrown into the water. Drowning seemed to be a popular judgment.

There is little to glean from the personal correspondence of ancient Babylonian literature, as they seem to have been fairly modest in expressing their most intimate feelings in letters. However, I don't want to leave you with the idea that marriage was simply a passionless contract so I'll close with a 'medical' text and a poem composed around 1750BC.

Sumerian couple

Medical text.
When the patient is continually clearing his throat; is often lost for words; is always talking to himself when he is quite alone, and laughing for no reason in the corners of the fields; is habitually depressed, his throat tight, finds no pleasure in eating or drinking, endlessly repeating, with great sighs, 'Ah! my poor heart! - he is suffering from lovesickness.
(Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia by Jean Bottero, pg 102)

Poem of a man who returns to a loving woman he'd previously abandoned.
Yes! You are the only one who matters! Your face is as beautiful as ever! It is as it used to be,
When I held you close to me
And you rested your head on me!
I shall never call you anything but 'Enchanting'
And 'Wise' shall be your only title for me!
May Ishtar be my witness:
Henceforward your rival shall be our enemy!
(Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia by Jean Bottero, pg 105)

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