An Analysis of Sumerian Society

Civilization: The Age of Masked Gods and Disguised Kings – Volume I

I am searching for the answer to the following question: How can the Sumerian example be utilized when interpreting history? In other words: How can it contribute both to clarity of method and to our understanding of history? Let us analyze the Sumerian example from multiple aspects to see what we can learn.

a. Intertwining functions of the Ziggurat

The Sumerian civilization developed in the alluvium rich region where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers met in Lower Mesopotamia. Further to the north, during the Tell Halaf period (6,000-4,000 BCE), the institutionalization phase of the Neolithic period had taken place. During this period, for the first time, abundant and diverse food resources were procured. This revolution resulted not only from newly developed production techniques but also from village society itself, as it was this new societal form that had given rise to the mentality that led to the discovery of these techniques. Sedentary life brought not only agriculture but also the development of social institutions that nurtured one another. (In a sense, institutionalization is the organization of social mentality—it is being collective.) Archaeological findings in Upper Mesopotamia point to many village settlements that were on the brink of developing into cities. However, limited irrigation and dependence on rainwater constrained further expansion and population growth. On the other hand, the Lower Tigris and Euphrates presented favorable areas for irrigation and fertile and plentiful soil. So, around 5,000 BCE, the initial village settlers of Lower Mesopotamia arrived from the North, from the Tell Halaf culture. Due to population growth villages spread out in all directions. As they moved further to the South, the rainfall decreased and irrigation became mandatory. This, in turn, required being extensively organized. The ideal organization was achieved within the temples called the Ziggurats.

The three intertwining functions of the Ziggurat are of key importance for the understanding of Sumerian society. Its first function was to house the field workers, who were owned by the Ziggurats, on the lowest floor. This floor also housed the makers of the tools and various other devices. Its second function was to host the priests, who did the administrative duties, on the second floor. The priests had to be in a position not only to calculate the ever growing production but also to provide the legitimacy (the persuasive power) to ensure cooperation from the workers. Thus, they simultaneously had to administer the religious and the secular work. The third function was to house the divinities, whose role was to influence all spiritually, on the third floor (the original example of the pantheon?). As argued in The Roots of Civilization, the Ziggurat functioned—to a greater or lesser degree—as a model for later civilizations. This initial model led to an urban society that now exceeds millions of people. It is in fact the womb of all state-like organizations. Ziggurats, at the time, were not only the center of the city but the city itself. Today’s cities too are divided into three main parts: the temple (the house of the god) where legitimacy is derived, a larger section for urban administration and the largest section—dwellings for the workers.

The priest was the early entrepreneur: he was the capitalist, the patron and the Agha of his time. He played a historical role as founder of the city and ultimately the engineer of the new society. His task was daunting. The period of forced enslavement had not begun and the gathering of a workforce from people belonging to close knit clans and ethnic groups was not as easy as today, when unemployment has become institutionalized. His only possible advantage was the use of the god-weapon. And this was the most extraordinary function of the priest: the task to construct god. This task was of critical importance. Failure in this regard would mean failure to construct the new city and society, and therefore failure to produce an abundance of food. This is the reason why the initial state administrators were priests.

The Ziggurats did not only have the task to re-invent and re-construct the city, abundance of production and the new society, but a whole world of concepts—including the concepts of god, calculation, magic, science, arts, family, and even the initial exchange of product had to be constructed. The priest was the initial social engineer, architect, prophet, economist, businessman, foreman and king.

We need to look at the main tasks of the priest in more detail.

b. Constructing god

The most important task of the priest was constructing the new religion and god. In my opinion, the missing link between totem worship and the Abrahamic religions, that progressed beyond idolatry, is the Sumerian priests’ invention of religion. This religion was a mixture of the god, that is the power regulating the skies, and the totemic religion, that is the power determining the identity of the society—the identity of both the clan and the tribe.49

During the Neolithic, the driving force had been the mother-woman to whom attributes of sacredness were ascribed—sacredness reminiscent of the male priest of the Ziggurat. In the Ziggurat, totemic and celestial representatives of god and the symbols of fertility and blessedness both gained importance in the form of mother-goddesses. Later, the mother-goddesses would become entangled in an extraordinary struggle with the Sumerian priest-gods as witnessed in the main theme of the Sumerian legends, namely the rivalry between the crafty male god Enki and the leading female goddess Inanna.50 Underlying this theme is the transition from the Neolithic village society, which had not allowed exploitation, to that of the urban society, newly constructed by the priests, which was open to exploitation. This transition constituted a clash of interest. For the first time serious social problems emerged (though, of course, the terminology and notions involved were determined by the mindset of the time). Society itself was represented as semi-divine—the human mind was not yet able to conceive of an abstract identity.

At the time of the Ziggurat, nature was seen as animate, abounding with gods and spirits.51 Tampering with the deities could result in disaster. They had to be approached with the utmost care and respect; sacrificial offers were needed to pacify them. Pleasing the gods and other sacred entities became so important that a tradition of sacrificing children and youths developed in an effort to uphold society. The various types of relationships between the human groupings of the time were reflected in the relationships and conflicts between the sacred beings and gods. Lacking the modern-day language of positive science, these notions were reflected in myths. We should not forget that the language of positive science—or rather the religion of positivism—has come into existence only in the past two hundred years. Any attempt to interpret history should not omit this fact.

The struggle between Inanna and Enki thus reflected a crucial social struggle. (Doubtlessly, this struggle had a material basis as well.) The fact that the celestial god Enlil and the earthly god Enki were both masculine reflected the coming into prominence of male power in the Sumerian urban society. Masculinity was being transformed into sacredness, turned into god. Maleness was viewed as so sacred that the new, holy male leader was in fact society itself. As the Inanna belief had reflected the social strength of the creative and leading power of the Neolithic—namely woman—the priest class was being exalted in the new religion. This struggle remained in equilibrium (although the balance in the Sumerian society turned to the disadvantage of women) until around 2,000 BCE.

The priest reserved the top level of the Ziggurat for the gods, ever decreasing in number, and kept this level extremely secret. Apart from himself—the high priest—no one else was allowed on this floor. This tactic was important for the new religious development as it stimulated respect, curiosity and dependence. Society was told that it was on the third floor that the high priest continuously met and talked with the gods. Thus, anyone wanting to hear the word of god had to listen to the high priest. He was the only authorized spokesperson of god. This tradition was passed on to the Abrahamic religions. The prophet Moses spoke to god at Mount Sinai where he received the Ten Commandments. Another name of the prophet Jesus is “God’s Representative.” His attempts to speak to god were thwarted by the devil but in the end he succeed. The Prophet Mohammed’s ascension shows that the same tradition continues in Islam. Whereas the top level would be adapted in the Abrahamic religions as the synagogue, the church and the mosque, in Greco-Roman religion it was re-arranged as the magnificent pantheon.

The high priest was not only the inventor, but also the presenter of new ideas. His dialogues with the gods dictated the rearrangement of the new society. For the first time, statues representing the gods are placed on the third floor, further increasing people’s curiosity.52 This practice resulted from the need to symbolize the new conceptual god as idols and figures. With humanity still under the influence of sign language, which is more or less a figurative and body language, the contemporary human mind was better able to understand figurative mental schemes than abstract ones. Thus, it was easier to relate to figurative conceptualizations of god.

Thus, the Ziggurats’ top floor was the initial residence of god—the pantheon, temple, church, mosque and university. These formations, which are historically linked to one another, denote society’s sacred memory and identity. Theology teaches this memory by philosophizing about it, thereby dissociating and isolating it from the initial example. The biggest distortions of history are made in the field of theology. No-one can deny the importance of theology in the development of science and philosophy but the social roots are never revealed. Because of the sociality they constructed, the priest-class is the group bearing the biggest responsibility for the formation of both the civilization of modernity and of civilization in general.

Doubtlessly, theological interpretations that take their true origins into consideration contribute much to our understanding. However, since theologians are influential in all the official state and bureaucratic orders, it is important that we are aware of the distortions—whether they are made deliberately or unintentionally. In order to understand the Middle East of today, I shall attempt to analyze the new forms of these distortions.

c. Constructing society

The second most important task of the priest was that of social engineer. He not only planned and constructed the new society but also administered it. This task was carried out on the Ziggurats’ second floor, the priests’ floor. At a later stage, a vastly increased number of priests developed into a sacred class under the leadership of the high priest as the god’s deputies. They, the elite administration of the city, formed the initial bureaucratic caste. They housed the people on the first floor to facilitate the production of the material goods—a first step into subsequent enslavement. But on the second floor, they dealt with god and science. The foundations of writing, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, literature and, of course, theology were laid in the rooms of the priests on the second floor—the initial school and university. The priests’ main task was to administer the requirements of the growing urban society.

It should be understood that producers of material goods have never done so of their own accord or indeed, as Marx puts it, production is never done by “free laborers.” In no classed society, including that of the capitalist period, do private or collective property owners have access to free laborers. Nobody, unless enslaved through oppression and legislation, works of his own accord for someone else’s benefit.

For the most part, the priests accomplished their tasks through legitimation, which they obtained by selling themselves as the deputies of god and by their monopoly on science. These positions gave them extraordinary administrative powers. Let us not forget that even in the capitalist era knowledge is power. The foundations of science were laid during the Neolithic period, especially during the Tell Halaf period when the contributions of the mother-woman-goddess were marked. Woman’s position as the first teacher, especially with reference to the uses of various plants, domestication of animals, pottery, weaving, grinding, housing and creating sanctuaries, cannot be underestimated. The mother-goddess Inanna in her struggle against Enki always claimed that she was the legitimate owner of the hundred and four Mes and that they were stolen from her by Enki.53 Many of the early discoveries were in fact made by women; the male administrators did later steal this knowledge. As we will see, the Sumer civilizational phase was indeed built on this stolen knowledge.

The contributions made by the priests cannot be underestimated. Inscription, astronomy, mathematics, medicine and theology undeniably played an enormous role in the scientific foundations of civilization. The Sumerian priests played a leading part in the commencement of science. The initial Sumerian kings, the priest-kings, were the first kings of urban society. Every city had a priest-king. They received their legitimacy from their scientific and theological inventions. However, these inventions later constituted their main weakness. During the era of dynasties, “the strong man” would lead the dynasties with his military force. Military force would beat the priests at their game.

d. Establishing the workforce

At the lowest level of the Ziggurat were the workers. The first level workers must be understood well because they laid the foundation for slavery, serfdom and workforces. Where and how were they obtained? What was the role of force and of persuasion? From which community and in return for what were they obtained? Were there women amongst them? What was the role of woman and family? Answers to these questions will greatly enlighten us.

In the formation of the initial working groups, the priests’ power of persuasion was probably the dominant factor. Furthermore, as food production increased with the use of irrigation, we may assume that the workers were fed better in the Ziggurat than they were in their places of origin. As the population and migration increased, it is possible that some fell into dispute with their tribe, eventually finding refuge in the temple. The sacredness attributed to working in the temple could have played an even more significant role. In Middle Eastern tradition, families and tribes often gave their children to service at the temples—forced labor at the temple brought honor to those who worked there; society exalts them, as with Christian monasticism. Even today, to work for the sheikh is not only honorable but a good deed.

Ziggurats are remarkable in that they are the first examples of pure collective work. The workforce, including the craftsmen, is the first example of the implementation of communist ideals. Sociologists such as Max Weber have called it “Pharaoh Socialism.”54 It is redolent of factory production. The excess production is stored, thereby providing for times of famine. This would enormously increase the priests’ power. None of the families or tribes could obtain the same strength. The Ziggurat clearly was the embryo of the new society and state.

e. Reconstructing the role of women and family

It is important to see what happened to the woman and family in the Ziggurat system. The opposition of the mother-goddess religion to that of the religion of the Ziggurat priest can be seen in the Sumerian texts. Each city had a designated woman as guardian-goddess. In fact, the adventures of Inanna, the Goddess of Uruk, provide an example worth studying as Uruk was the first Sumerian city-state. (Could the name Iraq have Uruk as its roots?) It is also a famous city since it was the city of the first male king, Gilgamesh. It is highly probable that Uruk was the first city-state in history and the period 3,800-3000 BCE is designated as the Uruk period. The fact that the founder goddess of Uruk is Inanna shows that she is far more ancient than Gilgamesh and that the role of the mother-woman was still the leading one at the time. However, Uruk’s struggle against Eridu (the city of the god Enki and perhaps the first priest-state) is legendary (an excellent example of gender struggle). Over time, less and less figurines of the woman-goddess were made and apparently, with the onset of the Babylon period, the woman-goddess had been destroyed: Woman now was an official public and private prostitute as well as a slave.55

In a designated section of the Ziggurat, woman played her role as love object. At the time, this role seemingly was an honorary role preserved for the daughters of the best families. Only the distinguished and privileged girls were picked for this task. They received many lessons on beauty and mastered some forms of art before, if they agreed to marry, they were offered to the distinguished males of the surrounding regions. The result was a dramatic increase in the income and influence of the temple. Only the males from the noble families could obtain a woman from the temple. The temple education would thus be represented in the new tribes; new allegiances to the new society and new state were formed. In fact, women were the most productive agents of the priests’ new society and state. The collectivization of woman in this way is indeed the prototype of the brothel. As woman’s position declined from being the noble goddess and the temple’s woman of love, she turned into a desperate brothel worker, putting herself on the market.

Sumerian society has the honor (or is it the dishonor?) of being the first of its kind. However, had this method of schooling women not been abused to the extent that it became a brothel system, it would have been the ideal system due to the difficulty for girls to obtain a sound education in systems where either the mother-woman or the father-man is dominant. But the male dominant society, through the usage of oppression and exploitation, toppled the original institution. The Sumerian training institution was the envy of society—everyone wanted to give their daughters to the temple. Initially the girls had the opportunity to develop themselves immensely; their first goal was not to find a husband for themselves but to become the leaders of the new society and state.

f. Organizing trade

Thus, the priests’ approach to women served the development of the new society and state. The way the priests organized the new society and state was close to ideal. Trade was still in the developing stage. Although there is no evidence of this in the texts, we can assume that the Ziggurat also functioned as a trading house. The surplus product and the production of tools by the craftsman attached to the Ziggurats were probably the objects of trade. History considers the period from 4,000 to 3,000 BCE as the era that trade began. The era of the Sumerian society coincides with the transition from the gift economy (parting of gifts amongst the members of the society and families) to commodity (or exchange) economy. Commodification during this era developed extensively, resulting in production for exchange value. The Sumerian society can thus be seen as the initial trade society.

The Uruk colonial system probably began between 3,500 and 3,000 BCE. Within the Taurus-Zagros system, the Uruk colonies were probably the first colonization offensive of the new state structures. Although the dynastic colonies were more ancient, these divergent tribal colonies cannot be considered real colonies. A prerequisite to having colonies is to be a metropolitan city. Uruk, as a very famous metropolis, must have had many colonies. Later Ur (3,000-2,000 BCE) and Assyrian (2,000-1,750 BCE) colonies became very famous. The ancient cities of Harappa and Moenjo-daro in the Punjab area, together with the Egyptian civilization, were all, in a wider sense, colonial orders with roots in Sumerian civilization since their roots also rested in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

One reason that trade played such an effective role in the priests’ system was that in the lower valleys of Mesopotamia many of the cities’ material needs were absent. Therefore, trade, expropriation, or both, were a necessity. The colonial order developed exactly for the purpose of obtaining material needs. Many of the colonies on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates were established due to this need. Especially widespread were colonies needed for the timber, metal and weaving trades.

Thus, it is clear that a prototype of the new society and state was formed within the Ziggurats. The concrete development of the state-society that has influenced our system of civilization has the Sumerian Ziggurat system as its origins. Indeed, the other examples, from Egypt to China, follow the same path. To date, no counter-examples have come to light to prove this thesis wrong.

So, from our analysis of the Ziggurats, we can conclude that the beginning of the Sumerian society was also the beginning of the era of masked gods and disguised kings. The initial masked gods were the Sumerian priests but just behind them, with much fanfare and pomposity, were the disguised (politically clothed) kings.

g. The emergence of dynasties

The priest-state society was a precursor to the dynastic system. For a societal development such as state-based society to be successful, it needed to be guaranteed first. Initially, intelligent people are needed to make and legitimize the new arrangements. This cannot be accomplished by political or military power—before coercion can be applied, there needs to be a society and an administrative system that is conducive to trade and surplus products. Only when this aspect of the new society is well established can the seizure of power by political and military forces be meaningful; if not, the attempt would bring nothing but chaos. In the case of Sumer, this required the priests.

The dynastic system had a long and powerful history in Mesopotamia. As ethnic identities developed and strengthened, dynasties emerged within the clan and tribal order as those who had gained experience in protecting the tribe, locating it in fertile regions and resolving its internal problems gained prominence. Inevitably, one or more of these families or clans would grow stronger than the others—either by taking part in the administration of the tribe or by seizing it. Undoubtedly, the approval by the members of the tribe would have been the decisive factor—strong kinship bonds amongst them did not leave much room for strangers (unless an appropriate form of participation and assimilation could be found). A strong clan identity emerged during its formation stage. Such a development occurred around 5,000 BCE in Mesopotamia, but the Sumerian society was not the first to undergo this development. A similar development had been experienced in the Semitic tribes between 9,000 and 6,000 BCE. Dynasties continued to gain strength until around 5,000 BCE. During the Ubaid period, which likely preceded the Uruk period, there were strong dynasties, but there was no transition to a state structure. However, there is evidence suggesting a trend toward colonization when distinguished Semitic families settled in the Aryan cultural stratum between 5,000-4,000 BCE. The initial Semitic colonization took place at the Upper Tigris and Euphrates river basin, today called South East Anatolia.

It is important to understand this particular aspect of dynasties, as it still concerns us today: Familism and the desire to have as many male children as possible constitute the cornerstone of the dynastic ideology. Whereas the priest attains his leadership on the basis of his intellectual power, the strong man of the dynasty attains leadership through political power. Political power is associated with coercion. Whereas the power of the priest is a cautionary, moral power—akin to the “curse of god”—the real source of political power is the military associates of the strong man.

In the period of the hunter-gatherers, when women were the dominant influence, men had no power. To understand this, we have to understand the matrilineal system and the notion of familism. In the matrilineal system, the father is either unknown or insignificant. Women don’t choose the men fathering their children for love. They are not bound to any man through housewifization. The male, on the other hand, is not in a position to dominate a woman or to call her “his wife.” If not performed well, hunting is a job lacking esteem. The woman doesn’t seek sexual intercourse for pleasure—sexuality is solely for the purpose of reproduction. The children belong to her. By giving birth and nourishing them, she attains this right. The notion of fatherhood rights at a period when fatherhood has no social significance is non-existent. The woman’s brothers have some significance because they grew up together. (The custom of uncle-hood and aunt-hood—on the mother’s side—attains its strength from this ancient woman’s law.) The matrilineal family consists of the uncle, the aunt—and their children if they have any—and the mother’s own children. This can be seen as the social expression of the mother-goddess cult. Apart from the uncles, the males are insignificant; the practice of fatherhood and husband-hood non-existent.

A dynastic system can only develop ideologically and in practice once the matrilineal system has been inverted. A dynastic system—or patriarchal system—roots itself in a society through an alliance of “the old man’s” experience, “the strong man’s” military associates and the legitimization given by “the spiritual leader”—in the pre-priest period, the shaman.

The experiences of the old man signify lifelong lessons. He is the sage that everyone consults and asks for advice. The community needs him. And he in turn tries to overcome the difficulties of old age by making use of his experiences. This is the pact he negotiates with society.

The strong man is the one desiring to escape the shackles of the mother-woman through productive hunting. Physical strength and superlative hunting techniques enhances his chances as a hunter. The pact he establishes with the youngsters wishing to benefit from his skills affords him even more success. The alliance established with the elderly of the tribe strengthens patriarchy in the face of the matrilineal system.

The final link to the alliance is the shaman, who fulfills the functions of the priest as well as the wizard. He is an educator and perhaps the initial expert in the society. Although at times mixed with charlatanry, the expertise of the shaman establishes itself in the society. Shamans are mostly male. In the construction of the dynasties, their alliance with the strong men strikes a huge blow to the matrilineal system. The Sumerian texts indicate an intense struggle between the male alliance and their female antagonists.

In this new order, the male is both the owner of the children and the acknowledged father. He wants to have many children, especially male children, for work purposes and to acquire the accumulated possessions that are held by the women. Thus, we witness the onset of ownership. The private ownership of the dynastic system develops in parallel with the collective ownership of the priest-state. For the inheritance to pass on to the children (mostly the male children) fatherhood needs to be constructed—another reason why there is a need to be acknowledged as the father of the children.

Dynasties, patriarchy, and fatherhood are indicators that a classed society is emerging, and indeed the Sumerian tablets speak of the kind of struggle and political turmoil that indicate the emergence of such a society. The Ur city-state system, which was constructed after the Uruk city-state, had a dynastic character. In comparison to the theological administration of the priests, the dynastic administration had a more secular and political character. New gods were constructed and the priests were reduced to deputies of the political leaders. They still played an important role, but increasingly they lost their power and became mere propagandists of the system. The masked gods, who gave birth to the state, became progressively subordinate to the disguised king. The dynastic kings had no hesitation in calling themselves god-kings, thereby making use of the shield of legitimacy provided by the priests. Day by day the class divisions intensified, the numbers of cities increased and, as a result, the Sumerian civilization-type society proved its permanence and institutionalized itself.

This ancient tradition of dynasties still prevails in the Middle East. The reason why republics and democratic systems have not developed in the Middle East is because the initial states were based on theocracies and dynasties.

The model of the Sumerian civilized society has determined the development of civilization in the Old World at least as much as the Neolithic model. Civilization as a notion differs from that of culture because of its connection with class division. Civilization is, in fact, all about a class-culture and class-state. The dominant indicators of the new civilized society are urbanism, trade, institutionalization of theology and science, development of political and military structures, law taking prominence over morality, and male gender discrimination. To a degree, the sum of all these characteristics can be called “the culture of civilized society.” Hence, the two notions are often equated and given the same content.

The big expansion of the Neolithic society-culture of the Fertile Crescent was followed by a second big expansion—that of civilized society. It was the daughters of the mother-goddess that institutionalized the Neolithic as they expanded into each region. Civilized society, which is in reality male dominant culture, institutionalizes its sons wherever they expand. The generation of the civilized male, who binds the female child through housewifization, will always breed males; hence, the masculinity of our civilization will continue to strengthen and multiply.

49 Any object that has an importance in the clan’s life can be the totem. Usually it is based on an entity that also embodies power. To date we still come across tribes named after lions, snakes, falcons, wolfs, the sun, rain, wind and names of important plants and trees.

50 See Samuel Noah Kramer and John Maier, Myths of Enki, the Crafty God (1989).

51 As I have argued before, in my opinion this does not signify a backward mental state; on the contrary, it is probably more progressive and closer to the truth than the modernistic view of nature as being a lifeless object.

52 The woman figures of the mother-goddess period were much more modest, symbolizing the productive and fertile woman.

53 In Sumerian mythology the Mes are divine decrees underlying the social institutions, religious practices, technology, behavior, mores and human conditions that constituted civilization, as understood by the Sumerians. They are fundamental to the Sumerian understanding of the relationship between humanity and the gods.

54 Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, Max Weber: Economy and society, Volume 1 (1978).

55 In Turkish, a common name for brothels is public house. Therefore, public prostitute refers to prostitutes in a brothel and private prostitute to wives in a patriarchal marriage.

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