Let your penis consume my crotch: thoughts on female sexual desire in ancient Mesopotamia

womenPenetrated_©BritishMuseum2015In a time1 and place where sexual matters figure in the agenda of both public institutions and private individuals, it may be interesting to turn our attention to ancient societies and ask ourselves: what can we know about sexual practices, attraction and desire in antiquity? How did gender relations manifest in sexual terrains? Or more specifically, how was women’s sexual desire perceived and understood in the various societies of the ancient world?

Ancient Mesopotamia has provided us with a disparity of sources dealing mainly or tangentially with sexual matters, from mythical-religious compositions depicting carnal congress between deities to legal provisions regulating rape and unfaithfulness. But it is a particular kind of source, the so-called ŠÀ.ZI.GA or “potency texts” – especially when read side by side with other cuneiform texts- that offer revealing glimpses on the techniques and mechanisms women could employ to accomplish their personal wishes and sexual appetites.

What exactly are these ŠÀ.ZI.GA texts? The expression ŠÀ.ZI.GA / nīš libbi, literally “lifting of the insides”, means “libido, sexual desire”. In fact, it is no chance that the ŠÀ / libbu, the insides or belly, was recognised as the place where feelings and thoughts took place. The term ŠÀ.ZI.GA appears in 2nd and mainly 1st millennia BCE Mesopotamian texts concerned mainly with procedures aiming at recovering lost potency or at producing sexual arousal, although its loss is also mentioned as symptom in particular pathological cases such as genitourinary and internal ailments.

Assyriology has traditionally translated ŠÀ.ZI.GA as “potency”, defined as the capacity to have or maintain an erection, therefore assuming ŠÀ.ZI.GA remedies exclusively addressed a male patient. Robert Biggs, responsible for the invaluable edition of the main corpus of these texts, judged the material in the following terms:

“An important point is that only men are said to have ŠÀ.ZI.GA. The incantations are ostensibly recited by a woman, often addressing a man in the second person, to enable him to make love. Women are never addressed in ŠÀ.ZI.GA incantations. This, in fact, helps to distinguish love incantations from ŠÀ.ZI.GA incantations.” (Biggs 1967: 2).

“One might think that the ŠÀ.ZI.GA incantations and rituals intended to restore sexual potency in men might have been used by women with a goal of increasing sexual activity with their husbands in order to increase their chances of becoming pregnant. If so, it is not made explicit in the texts.” (Biggs 2000: 6).

This assumption implicitly supports the existence of gender division in sexual matters, with sexual desire being attributed to men; and reproduction, to women. In this historical reconstruction, women’s goal in maintaining sexual relations is implicitly supposed to be motherhood, but not necessarily sexual pleasure. A certain degree of confusion seems to emerge with regard to where to place, and how to frame, the proneness of women to sexual activities in a civilization that was (and still is) largely perceived as male-dominant. In spite of this, a number of ŠÀ.ZI.GA procedures may be interpreted as the expression of both female wish and women’s capacities to promote and engage in sexual encounters.

The search for potency and sexual satisfaction reveal different personal, medical and social circumstances. It may be prompted by the loss of sexual appetite. In these particular cases, men are the patients by default: a number of symptoms tend to focus on the penis (it can be flaccid, discharge pus, etc.), often emphasizing the impossibility of the patient to engage in sexual congress with a woman. Some cases mention witchcraft as possible cause of this condition: one case states that the semen of the patient has been buried with the dead, suggesting that a woman (a former lover, perhaps) has gained intimate access to his victim in order to perform her act of vengeance (Abusch-Schwemer 2011: 111, text 2.5: 7’-10’). Here we find evidence of women being credited with the capacities and necessary knowledge to harm sexually.

On the other hand, a large part of the ŠÀ.ZI.GA texts also deal with the acquisition of sexual drive, with no references to potency being compromised as a result of disease. In fact, in these cases emphasis is put in producing – and not in recovering or getting back- sexual arousal, as well as in obtaining pleasure and placating desire. In these cases, the attention shifts from the male and the penis to a more flexible set of actants: the relieving procedure may focus on the male, on the male and the female, or it can maintain a sort of indeterminacy with respect to the main client of the procedure. In ritual operations, incantations using explicit sexual vocabulary may often be recited by the female lover:
Incantation. Become stiff! Become stiff! Rise! [Rise]!

Become stiff like a stag! Rise like a wild bull]!
(…)
Let your … penis hurt (lit. eat, consume, bite) my crotch!
According to the command of Kanišurra (and) Išḫara, goddesses of love. Incantation formula.
Its procedure: you crush magnetic iron ore, you mix (it) with pūru-oil,
You recite the incantation seven times; you apply (it) to his navel;
You crush iron, you mix (it) in pūru-oil, you recite the incantation seven times over (it),
You apply (it) to the woman’s navel; the man and the woman [will appease] together (LKA 102: 1-17 in Biggs 1967: 22-23).

Another interesting feature which ŠÀ.ZI.GA texts reveal, and which speaks in favour of the existence of a theory of female sexual desire in ancient Mesopotamia, is that rituals can be personalized. In some cases, the name of both the male and female lovers are to be explicitly specified within the context of recitation, thus suggesting that both the male and the female were or could be the potential clients or users of this technique. «May so-and-so, son of so-and-so, become excited for so-and-so, daughter of so-and-so, may he flare up, may he hit and mount (her)!,» reads one example from the city of Assur (LKA 102 rev. 6-16 in Biggs 1967: 42, text 23), while another one puts emphasis on the woman’s skills and power to arouse the male. Female abilities are equated to those possessed by particularly sexually active goddesses, suggesting that the female is the main agent or client of the ritual.

Incantation. Lifting of the insides (ŠÀ.ZI.GA)! Lifting of the insides! I (?) have prepared a bed (for) lifting of the insides.
What Ištar did for Dumuzi,
What Nanaya d[id] for her lover,
What Išhara [did] for her husband (let me do for my lover)!
Let the flesh of so-and-so, son of so-and-so tingle (?), [let his penis be erect]!
Let his insides not become tired (either) night or day! At [the command of]
[Wi]se Ištar, Nanaya, G[azba]ba (and)
[Išh]ara. Incantation formula. STT 280 ii 10-21 (Biggs 1967: 44, text 25)

In both cases, the level of female involvement in producing potency in the male could respond, at least partially, to the need of fulfilling her own sexual appetites.

Even though a high percentage of the cuneiform texts we have on women’s health issues deal with reproduction, the “potency texts” material shows that there is more to women’s health and well-being than pregnancy and childbirth. It is, therefore, worth challenging the idea that women’s healthcare in ancient Mesopotamia was exclusively concerned with fertility issues. Women’s role in ŠÀ.ZI.GA procedures go beyond male arousal and pleasure, also aiming, I would argue, at ensuring their own satisfaction during intercourse. All in all, significant areas of action in the realms of sexuality, love and desire are recognised to women in cuneiform sources – women can perform witchcraft on men so as to bind their sexual capacities; they can seek to attract the desired male, or try reconciliation with an angry husband. More interestingly, if women can be depicted in the textual sources as sentient beings seeking for love, sex or vengeance, then also men can, but this should be left for another post.

Works quoted

Abusch, T., and Schwemer, D.
2011 Corpus of Mesopotamian Anti-witchcraft Rituals. Leiden: Brill.
Biggs, R.
1967 ŠÀ.ZI.GA. Ancient Mesopotamian Potency Incantations. Locust Valley, NY: Augustin.
2000 Conception, Contraception and Abortion in Ancient Mesopotamia. Pp. 1-13 in Wisdom, Gods and Literature: Studies in Honour of W.G. Lambert, eds. A. R. George, and I. L. Finkel. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns.

  1. photo is from the British Museum.
    To contact the author Erica Couto-Ferreira couto-ferreira(at)asia-europe.uni-heidelberg.de
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One thought on “Let your penis consume my crotch: thoughts on female sexual desire in ancient Mesopotamia”

  1. Thank you for your comment, Max. Nobody is trying to make silk purses out of sow’s ears, but to read between the lines of ancient evidence in order to find new ways of dealing with it. It would have been easier to present the ŠÀ.ZI.GA texts as proof of obliterating patriarchy, of women’s oppression and subjection to the male, of their inability to act within the different layers of Mesopotamian society. I personally find more interesting – and scientifically challenging – analysing those social spaces, however small, marginal or underrated, where women could act following their own interests and desires.

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