Discovered in the 19th century, The Love Song for Shu-Sin has become the oldest love poem in history, but does it shed new light on our historical perception of love?
When was love invented? This question has no answer for many reasons. The first one, and probably the reason why so many people would cringe when reading the question, is the assumption that love is an invention instead of an essential human emotion. So, while many studies have tried to prove how love is something inherent to humans, historical and sociological approaches strongly believe that it’s more of a cultural and social invention that has been shaped to the needs of each historical period. So, while we’re not going to focus on that particular subject (it would take us days to try to tackle all these different views on the matter), there’s a good starting point that, as you might have garnered from the title, can help us answer the question.
“Bridegroom, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet,
Lion, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet.
You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you.
Bridegroom, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber,
You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you.
Lion, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber.”
Im Harem (1855) Carl Spitzweg
Many scholars believe that one of the literary forms that could give us a more definitive answer to the question of when love was invented is poetry. Since it's the oldest form of literary expression, the most known for giving the best examples of human emotion, poetry has become a key subject study to determine the nature of love. Many believe that love first appears in the Bible in the famous poem “Song of Songs.” Others claim that even though it deals with the main characteristics of this emotion, love as we know it and understand it nowadays, wasn’t created until medieval times with "courtly love," while others claim that it is a social construct created in Victorian times. So, since there are so many different opinions, let’s focus on the first claim.
Before the 19th century, "Song of Songs" was believed to be the oldest love poem ever. In case you don’t know about it, this is a relatively unknown part of the Bible that doesn't really mention many religious precepts and, instead, is a sensual narration of the erotic encounters between two lovers. The irony is that it lost its claim to the title of oldest love poem when archaeologist Henry Layard, in an eager attempt to find some of the places mentioned in the Bible, led an excavation at the spot where it was believed that Nineveh (modern-day Nippur in southern Iraq) had stood. In the personal library of the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC) there was an old clay tablet named “Istanbul #2561”, that had been stored in a drawer in the cellar of the Istanbul Museum of the Ancient Orient for decades. The impressive thing was that in their attempt to prove the veracity of the Bible, this library provided evidence that most of the stories included in it had prior and older versions originally in Mesopotamian tales.
“Bridegroom, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey,
In the bedchamber, honey-filled,
Let me enjoy your goodly beauty,
Lion, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey.”
Harem (c1877) Fernand Cormon
So, what's so special about this clay tablet? In 1951, while translating some ancient Sumerian texts, Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer found this abandoned tablet and realized that it was actually a beautiful poem dating from around 2000 BC. After giving it a more dignified name, “The Love Song for Shu-Sin”, it was translated into English and became the oldest love poem in history, which makes a lot of sense, since the Sumerians were the first civilization to develop written language. But what does the poem really say, and what can it tell us about love as a universal emotion or a social construct? After some research, scholars agree that the poem was part of an annual celebration or rite known as the “sacred marriage.” During the ritual, the king, in this case, Shu-Sin, would symbolically marry Inanna (goddess of love and fertility) and procreate with her to ensure a year of prosperity and fertility in the land.
The poem is actually about a bride showing and pouring all her admiration and love for the king in highly erotic praises of his greatness (in all senses, seriously) and the love she feels for her future husband. As scholar Jeremy Black explains, the song was created to celebrate this sacred ritual, but many people mistakenly see it only as a regular love poem. However, although the marriage was a symbolical union with the goddess, the king also participated in a ceremony with one of the goddess's priestesses, so he would symbolically become Dumuzi, Inanna’s lover in Sumerian cosmogony. By showering praise and love on the King, the bride is making sure that the country will prosper thanks to her love for the monarch and her blessing of his kingdom.
“Bridegroom, you have taken your pleasure of me,
Tell my mother, she will give you delicacies,
My father, he will give you gifts.
Your spirit, I know where to cheer your spirit,
Bridegroom, sleep in our house until dawn,
Your heart, I know where to gladden your heart,
Lion, sleep in our house until dawn.”
The Fortune Teller (1875) Édouard Frédéric Wilhelm Richter
As a result, the poem fulfills a religious, political, and social purpose, but it's also an intense and moving work of literature, where the female poetic voice gives a realistic and heartfelt touch to the ceremony. So, to go back to our original question, what can the oldest love poem in history tell us about our understanding of love? On the one hand, it’s clear that this doesn’t really portray love as we understand it nowadays, that’s for sure. However, I do believe that it shows us that love is actually a social construct we’ve shaped and transformed based on our own perceptions and needs in life.
“You, because you love me,
Give me pray of your caresses,
My lord god, my lord protector,
My Shu-Sin, who gladdens Enlil’s heart,
Give my pray of your caresses.
Your place goodly as honey, pray lay your hand on it,
Bring your hand over like a gishban-garment,
Cup your hand over it like a gishban-sikin-garment
It is a balbale-song of Inanna.”
The Favorite (unknown date) Rudolf Ernst
Don’t leave without taking a look at these amazing poems:
Cover painting: Reclining Odalisque (1892) Ferencz Franz Eisenhut