Feb. 12th, 2016

ikhet_sekhmet: (ankh-mi-re)
In this chapter from Sacred Marriages, Saana Teppo (now Saana Svärd) describes the assinnu, the kurgarrū, and the kulu'u (or gala), and their role in the worship of Ishtar. "in their ecstatic performances," she writes, "they were joined with Ishtar in a union comparabable to sacred marriage... they fulfilled the same function as the king in the sacred marriage ritual: they ensured the blessing of the goddess for the country."

"It seems that all three groups of cultic functionaries were born as men (or hermaphrodites [that is, intersex people]), but... their appearance was either totally feminine, or they had both male and female characteristics. [All three are] recorded in the literature of the Sumerian period [and] continued to appear in Akkadian texts up to the Seleucid and Persian eras." They were rained for their ritual duties: "ecstatic dance, music, ritual plays, and performances", in which they wore female dress and makeup and carried masks, spindles, and weapons. Teppo admits that the "evidence for this from Mesopotamia is not overwhelming", but it is possible that, like the galli and the hijra (?), the cultic performers mutilated themselves to achieve "an altered state of consciousness in which they could achieve union with the divine - a sacred marriage". (Perhaps the weapons were for mock or ritual battles? One of the love lyrics W.G. Lambert translates, perhaps describing a ritual, includes the lines 'Battle is my game, warfare is my game,' he/she will utter and the Assinnu-priest will go down to battle, he will ... a jig [...]".)

In the Sumerian version of the Descent of Inanna, Enki creates the kurgarrū and "the kalaturru (GALA.TUR, which can be translated as 'young kulu'u')" from dirt under his fingernails and dispatches them to rescue Inanna. In the Assyrian version, Ea creates the assinnu Asushanamir for the same purpose.

Teppo discusses the possibility that the assinnu, kurgarrū, and kulu'u performed sex work connected with Ishtar worship; I'm going to put that aside for now, because I still haven't fully got to grips with the recent overturning of the long-standing assumption that every priestess (and almost every woman!) in Mesopotamia was a sex worker. I will note, though, that the "kulu'u is called Ištar's 'sweet bedfellow' (ṣālitu ṭābu) and 'lover' (ḫabbubu)."

(ETA: Henshaw (p 300) discusses this last, translating the lines from a "namburbi text addressed to Ishtar": "come enter our house / with you may enter the beautiful one / who sleeps with you / your lover and your kulu'u." Henshaw notes: "it couldn't be three separate people invited in!" Oddly, that was exactly how I read it - although I think Henshaw's interpretation is probably right.)

Teppo suggests that the assinnu's role in healing is explained by Asushanamir's helping to bring Ishtar back to life. Assinnus could also be prophets (and there are three Neo-Assyrian prophets who, though are not called assinnus, are described as being both men and women). The kurgarrus performed a "war dance" "with knives, swords, and clubs", and played "ritual games with skipping ropes and bawdy speech". The assinnu and the kurgarrū are often found in each other's company, such as at liminal moments - the New Year's Festival, and eclipses.

The kulu'u or gala was originally a lamentation chanter, listed alongside "female mourners and wailers" and using the female literary dialect, Emesal. (Possibly they replaced female singers, retaining "the female forms of the profession".) An Old Babylonian poem describes Enki creating the gala to soothe Inanna's heart. Galas peformed in temples, at funerals, and possibly at court. The chief gala (GALA.MAḪ) was a high-ranking official; there may have been gala guilds, gala families, and female galas. (There's possible evidence of a female assinnu and a female kurgarrū.) But some galas were slaves, and the galas could be forced to do corvée work for the temple.

Ishtar could change someone's sex or gender, as noted in Inana C (aka The Stout-Hearted Lady, Lady of Largest Heart), the hymn Išme-Dagan K, and The Epic of Erra, which says of Ishtar and the kurgarru and assinnu: "Who changed their masculinity into femininity to make the people of Ištar revere her. The dagger-bearer, bearers of razors, pruning-knives, and flint blades, who frequently do abominable [ie "taboo acts, forbidden to regular persons] to please the heart of Ištar." Which said, nobody knows for sure whether some or all of the assinnus, kurgarrūs, and kulu'us were castrated (and if so, to what extent). (Eunuchs, ša-rēši, were a separate category of persons.)

So these cultic personnel had an established, institutional role, but how well were they treated as individuals? Some of Teppo's evidence that they were marginalised doesn't quite convince me. Enki created them from the dirt under his fingernails, but then, he created the human race out of lowly clay (maybe there was a bit left over :). The curse placed on Asushanamir is pretty unequivocal, though, damning the assinnu to a homeless city life, and someone is insulted with the remark "He is a kulu'u and not a man" - a reminder that "in practical terms Mesopotamian society was strongly patriarchal and had fairly inflexible gender categories," as Teppo remarks. She goes on to say: "There was very little toleration for individuals who did not conform to the expected male and female roles." (I wish she'd given some evidence for Mesopotamian gender non-conformity!) Perhaps these "third gender" roles "existed specifically because the roles of men and women were so clearly defined" - they represented "an outlet, a means for society to deal with people who could not, for whatever reason, function in society as men and women."

Lambert, W.G. "The Problem of the Love Lyrics". in Hans Goedicke and J. J. M. Roberts (eds). Unity and diversity: essays in the history, literature, and religion of the ancient Near East. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975. (p 105)
Teppo, Saana. "Sacred Marriage and the Devotees of Ishtar". in Martti Nissinen and Risto Uro (eds). Sacred marriages: the divine-human sexual metaphor from Sumer to early Christianity. Winona Lake, Indiana, Eisenbrauns, 2008. pp 75-92.


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