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Sumerian Social Life

Temples and Priests

The temple served several purposes, including worship and education. A Sumerian teacher, called an ummia, taught students mathematics, cuneiform writing, grammar, and scribing.

Although such theories remain speculation, a few scholars posit that the Ziggurat shape of Sumer heralded from a previous nomadic existence in the mountains, therefore inspiring the shape of the temple's "hill-like" appearance.

Temples within each city remained self-sufficient. The ziggurat structure housed granaries, mills, bakeries, breweries, offices, potteries, treasure rooms, armories, and livestock. Accountants cataloged grain and foodstuffs and recorded taxes owed by leased parcels of lands; dancers and musicians entertained, artists sculpted pottery and ritual idol statues for temple worship, servants and cooks prepared meals and cleaned. Hundreds of temple shepherds, herdsman and farmers tended cattle and fields exclusively owned by the temple grounds.

At Lagash c.2350BC, a temple dedicated to Bau, sustained an impressive roster of duties and posts. The queen of Lagash, functioned as the head priestess of the temple, Queen Shagshag. Altogether the temple housed 1000 workers, including 150 slave women that brewed beer, ground grain, wove and spun wool garments, and cooked. Six women fed pigs, and another 15 fed the other 1000 employees. Approximately 46 women worked in the brewery house.

Ziggurat Politics

A head woman, an entu, represented the chief female consort of the gods. In some cases, such as at Uruk, the entu surpassed the male Shepherd king in power, due to the powerful influence of the mother matriarchal cult of Inanna at that city.

Below the Entu, the sal-me, a large priestess caste, engaged in trade, a caste oft mentioned in contract-tablets written in cuneiform. The Sal-me lived in the convent of the deities sisterhood, at least within the early years of the Sal-me's service.

The priestess delivered children to the convent by unknown fathers chosen by the convent, and although the Sal-me may marry a man of the priestess's personal choice, the sisterhood did not allow the priestess to bare children for that husband. If the Sal-me did, she was required to gift the man with concubine slaves as compensation. Why such practices formed is not clear. Perhaps the children lay in the care of the man, not the Sal-me, to be taken care of by the slave concubines.

The priestess "officially" remained married to the patron god of the sisterhood, and the convent probably did not tolerate sired children by fathers outside of the temple's social politics to be raised within temple grounds.

The two lowest female social classes beneath the Sal-me, lay the zikru and the kadishtu, for the most part, slaves and prostitutes that the convent used to service patrons or as debt payments for a sal-me priestesses' accidental "love child".

Fragmented Groups

In the beginning parts of the Ubaid phase of Sumer, scholars point out the clear tripartite social division between subsistence peasant farmers, bringing crops and animals from the north, tent-dwelling nomadic pastoralists dependent upon herds, and hunter-fisher folk of the Arabian littoral, living in reed huts. Despite such studies locating Sumer's origins, most academics still agree that yet another social group remains unidentified. 

Among the known groups, based upon the analysis of grave goods, communities soon witnessed the rise in polarized social classes in the area. Families losing social mobility fell pray to larger, more powerful households. The first proto-elite class, probably arose between competitive families that sired more healthy children, forming the first hereditary chieftains.

Social stratification that occurred in the latter half of the 4 millenium BC, is thought to attribute to higher levels of inequality accruing along with the growth of larger more complex city centers. Originally the cities maintained a council of influential elders comprised of both sexes to administer the social organization of the city. Only in times of crisis, a head leader, a lugal, elected from the assembly, enacted emergency measures.

As rivalry among city states grew across the Sumer region, the lugal position remained permanent and hereditary out of necessity. Competitive hierarchies formed, producing powerful "diplomat" Kings that spoke to or for the gods.

Additionally, the needs of growing settlements perhaps outstripped the capabilities of previously suitable modes of primitive democracy, whereby disputes lay resolved through a council of one's peers. Academics Morton Fried and Elman Service hypothesize that individuals of powerful families began to gain access to administrative positions within temples and the central granary, gaining a "leg up" over the competition so to speak.

 Even though the Ubaid began to see a marked increase in such inequality, the contextual analysis comparing different regions clearly shows that the Ubaid expansion grew through peaceful ideologies rather than conflict.


Later, as the city states evolved, the gaps between social classes widened and family life changed significantly. 

Children generally, well cared for, also could be sold into slavery for debt payments. Women held many equalities with men. A mother even could disinherit an undutiful son, brand him, and banish him from the city.

In Sumer, women could learn to read and write, own and run a business, buy and sell property, testify in a court case, borrow and lend money, and be priestesses in a temple. One Sumerian proverb advised people, "Pay heed to the word of your mother as though it were the word of god."

History appears very unlinear while examining the social dynamics of gender relations occurring over 6000 years ago. Amazingly, women of Sumer 6 millenia ago enjoyed far more legal rights than modern women of the 1920's in North America and Europe only 90 years ago.

While fidelity among women was unacceptable in Sumer, women did not need to provide an expensive, taxing dowry to marry another husband. The commonplace male harem, in many ways, simply ensured that a woman may enjoy a better lifestyle with a wealthier man than with a poorer man, a social mechanism built into the very framework of the society automatically fostering upward social mobility exclusively for women.

On the other hand, a man, without much reason, could divorce a woman, particularly if she did not produce children, and sell her into slavery for three years for payment of debts, unless protected by special clauses in a marriage contract. Richer women probably maintained such agreements before marriage.

If a woman married another man, she was stoned or whipped to death. If a woman did not produce children, a man often divorced the woman, and reclaimed the dowry from the wife's family.

Otherwise, the man took on another second wife, often chosen by the first wife as to avoid rivalries and conflicts; the second, bore children yet remained lower in status to the first wife; the man safeguarded and provided for both wives, and established a written agreement, whereby the level of subservience of the second wife to the first was specified, who might, as attested in some records, "wash her feet and carry her belongings around for her."

A male suitors bride price consisted of cattle, goats, sheep, grain, jewelry, or furniture.

Peasants and Slaves

By and large, the majority of arable land lay in the hands of the patron god, in other words, the priests and king. The amelu caste, the priests, officials, and professional soldiers, owned the largest tracts of irrigation fields and leased land and tools out to the peasantry (the mashkinu) in return for a share of the the profits. Below the Mashkinu lay the slaves.

Slavery appears markedly different in Ancient Sumeria than in other societies. In many cases, slaves retained the same rights as ordinary citizens. A slave could take out a loan, own property, serve as a legal witness, trade, learn a skill, earn money, marry and buy their own freedom.If a slave did buy their own freedom or was freed by their owner, that person could not be sold back into slavery again. If a slave married a free person, the offspring remained free.

Most slaves appear to have been treated quite well, being fed regularly, and possessed normal health. There was no benefit in mistreating slaves, who cost a hefty 20 shekels of silver, the equivalent of 35 bushels of barley, enough to feed a small family for a year.

Slavery was viewed as a regular part of life, and if anything, a result of unfortunate circumstances rather than due to lack of intelligence. Most slavery accumulated with war prisoners, and incapability to settle debts.


Mashkinu (middle class) houses usually consisted of one story mud brick houses, in all six rooms, sharing walls with neighbors, facing small courts. Affluent Amelu officials afforded two story dwellings featuring twice as many rooms plastered inside and out with whitewashed adobe.

Affluent Amelu House

Common features of the Sumerian house usually contained a kitchen, servant quarters, bathroom, sitting rooms, and a private chapel. The dry climate of Mesopotamia did not permit many large trees to grow in the region, limiting the strength and quality of furniture. Tables, chairs, and beds consisted of woven reeds about frames.

People dumped waste outside with pots, no stone drainage system existed at the cities to carry away waste water. The residents packed clay over the waste to minimize the smell, creating large hills near the houses. Over time, the residents used ladders to get into the house.

Another common house type actually arose out of interwoven thick bundles of reeds. A style that continues to the present day in Iraq.

Interior of Reed House


In the kitchen, the Sumerians spared no expense at the dinner table. The people prepared mutton, farmed fish, geese, ducks, cattle, and poultry sprinkled with cumin spices, salt, pepper, mustard, fennel, marjoram, thyme, mint, and rosemary. Over 300 different kinds of bread were baked in flat loaves mostly, much like the modern matzoh pita, composed of emmer, barley, flax, or several grain combinations. Hot cereal was not uncommon either. For desert, sweet cakes baked with honey, eggs, grain, and spices.

At times, the Sumerians indulged in a light snack; servants brought grasshoppers wrapped in pastry to noble dinners. The people also stuffed intestine casings with meat, creating the first known sausage links.

Due to the unforgiving dry climate of the Sumerian desert, the people learned to preserve meats with salt and spices, drying the bits in the sun, and smoking the outside over charcoal fires. For the most part, only the rich enjoyed meats on a regular basis. In such cases, the people partook in the luxury of barbecuing over open coals.


Noble Female Headdress

The majority of men and women wore shirts of sheepskin, the wool tufts facing outward, and the smooth skin the inside. Skirts extended down the knees in the mashkinu classes, but went all the way to the ankles among the amelu. Even when weaving fabric garments entered the scene c.2500BC, the texture of wool tufts on the outside remained fashionable.

The amelu additionally wore wigs, and elaborate headdresses adorned with lapis lazuli stones with inlaid gold. An ornate golden brooch pin held an open sheepskin cloak together. Carnelia stone (orange in appearance) bracelets, necklaces, and pendants were popular also


An 111-line text unearthed from the 4th millenium BC, details a set of instructions addressed by a farmer to son. Not exactly a agricultural handbook, but basically a poet's account providing the essential points of cultivating a field. Surprisingly, similar techniques persist to the present day in traditional areas of modern Iraq, consisting of flooding-leaching of fallow lands (uncultivated fields) during autumn and winter and then ploughing-sowing Spring into Summer.

The reverse procedure applied to plots planted with the Autumnal Equinox (autumn-winter), harvested in summer. The coming Spring Equinox meant washing fallow fields to remove impurities and excess salinity (salts), which continued to be increasingly difficult in ancient Sumer due to centuries of irrigation. Rotating plots between fallow and cultivated is a technique often used in agriculture to preserve fertility, a practice farmers cautiously use so as to not over stress the land, and harvest higher crop yields year to year.

Music and Seasonal Festivals

The musical instruments of choice in Sumer tended to harps, drums, pipes, and tambourines. Large drums were shaped like hourglasses, or bowl-shaped kettledrums. Cymbals and bells accompanied the other instruments, including horns and whistles. Often music was performed along with the recitation of poems and songs dedicated to the gods during certain festivals.

The Emesh, summer season, lasted from March until September and the winter, Enten, October to February. Each month lasted 29-30 days, designated by a new moon. The new moon of Spring, marked the beginning of the triumph of the sun over the moon, as the sun traveled through the sky longer than the moon during that period. That new moon inaugurated the harvest period, the dry season, with the Akitu festival of Spring.

The new moon of Autumn, the Autumnal equinox, marked the Akitu festival of sowing, the time when Nanna, the moon god summoned the rise of waters, growth of reeds, increase in the herds, abundance of milk, cream and cheese, and the protection of the sacred blood of womankind, the blood that nurtured new life for nine months. The celebration lasted at least 11 days, making it the more important of the two new moon festivals, the time of planting and favorable wetter conditions.

Laws and Courts

If formal legal disputes could be avoided, mashkims, a third party arbitrator, attempted to resolve the situation. If not, the case was brought before a panel of judges, dikuds, who heard the arguments of each party.

Social class often determined the measure of punishment in each case. If a mashkinu caused the miscarriage of a noble amelu's daughter, the punitive fee was higher, ten shekels, as opposed to five in regards to a mashkinu woman's miscarriage.

Ur-Nammu's Code Tablet


If an aggressor caused the accidental death of an amelu's daughter, the mashkinu was killed, but only fined half a mina silver for the same concerning a lowly mashkinu's daughter.  Surprisingly, punitive measures taken against a noble amelu in certain cases appeared to be much harsher, while a mashkinu simply escaped with a monetary fee. The richer amelu often paid double fees in medical charges due to the amelu's higher means of wealth. Scholars suggest that the harsher punishments might be attributed to the stricter "military" discipline ethic the caste practiced.

Still, in later Sumer, with rising civil unrest, the ever expanding gap between classes caused the central government to devise a special set of laws to defend the lower classes from the opportunistic machinations of the landed nobility. The code of Ur-Nammu, was a set of laws composed c. 2400BC, which guaranteed special protection for the poor, the weak, widows and orphans against the rich. Ur-Nammu's tablet is perhaps the first appearance of socialism in western society.

Sumerian Entertainment

Royal courts hired jugglers to entertain at the king's court. Amelu nobles watched athletes wrestling and fight in military-type competitions.

A famous game board uncovered at the royal cemetry at Ur (26th century BC) appears vaguely like the modern backgammon, which contained markers and squares. The round markers came in two colors - one for each player. Differently colored and shaped stones were placed in a jar, and then bets made on which would fall out first.

Girls played with dolls usually, and boys with miniature carts. In later times, particularly among the landed gentry in the Assyrian period (700BC), boys played with war chariot miniatures. In general, children played with spinning tops, hoops, and balls, and a familiar game of jump rope called the game of Ishtar (Babylonian/Akkadian period 2000-1700BC).


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