Saturday, August 7, 2010

Sumerian Hymn to the Bridegroom

[Guest post by my wife Eberle—the only person I have ever known who owns a Sumerian grammar.  We’re off to see Natalie Merchant in Washington state.  There will be a Photo of the Week tomorrow, however, as well as the usual Sunday post on The Days of Wine & Roses blog]

I started reading Sumerian poetry and proverbs in translation about a year ago, and also learning a little bit about the language. Never having come across this body of literature before, I was fascinated by a number of things – these writings go back to 5,000 B.C.E., which is almost unimaginably distant to me, but the proverbs seem vividly alive and human:

“This is the fate of the poor man: when he finds bread, he finds no salt. When he finds salt, he finds no bread. When he finds meat, he finds no condiments. When he finds condiments, he finds no meat. When he finds oil, he has no jar to put it in. When he finds a jar, he has no oil.”

Or, something simple and clever to say before lunch: “Bread is the boat, water the punt-pole.”

The holy woman Enheduana lived around 2300 B.C. and wrote about her evolving relationship with the goddess Inanna. Inanna is a fascinating representation of divinity – warrior, bride and courtesan, occasionally male as well as female, the double evening and morning star, in love with a shepherd, mother of the gods, the Lady of Infinite Manifestation; she gave humanity not only language, but knowledge of arts such as weaving. Her journey to the underworld is the first written version of this descent that would be told in many ways for millennia afterwards. Here’s my translation of one of Innana’s Hymns – the way that sacred marriage in this Hymn unites the sensory and the spiritual is beautiful, I think – even inspiring.

Sumerian Hymn to the Bridegroom

Bridegroom, my heart’s beloved
Your body is golden as uncombed honey
Lion, my heart’s beloved
Your body is golden as sweet honey is golden.
You have transfixed me,
My body trembling like a cup of water in my hands.
Bridegroom, I wish you to lead me to the bedchamber,
You have moved my heart, my body trembles,
Like a cup of water lifted in my hands.
Lion, I long for you to lead me to the dais bed.
Bridegroom, I will kiss you
My caresses are more golden than honey in the mouth,
In the bedchamber, hived with honey
I will know your beauty
Lion, I will kiss you
My kisses are more precious than honey.
Bridegroom, we have found the place of delight.
Tell my mother, she will reward you with fruit,
Tell my father, and receive gifts at his hands.
Your spirit—I know where to befriend your spirit.
Bridegroom, sleep in our house until dawn.
Your heart—I know how to delight your heart,
 Lion, stay until dawn touches our house.
You, because you love me,
Give me your kisses. Caress me,
Prince of Love, in the sacred place of delight.
As Shu-sin delights Enlil’s soul,
Let your caresses dwell in me,
Let our meeting be in the place of delight,
Lay your hand on that honeyed place,
Cup your hand over it, caressingly,
Caress it as a silken shift fragrantly
Caresses the skin.

Translation by Eberle Umbach
© 2010

Image is "Inanna," Terracotta relief, Sumer c. 2000 BCE


  1. This is new to me, John. Such tenderness in the phrasing. Thanks to Eberle for the translation.

    I've been listening to Natalie Merchant this afternoon (Leave Your Sleep). Excellent!

  2. Beautiful.

    Enjoy the concert! I'm totally jealous!

  3. Beautiful, sensuous verse, John and Eberle. Thanks for the translation.

    Enjoy your weekend!

  4. The words have such an ancient and earthy feel about them.

  5. The carved deity looks like our Durga - an idol of ubiquitous feminine power. Excellent work of art!

  6. Enjoyed the sensuous language (especially the repetitions of honey and lion).

    It also reminded me of (and highlighted the humor of) that line in Philip Larkin's 'Annus Mirabilis':
    Sexual intercourse began
    In nineteen sixty-three

  7. Hi Martin, Willow, Karen, Alan, Dibakar & HKatz

    Martin: I'm pretty well read, but the Sumerian poetry Eberle has found is new to me. "Leave Your Sleep" is a great album.

    Willow: Thanks. The concert was fantastic--3 hours! Next time Natalie Merchant makes a stop near you, you really should go.

    Karen: So glad you liked it! The weekend was fun--a great getaway, a very good show.

    Alan: Yes, Eberle did a fine job here!

    Dibakar: An interesting observation about Durga--yes the relief is stunning indeed.

    HKatz: Those are great lines from Larkin. Thanks!


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