Ritual laments

The Exaltation and the Hymn repeatedly reference the practice of ritual lamentations, which was a central part of Sumerian religion. Ritual performers, known as the gala, would recite long dirges lamenting the destruction caused by the gods, accompanied by a musical instrument known as the balaĝ.

As explained by the philologist Paul Delnero (6), these laments were performed “neither as a cause of grief, nor as a means of generating it, but instead to prevent catastrophes from occurring.” The gods could impose destruction on the human lands simply to show how powerful they were, so by lamenting a theoretical or past act of divine devastation, the humans could soothe the gods’ desire for reverence and respect.

With their might being thus acknowledged, the gods would not need to prove it, and were expected to cease or withhold their devastation in return. This logic is spelled out in the Exaltation, l. 97–98, where Enheduana says to Inana: “Lady! When their grief has been set up, your boat of grief should be left in a foreign land.” That is, when the people perform the lamentation, Inana should turn her carnage elsewhere. Allusions to laments are also found in l. 33, 82, and 140–42.

The Standard of Ur; in the upper right corner stand a harpist and a singer. Wikimedia Commons.

The lamentations were performed by a type of priest and ritual performer known as the gala. They appear as men in most social contexts, but the lamentations were performed in emesal, a version of the Sumerian language that was otherwise restricted to female figures, especially goddesses; and some Old Babylonian sources suggest that the gala were associated with gender-ambiguous activities. The philologist Uri Gabbay has suggested that in earlier periods, the gala may have occupied a third-gender role, but the evidence is unclear.

A much more clear-cut example of a gender-subverting role in Sumerian culture is the group of ritual performers associated with Inana, who are also, especially in the Hymn, depicted as carrying out lamentations. The Hymn, l. 80–92, describes how Inana created the pilipili, an otherwise little-known group of ritual lamenters who are given a broken spear (a traditional symbol of masculinity) “as if they were men,” implying both a change and an ambiguity in their gender identity.

The group of gender-subverting ritual performers associated with Inana also includes the kurĝara and the saĝ-ursaĝ (known in Akkadian as the kurgarrû and the assinnu), who are also mentioned in the Hymn. They are not always depicted as ritual lamenters, but that is how they appear in Enheduana’s poetry, since their bodies served as living proof of the goddess’s might. Just as she had changed them from men into women or vice versa, Inana was capable of changing everything and everyone, so lamentation was the only way for humans to shield themselves from her unpredictable power.

Further reading

Delnero, How to Do Things with Tears.

Löhnert, “Manipulating the Gods.”

Gabbay, Pacifying the Hearts of the Gods.

Helle, “Only in Dress.”