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Ancient Man and His First Civilizations

Sumerian Love Poems


King Shulgi (c. 2100 BCE) on the future of Sumerian literature:

"Now, I swear by the sun god Utu on this very day -- and my younger brothers shall be witness of it in foreign lands where the sons of Sumer are not known, where people do not have the use of paved roads, where they have no access to the written word -- that I, the firstborn son, am a fashioner of words, a composer of songs, a composer of words, and that they will recite my songs as heavenly writings, and that they will bow down before my words..."







Love songs or poems are probably found in every culture. Dealing as they do with an intense emotional experience felt by all, they are also a very old feature of verbal records. This has given them time to evolve elaborate variations, as can be seen in this selection of fragments from ancient Egyptian love poems, recovered from pieces of papyrus and fragments of a vase. They date from the period between 1,500 and 1,000 BC.

Those parts of Egyptian poems that have survived are primarily praise of the lover or poems of longing. Although they appear to be spontaneous outbursts of young people, they are thought to be the deliberate works of literary artists. As in parts of South East Asia, the Chester Beatty cycle of poems shows a regular alternation of male and female speakers. Similarly, the convention of lovers addressing each other as brother and sister appears here also, as normal terms of endearment.

The similarities between these poems and those from southeast Asia and India suggests that songs of this type may have been part of the oral culture shared via trade routes between the regions in the second millenium BCE. Even older poems from Sumer have a style that is echoed in the poems presented here.



1  Sister Without Peer

My one, the sister without peer,

The handsomest of all!

She looks like the rising morning star

At the start of a happy year.

Shining bright, fair of skin,

Lovely the look of her eyes,

Sweet the speech of her lips,

She has not a word too much.

Upright neck, shining breast,

Hair true lapis lazuli;

Arms surpassing gold,

Fingers like lotus buds.

Heavy thighs, narrow waist,

Her legs parade her beauty;

With graceful step she treads the ground,

Captures my heart by her movements.

She causes all men's necks

To turn about to see her;

Joy has he whom she embraces,

He is like the first of men!

When she steps outside she seems

Like that the Sun!

First Stanza, Beginning of the sayings of the great happiness, from Papyrus Chester Beatty I


2  My Brother Torments My Heart

My brother torments my heart with his voice,

He makes sickness take hold of me;

He is neighbor to my mother's house.

And I cannot go to him!

Mother is right in charging him thus:

"Give up seeing her!"

It pains my heart to think of him,

I am possessed by love of him.

Truly, he is a foolish one,

But I resemble him;

He knows not my wish to embrace him,

Or he would write to my mother.

Brother, I am promised to you

By the golden of women!

Come to me that I see your beauty,

Father, mother will rejoice!

My people will hail you all together,

They will hail you, O my brother!

Second Stanza, from Papyrus Chester Beatty I


3  My Heart Flutters Hastily

My heart flutters hastily,

When I think of my love of you;

It lets me not act sensibly,

It leaps from its place.

It lets me not put on a dress,

Nor wrap my scarf around me;

I put no paint upon my eyes,

I'm even not anointed.

"Don't wait, go there," says it to me,

As often as I think of him;

My heart, don't act so stupidly,

Why do you play the fool?

Sit still, the brother comes to you,

And many eyes as well.

Let not the people say of me:

"A woman fallen through love!"

Be steady when you think of him,

My heart, do not flutter!

Fourth Stanza, from Papyrus Chester Beatty I



4  I Passed Before His House

I passed before his house,

I found his door ajar;

My brother stood by his mother,

And all his brothers with him.

Love of him captures the heart

Of all who tread the path;

Splendid youth who has no peer,

Brother outstanding in virtues!

He looked at me as I passed by,

And I, by myself, rejoiced;

How my heart exulted in gladness,

My brother, at your sight!

If only the mother knew my heart,

She would have understood by now;

O Golden One, put it in her heart,

Then will I hurry to my brother!

I will kiss him before his companions,

I would not weep before them;

I would rejoice at their understanding

That you acknowledge me!

I will make a feast for my goddess,

My heart leaps to go;

To let me see my brother tonight,

O happiness in passing!

    Sixth Stanza, from Papyrus Chester Beatty I



5  Sickness Invaded Me

Seven days since I saw my sister,

And sickness invaded me;

I am heavy in all my limbs,

My body has forsaken me.

When the physicians come to me,

My heart rejects their remedies;

The magicians are quite helpless,

My sickness is not discerned.

To tell me "She is here" would revive me!

Her name would make me rise;

Her messenger's coming and going,

That would revive my heart!

My sister is better than all prescriptions,

She does more for me than all medicines;

Her coming to me is my amulet,

The sight of her makes me well!

When she opens her eyes my body is young,

Her speaking makes me strong;

Embracing her expels my maladyŚ

Seven days since she went from me!

Seventh Stanza, from Papyrus Chester Beatty I


6  How Well She Knows To Cast The Noose

How well she knows to cast the noose,

And yet not pay the cattle tax!

She casts the noose on me with her hair,

She captures me with her eye;

She curbs me with her necklace,

She brands me with her seal ring.

Third Stanza, from The Nakht-Sobak Cycle of Papyrus Chester Beatty I


7  If Only I Were Made Doorkeeper

The mansion of my sister,

With door in the center of her house,

Its door-leaves are open,

The bolt is sprung,

My sister is angry!

If only I were made doorkeeper!

Then I would make her rage at me,

Then I would hear her angry voice,

And be a child in fear of her!


Poem 7, from IIa The First Collection, Papyrus Harris 500


8  Saam-Plants Here Summon Us

Saam-plants here summon us,

I am your sister, your best one;

I belong to you like this plot of ground

That I planted with flowers

And sweet-smelling herbs.

Sweet is its stream,

Dug by your hand,

Refreshing in the north wind.

A lovely place to wander in,

Your hand in my hand.

My body thrives, my heart exults

At our walking together;

Hearing your voice is pomegranate wine,

I live by hearing it.

Each look with which you look at me

sustains me more than food and drink.

Poem 2, from IIc, The Third Collection, Papyrus Harris 500


9  It Is Her Love That Gives Me Strength

My sister's love is on the far side.

The river is between our bodies;

The waters are mighty at flood-time,

A crocodile waits in the shallows.

I enter the water and brave the waves,

My heart is strong on the deep;

The crocodile seems like a mouse to me,

The flood as land to my feet.

It is her love that gives me strength,

It makes a water-spell for me;

I gaze at my heart's desire,

As she stands facing me!

My sister has come, my heart exults,

My arms spread out to embrace her;

My heart bounds in its place,

Like the red fish in its pond.

O night, be mine forever,

Now that my queen has come!




Extract from a 3,000 year-old papyrus.

She is one girl, there is no one like her.
She is more beautiful than any other.
Look, she is like a star goddess arising
at the beginning of a happy new year;
brilliantly white, bright skinned;
with beautiful eyes for looking,
with sweet lips for speaking;
she has not one phrase too many.
With a long neck and white breast,
her hair of genuine lapis lazuli;
her arm more brilliant than gold;
her fingers like lotus flowers,
with heavy buttocks and girt waist.
Her thighs offer her beauty,
with a brisk step she treads on ground.
She has captured my heart in her embrace.
She makes all men turn their necks
to look at her.
One looks at her passing by,

this one, the unique one.





I wish I were your mirror
so that you always looked at me.
I wish I were your garment
so that you would always wear me.
I wish I were the water that washes
your body.
I wish I were the unguent, O woman,
that I could annoit you.
And the band around your breasts,
and the beads around your neck.
I wish I were your sandal
that you would step on me!
(Not sure about that last sentence!)





O my beautiful one,
I wish I were part of your affairs, like a wife.
With your hand in mine
your love would be returned.
I implore my heart:
"If my true love stays away tonight,
I shall be like someone already
in the grave."
Are you not my health and my life?
How joyful is your good health

for the heart that seeks you!



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