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Priestess And Slaves: A 4,000-Year History Of Love Songs

You may know torch songs from Rihanna, but what about Enheduanna? In ancient Mesopotamia, she wrote the very first love songs, holding back very little. Watch her burn ...

Playing the lyre
Playing the lyre
Nic Ulmi

GENEVA — She was known as Enheduanna. Remember that name. A Sumerian priestess living in Ur, in Mesopotamia, in 2,300 BC, she’s the first known writer of love songs. Some actually identify her as history's first songwriter of any genre.

Her existence was discovered thanks to a disk — made out of alabaster, not vinyl — unearthed from the Iraqi soil by British archeologist Leonard Wooley, in 1927. The finding revealed the name of the woman, and her function of devotion to the cult of the goddess Inanna.

This is how music historian Ted Gioia begins his latest book Love Songs, The Hidden History, a study that reveals many surprises and paradoxes.

Other excavations were necessary to discover the works supposedly left behind by Enheduanna, engraved on calcite tablets, and it wasn’t until 1968 that somebody dared to publish a translation. That was because these compositions were made to accompany the “sacred marriage” ceremony, during which the king of Ur would sleep with the Sumerian goddess Inanna (or rather her incarnation) to secure his society’s prosperity.

Through the singer’s voice, the goddess celebrated the “rising cedar” between the king’s thighs but she was even more eloquent when it came to describing her own intimate place, which she compared to a horn, a barque for the skies, a crescent moon, a fallow land about which she wondered “Who will plow it for me?”



And here’s the first step. A love song is first of all a song about sex, and simultaneously a sacred hymn. A full millennium passed by before this changed. A millennium during which, on the other side of the Red Sea, Ancient Egypt’s dynasties followed one another. By the time the 19th or 20th dynasty came, between 1,300 and 1,100 BC, the kingdom started to produce a new kind of serenade.

Laundryman blues

Sex was still very much a part of it. As a matter of fact, in those songs, sex was polymorphous and sophisticated. Thus, the singer of a poem known under the name “Seven Wishes” fantasized while thinking about his remote lover, “If only I were her Nubian maid / her attendant in secret. / If only I were the laundryman / then I’d rub my body / with her cast-off garments …”

What was new about it then was the emotion. These songs are “surprisingly close to today’s love ballads in their tone and intention,” as well as in their “psychological depth and emotional content that have hardly aged,” Ted Gioia writes.

The tone is singular. The “ardent longing for the absent beloved is a new ingredient in the love lyric,” he explains.

The reason is simple. “Unhappy love songs had no place in a society that depended on the exemplary coitus between king and deity,” as was the case in Mesopotamia. Egyptians, on the other hand, “reveal a fascination with romantic frustration, with thwarted desire and its impact on the emotions and imagination.” They will even establish a whole genre, called paraklausithyron, which expresses the “lament outside the door” which, for the lover, remains closed.

From then on, the closed door theme continued to bear fruit for a long time. That’s where the Rolling Stones drew their inspiration for the seven-minute long “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?” on their 1971 album Sticky Fingers.

Bursting out

In the meantime, the ancient love song reached its peak of accomplishment with Sappho. A poetess from ancient Greece, she mastered the art of mixing very personal content with her view on society, making her in today’s terms “a singer-songwriter akin to Patti Smith or Joni Mitchell,” Gioia writes.

Let’s fast forward to the 8th century, in Spain, then known as Al-Andalus, after the Muslim conquest of the Iberian peninsula. “A mixture of musical cultures inevitably ensued and had a decisive and still poorly understood impact on the later evolution of the Western love song,” Gioia notes. A new genre appears, muwashshah, written in Classical Arabic (or in Hebrew), but with a conclusion ("kharja," in Arabic) in which the love bursts out without restraint. This kharja is sung in dialectal Arabic or in a Romance language and the singers allow themselves to say such things as “mess up my hair, rub my breasts, drink my saliva” or “raise my anklets up to my earrings.”

Arabic culture didn’t allow such words to be sung in the Classical language; European culture didn’t allow them to be sung at all. But in the multicultural and polyglot Muslim Spain, Ted Gioia believes that “the creative friction between two very different cultures ultimately served as the key catalyst.”

The friction point, where the two prohibitions met, created a space for freedom that would have a brilliant future ahead of itself. Even if musicologists took a long time to admit it, the courteous love we find in medieval troubadour songs is indeed a continuation of the muwashshah from Al-Andalus.

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14th century troubadours — Source: Wikielwikingo

“The aristocratic singers of the time felt a particular delight in assuming a carefully cultivated position that turned them into servants and slaves of their beloved ladies,” Gioia writes. Strange, because why would the members of the ruling elite want to sing as if they were slaves? For a lot of reasons, probably, but for one striking and little-known reason in particular. “We are left to wonder whether this fixation is a carry-over from a day when love songs were the specialty of actual slaves." That was the case in the Arab-Andalusian world, where slave singers were called the qiyan.

Slavery's freedom

Before that, the dominant culture from ancient Rome was one that rejected any sort of sentimental outpourings. Love? No thanks, it makes you a slave. It’s only logical then that slaves where the ones singing love songs at the time. As paradoxical as it may seem, slaves male or female — and according to Gioia, women are more often than not responsible for the invention of new forms of love songs — therefore enjoyed an area of freedom that their masters didn’t have because it was considered shameful.

These were forms of reparations for the slaves. “It conferred a precious measure of dignity, even grandeur, to a condition that was otherwise nothing but degrading.”

This is an underlying theme that we still find in today’s music. It is slaves who, once again, renewed the history of love songs in the United States in the 19th century. Blues music reintroduced an existential depth and range of emotions into a genre that was then falling into decrepitude with soppy, prudish ballads and the bogus sexuality of cabarets.

Today, Ted Gioia believes we’re back to square one. Sex is omnipresent in pop culture. The “hidden history” will need new pariahs to rewrite itself once again.

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This focus on biological sex differences turned out to be woefully inadequate, as a group of Harvard-affiliated researchers pointed out earlier this year. By analyzing more than a year of sex-disaggregated COVID-19 data, they showed that the gender gap was more fully explained by social factors like mask-wearing and distancing behaviors (less common among men) and testing rates (higher among pregnant women and health workers, who were largely female).

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