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The Hebrew Song of Songs (1)

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04 Religious and philosophical literature and poetry

01 Religious and ideological doctrines and imagery

03 Religious festivals, cults, rituals and practices

sacred marriage
No period specified
Akkadian poetry
Old Testament
Sumerian poetry

The Bible critics of the twentieth century have plausibly suggested that the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible originates in the sacred marriage rite of fertility worship, basing on Mesopotamian and Ugaritic comparative evidence. In 1906, W. Erbt already suggested that the Song is a collection of Canaanite paschal poems describing the love of the sun god Tammuz, called Dod or Šelem, and Ištar under the name of Šalmith. The cultic interpretation of the Song received new impetus in the 1920’s from a catalogue of Akkadian hymn titles, KAR 158. T. J. Meek was impressed by the similarities between the Song and the hymn list edited by E. Ebeling. In Meek’s opinion, the Song of Songs was originally a religious composition connected with the cult of Tammuz-Adonis. The Song, however, was no longer in its original and offensive form as a Tammuz liturgy, but had been revised to render it inoffensive and to harmonize it with the Yahweh cult. In the course of time, the original character of the poem was forgotten and it came to be thought of as a love song with its two chief characters as types of ideal lovers. W. H. Schoff (1924) suggested that, in Solomonic times at the spring festival, the king and queen represented the god and goddess, Tammuz and Astarte, in a sacred marriage. Under foreign domination, when there was no longer a king or queen, the rites were probably carried out by elected functionaries. Yahweh was substituted for Tammuz and the Daughter of Jerusalem for Astarte, but the ritual remained essentially the same.

In any case, the Song almost certainly was composed as a direct continuation of the previous Near Eastern love poetry traditions which originated in Sumer. The most dominant themes of the Sumerian love poetry are the woman’s point of view and her sexuality. This is the case even in those Sumerian love songs which are clearly intended to support the royal ideology and to validate the king’s rule, as well as in those love songs where it is possible to interpret them as songs of redemption. It is almost certain that the Sumerian love songs were written by men, who in any case were able to reflect the feelings of a woman - even abound in her sexuality - and, if understood as depicting the soul’s union with the divine, then they were able to identify themselves with the woman, Inanna (= soul). Since the Song was composed in a world where there was only one God who was male, the other party had to be a woman. When describing the relationship of the two, the composer of the Song was following the previous tradition, and saw the woman as taking the lead. Although it may have been more common to see Israel’s relation to God in terms of a wife obedient to her master-husband, hence following the patriarchal norms of society, the composer of the Song may have been reflecting a more idealistic view of love - that of equality.

Source (list of abbreviations) (source links will open in a new browser window)
Song of Songs


Erbt 1906Erbt, Wilhelm. Die Hebräer. Kanaan im Zeitalter der hebräischer Wanderung und hebräischer Staatengründungen. Leipzig: Hinrichs 1906.
Lapinkivi 2004, 93-94Lapinkivi, Pirjo. The Sumerian Sacred Marriage in the Light of Comparative Evidence. State Archives of Assyria Studies 15. Helsinki: The Neo-Assyrian Text Coprus Project 2004.
Meek 1924Meek, T. J. “Babylonian Parallels to the Song of Songs.” Journal of Biblical Literature 43 (1924) 245-252. [JSTOR (requires subscription)]
Schoff 1924Schoff, W. H. “The Offering Lists in the Song and Their Political Significance.” In: W. H. Schoff (ed.). The Song of Songs. A Symposium. Philadelphia: Commercial Museum 1924, 80-120.

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The Dumuzi-Inanna Songs

Pirjo Lapinkivi

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