This is the oldest love poem in the world and it’s kind of beautiful

A cuneiform tablet from the ancient Middle East. (BabelStone/Wikimedia Commons)

Around four millennia ago, one of our lovestruck ancestors in the heat of the Mesopotamian desert grabbed their stylus and a clay tablet and got etching what would become the oldest known love poem in the world.

The ancient tablet was only discovered at the end of the 19th century by archaeologists digging in Nippur, southern Iraq – formerly Sumer in southern Mesopotamia – an area rich with history. And they did what archaeologists often do with the treasures of antiquity – slapped a reference number on it and stuck it in a museum drawer.

That reference number became the beautiful poem’s unseemly adopted name: “Istanbul #2461”. Its full title is actually The Love Song for Shu-Sin. But this was undiscovered for over seventy years because it was just sitting in storage. Nobody had got around to decoding its text.

According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, the archaeologists who found the tablet took it to the Istanbul Museum in Turkey and locked away for decades until it was dug out again in 1951 by the famous Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer.

Kramer finally translated the mysterious cuneiform tablet to reveal the stunning truth about its origins and what it says.

The locals, Ancient Sumerians, were the first people to use a written language. They developed a system where symbols represented spoken sounds. These symbols were written into wet clay tablets using a stylus and the system is called cuneiform.

Nobody knows who wrote the poem. There are no other records of it, and no signature at the bottom to say who the poet was. But the Sumerian King Shu-Sin ruled around four thousand years ago.

Shu-Sin was king of Sumer and Akkad. He reigned under the Ur III dynasty and is known for building a large fortified wall between two rivers – the Euphrates and the Tigris – to stop violent nomadic groups attacking the cities under his control.

In his 1956 book History Begins at Sumer, Kramer recounts his discovery of the tablet.

While working in the Istanbul Museum of the Ancient Orient as Fulbright Research Professor—it was toward the end of 1951—I came upon a little tablet with the museum number 2461. For weeks I had been studying, more or less cursorily, drawerful after drawerful of still uncopied and unpublished Sumerian literary tablets, in order to identify each piece and, if possible, assign it to the composition to which it belonged. All this was spadework preparatory to the selection, for copying, of those pieces which were most significant—since it was clear that there would be no time that year to copy all of them.

The little tablet numbered 2461 was lying in one of the drawers, surrounded by a number of other pieces. When I first laid eyes on it, its most attractive feature was its state of preservation. I soon realized that I was reading a poem, divided into a number of stanzas, which celebrated beauty and love, a joyous bride and a king named Shu­-Sin (who ruled over the land of Sumer close to four thousand years ago).

As I read it again and yet again, there was no mistaking its content. What I held in my hand was one of the oldest love songs written down by the hand of man.

It soon became clear that this was not a secular poem, not a song of love between just “a man and a maid.” It involved a king and his selected bride, and was no doubt intended to be recited in the course of the most hallowed of ancient rites, the rite of the “sacred marriage.”

Once a year, according to Sumerian belief, it was the sacred duty of the ruler to marry a priestess and votary of Inanna, the goddess of love and procreation, in order to ensure fertility to the soil and fecundity to the womb. The time­honored ceremony was celebrated on New Year’s day and was preceded by feasts and banquets accompanied by music, song, and dance. The poem inscribed on the little Istanbul clay tablet was in all probability recited by the chosen bride of King Shu­-Sin in the course of one of these New Year celebrations.

 

Here’s Samuel Noah Kramer‘s “tentative translation”, as he described it, of the world’s oldest known love poem.

The Love Song for Shu-Sin

Bridegroom, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet,
Lion, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet.

You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you,
Bridegroom, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber,
You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you,
Lion, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber.

Bridegroom, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey,
In the bedchamber, honey filled,
Let us enjoy your goodly beauty,
Lion, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey.

Bridegroom, you have taken your pleasure of me,
Tell my mother, she will give you delicacies,
My father, he will give you gifts.

Your spirit, I know where to cheer your spirit,
Bridegroom, sleep in our house until dawn,
Your heart, I know where to gladden your heart,
Lion, sleep in our house until dawn.

You, because you love me,
Give me pray of your caresses,
My lord god, my lord protector,
My Shu­-Sin who gladdens Enlil’s heart,
Give me pray of your caresses.

Your place goodly as honey, pray lay (your) hand on it,
Bring (your) hand over it like a gishban-­garment,
Cup (your) hand over it like a gishban­-sikin­-garment,

It is a balbale­song of Inanna.