The HyperTexts

The Love Song of Shu-Sin: The Oldest Love Poem

What is the earth's oldest love poem, regardless of language? The oldest extant love lyric appears to be the ancient Sumerian poem "The Love Song of Shu-Sin," which has also been called "The Love Song for Shu-Sin" because it was apparently written to be recited to the ancient Sumerian king Shu-Sin by a woman he was about to marry (or perhaps just have sex with). The poem was written circa 2000 BC, making it ancient indeed! My modern English translation of the poem appears below. In my opinion the poem is notable for the emotion it communicates and the expert use of repetition.―Michael R. Burch

For explanations of how he translates and why he calls his results "loose translations" and "interpretations" please click here: Michael R. Burch Translation Methods and Credits to Other Translators

The Love Song of Shu-Sin

loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Darling of my heart, my belovèd,
your enticements are sweet, far sweeter than honey!
Darling of my heart, my belovèd,
your enticements are sweet, far sweeter than honey!

You have captivated me; I stand trembling before you.
Darling, lead me swiftly into the bedroom!
You have captivated me; I stand trembling before you.
Darling, lead me swiftly into the bedroom!

Sweetheart, let me do the sweetest things for you!
This crevice you'll caress is far sweeter than honey!
In the bedchamber, dripping love’s honey,
let us enjoy the sweetest thing.
Sweetheart, let me do the sweetest things for you!
This crevice you'll caress is far sweeter than honey!

Bridegroom, you will have your pleasure with me!
Speak to my mother and she will reward you;
speak to my father and he will give you gifts.
I know how to give your body pleasure—
then sleep easily, my darling, until the sun dawns.

To prove that you love me,
give me your caresses,
my Lord God, my guardian Angel and protector,
my Shu-Sin, who gladdens Enlil’s heart,
give me your caresses!

My place like sticky honey, touch it with your hand!
Place your hand over it like a honey-pot lid!
Cup your hand over it like a honey cup!

This is a balbale-song of Inanna.

NOTE: This may be earth’s oldest love poem. It may have been written around 2000 BC, long before the Bible’s “Song of Solomon,” which had been considered to be the oldest extant love poem by some experts. The poem was discovered when the archaeologist Austen Henry Layard began excavations at Kalhu in 1845, assisted by Hormuzd Rassam. Layard’s account of the excavations, published in 1849 CE, was titled Nineveh and its Remains. Due to Nineveh’s fame (from the Bible), the book became a best seller. But it turned out that the excavated site was not Nineveh, after all, as Layard later discovered when he excavated the real Nineveh!

As a surrogate for Inanna, the bride's mother would be either Ninlil or possibly Ningal, both goddesses.

As a surrogate for Inanna, the bride's father would be either Enlil or possibly Suen, both gods.

Shu-Sin was a Mesopotamian king who ruled over the land of Sumer close to four thousand years ago. The poem seems to be part of a rite, probably performed each year, known as the “sacred marriage” or “divine marriage,” in which the king would symbolically marry the goddess Inanna, mate with her, and so ensure fertility and prosperity for the coming year. The king would accomplish this amazing feat by marrying and/or having sex with a priestess or votary of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, fertility and war. Her Akkadian name was Istar/Ishtar, and she was also known as Astarte. Whichever her name, she was the most prominent Mesopotamian female goddess. Inanna's primary temple was the Eanna, located in Uruk. But there were many other temples dedicated to her worship. The high priestess would choose a young man who represented the shepherd Dumuzid, the consort of Inanna, in a hieros gamos or sacred marriage, celebrated during the annual Akitu (New Year) ceremony, at the spring Equinox. The name Inanna derives from the Sumerian words for “Lady of Heaven.” She was associated with lions–a symbol of power–and was frequently depicted standing on the backs of two lionesses. Her symbol was an eight-pointed star or a rosette. Like other female love and fertility goddesses, she was associated with the planet Venus. The Enlil mentioned was Inanna’s father, the Sumerian storm god, who controlled the wind and rain. (According to some god/goddess genealogies, Enlil was her grandfather.) In an often-parched land, the rain god would be ultra-important, and it appears that one of the objects of the “divine marriage” was to please Enlil and encourage him to send rain rather than destructive storms! Enlil was similar to the Bible's Jehovah, in that he was the supreme deity, and sometimes sent rain and plenty, but at other times sent war and destruction. Certain passages of the Bible appear to have been "borrowed" by the ancient Hebrews from much older Sumerian texts such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. Such accounts include the creation myth, the Garden of Eden myth, and the myth of the Great Flood and a mankind-saving ark. However, the Hebrew scribes modified the accounts to suit their theology, so in the Bible there is only one "god" who controls everything, and thus behaves like an angel at times and like a demon at others. And that is understandable if one posits that one god controls the weather, since earth's weather is unpredictable and at times seems like a blessing and at other times like a curse.


An Ancient Egyptian Love Lyric (circa 1085-570 BC)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Is there anything sweeter than these hours of love,
when we're together, and my heart races?
For what is better than embracing and fondling
when you visit me and we surrender to delights?

If you reach to caress my thigh,
I will offer you my breast also —
it's soft; it won't jab you or thrust you away!

Will you leave me because you're hungry?
Are you ruled by your belly?
Will you leave me because you need something to wear?
I have chests full of fine linen!
Will you leave me because you're thirsty?
Here, suck my breasts! They're full to overflowing, and all for you!

I glory in the hours of our embracings;
my joy is incalculable!

The thrill of your love spreads through my body
like honey in water,
like a drug mixed with spices,
like wine mingled with water.

Oh, that you would speed to see your sister
like a stallion in heat, like a bull to his heifer!
For the heavens have granted us love like flames igniting straw,
desire like the falcon's free-falling frenzy!

An Ancient Egyptian Love Song (circa 1300-1200 BC)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Lover, let’s slip down to the pond;
I’ll bathe while you watch me from the nearest bank.
I’ll wear my sexiest swimsuit, just for you,
made of sheer linen, fit for a princess!
Come, see how it looks when it’s wet!
Can I coax you to wade in with me?
To let the cool water surround us?
Then I’ll dive way down deep, just for you,
and come up dripping,
letting you feast your eyes
on the little pink fish I’ve found.
Then I’ll say, standing there in the shallows:
Look at my little pink fish, love,
as I hold it in my hand.
See how my fingers caress it,
slipping down its sides, then inside!
See how it wiggles?
But then I’ll giggle softly and sigh,
my eyes bright with your seeing:
It’s a gift, my love, no more words!
Come closer and see,
it’s all me!

These are ancient Egyptian "Harper's Songs" in modern English translations by Michael R. Burch...

The first Harper's song comes from a tomb which contains an image of Djehutiemheb and Hedjmetmut seated at an offering table while their son, dressed as a priest, pours libations and burning incense before them. It seems the song may be a blessing being voiced by the son, as the text appears before his representation.

Harper's Song: Tomb of Djehutiemheb
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

... The sky opens for you,
the earth opens for you,
and for you the good path leads into the Necropolis.
You enter and exit like Re.
You stride unhindered like the Lords of Eternity ...

This song from the funerary stela of Iki depicts the deceased sitting at an offering table with his wife, with the rotund harpist Neferhotep sitting on the other side of the table. Neferhotep was one of the earliest known Egyptian singer/harpists. His portrait and song were included on the stela of a man named Iki.

Harper's Song: Tomb of Iki
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

O tomb, you were prepared for a festival,
your foundations anchored in happiness!
The harpist Neferhotep, son of Henu.

Interestingly, the three Harper's songs found in the tomb of the priest Neferhotep seem to display very different viewpoints about the afterlife, if we can take the first two to be saying that death is peaceful because no one is doing anything ...

Harper's Song: Tomb of Neferhotep
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I have heard songs inscribed in ancient tombs,
extolling earth-life while belittling the Beyond ...
but why condemn the kingdom of Eternity,
the just and the fair,
which holds no terrors?

Death abhors violence: no man there arms himself against his brother.
No one rebels in that peaceful kingdom.
All our ancestors rest there, since man’s earliest days;
the multitudes assemble there, every one,
for none may tarry overlong in the land of Egypt.
There is no one who will not cross over.

Earth-life is no more than the span of a dream,
but fair welcomes are given when one reaches the West.

The stela of Nebankh from Abydos contains a Harper's song with the deceased depicted sitting at an offering table with the harpist squatting before him:

Harper's Song: Tomb of Nebankh
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Tjeniaa the singer says:
Now you are seated securely in eternity,
in your eternal monument!
Your tomb is filled with food-offerings
and complete with every fitting thing.
Your soul is with you
and will never desert you,
Royal Treasurer and Seal-Bearer, Nebankh!
The sweet north wind is now your breath!
So says the honorable singer Tjeniaa,
whom he loved and who keeps his name alive
by singing to his soul every day.

Harper's Song: Tomb of Intef
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

from the tomb of the Pharaoh Intef

Here lies a happy prince
because death is the kindest fate.

One generation passes, another remains:
so it has been since our eldest ancestors.

Now those who were once "gods" rest in their sepulchers
along with other nobles
and those who built their tombs.

Their palaces are gone,
and what has become of them?

What of the words of Imhotep and Hardedef,
whose sayings are still recited entire?

What of their palaces?
Their walls have collapsed into ruins,
their halls have vanished
as if they never existed!

And no one returns from that realm
to inform us of their state
or to calm our fears.
We remain in the dark until we join them ...

Hence, rejoice with happy hearts!
It is best to forget: heedlessness is happiness!
Humor your hearts as long as you live!

Perfume your hair with myrrh,
adorn yourself in your finest linens,
anoint yourself with the costliest oils, fit for a god,
heap up your treasures here on earth!

Let your heart remain buoyant! Don't let it sink!
Humor your heart and find happiness!
Here on earth do as your heart demands!

What use is mourning,
when weary-hearted Osiris pays tears no heed?

Weeping and wailing spares no man from the grave,
so make every day your holiday. Never tire of joy's pursuits!
Because no one is allowed to take his possessions with him
and none who departs ever returns!

This song, also known as “The Lay of the Harper,” appears in the tomb of Paatenemheb, where the introductory line says it was copied from the tomb of a King Intef (a name used by several kings from 11th and 17th dynasties). The poem is also preserved in the Ramesside New Kingdom Harris 500 papyrus. These works are accepted by scholars as being a copy of a genuine Middle Kingdom text.

Musings at Giza
by Michael R. Burch

In deepening pools of shadows lies
the Sphinx, and men still fear his eyes.
Though centuries have passed, he waits.
Egyptians gather at the gates.

Great pyramids, the looted tombs
—how still and desolate their wombs!—
await sarcophagi of kings.
From eons past, a hammer rings.

Was Cleopatra's litter borne
along these streets now bleak, forlorn?
Did Pharaohs clad in purple ride
fierce stallions through a human tide?

Did Bocchoris here mete his law
from distant Kush to Saqqarah?
or Tutankhamen here once smile
upon the children of the Nile?

or Nefertiti ever rise
with wild abandon in her eyes
to gaze across this arid plain
and cry, “Great Isis, live again!”

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