Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010



For its celebration of human desire, the wedding poem or song known as the epithalamium is a constant feature in world literature, particularly for its preservation of details of imperial weddings and matrimonial alliances of nations. “The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi” (ca. 2800 B.c.), written during the time of the Sumerian empire, is GODDESS LORE honoring Inanna, the Queen of Heaven, which reaches heights of passion and physical specifics of sexual intercourse in her courtship of the shepherd Dumuzi. When she welcomes the groom to her inner sanctum, the epithalamium depicts the effulgence of female passion: “Inside the house she shone before him / Like the light of the moon” (quoted in Wolkstein and Kromer 1983, 36) a symbolic reference to both a moon cult and to womanly cycles and fecundity. The Sumerian agrarian culture dominates coital imagery, which describes the phallus as a plow and the vulva as a furrow. Appropriately for a patriarchal society, Inanna's brother Gilgamesh promotes her betrothal with a herder, whose breeding of animals for meat complements her supervision of grain fields, the source of Sumerian wealth. The celebration of fellatio compares seminal fluid to milk: “Make your milk sweet and thick, my bridegroom. / My shepherd, I will drink your fresh milk, wild bull, Dumuzi” (39). The postcoital scene pictures a sated groom and the seductive Inanna lolling in an atmosphere of sweet allure.

From the Hebrew empire (1050-920 B.c.), the scriptural anthology called the Song of Solomon (ca. 950 B.c.), Song of Songs, or Canticle of Solomon, is a nuptial anthem cycle comprised of mystic yet physically explicit odes to sexual attraction and conjugal love. Like the Lakshmi Tantra (ca. A.D. 950) (see TANTRAS), an Asian contribution to goddess lore, the anthology's love songs honor physical grace and desire. Traditionally, historians link the pastoral allegory to King Solomon's alliance with Egypt through a political marriage to a pharaoh's daughter, whose dowry was the city of Gezer, an ancient trading metropolis of the coastal plains west of Jerusalem. If so, about the time that Solomon was ending his great building project of a palace, temple, and a wall around Jerusalem, his African bride joined a harem of 700 wives and 300 concubines—Ammonites, Edomites, Hittites, Moabites, and Sidonians—none of whom is identified by name. The marriage to a member of a closed pharaonic dynasty, possibly the 21st, indicates Solomon's influence some 120 years after the decline of the Egyptian Empire (1550-1070 B.c.).

The benefit to the pharaoh is a direct link to the Davidic dynasty, a rising Middle Eastern power. The biracial, bicultural betrothal also exalts a scion of the Children of Israel, who served the pharaoh before the exodus to the Promised Land.

In the verses, the allure of a dark-skinned shepherdess from the north for an Israelite ruler results in a lavish royal courtship. In private, the beloved longs for a Shulamite man, whom she addresses in absentia in her night wanderings. To the king's favorites, voluptuaries jealous of her simple loveliness, she boasts, “I am black, but comely… . I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valley,” horticultural images applied to the anticipated messiah (Song of Solomon 1:5, 2:1). Her rivals accuse her of treachery for rejecting a king in favor of a shepherd. Fantasizing dialogues with her humble beau, she engages in visions enriched by anatomical euphemisms drawn from nature—for example, “Thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine and the smell of thy nose like apples” (Songs of Solomon 7:8). The king, defeated by true love in chapter 7:10, relents and returns the peasant girl—still a virgin—to herding with the man of her dreams. In a village celebration, she reunites with a promise of faithfulness: “Set me as a seal upon thine heart” (Song of Solomon 8:6). One ironic interpretation of the song identifies Solomon, husband to 1,000 women, as the defender of monogamy.

To justify inclusion of the Song of Solomon in worship, priests and rabbis desexed the canticle by spiritualizing its lush images as symbols of God's commitment to his worshippers. The Spanish-Jewish poet YEHUDA HALEVI of Toledo returned to the original style and imagery for his “Marriage Song” (ca. 1125), a tender devotional to Tirzah for her charm and sweetness and for the speaker's anticipation of happy companionship after the wedding.

Variations on a Theme

The epithalamium also set a pattern for joyous union, as in the triple marriage of young chief Laa in David Kalakaua's compilation The Legends and Myths of Hawaii (1888); and for lamentations on nuptials that have failed or separated loved ones— for example, of Baldetta and Lindoia, a tragic bride in the New World epic O Uraguai (1769) by the Brazilian-Portuguese writer and former Jesuit novice Jose Basilio da Gama (ca. 1741-95), a rebel and statesman from San Jose, Brazil. The Greek playwright Euripides manipulated the tone of The Trojan Women (415 B.c.) by picturing the Trojan widows preparing to become Greek prisoners and leave Troy. Cassandra, the priestess of Apollo, falls into a trance and brandishes a torch while singing a marriage song to the god rather than to Agamemnon, the Greek king who has won her with a toss of the dice. In the AENEID (17 B.c.), VIRGIL, the imperial propagandist for Augustus, the first Roman emperor, incorporated the doomed alliance of the Trojan prince Aeneas with Dido, the widowed queen of Carthage, Rome's future enemy. The meddling of the goddess Juno produces a consuming passion in the queen after Eros wounds her with a love dart. In a nuptial scene similar in tone to the wedding scene in Valmiki's Hindu epic RAMAYANA (ca. 400 B.c.), Virgil depicts the queen and Aeneas retreating to a forest cave during a hail storm. In place of wedding anthems, “Lightning streaks; they couple; the skies shudder… . The nymphs from their hilltops shriek the cry of Hymen,” the winged childgod who lights the way to the nuptial bedchamber (Virgil 1961, 93). The show of heavenly disapproval results in a dirge to presage Dido's suicide and selfimmolation as Aeneas sails on to his destiny as the founder of Latium.

A Japanese nuptial verse offers a motherly variation on wedding hymns. Around A.D. 759, scholar and statesman Otomo no Yakamochi (ca. 717-785) compiled the Nara empire's 20-book MANYOSHU (The Ten Thousand Leaves, ca. 759), an imperial anthology of poetic models from Japan's golden age. Among its ritual prayers, patriotic odes, and erotic verses, he incorporated an emotive bridal song. At a dramatic moment following the newlyweds' departure, the mother of the bride recalls passing her jewel-like daughter into the groom's hands. The tender epithalamium melds the usual celebratory mood with the older generation's nostalgia. In place of post-wedding delight, the mother sinks onto the empty pillow in the bride's childhood bed.


Hawkins, Peter, and Lesleigh Cushing Stahlberg. Scrolls of Love: Reading Ruth and the Song of Songs. Bronx, N.Y.: Fordham University Press, 1999.

Song of Songs. In the Holy Bible. Iowa Falls, Iowa: World Bible Publishers, 1986.

The Ten Thousand Leaves, trans. Ian Hideo Levy.

Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Virgil. The Aeneid, trans. Patric Dickinson. New York: Mentor, 1961.

Wolkstein, Diane, and Samuel Noah Kramer, trans. Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.