Enkidu, the wild man who becomes Gilgamesh’s comrade-in-arms, is tamed by a temple prostitute who ensnares him with her sexual wiles: “She was not restrained, but took his energy.
/ She spread out her robe and he lay upon her, / She performed for the primitive the task of womankind.” Israelite and Canaanite artwork, by comparison, typically had very little overt sexuality, only nude female figures that disappeared after the institutionalization of early Judaism in the eighth century BCE.
She explained that sexuality was very prominent in ancient Sumerian and Babylonian art and literature, particularly in the late-third and early-second millennia.
Museums are often misconstrued as dusty and lifeless — the least likely place to find something hot and steamy.
But the Ancient Near East section in The Israel Museum’s Archaeology Wing features rare erotic art from the land between the rivers (Tigris and Euphrates), which predates India’s Kama Sutra by over 1,500 years.
Others say that the clay plaques “portrayed prostitution, sexual relations conducted within a tavern, or sexual intercourse between a husband and wife,” with no particular context.
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The Book of Leviticus, on the other hand, bans lying “with mankind, as with womankind” as “an abomination.” Artifacts from ancient Babylon exhibit latent — even shockingly graphic — sexuality, but the exact purpose of the plaques remains unclear. Ilan Peled of The Hebrew University said there’s a scholarly debate over what purpose the erotic art served, with some contending they were votive objects for the veneration of Ishtar, the love goddess.
Assante argues they were apotropaic, like other terra cotta amulets from the era, meant to keep away evil spirits.
Such astonishingly intimate works reveal a side to the ancient Near East that contrasts sharply with the modesty prevalent in the modern Middle East.
Two clay plaques, small enough to hold in your palm, depict couples copulating in remarkable detail.
Peri, an expert in understanding the symbolism of the seals, noted that erotic scenes usually weren’t the central image, nor did those seals belong to the king or officials.