Marriage in Ancient Mesopotamia: Contracts, Wedding Ceremony, Dowry

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20120208-Dumuzi 2.gif In 2000 B.C. the bride of King Shu-Sin sang:
” Bridegroom, death to my heart
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet.
Lion, dear to my heart.
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet...
Bridegroom, let me caress you...”

The Code of Hammurabi outlines rules for marriage and divorce. Marriage retained the form of purchase, but was essentially a contract to be man and wife together. The marriage of young people was usually arranged between the relatives, the bride- groom's father providing the bride-price, which with other presents the suitor ceremonially presented to the bride's father. This bride-price was usually handed over by her father to the bride on her marriage, and so came back into the bridegroom's possession, along with her dowry, which was her portion as a daughter. The bride-price varied much, according to the position of the parties, but was in excess of that paid for a slave. The Code enacted that if the father does not, after accepting a man's presents, give him his daughter, he, must return the presents doubled. [Source: Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian Law — The Code of Hammurabi. Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911 ]

Even if his decision was brought about by libel on the part of the suitor's friend this was done, and the Code enacted that the faithless friend should not marry the girl. If a suitor changed his mind, he forfeited the presents. The dowry might include real estate, but generally consisted of personal effects and household furniture. It remained the wife's for life, descending to her children, if any; otherwise returning to her family, when the husband could deduct the bride-price if it had not been given to her, or return it, if it had.

Within what degree of relationship marriage was permitted is uncertain. A man could marry his sister-in-law, as among the Israelites, and, in one instance, we hear of marriage with a niece. In the time of Cambyses a brother marries his half-sister by the same father; but this was probably an imitation of the Persian custom. The children, as we have seen, whether boys or girls, inherited alike, subject to the provisions of the parent's will. The will seems to have been of Babylonian origin. Testamentary devolution of property went back to an early period in a country in which the legal relations of trade had been so fully developed. Trade implied private property and the idea of individual possession. The estate belonging to a person was his absolutely, to deal with pretty much as he would. He had the same right to alienate it as he had to increase it. In a commercial community there could be no community of goods. As far back, therefore, as our materials carry us, the unit in the Babylonian state is the individual rather than the family. It is he with whom both the law and the government deal, and the legal code of Babylonia is based upon the doctrine of individual responsibility. [Source: “Babylonians And Assyrians: Life And Customs”, Rev. A. H. Sayce, Professor of Assyriology at Oxford, 1900]

Websites on Mesopotamia: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia ; International Association for Assyriology ; Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures, University of Chicago ; University of Chicago Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations ; University of Pennsylvania Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations (NELC); Penn Museum Near East Section; Ancient History Encyclopedia ; British Museum ; Louvre ; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Ancient Near Eastern Art Metropolitan Museum of Art; Iraq Museum theiraqmuseum ABZU; Archaeology Websites Archaeology News Report ; : ; Archaeology in Europe ; Archaeology magazine ; HeritageDaily; Live Science

Herodotus on Babylonian Marriage

Herodotus wrote in 430 B.C.:“Of their customs, whereof I shall now proceed to give an account, the following (which I understand belongs to them in common with the Illyrian tribe of the Eneti) is the wisest in my judgment. Once a year in each village the maidens of age to marry were collected all together into one place; while the men stood round them in a circle. Then a herald called up the damsels one by one, and offered them for sale. He began with the most beautiful. When she was sold for no small sum of money, he offered for sale the one who came next to her in beauty. All of them were sold to be wives. The richest of the Babylonians who wished to wed bid against each other for the loveliest maidens, while the humbler wife-seekers, who were indifferent about beauty, took the more homely damsels with marriage-portions. [Source: Herodotus, “The History”, translated by George Rawlinson, (New York: Dutton & Co., 1862]

“For the custom was that when the herald had gone through the whole number of the beautiful damsels, he should then call up the ugliest — a cripple, if there chanced to be one — and offer her to the men, asking who would agree to take her with the smallest marriage-portion. And the man who offered to take the smallest sum had her assigned to him. The marriage-portions were furnished by the money paid for the beautiful damsels, and thus the fairer maidens portioned out the uglier. No one was allowed to give his daughter in marriage to the man of his choice, nor might any one carry away the damsel whom he had purchased without finding bail really and truly to make her his wife; if, however, it turned out that they did not agree, the money might be paid back.

“All who liked might come even from distant villages and bid for the women. This was the best of all their customs, but it has now fallen into disuse. They have lately hit upon a very different plan to save their maidens from violence, and prevent their being torn from them and carried to distant cities, which is to bring up their daughters to be courtesans. This is now done by all the poorer of the common people, who since the conquest have been maltreated by their lords, and have had ruin brought upon their families. I.197: “

Mesopotamian Wedding Ceremony

Enlil and Ninlil

The marriage ceremony was partly religious, partly civil; no marriage was legally valid without a contract duly attested and signed. The Babylonians carried their business habits into all departments of life, and in the eyes of the law matrimony was a legal contract, the forms of which had to be duly observed. In the later days of Babylonian history the legal and civil aspect of the rite seems to have been exclusively considered, but at an earlier period it required also the sanction of religion; and T.G has published a fragmentary Sumerian text in which the religious ceremony is described. [Source: “Babylonians And Assyrians: Life And Customs”, Rev. A. H. Sayce, Professor of Assyriology at Oxford, 1900]

Those who officiated at it, first placed their hands and feet against the hands and feet of the bridegroom, then the bride laid her neck by the side of his, and he was made to say to her: “Silver and gold shall fill thy lap; thou art my wife; I am thy husband. Like the fruit of an orchard will I give thee offspring.” Next came the ceremony of binding the sandals on the feet of the newly wedded pair and of handing them the latchet wherewith the shoes should be tied, as well as “a purse of silver and gold.” The purse perhaps symbolized the dowry, which was given by the father of the bride.

In the time of Nebuchadnezzar the ceremony was restricted to joining together the hands of the bride and bridegroom. This included joining of hands and the utterance of some formula of acceptance on the part of the bridegroom, as "I am the son of nobles, silver and gold shall fill thy lap, thou shalt be my wife, I will be thy husband. Like the fruit of a garden I will give thee offspring." It must be performed by a freeman. [Source: Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian Law — The Code of Hammurabi. Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911 ]

Hammurabi's Code of Laws: 144-153: Concubines, Wives and Debt

  1. If a man take a wife and this woman give her husband a maid-servant, and she bear him children, but this man wishes to take another wife, this shall not be permitted to him; he shall not take a second wife. [Source: Translated by L. W. King]

  2. If a man take a wife, and she bear him no children, and he intend to take another wife: if he take this second wife, and bring her into the house, this second wife shall not be allowed equality with his wife.

  3. If a man take a wife and she give this man a maid-servant as wife and she bear him children, and then this maid assume equality with the wife: because she has borne him children her master shall not sell her for money, but he may keep her as a slave, reckoning her among the maid-servants.

  4. If she have not borne him children, then her mistress may sell her for money.

Code of Hammurabi

  1. If a man take a wife, and she be seized by disease, if he then desire to take a second wife he shall not put away his wife, who has been attacked by disease, but he shall keep her in the house which he has built and support her so long as she lives.

  2. If this woman does not wish to remain in her husband's house, then he shall compensate her for the dowry that she brought with her from her father's house, and she may go.

  3. If a man give his wife a field, garden, and house and a deed therefor, if then after the death of her husband the sons raise no claim, then the mother may bequeath all to one of her sons whom she prefers, and need leave nothing to his brothers.

  4. If a woman who lived in a man's house made an agreement with her husband, that no creditor can arrest her, and has given a document therefor: if that man, before he married that woman, had a debt, the creditor can not hold the woman for it. But if the woman, before she entered the man's house, had contracted a debt, her creditor can not arrest her husband therefor.

  5. If after the woman had entered the man's house, both contracted a debt, both must pay the merchant.

  6. If the wife of one man on account of another man has their mates (her husband and the other man's wife) murdered, both of them shall be impaled.

Dowry in Ancient Mesopotamia

The dowry which the woman brought with her on marriage secured of itself her independence. It was her absolute property, and she could leave it by will as she pleased. It protected her from tyrannical conduct on the part of her husband, as well as from the fear of divorce on insufficient grounds. If a divorce took place the dowry had to be restored to her in full, and she then returned to her father's house or set up an establishment of her own. Where no dowry had been brought by the bride, the husband was often required by the marriage contract to pay her a specified sum of money in case of her divorce. [Source: “Babylonians And Assyrians: Life And Customs”, Rev. A. H. Sayce, Professor of Assyriology at Oxford, 1900]

Thus a marriage contract made in Babylon in the thirteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar stipulates that, if the husband marries a second wife, the act shall be equivalent to a divorce of the first wife, who shall accordingly receive not only her dowry, but a maneh of silver as well. The payment, in fact, was a penalty on the unfaithfulness of the husband and served as a check upon both divorce and polygamy. The dowry consisted not of money alone, but also of slaves and furniture, the value of which was stated in the marriage contract. In the contract just referred to, for instance, part of the dowry consisted of a slave who was valued at half a maneh. Sometimes the dowry included cattle and sheep. In the sixth year of Nabonidos we hear of three slaves and “furniture with which to stock the house,” besides a maneh of silver (£6), being given as the marriage-portion.

In this instance, however, the silver was not forthcoming on the wedding-day, and in place of it a slave valued at two-thirds of a maneh was accepted, the remaining third being left for payment at a subsequent date. Where the dowry could not be paid at once, security for the payment of it was taken by the bridegroom. The payment was made, not by the bridegroom, as among the Israelites and other Semitic peoples, but by the father of the bride. If he were dead, or if the mother of the bride had been divorced and was in the enjoyment of her own property, the mother took the place of the father and was expected to provide the dowry. In such a case she also naturally gave permission for the marriage, and it was from her accordingly that consent to it had to be obtained.

In one instance, however, in a deed dated in the sixteenth year of Nabonidos, a sister is given in marriage by her two brothers, who consequently furnish the dowry, consisting of a piece of ground inherited from the mother, a slave, clothes, and furniture. It is evident that in this case both the parents must have been dead. It was the bridegroom's duty and interest to see that the dowry was duly paid. He enjoyed the usufruct of it during his life, and not unfrequently it was employed not only to furnish the house of the newly married couple, but also to start them in business. It was with his wife's dowry that BenHadad-nathan bought in part the house to which his widow laid claim after his death, and we read of instances in which the husband and wife enter into partnership in order to trade with the wife's money. More frequently the wife uses her dowry to transact business separately, her purchases and loans being made in her own name; this is especially the case if she otherwise has property of her own.

At times the son-in-law found it difficult to get the dowry paid. From a deed dated in the third year of Cambyses we gather that the dowry, instead of being delivered “into the hand” of the bridegroom, as ought to have been done at the time of the marriage, was still unpaid nine years later. Sometimes, of course, this was due to the inability of the father-inlaw to discharge his debt, through bankruptcy, death, or other causes. Where, therefore, the money was not immediately forthcoming, security was taken for its future payment. If payment in full was impossible, owing to pecuniary losses incurred after the marriage contract had been drawn up, the bridegroom was entitled to claim a proportionate amount of it on behalf of his wife. The heirs were called upon to pay what was due if the father-in-law died between the drawing-up of the contract and the actual marriage, and when the wife died without children it returned to her “father's house.”

If the husband died and his widow married again, she carried her former dowry with her. In such a case the children of the first marriage inherited two-thirds of it upon her death, the remaining third going to the children of the second husband. This was in accordance with a law which regulated the succession to the property of a father who had married a second time, the children of the first marriage receiving two- thirds of it and the remainder being reserved for the children of the second wife. The law could only be overruled by a will made during the man's lifetime, and properly attested by witnesses. The dowry could not be alienated by the wife without the consent of her parents, if they were still alive. In the year of Nergal-sharezer's accession, for example, a certain Nergal-ballidh and his wife Dhibtâ wished to sell a slave, who had constituted the dowry of Dhibtâ, for twenty-five shekels, but the sale was not considered valid until the consent of both her father and mother had been obtained.

Mesopotamian Marriage Contracts

The marriage contract, without which the Code ruled that the woman was no wife, usually stated the consequences to which each party was liable for repudiating the other. These by no means necessarily agree with the Code. Many conditions might be inserted: as that the wife should act as maidservant to her mother-in-law, or to a first wife. The married couple formed a unit as to external responsibility, especially for debt. The man was responsible for debts contracted by his wife, even before her marriage, as well as for his own; but he could use her as a mancipium. [Source: Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian Law — The Code of Hammurabi. Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911 ]

Hence the Code allowed a proviso to be inserted in the marriage contract, that the wife should not be seized for her husband's prenuptial debts; but enacted that then he was not responsible for her prenuptial debts, and, in any case, that both together were responsible for all debts contracted after marriage. A man might make his wife a settlement by deed of gift, which gave her a life interest in part of his property, and he might reserve to her the right to bequeath it to a favourite child, but she could in no case leave it to her family. Although married she always remained a member of her father's house — she is rarely named wife of A, usually daughter of B, or mother of C.

Contact with the Assyrians and Babylonians in the Exilic period introduced the Babylonian conception of the legal character of marriage among the Israelites, and, contrary to the older custom, it became necessary that it should be attested by a written contract. Thus, Raguel, when he gave his daughter “to be wife to Tobias,” “called Edna, his wife, and took paper and did write an instrument of covenants, and sealed it” (Tobit vII. 14). [Source: “Babylonians And Assyrians: Life And Customs”, Rev. A. H. Sayce, Professor of Assyriology at Oxford, 1900]

Examples of Mesopotamian Marriage Contracts

Assyrian wedding contract

An Old Assyrian marriage contracts from the , 19th century B.C. reads: Laqipum has married Hatala, daughter of Enishru. In the country (i.e., Central Anatolia) Laqipum may not marry another (woman)—(but) in the City (i.e., Ashur) he may marry a hierodule. If within two years she (i.e., Hatala) does not provide him with offspring, she herself will purchase a slavewoman, and later on, after she will have produced a child by him, he may then dispose of her by sale wheresoever he pleases. Should Laqipum choose to divorce her (text: "him"), he must pay (her) five minas of silver- and should Hatala choose to divorce him, she must pay (him) five minas of silver. Witnesses: Masa, Ashurishtikal, Talia, Shupianika. [Source: Translator: J.J. Finkelstein]

Contract for Marriage, Reign of Shamshu-ilu-na, c. 2200 B.C.: RIMUM, son of Shamkhatum, has taken as a wife and spouse Bashtum, the daughter of Belizunu, the priestess of Shamash, daughter of Uzibitum. Her bridal present shall be _____ shekels of money. When she receives it she shall be free. If Bashtum to Rimum, her husband shall say, "You are not my husband," they shall strangle her and cast her into the river. If Rimum to Bashtum, his wife, shall say, "You are not my wife," he shall pay ten shekels of money as her alimony. They swore by Shamash, Marduk, their king Shamshu-ilu-na, and Sippar. [The bride was a slave, and gained her freedom by marriage, and hence the penalty imposed upon her in case she divorced her husband is greater than that imposed on him in case he divorced her.] [Source: George Aaron Barton, "Contracts," in Assyrian and Babylonian Literature: Selected Transactions, With a Critical Introduction by Robert Francis Harper (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1904), pp. 256-276]

Contract for Marriage, Thirteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar II, 591 B.C. is an example of marriage by purchase — a form of marriage which had practically fallen into disuse at this time: “Dagil-ili, son of Zambubu, spoke to Khamma, daughter of Nergal-iddin, son of Babutu, saying: "Give me Latubashinni your daughter; let her be my wife." Khamma heard, and gave him Latubashinni, her daughter, as a wife; and Dagil-ili, of his own free-will, gave Ana-eli-Bel-amur, a slave, which he had bought for half a mana of money, and half a mana therewith to Khamma instead of Latubashinni, her daughter. On the day that Dagil-ili another wife shall take, Dagil-ili shall give one mana of money unto Latubashinni, and she shall return to her place — her former one. (Done) at the dwelling of Shum-iddin, son of Ishi-etir, son of Sin-damaqu.”

Contract of Marriage, Sixth year of Nabonidus, 549 B.C. is a good example of marriage with a dowry: “Nabu-nadin-akhi, son of Bel-akhi-iddin, son of Arad-Nergal, spoke to Shum-ukin, son of Mushallimu, saying, "Give as a wife Ina-Esaggil-banat, your daughter, the virgin, to Uballit-su-Gula, my son." Shum-ukin hearkened to him, and gave Ina-Esaggil-banat, his virgin daughter, to Uballit-su-Gula, his son. He gave to Nabu-nadin-akhi one mana of money, Latubashinni, Ina-silli-biti-nakhat, Tasli-mu, and the outfit for a house with Ina-Esaggil-banat, his daughter, as her dowry. Shum-ukin has given to Nabu-nadin-akhi Nana-kishirat, his slave toward the one mana of money of the dowry, instead of two-thirds of a mana of money, at the full price. Shum-ukin will pay to Nabu-nadin-akhi one-third of a mana of money, the balance of one mana, and he shall receive his dowry completed to one mana in what it lacks.”

Marriage of Martu to the Daughter of a God

The Marriage of Martu is a story that dates back to Sumerian times, around 2000 B.C.. It goes: “When the city of Inab already existed, but the city of Kiritabdid not yet exist, when the holy crown already existed, but the holy tiara did not yet exist, when the holy herb already existed, but the holy cedar did not yet exist, when holy salt already existed, but holy alkali did not yet exist, when intercourse and kissing already existed, when giving birth in the fields already existed — I was the grandfather of the holy cedar, I was the ancestor of the mes tree, I was the mother and father of the white cedar, I was the relative of the hacur cedar. At that time there was a princely land among the cities; Inab was this princely land among the cities. The ruler of Inab was Tigi-cem-ala. Now, he had a wife whose name was Cage-gur (Desired-by-the-heart)...[Source:]

Ararna letter concerning marriage negotiations between the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep IIII and the daughter of Tushratta, King of the Mitanni

“The people living around the city hung up nets, the people living around Inab hung up nets, hung up nets, chased gazelles and killed the gazelles as one kills humans. One day, as the evening came, and they had reached the place of rations, they established the rations before the the god.... The ration of a married man was established as double, the ration of a man with a child was established as triple; the ration of a single man was established as single; but the ration of Martu, though being single, was also established as double. Martu went home to his own mother, and spoke to her: "In my city I am among my friends and they all have already married wives; I am there among my mates, and they all have already married wives. Unlike my friends in my city I am single, I am single and I have no children. Yet the imposed share exceeds that of my friends; over and above that of my mates, I received half of theirs....My mother, find me a wife to marry and I will bring you my ration." His own mother replied to Martu: "Su-henuna, my son, I will give you advice; may my advice be heeded. I shall say a word to you; you should pay attention to it. Marry a wife of your choice, marry a wife of your heart's desire, give me thus a companion, ...... me a slave-girl. Having built the houses of your people living around the city, and ...... gardens, you will dig the wells of your mates."

“At that time a festival was announced in the city; a festival was announced in the city of Inab. (Martu said:) "Come, friends, let us go, let us go there, let us visit the ale-houses of Inab, let us go there." The god Numucdaparticipated in the festival; his beloved daughter Adjar-kidugparticipated in the festival, his wife Namrat, the lovely woman participated in the festival. In the city, bronze cem drums were rumbling, and the seven ala drums resounded as strong men, girdled champions, entered the wrestling house to compete with each other for Numucdain the temple of Inab. There were many coming to Inab, the city where the festival was taking place, to marvel at this.

“For Numucda, because he was holy, Martu too strode around the great courtyard to compete in wrestling at the gate of Inab. They kept looking for strong fighters for him, they kept offering him strong fighters. Martustrode around in the great courtyard. He hit them with a destructive ...... one by one. In the great courtyard, in the battle he caused them to be bandaged; in the great courtyard of Inab he lifted the bodies of the dead.

“Rejoicing over Martu, Numucdaoffered him silver, but he would not accept it. He offered jewels, but he would not accept them. Having done so a second time, having done so a third time (Martu says): "Where does your silver lead? Where do your jewels lead? I, Martu, would rather marry your daughter, I would rather marry your daughter Adjar-kidug." [7 lines missing] [Numucda says:] "You ...... the wife with calves, as a marriage gift. Milch cows shall feed the calves. In the byre the calf and the cow shall lie down. Milch cows shall live in the ....... Suckling calves shall stay at their right side. You must give your word thus and only thus, and then I will give you my daughter Adjar-kidug."...

“He gratified the elders of Inab with golden torcs. He gratified the old women of Inab with golden shawl- ....... He gratified the men and women of Inab with golden ....... He gratified the slaves of Inab with ...... and gratified them also with coloured ...... cloths. He gratified the slave-girls of Inab with silver jugs.

“The days have multiplied, no decision has yet been made. (Adjar-kidug's girlfriend speaks to her:) "Now listen, their hands are destructive and their features are those of monkeys; he is one who eats what Nannaforbids and does not show reverence. They never stop roaming about ......, they are an abomination to the gods' dwellings. Their ideas are confused; they cause only disturbance. He is clothed in sack-leather ......, lives in a tent, exposed to wind and rain, and cannot properly recite prayers. He lives in the mountains and ignores the places of gods, digs up truffles in the foothills, does not know how to bend the knee, and eats raw flesh. He has no house during his life, and when he dies he will not be carried to a burial-place. My girlfriend, why would you marry Martu?" Adjar-kidugreplies to her girlfriend: "I will marry Martu!" Inab — ulum, alam!”

Aramaic Marriage Papyri from Elephantine

A document for Mibtahiah's first marriage from the “Aramaic Marriage Papyri from Elephantine” (459 B.C.) in Egypt reads: “On the 21st of Chisleu, that is the 1st of Mesore, year 6 of King Artaxerxes, Mahseiah b. Yedoniah, a Jew of Elephantine, of the detachment of Haumadata, said to Jezaniah b. Uriah of the said detachment as follows: There is the site of I house belonging to me, west of the house belonging to you, which I have given to your wife, my daughter Mibtahiah (Mbthyh), and in respect of which I have written her a deed. The measurements of the house in question are 8 cubits and a handbreadth by II, by the measuring-rod. Now do I, Mahseiah, say to you, Build and equip that site . . . and dwell thereon with your wife. But you may not sell that house or give it as a present to others; only your children by my daughter Mibtahiah shall have power over it after you two. If tomorrow or some other day you build upon this land, and then my daughter divorces you and leaves you, she shall have no power to take it or give it to others; only your children by Mibtahiah shall have power over it, in return for the work which you shall have done. If, on the other hand, she recovers from you, she [may] take half of the house, and [the] othe[r] half shall be at you; disposal in return for the building which you will have done on that house. And again as to that half, your children by Mibtahiah shall have power over it after you. If tomorrow or another day I should institute suit or process against you and say I did not give you this land to build on and did not draw up this deed for you, I shall give you a sum of 10 karshin by royal weight, at the rate of 2 R to the ten, and no suit or process shall lie. This deed was written by 'Atharshuri b. Nabuzeribni in the fortress of Syene at the dictation of Mahseiah. Witnesses hereto (signatures).” [Source: Translator: H. L. Ginsberg, Deed of 459 B.C., relating to reversion of property. Text: Sayce-Cowley, C; Cowley, 9.]

The liquidation of Mibtahiah's second marriage and settlement claim by oath reads: “The Jewess Mibtahiah (Mbthyh) had apparently married the Egyptian Pi’ and then the marriage had been dissolved. The marriage had meant Mibtahiah’s exit from the Jewish community and adoption into the Egyptian. Even its liquidation necessitated her swearing by an Egyptian deity. The witnesses to this document are neither Jewish nor Egyptian. On the 14th of Ab, being the 19th day of Pahons, in the year 25 of King Artaxerxes, Pi’ the son of Pahi (Phy), builder, of the fortress of Syene, said to Mibtahiah, daughter of Maheseiah the son of Yedoniah, an Aramean of Syene of the detachment of Varizata (as follows): In accordance with the action which we took at Syene, let us make a division of the silver, grain, raiment, bronze, iron, and all goods and possessions and marriage contract. Then a oath was imposed upon you, and you swore to me concerning them by the goddess Sati. I was satisfied with the oath which you took to me concerning you goods, and I renounce all claim on your from this day for ever. [Source: Translator: H. L. Ginsberg, Text: Sayce-Cowley, F; Cowley, 14. Date: 440 B.C.]

Contract of Mibtahiah's third marriage oath reads: “On the 2[5]th of Tishri, that is the 6th day of the month Epiphi, [year . . . of] Kin[g Artaxerx]es, said Ashor b. [Seho], builder to the king, to Mah[seiah, A]ramean of Syene, of the detachment of Varizata, as follows: I have [co]me to your house that you might give me your daughter Mipht(ah)iah in marriage. She is my wife and I am her husband from this day for ever. I have given you as the bride-price of your daughter Miphtahiah (a sum of) 5 shekels, royal weight. It has been received by you and your heart is content there with, (Lines 6-I6, Miphtahiah's dowry.) Should Ashor die tomorrow or an[othe]r day having no child, male or female, by his wife Mi[phtah]iah, Miphtahiah shall be entitled to the house, chattels and all worldly goods of Ashor. Should Miphtahiah die tomorrow or (another) day having no child, male or female, by her husband Ashor, Ashor shall inherit her property and chattels. Should [Miph]tahiah, tomorrow [or] another [d]ay stand up in a congregation and say, I divorce my husband Ashor, the price of divorce shall be upon her head: she shall sit by the balance and weigh out to [As]hor a sum of 7 shekels 2 R. But all that which she has brought in with her she shall take out, shred and thread, and go whither she will, without suit or process. Should Ashor tomorrow or another day stand up in a congregation and say, I divorce my [wif]e Miphtahiah, [he shall] forfeit her bride-price, and all that she has brought in with her she shall take out, shred and thread, on one day at one stroke, and shall go whither she will, without suit or process. And [whoever] arises against Miphtahiah to drive her away from the house, possessions, and chattels of Ashor shall give her the sum of 20 karash, and the law of this deed shall [ . . . ] for her. And I shall have no right to say I have another wife besides Mipht(ah)iah or other children besides any Miphtahiah may bear to me. If I say I have chi[ldren] and wife other than Miphtiah and her children, I shall give to Miphtahiah a su[m] of 20 karash, royal weight. Neither shall I have the right to [wre]st my property and chattels from Miph[tah]iah. If I take them away from her (erasure), I shall give to Miphtahiah [a sum of] 20 karash, royal weight. [This deed] was written by Nathan b. Ananiah [at the dictation of Ashor]. Witnesses: (signatures). [Source: Translator: H. L. Ginsberg, Text: Sayce-Cowley, G; Cowley, 15. Date: about 440 B.C.]

The bride-price was regularly added to the bride's dowry. In marriage documents the value of each item of the dowry are given, and so is the total value. In the contract above the latter exceeds the value of the items by exactly the amount of the bride-price. This means this sum is exactly 1½ times the bride-price Ashor paid for her.

Marriage Contract of a Former Slave Girl

Marriage contract of a former slave girl who is subject to paramoné, 420 B.C., from “Aramaic Manumission & Marriage Papyri from Elephantine” reads: “On (the first day of) the month of Tishri, that is Epiphi, the year 4 of King Darius, in the fortress Elephantine, said Ananiah son of Haggai, an Aramean of the fortress Elephantine, [of] the detachment of [Iddin]-Nabu, to Zakkur son of Me[shullam, an Arame]an of Syene, of the same detachment, as follows: (3) I have come to your [hous]e and asked you for your sister the woman Yehoyishma' (as she is called) in marriage, and you have given her to me. She is my wife and I am [her] husband from this day to eternity. I have paid to you as the bride price of your sister[6] Yehoyishma' (5) I karsh of silver; you have received it [and have been satisfied therewi]th. [Source: Kraeling, op. cit., Papyrus 7, pp. 201 ff., Pls. VIIa, VIIb; Ginsberg, op. cit., 58-59]

“Your sister Yehoyishma' has brought into my house a cash sum of two karsh, (two) 2 shekels, and 5 hallurs of silver, . . . (Lines 6b-13a, defective, a list of probably articles of wool and linen with their respective values; 13b-15a, 5 articles of copper with their respective values; [Garments and articles of co]pper with the cash and the bride price: seven karsh, eight shekels, and 5 hallurs of silver by the king's weights, silver of 2 R to the ten. (17b-21aa, containers of palm leaves, reeds, wood, and stone and quantities of various sorts of oil—no values specified.)

“If at some future date Ananiah should arise in an/the assembly and declare, "I divorce my wife Yehoyishma'; she shall not be a wife to me," he shall become liable for divorce money. He shall forfeit her bride price he must surrender to her all that she brought into his house. Her dowry of cash (23) and clothing, worth karsh seven, sh[ekels eight, and hallurs 5] of silver, and the rest of the goods listed (above) he must hand over to her on one day and in a single act, and she may [leave him for where]ver [she will]....

“If, on the other hand, Yehoyishma' should di- vorce her husband Ananiah and say to him, "I divorce you, I will not be wife to you," she shall become liable for divorce money. She shall sit by the scales and weigh out to her husband Ananiah 7 shekels and 2 R and shall leave him with the balance of her (27) cash, goods, and pos[sessions, worth karsh 7; shekels 5+] 3, and hallurs 5; and the rest of her goods, (28) which are listed (above), he shall hand over to her on one day and in a single act, and she shall depart for her father's house.

"Babylon Marriage Market" by Edwin Long

“If Ananiah should die having no male or female child from his wife [Yehoyi]shma', Yehoyishma' shall be [mistress] of his [pr]operty: of his house, his goods, to) his possession, [and all that he owns. Anyone who] attempts to banish Yehoyishma' from his house, [goods, possessions], and all that [he] owns, [shall p]ay to [her a fi]ne of silver, twenty karsh by [the king's] weights, silver of 2 R to the and shall accord [her] her due under this deed without lawsuit. However, Yeh[oyishma'] is not permitted [to] acquire a husband other [than] Anani. Should she do so, that shall constitute a divorce, and [the provisions for divorcement] shall be applied to [her]. (So, too,) if [Yehoyishma'] should die having no [male] or female child by [her] hus[band] Anani, [Anani] shall inherit from her her [cash], goods, possessions, and all that she own[s]. And [Anani] likewise [may] no[t ta]ke any woman [other than his wife Yehoyishma'] in marriage. Should he do [so, that shall constitute a divorce, and the provisions for di]vorcement shall be applied to him].

“Further, Ananiah may not omit to accord to his wife Yehoyishma' the right of any of the wives of his fellows. Should he fail to do so, that shall constitute a divorce, and he shall implement for her the provisions for divorcement. Neither may Yehoyishma' omit to accord to her husband Ananiah the right of any (husband). Should she fail to accord it to him, that shall constitute a divorce. Further, Zakkur may not say with reference to [his] sister], "I gave those [goo]ds to Yehoyishma' gratis; now I wish to take them back." If he speaks [thus], no attention shall be paid to him; he is in the wrong.

“This deed was written by Ma'uziah son of Nathan at the dictation of Ananiah son of Haggai [and] Zakkur son of Meshullam, and the witnesses thereto are: (There followed the names of six witnesses and those of their fathers, making twelve names in all, of which nine are preserved, all of them Jewish, and all of them in the handwriting of the scribe.

Polygamy and Marriage by Purchase in Mesopotamia

Polygamy was greatly restricted in Mesopotamia in practice, and that the tendency of the law was to forbid it altogether. Among the multitudinous contracts of the second Babylonian empire it is difficult to find any which show that a man had two legitimate wives living at one and the same time. The high position of the mother of the family, her independence and commercial equality with her husband, were all against it. It is only where the wife is a bought slave that polygamy can flourish. [Source: “Babylonians And Assyrians: Life And Customs”, Rev. A. H. Sayce, Professor of Assyriology at Oxford, 1900]

In early times, it is true, the rich Babylonian indulged in the possession of more than one wife. Some contracts of the age of Khammurabi, translated by Mr. Pinches, are particularly instructive in this respect. We hear in them of a certain Arad-Samas, who first married a lady called Taram-Sagila and then her adopted sister Iltani. Iltani, it is ordained, shall be under the orders of her sister, shall prepare her food, carry her chair to the Temple of Marduk, and obey her in all things. Not a word is said about the divorce of the first wife; it is taken for granted that she is to remain at the head of the household, the younger and second wife acting as her servant.

The position of Iltani, in fact, is not very different from that of a slave, and it is significant that neither wife brought a dowry with her. As we have seen in the case of Dagil-ili, the law and custom of later Babylonia display a complete change of feeling and practice. Marriage with a second wife came to involve, as a matter of course, divorce from the first, even where there had been a mésalliance and the first wife had been without a dowry. The woman had thus gained a second victory; the rule that bound her in regard to marriage was now applied to the man. The privilege of marrying two husbands at once had been denied her; usage was now denying a similar privilege to him. It was only when the first wife was dead or divorced that a second could be taken; the wife might have a successor, but not a rival.

George P. Monger wrote in “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons”: “Perhaps the ancient Assyrians did have a true system of marriage by purchase, according to the Greek historian Herodotus (484–424 B.C.), with a system of public auction of young women for brides. The women in the auction were considered property of the state, and someone bidding and winning in the auction had to marry the woman he won. In this Assyrian marriage market, the women considered the most beautiful were sold first, and the money raised on their sale went toward a dowry for the less good-looking, as an inducement to buyers. The Thracians, too, had marriage markets where women were sold to the highest bidder. The purchase money went to the parents of the young woman. [Source: “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons”: “ by George P. Monger, 2004 ^]

Divorce in Mesopotamia

There are records of divorce trials in Babylonian and Assyrian cuneiform libraries. Under the Code of Hammurabi a woman could get a divorce and keep her dowry, property and children and get child support if she could prove her husband "degraded" her.

Claude Hermann and Walter Johns wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica:“Divorce was optional with the man, but he had to restore the dowry and, if the wife had borne him children, she had the custody of them. He had then to assign her the income of field, or garden, as well as goods, to maintain herself and children until they grew up. She then shared equally with them in the allowance (and apparently in his estate at his death) and was free to marry again. If she had no children, he returned her the dowry and paid her a sum equivalent to the bride-price, or a mina of silver, if there had been none. The latter is the forfeit usually named in the contract for his repudiation of her. [Source: Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian Law — The Code of Hammurabi. Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911 ]

“If she had been a bad wife, the Code allowed him to send her away, while he kept the children and her dowry; or he could degrade her to the position of a slave in his own house, where she would have food and clothing. She might bring an action against him for cruelty and neglect and, if she proved her case, obtain a judicial separation, taking with her her dowry. No other punishment fell on the man. If she did not prove her case, but proved to be a bad wife, she was drowned. If she were left without maintenance during her husband's involuntary absence, she could cohabit with another man, but must return to her husband if he came back, the children of the second union remaining with their own father. If she had maintenance, a breach of the marriage tie was adultery. Wilful desertion by, or exile of, the husband dissolved the marriage, and if he came back he had no claim on her property; possibly not on his own.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2024

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