Sumerian smooching: amorous postplay

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—for Valentine's Day (belatedly)

The cuneiform tablet pictured below may include the first textual description of a kiss.

The Barton Cylinder, excavated in the ancient Sumerian
city of Nippur in 1899 and dating to around 2400 B.C.
Credit: The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

In the second column of text, a male divinity, possibly Enlil, has sex with the mother goddess Ninhursag, the sister of Enlil, and then kisses her. Amid this godly frolicking, the male divinity plants the seed of “seven twins of deities” in her womb.

The philematology of this erotic encounter is recounted in this article:

"Who Kissed First? Archaeology Has an Answer",  by Franz Lidz, NYT (2/13/24)

I'm very close (two blocks away) to the epochal epicenter of this story (the world's first verbally recorded kiss), since the Barton Cylinder on which it occurs is housed in The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.  The University of Pennsylvania also just happens to be one of the world's leading centers of Sumerology (more about that below).

But the NYT article doesn't tell us the Sumerian word for kiss, and I didn't find it here either:

"The ancient history of kissing:  Sources from Mesopotamia contextualize the emergence of kissing and its role in disease transmission,"

Troels Pank Arbøll and Sophie Lund Rasmussen, Science, Vol 380, Issue 6646 (18 May 2023), pp. 688-690    DOI: 10.1126/science.adf0512

I did find a few words for Sumerian "kiss" here (pdf), but they were mostly about kissing the ground, not another human being!

John A. Halloran, Sumerian Lexicon, Version 3.0

    1. 108    ka ki…zu-zu: to kiss the ground ('mouth' + 'ground' + reduplicated 'to know')
    2. 111    ki-a…su-ub: to kiss the ground; to prostrate oneself ('ground' + locative + 'to suck').
    3. 111    ki-su-ub…aka: to kiss the ground; to make obeisance ('to kiss the ground' + 'to do').
    4. 125    ne…su-ub: to kiss ('an instance' + sub, 'to suck').

Penn is home to the ePSD (electronic Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary), whose contents are incorporated in Oracc (The Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus).  With the help of Steve Tinney and Phil Jones, curators of Sumerian lexicographical projects at Penn, I was able to find the expression in lovemaking, which is ne sub — usually carried out after ŋeš dug, "to have intercourse".  Try doing the search yourself by clicking on this link, and then type "kiss" in the search window in the top center. That should give you ne sub and še sub. The latter is the emesal (a type of women's speech) version of the former based on the š/n alternation.

ne sub [KISS] V/t (59x) Early Dynastic IIIb, Old Babylonian, Neo-Assyrian, Hellenistic wr. ne su-ub; ne su-ub-su-ub; ne sub₅; ne sub₆; ne su₂-ub "to kiss"

še sub [KISS] V/t (ES) (8x) Old Babylonian, Neo-Assyrian wr. še su-ub "to kiss"

Just remember, ne sub comes after ŋeš dug.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Daniel Boucher]


  1. Len said,

    February 17, 2024 @ 11:17 am

    Is it a kiss on the mouth?

  2. Diana S. Zhang said,

    February 17, 2024 @ 12:04 pm

    This is interesting how the Sumerians would differentiate the various types of kisses. It reminds me of the Tocharian language, which shares the feature of making nuanced distinctions among sexual behaviors. For example, the pair of verb roots √yäs- "to touch / stimulate oneself sexually that results in orgasm (in its original context, 'until filth emerges')" versus √täk- "to sexually touch / stimulate but does not result in orgasm". To this much detail and degree!

    Our ancestors indeed had exciting lives. No wonder we homo-sapiens have been thriving in all kinds of regions under distinct natural conditions. ;-)

  3. Victor Mair said,

    February 17, 2024 @ 7:57 pm


    On the mouth.

    Click on the articles I cited in my original post about Sumerian kissing to see explicit art works dating from the period in question.

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