Justice from Inanna

This poem was inspired by reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. The early portion of the book discusses in some detail a thing I’d known about for a while, but apparently isn’t commonly known: that the Agricultural Revolution resulted in a significant decrease in the standard of living for the vast majority of humans.

It turns out that hunter-gatherers on relatively productive land—unlike those living in the borderline environments where they still exist today, because the land isn’t worthwhile for agricultural societies to expropriate—tend to be healthier and live longer than peasants did in most agricultural societies. The median level of well-being in agricultural societies may not have reached what it was in hunter-gatherer bands until a century or two ago. On the other hand, the elites: the people who could read and write, who owned the land (and the slaves), and whose names history remembers were much better off: their social roles couldn’t even exist without the agricultural surpluses and sedentary lives made possible by agriculture.

In response to this all, I wrote a poem that can perhaps be described as a Marxist hymn to Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of war, justice, and political power who may be seen as the goddess of civilization itself, since she is the keeper of the foundational principles of civilization, the me and stole them away from the Sumerian chief god for her city of Uruk.

(As a note, this poem is in two different voices. I’m curious if any of you can identify the two speakers and which stanzas they get: it’s kind of subtle.)

“Justice from Inanna”
21 December 2018, in Colesville, MD

Lady of Uruk1, Queen of Heaven,
Founder of Cities, and Keeper of the Mes2:
Fifty centuries thou hast been with us.
Our ancestors ate thy wheat and rice and maize,
and built thy temples and thy cities,
and lived together, aided by thy laws.

Lady of Uruk, Queen of Heaven,
Planter of Fields, and Keeper of the Grain:
You chose your children from our wandering bands
and made them kings and priests, soldiers and scribes.
You set us to plow your fields for a crust of bread
and break our backs that walls of brick and lapis3 rise.

Lady of Uruk, Queen of Heaven,
Mistress of Empires, and Keeper of Peace:
To every plot of land, and across the salty sea,
we followed thy lead, and reaped thy gifts
of glory and power, of leisure and wealth,
and of a piece of earth that was our own.

Lady of Uruk, Queen of Heaven,
Lover of Kings, and Keeper of Slaves:
In Babylon and Rome, Xi’an4 and Teotihuacan5
you taught your children arts and gave them tools,
but all their glory and all their wealth
was wrung by force from our unremembered brows.

Lady of Uruk, Queen of Heaven,
Founder of Cities, and Giver of Futures:
If fifty centuries of blood and sweat,
unwillingly shed upon your altar,
have won any boon, let it be this:
That the bloody sacrifice may end
and that all people may enjoy thy gifts.


1 Uruk was a Sumerian city that flourished around 2900 BCE, when it was the largest city in the world. It was strongly associated with Inanna, and was home to her chief temple, Eanna.

2 The me were a Sumerian theological concept that doesn’t translate well into any modern language: they were “one of the decrees of the gods that is foundational to those social institutions, religious practices, technologies, behaviors, mores, and human conditions that make civilization, as the Sumerians understood it, possible. They are fundamental to the Sumerian understanding of the relationship between humanity and the gods.” according to Wikipedia. Confusingly, the me are also described in mythology as being physical objects stolen by Inanna for Uruk, even though some of them are immaterial concepts, such as “victory.”

3 Some versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh suggest that the walls of Uruk (implausibly) or of the Eanna Temple (more plausibly) were covered in lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone that was important in Sumerian religion. Inanna wore a necklace and carried a measuring rod of lapis lazuli.

4 Xi’an, a city in what is now central China, is the oldest of the traditional “Four Great Ancient Capitals of China,” and was the capital of the Qin Dynasty and early Han Dynasty, who created a unified Chinese empire contemporary with the rise and height of the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean.

5 Teotihuacan was an ancient Mesoamerican city that was the largest in the Americas at its height in about 250 CE. It is unclear whether the Teotihuacan culture established an imperial state, but they were a major economic power and exported high-quality obsidian tools throughout Mesoamerica. By Aztec times, Teotihuacan’s ruins had attained a legendary status and the Aztecs claimed descent from the city’s builders.