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Sumerian Society


Religion was an intricate part of the daily life of a citizen of Sumer. Accordingly, the largest and most important structure in the city was the temple. Each city had a patron deity to which its main temple was dedicated. However, a multitude of gods were recognized and some of them might have shrines located in the main temple complex or have their own smaller temples.

The temple served several purposes, including worship and education. Each temple held an educational center in which students learned mathematics and scribing. Mathematics included simple skills, such as multiplication and addition, to the more complex, such as geometry and square roots. A student learning to be a scribe would spend many years in study learning the intricacies of grammar and the thousands of cuneiform symbols. The Sumerian teacher was known as an ummia.

Temples formed into large stepped mud-brick structures known as zigurrats. It is thought that zigurrats were built to resemble the mountains from which the ancestors of the Sumerians may have hailed. Temples were self-sufficient. They operated their own granaries, mills, bakeries, and livestock. The king was the high priest of the city and was considered the god's representative. After death, the king was often deified as a natural extension of this belief. The temple was also attended by a group of women classified into a caste system. At the highest order of this system was the entu who was considered to be the consort of the god. She often hailed from a very respectable background, such as the daughter of the king and thus was expected to lead a "proper" life. Second in the caste system were the sal-me. The two lowest were the zikru and the kadishtu, and they seemed to serve no purpose other than prostitution.

Go here for more information on Sumerian religion and here for a list of Sumerian deities.

Daily Life

A typical Sumerian family consisted of a husband, wife, and children. Marriage was usually an arranged event between family elders. The tenants of the marriage were contained in a sealed tablet. The guidelines detailed the process for the marriage and the divorce. Monogamy was the norm, though concubines were tolerated.

The husband held the power in the family. A husband could initiate a divorce with very little reason. He also had the right to take on a second wife if his first was not able to bear a child. Children were generally loved and cared for, but children could be sold into slavery to repay a debt.

The average Sumerian house was a modest one-story structure constructed from mud-brick. The house consisted of several rooms surrounding an open court. Wealthier citizens lived in two-story brick structures. Typical rooms included reception rooms, lavatories, kitchens, servants' quarters, and a private chapel. Floors and walls were covered with reed mats and animal skins. A family mausoleum was sometimes located under the house.

Music was an important part of daily life. Sumerians used many instruments including harps, pipes, drums, and tambourines. The music was often used in conjunction with poems and songs dedicated to the gods.

The Sumerian year was divided between two seasons, emesh and enten. Emesh equated to summer and lasted from March to September. Enten equated to winter and lasted from October to February. The months began with the evening of the new moon with a duration of 29-30 days. Their names varied from city to city, but were usually derived from agricultural practices or the names of deities.

Sumerian medical practices drew from was a mixture of surgery, magic, medicines. Medicine resources consisted of botanical (mustard, plum trees, pears, figs), mineral (salt, oil, river bitumen), and zoological(wool, milk, turtle shells) resources. Doctors were known as a-zu. Being a doctor was dangerous work as the penalty for malpractice was very severe and akin to "an eye for an eye." For this reason doctors usually relied upon non-surgical methods.

Sumerian society was rooted in agriculture and commerce. The fertile plains of the Tigris and Euphrates were criss-crossed with irrigated fields used to harvest and assortment of crops. Many disputes arose stemming from control of these vital irrigation fields. Much of the land was owned by temples and the king. This land was often "leased" out to workers who were provided with the land and tools in return for part of the profit.

The People

Sumerian society adhered to a caste system comprised of three classes: amelu, mushkinu, and slaves. The amelu were the at the top rung of the caste system. Government officials, professional soldiers, and priests were found in this class. Under the amelu were the mushkinu, the middle class of Sumerian society. The mushkinu were comprised of shopkeepers, farmers, merchants, and laborers. The mushkinu were the largest of the three classes. A large disparity existed between the rich and the poor, but even the poor owned their own land and livestock.

Slavery was an accepted part of life in Sumer and slaves were the lowest in the caste system. A person could find themselves a slave for several reasons, such as prisoners of war, debt, or born into slavery. Husbands could also sell their wives into slavery and parents could sell their children into slavery. Slaves did hold a few rights. They could borrow money, own property, engage in trade, serve as a witness in a legal matter, and buy their freedom. A slave who purchased their freedom or was freed by their owner could not be forced back into slavery. The slave class did not appear to hold any particular negative social stigma with Sumerian citizens. They held the belief that a person who found their self a slave did so out of misfortune rather than any fault of their own.


Law was an integral part of Sumerian society. Nearly every aspect of civil life was recorded in writing on a tablet. The tablets were used as evidence when a legal dispute arose. These written records were verified with cylinder seals. Early seals were carved from small gems and decorated with mythical beasts, battle scenes, et cetera. Over time the designs became standardized and formalized.

Legal disputes followed a set course of action. Before reaching court an attempt was made to settle the matter between the parties involved. This process was presided over by an arbitrator known as a maskhim. Failing that the dispute was brought to the court were a panel of professional judges, known as dikuds, heard the arguments.

Legal ramifications depended upon a person's class. Crimes against a member of the amelu carried a stiffer penalty than similar crimes against the lower classes. However, members of the amelu who committed a crime were usually punished more severely than members of the lower classes. This practice could stem from the military society associated with the upper classes and the necessity to maintain discipline.

The Sumerians are responsible for the first known set of written laws. These laws are known as the "code" of Ur-Nammu. By 2400 B.C. laws were common on Sumerian society. These laws were designed to protect the weak, poor, widows, and orphans against the rich.

The patron god or goddess of a city was seen as its ruler with the human king as his or her divine representative. The citizens held the power in early Sumerian cities. Decisions were made in an assembly. When a crisis arose, such as a war, the assembly elected a lugal to make the decisions. Over time this position became permanent and heriditary.

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