Where Ancient History meets Contemporary Culture
Inanna and Dumuzi: Sacred Marriage as depicted in Ancient Sumer
The Royal Wedding – are they jamborees for toffs and freeloaders? Or moments when the mundane life of Britain is touched by the Sacred?
Five thousand years ago in Sumer there was an institution of sacred marriage whereby the Goddess Inanna would sanctify the ruler of Uruk. The king, or Lugal – literally ‘Big Man’ – would receive divine approval, in bed, via the priestess of Inanna impersonating the Goddess herself. If the king lost divine approval, however, then the Goddess, via her priestess, could sanctify another Big Man (which may have led to the occasional battle if the former Big Man objected).
The interesting thing from a British perspective is that something similar seems to have happened around the time of the Roman invasion. Cartimandua, last queen of the Brigantes in Northern England, transferred her affections from Venutius, her consort, to Vellocatus, his armour-bearer. Was this simple adultery as the Roman chronicler, Tacitus, has it? Or was Cartimandua more than a queen? Was she a priestess transferring divine approval to a new leader? Either way, Venutius objected and the subsequent war led to a Roman take-over (the bastards).
Curiously, the same story – more or less – seems to have played out in the legend of King Arthur. His queen, Gwenhwyfar (or Guinevere), chose a younger paramour – Mordred – to be her consort while Arthur was off battling the inevitable Romans. Once again, the chronicler, (Geoffrey of Monmouth this time) alleges adultery, but once again we might wonder if Gwenhwyfar was playing a different role, especially as her name translates as ‘the white enchantress’ – a supernatural hint reminding us that druids (and their female version, dryades) were ever present in Ancient British life.
The political and mythical life of Ancient Britain may have been permeated by the Sacred – not least where queens were concerned (and we haven’t even mentioned Boudicca yet) – but can anything similar be found in more recent centuries? On this question, it is interesting to note that three of our most outstanding monarchs have been female – Elizabeth I, Victoria, Elizabeth II. We can also note the sacred role of the monarch – Defender of the Faith, or Fid Def as the coins used to say (nowadays FD).
But do we still have ‘sacred marriages’? Do we still have rivalries between the likes of Venutius and Vellocatus – or indeed Arthur and Mordred – for the favour of our ‘priestess/queen’? Well, yes, in a way – except they don’t use swords any more, they use the ballot box. In 2010 Gordon Brown and David Cameron were slugging it out to be ‘sanctified’ by Elizabeth II. She was doubtless pleased that no intimate elements of sacred marriage were called for in their cases (and probably even more pleased in the earlier case of Maggie Thatcher).
This, of course, is a semi-whimsical thought but it points to a deeper truth. To many people the monarch embodies the soul of the nation, and for most of the last two hundred years that monarch has been female. Victoria’s reign lasted 64 years, and Elizabeth’s 58 – so far. In their time they have ‘sanctified’ a great many prime ministers – Big Men – including such noteworthy figures as Palmerston, Disraeli, Gladstone, Churchill, Thatcher and Blair.
So forget toffs and freeloaders – they’re just froth – the real significance comes when the Fid Def, the Defender of the Faith, entrusts the Soul of Britain to the latest successful contender. Soul, of course, is a numinous concept, but to see how much it matters think back to Princess Diana – not even a queen – who in 1997 unleashed an astonishing tide of grieving emotion by her death.
So there was some significance in the marriage of Diana’s son. His bride, Kate Middleton, had a background stretching back to Durham mining villages, so she was not just Kate Middle-Class but partly even Kate Working-Class. As such she had the potential to embody all strata of the nation as future queen and consort of King William. In this light, the ceremony at Westminster Abbey may have been unexpectedly important in the soul-life of the nation.
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(a) The Salamander Stone (by my most excellent and trusty pal, Mrs Me) from one of these outlets:
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