Although it’s been a while since I’ve been working on my Sumerian project, all the same interesting information about Sumerian culture keeps on trickling in to me.
This one is about the first Sumerian (or maybe Akkadian?) queen, ergo first queen in recorded human history.
Meet Ku-Bau. She’s a little heavy on the kohl makeup around the eyes but that’s because she’s queen and queens need to have scary eyes. Also, notice the hat: it’s the Sumerian shepherd hat that all Sumerian kings wore.
Ku-Bau also has many names: she is Kug-Bau, Ku-Baba and Kubaba.
Here is what the Sumerian King List says about Kug-Bau:
In Kish, Kug-Bau, the woman tavern-keeper, who made firm the foundations of Kish, became king; she ruled for 100 years.
There is another legendary queen, whose existence is often attributed to myth, who is said to have risen to the throne after a spell as a “tavern maid” or barmaid (which according to some is a nicer name for prostitute.) That queen is Semiramis. The possibility that the legendary Semiramis and the historical Ku-Bau may be the same person is supported by some pundits of ancient history. I cite Anthony Lyle’s Ancient History: A Revised Chronology.
The question of how a woman tavern keeper became a queen in a mostly male-dominated society is an interesting one which Sumerian Shakespeare does a great job addressing in his website. To summarize the thesis: it’s possible that Ku-Bau could have attained her leadership either by marrying a lord who became king or by marrying a king. Sumerian Shakespeare says the latter is unlikely, since in his view tavern keepers were little better than prostitutes.
Personally, I disagree. A lot of Sumerian culture, first discovered over a hundred years ago has been judged by modern cultural standards, assuming wholesale that there was already in place a fully blown patriarchy and oppression of women. The evidence points to a different story, to a society that had less defined gender roles and less hangups about sexuality, at least until Semitic cultures became more dominant. I’ve written about this before, in a popular post, but suffice it to say that in the Gilgamesh epic tavern keepers appear to be more than respectable, comfortably dispensing advice to despotic kings like Gilgamesh of Uruk.
Sumerians also had far more “liberal”ideas about sex than we do even today. Sex with same-sex partners was considered normal, for instance. Prostitution wasn’t a shameful profession but a service to the goddess. It is possible that tavern keepers of a certain quality may have actually been more like powerful business owners than “little more than prostitutes”.
Still Sumerian Shakespeare is pretty well versed on all things Mesopotamian, so I defer. Here is what else Sumerian Shakespeare has to say about Ku-Bau:
Ku-Baba was the first female ruler in all of history. She ruled 500 years before the first female pharaoh, 2,300 years before Cleopatra, and 3,900 years before Queen Elizabeth. These other monarchs were born into royal families, but Ku-Baba arose from humble origins. She became a well-respected and beloved queen. She had a very successful reign and she established her own dynasty. She made firm the foundations of Kish, restoring the power and prestige of the city. Everyone knew this, so not even Sargon [a rival king who survived and later discredited her] could take that away from her. As a commoner, she was “the people’s queen”, which was yet another reason why Sargon sought to discredit her. She was beloved by the people, Sargon was hated. Unfortunately, she is best remembered by Sargon’s slander that she was a tavern keeper, which is certainly not true. Even today, here in the Feminist Era, it is hard to take her seriously with the image of Ku-Baba the Tavern Queen etched into our minds. I believe this is the reason why she has never been given the respect and recognition that she truly deserves.
The fact of the matter is that Kubaba/Ku-Bau/Kug-Bau was a tavern keeper turned queen, just like Semiramis. She was probably the first queen to rule in all recorded human history at circa 2400 B.C. — unless Enmebarraggesi, mentioned in the Gilgamesh Epic, was a woman and someone comes up with proof, Ku-Bau wins the feminist title for baddest chick of the ancient world.