Thursday, March 27, 2014

Feminist women of 4000 years ago: the naditu women, an essay by Shirley Graetz

Today's guest post comes from Shirley Graetz, author of She Wrote On Clay (Hadley Rille, 2013).  Here she describes her academic research into the naditu women of ancient Mesopotamia, and how their stories refused to let her go...


Feminist Women of Four Thousand Years Ago:
The Naditu Women
Shirley Graetz 

People tend to think of nuns as women from the Middle Ages who devoted their lives to the church, living in abstinence, mostly modest and impoverished lives.

This may have been true of medieval times, but as it turns out, a kind of monastic class of women existed long before Christianity was born, and they were anything but poor. We learn about them from the thousands of documents inscribed in cuneiform script on clay tablets, written in the ancient language of Akkadian.

During the second millennium BCE, in the land of Mesopotamia (Ancient Iraq), lived a group of women, the naditu women, who were consecrated to the god Shamash (the god of justice) and to his consort, Aja.

These women entered the secluded gagu, a walled compound within the city, at marrying age (around 17 or 18 years old). They lived in the gagu in their own house or room, which their family bought them. Most of these women came from wealthy families who supplied the young naditu with a generous "dowry" or inheritance, which included real estate, fields, orchards and sometimes even servants.

Once in the gagu, the father or brothers of the naditu would see to it that she would receive her share of the family property in the form of oil, clothing, barley and food rations. From letters we learn that as long as the father was alive, there were no problems; however, once the fathers died, the responsibility passed on to the brothers. Surprisingly (or not), the brothers did not always fulfill their responsibilities towards their sister. Thus in many letters naditu complained about negligence, and starvation. From documents we know that some naditu even took their brothers to court.

But, on the other side, many of these women were engaged in business transactions, selling or buying property, leasing out fields or orchards for a profit, becoming successful businesswomen in a usually male dominated field.

So after reading hundreds of documents about the naditu women, I was more than fascinated. I was captured by their story.

However, in all the texts, the women's feelings were not discussed, and it got me wondering. Were they happy in the gagu? Did they want to be there? Did they even have a say in the matter? Were they, perhaps, miserable? These questions kept me up until one day, I sat down and started to write a story about a girl called Iltani. All Iltani ever wanted was to become a scribe (a profession dominated by men). Her best way to achieve that goal was to join the naditu women. However once in the gagu, she had to undergo a long and hard path until she succeeded in becoming a scribe.

author Shirley Graetz
The words of the story kept gushing out of me, and I was amazed by the outcome. I hadn't planned any of this, as I was in the midst of my PhD in Assyriology.

But the idea for the book was born. However, reading only documents about the naditu was not enough. I started to do general research about that period: how people lived, how they ate, in what they believed.

I looked at archeological artifacts from that period to get a sense of their lives. I learned about the architecture of that time and drew up a map of the various places I used in the book: Iltani's house, the Shamash Temple, the gagu.

Slowly, very slowly, not only the plot was coming alive, but also Sippar of 4000 years ago. It took me another eight months after I completed my PhD to finish writing the novel and send it to the publisher, Hadley Rille Books. Before publishing the book, I gave the manuscript to some a fellow Assyriologist who was kind enough to comment and give me great suggestions.

I found writing the story very stimulating and enhancing. It connected me to the time period in a different way than my academic research. Both researches supplemented each other very nicely.

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Shirley Graetz

Shirley Graetz was born in Düsseldorf, Germany. In her early twenties she went to Israel to study and stayed for good. In 2013 she received her Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern studies from the Ben Gurion University of the Negev. She teaches about the history of Ancient Israel and the Ancient Near East and is a licensed tour guide. She is married and is a mother of three young children.

Writing books combines both things she loves very much: researching history and telling stories.

She Wrote on Clay was published by Hadley Rille Books in October 2013 as part of their Archaeology Series ($12.00 trade pb / $3.99 ebook, 200pp).  For more information, see the book's page on Amazon and Goodreads.


  1. Anonymous7:52 AM

    Wonderful book, really well told. Loved it.
    Rachel SI

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I love reading about strong women in history and I have never heard of this before.

  3. I enjoyed She Wrote on Clay. I had never heard of the naditu women--the idea of cloistered women like these of the naditu is such a rarity in the ancient world. Fascinating to learn in detail about them. I'm not aware of any parallels elsewhere in the ancient Near East or Mediterranean. Thanks for the insight.

  4. Anonymous8:09 PM

    I have never heard of these women. Interesting to learn a bit about what life was like back then. Thanks for sharing this author, Sarah.