Ancient Mesopotamian Lullabies, Sung to Soothe and Warn Babies

Lullabies are not a recent invention. In fact, they stretch back thousands of years, undoubtedly to the time before written history. Many ancient Mesopotamian lullabies, from the cultures of Babylon, Assyria, Sumer, and Hattusa have survived to the present day. Mesopotamia, as the region is referred to as a whole, stretched from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to modern day Syria, and was known as the “ Cradle of Civilization ” for its extensively fertile land. In addition, the region was known as “the birthplace of writing, urban culture, and many other concepts and institutions that shape our world to this day.” That ancient Mesopotamian lullabies from this cultural region have survived is a testament to the longevity of traditions originating from this part of the world.

What are Lullabies?

Lullabies are an important aspect of childhood culture. Specifically, a song, with or without music, performed for children, lullabies are often utilized to help children fall asleep or calm them during times of distress. While these lullabies are sung, they are intentionally not created to be difficult but rather easily remembered and recalled. Enveloped within their words are often cultural traditions and practices that are thus transmitted from one generation to the next. Though the meaning behind such lullabies can often be forgotten (for example, many are unaware that “Ring around the Rosy” actually refers to the Black Plague), their words and the comfort they brought during childhood continues into adulthood.

British Library digitized image of page 7 in the "Lullabies of Many Lands collected and rendered into English verse by A. Strettell." (British Library / Public domain)

British Library digitized image of page 7 in the “Lullabies of Many Lands collected and rendered into English verse by A. Strettell.” (British Library / Public domain )

The primary purpose of lullabies is to aid children in falling asleep. They are sometimes called cradle songs, because the use of the cradle while singing these melodies is intended to be associated with bedtime or naptime. The rocking motion of the cradle in conjunction with the soothing rhythms lull the children into a sense of security at which point they can venture into the world of dreams. It is also believed that lullabies are specifically related to the bond between mothers and their children, as “there may be something intrinsic” in singing to a child that belongs “to the instinctive nature of motherhood.”

An example of a cuneiform tablet which were also used to “record” ancient Mesopotamian lullabies. (Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0)

An example of a cuneiform tablet which were also used to “record” ancient Mesopotamian lullabies. (Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0)

Ancient Mesopotamian Lullabies and Their Implications

One Mesopotamian lullaby comes from ancient Babylon and is dated to approximately 2000 BC.  Written in cuneiform, the first form of writing, which was prevalent in ancient Mesopotamia, this particular lullaby interestingly has a terrifying narrative:

“Little one, who dwelt in the house of darkness —
well, you are outside now, you have seen the light of the sun.
Why are you crying, why are you yelling?
Why didn’t you cry in there?
You have roused the god of the house, the kusarikkum has woken up:
‘Who roused me? Who startled me?’
The little one has roused you, the little one has startled you!
‘As onto drinkers of wine, as onto tipplers,
may sleep fall on him!’”
            (Trans. W. Farber)

As the baby cries, the mother (or perhaps a wet nurse) sings of the baby’s crime of waking the house ghost, which can have disastrous results. Though the song details the journey of the child from the “silent darkness of the womb” to its current position in the world of the living, it “and ends with an invocation…that the crying baby, like a drunkard, might finally fall asleep.” The meaning behind the song is clear: why would a child not find peace in a world where there is light, and he can be held by his mother? The song is intended to both calm the baby as well as help him or her fall back to sleep, albeit through threatening motifs.

Queen of the Night Relief showing just one of the “ghosts” that guarded the sleeping and the living in ancient Mesopotamia. (Public Domain)

Queen of the Night Relief showing just one of the “ghosts” that guarded the sleeping and the living in ancient Mesopotamia. ( Public Domain )

The song quickly moves away from the transition from the home of the womb to the home of the baby’s parents. It tells the story of supernatural beings such as the Kusarikku, “a hair, bison-shaped house ghost” who remains kind until disturbed, in this case, disturbed by the baby’s cries. At such a point, if angered by the child’s incessant crying, the song relays the warning that the Mesopotamian Kusarikku could “do terrible things to you that the gods would not do.” The song therefore was likely intended to serve a dual purpose: lulling the child back to sleep as well as warning the child (as it grew up, of course) what would happen should the child choose to continue crying.

As such, it has been postulated that in ancient Mesopotamian culture , the calming of the baby was not only a necessity for ensuring the child (and mother) was well-rested, but was uniquely tied to the well-being of those within the household.

A second example of a possible ancient Mesopotamian lullaby with a similar message is as follows:

“You there, little one, newborn human being,
you have indeed come out, have seen the sunlight.
Why didn’t you ever treat your mother like this in there?
Instead of being nice to your father, letting your mother lead a normal life,
you have startled the nursemaid, have disturbed the wet nurse.
Because of your crying the god of the house cannot sleep, the goddess of the house remains sleepless.
Whom should I send to Enkidu, who fixed the night watches as three in number [, telling him]:
‘Let the one who overcame the gazelle also overcome him,
let the one who bound the gazelle’s kid also bind him.’
May someone he meets give him his sleep in the back country,
may an ox-driver let him have his sleep!
Until his mother awakens him, may he not wake up!”
            (Trans. W. Farber)

In both ancient Mesopotamian lullabies, there is the underlining of a threat to the child or the family should the child not fall back asleep. Though the second lullaby does not expressly mention the risk of awakening the house ghost, that it is mentioned at all is in itself an indicator of the danger of awakening the ghost. While it can be argued that the baby might not yet understand the implications behind the lullaby’s subtle threat, as one grows up, the words warning against the house ghost’s disturbance eventually becomes understood as dangerous.

Ancient Lullabies Soothed But Also Used Supernatural Threats

Though it may seem harsh for lullabies to contain subtlety threatening language, researcher Richard Dumbrill from the British Museum in London points out that “frightening themes were typical of lullabies of the era” because of the relationship in the ancient world between the world of humans and those of the gods. They were not separated into two separate realities as one might expect them to be today. Eckart Frahm in particular, a professor at Yale University specializing in the Near East, makes it clear that there was no division between the human and divine worlds , and that one could directly impact another. Thus, utilizing a calming song with a serious lesson about not distressing the household gods was a message to the child, from a very young age, to be wary of his or her actions because of the possible consequences from the supernatural realm .

Another indicator that ancient Mesopotamian lullabies had deep supernatural associations were the rituals that are believed to have been enacted alongside the singing of songs. One Babylonian tablet from the area of Nippur (a little south of modern day Baghdad) records the practice of taking dust from “a significant street, doorway, or even a grave” and sprinkling it over or rubbing it on the crying baby while singing the lullaby. This tablet, believed to have been written down in cuneiform between 500 and 300 BC, survives as one of the earliest references to ritualized lullabies. Just as a mother today might rock her baby in her arms while singing, the practice in a world in which the supernatural was inextricably tied to the everyday required some further form of assurance that the child would not disturb the beings that lived around them. The sprinkling of dust therefore was an added step to protect the child (and possibly the parents) from the “anger” of the woken or disturbed gods.

Mesopotamian Lamashtu demon who was often woven into ancient Mesopotamian lullabies to scare children. (Public domain)

Mesopotamian Lamashtu demon who was often woven into ancient Mesopotamian lullabies to scare children. ( Public domain )

Another god referenced in the literature on ancient lullabies in Mesopotamia is the demon Lamashtu “who was believed to snatch away babies and kill pregnant mothers.” Imagine the fear of a mother whose child woke in the middle of the night and would not stop crying. The danger of the “part bird, part donkey, part human being, with suckling pups and pigs dangling from her breasts” coming and kidnapping her child would have been petrifying to any mother. Thus, the need for extra assurance and protection played a powerful role in ancient Mesopotamian lullabies.

Similarly, it was not uncommon for prayers to gods to be incorporated into lullabies, to provide protection against demons such as Lamashtu as well as to ensure that the baby was not crying for unknown medical reasons which might lead to the child’s untimely death. One must always remember that life spans were not very long in the ancient world, and that infant mortality rates were quite high. Incorporating prayers to other gods within the lullabies would have served a dual purpose of protection against both internal and external sources of ill will.

Why Are They Lullabies?

Ancient Mesopotamian lullabies used to quiet children apparently have been in existence all the way “back to oral folk poetry.” We believe that the songs are lullabies in particular rather than another form of literature due to their “simple, uncomplicated language and …elements of form which guarantee smooth and even recitation, be it spoken or sun, to enhance their somnolent effect.” Thus, the simplicity of the above cited lullabies, in their native language as well as in translation, are the indicators of their purposes of soothing children to sleep. Their repetitive use of terms such as “sleep” along with their use of “simple rhymes, alliteration…parallelism, and uniform rhythms,” alongside images of animals provide further evidence of the likelihood of these songs gentling nature.

The god Marduk (right side) who was associated with magic in Mesopotamian culture. (Public domain)

The god Marduk (right side) who was associated with magic in Mesopotamian culture. ( Public domain )

In conjunction with their descriptions of ancient ghosts and demons, it is believed by some that ancient lullabies eventually developed into proper incantations for or against magical spirits, depending on the nature of the songs themselves. As some of these lullabies tend to be sung rather than read and that some of these songs were recorded, provides further evidence that they might have developed into incantations, as the power of writing in cultic practice was a common method by which one might solidify a spell or magical request. As such the lullabies that come down to us in literature might serve a dual purpose in furthering the discussion of ancient lullabies as well as ancient Mesopotamian magic beliefs.

The Longevity of Maternal Comfort Through Song

Though written and sung thousands of years ago, ancient Mesopotamian lullabies reflect similar themes and parental goals that are utilized to this day. Intended to both sooth and warn children of their actions (albeit subconsciously, because babies are hardly able to understand what the concern of crying is), the songs of ancient Babylon and Assyria, to name only two of the prominent cultures of the period in question, indicate the longevity of maternal comfort through song.

Top image: Supernatural beings such as the Kusarikku hybrid bull-men, pictured here in the middle, are featured in ancient Mesopotamian lullabies. They remain kind until disturbed, in this case, disturbed by a baby’s cries.                    Source: QuartierLatin1968 / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Ryan Stone

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