Forgotten Figures: Kubaba, The First Queen.

The Sumerian Kings List catalogues the divinely appointed rulers of Sumeria. As you cast your eye down the list one name sticks out. Kubaba, the only Queen on the list of Kings. The divinely appointed sovereign who reigned for over a hundred years.


When we talk about Kubaba its important to understand her context. Mesopotamia is a geographic term, literally meaning the land between two rivers, in this case the Tigris and the Euphrates, Sumeria both indicates a part of that region but is also used more generally to describe the culture of the people who inhabited that area. Whilst this is a gross oversimplification its accurate enough for the purposes of this post. Humans first settled in areas near the coast or near big rivers. The reasons for this are myriad but access to water is essential for life, not just for drinking (as the sea wouldn’t be very helpful there) but as a rule stuff that lives in water and swims in the shallows is relatively less likely to kill you when you are hunting. Rivers made things interesting, thanks to good irrigation of fresh water from rivers crops could be planted, which resulted in food surplus, which allowed specialisation of labour. This is really important, suddenly not everyone had to hunt or forage for most of their day. They could create stuff and trade it for food. And thus, the first civilisations emerged. The Sumerians being one of the earliest we currently know about. The benefit of the two large rivers allowed large crop surpluses. The Sumerians offer us the earliest evidence of law, and taxation, and architecture, and arguably their most important contribution is the development of written language to tell us about all of their achievements.

Side Note(s): I really enjoy the very early mindset of dividing the world into two categories, stuff I want to eat and stuff that wants to eat me; I should also acknowledge that I have just covered about a thousand years of complex human history in less than two hundred words; Sumeria is roughly where we would find modern day Iraq, this is why in his famous speech Captain Tim Collins referred to it as the “cradle of civilisation”.

My new model of pre-historic anthropology.




As Sumeria developed, three cities held dominance; Uruk, Ur and Kish with a notable blip where kingship was transferred to Akshak. The royal dynasties all came from these three cities. When a ruling city fell, the dynasty fell, and a new dynasty started in one of the other cities. As such we tend to refer to periods of time as “The third dynasty of Kish” for the third time a family in Kish ruled Sumeria. This context breathes meaning into a passage from the Sumerian Kings List –

“At Kish, Ku-Baba, the breweress, the one who strengthened the foundations of Kish, was king; she reigned for 100 years; Kish was defeated; its kingship was taken Akshak.”

There is a bit to unpick here, and I think tis important to start with the term Breweress. Beer was important to the ancient peoples of Egypt and Mesopotamia. It wasn’t the 5% lager that we know today. It was fermented just enough for the alcohol to kill off anything harmful in the water. The alcohol content was enough to keep the people docile without providing a historical basis for a Friday night after an England match. The families that controlled the production of beer were extremely powerful, they would have had interests in trade to obtain the grain for brewing and would have been connected to all levels of society to ensure a solid distribution.

This is not a rags to riches story however when the kings list was first translated that is how it was perceived. Kubaba would have been part of a family that made up the top 1% in the kingdom. A modern comparison, albeit overly simplified would be if the daughter of Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson ran for government. It would still be a remarkable achievement given the gender inequalities however it would be far less remarkable than a state-schooled girl from a council estate in Portsmouth becoming prime minister.

Side Note: I am not just taking a swing at gender inequality here, there are far more people who come from council estates and undertake state education however the democratically elected ruling class are all from backgrounds of immense privilege.  I’m not sure how this counts as proportional representation in the context of social demographics.

A lot of archaeologists and historians specialising in Mesopotamia offer conflicting views on Kubaba’s ascension to the throne. Some early but not contemporary sources indicate it was taken through a small amount of force. Others suggest slightly more plausibly that she held enough political and economic power to ensure she was the only real candidate. However, the official record offered by the Kings List states that she offered a local fisherman bread and water and in exchange he should offer his whole catch to the temple as an offering. The temple was Esaglia, the primary temple in Sumeria. Chief place of worship of Marduk. Marduk is one of the oldest recorded Gods in human history and by the time of Kubaba he was chief of the Sumarian pantheon. He rather enjoyed this tribute of fish and the respect Kubaba had shown him and as a reward he made her sovereign of the known world.  

Side Note: Bread and Water were the key ingredients for Sumerian Beer. I’d imagine it tasted something like Fosters. My interpretation of this story is she got him drunk and convinced him to give up his catch.

There isn’t a huge amount recorded about her reign. Which is indicate a particularly prosperous time. There were certainly no extraordinary wars, famines, plagues, all of which tend to get recorded and leave a smoking crater in the archaeological record. The most compelling argument for this comes from many of the works by archaeologist Albert Kirk Grayson.

Legacy


Over time the legend of Ku-Baba overtook the facts of her life. It is believed she may have formed in part if not in totality the deity Kubaba who seems to have emerged in the Sumarian pantheon a century or two later. This Kubaba has been argued to have influenced Goddesses in the Mycenean and other Hellenistic pantheons. A ripple that we still see today.

A Bit of Analysis


It feels really unintuitive to celebrate things that didn’t happen but a reign of peace and plenty bookended by reigns of conflict and disease is really impressive. An achievement never again seen for an entire dynasty. However, writing this in 2021 when pestilence walks the earth and starvation, and fear are rife wouldn’t a hundred years of peace and plenty be nice?

Despite what appears to have been a fairly stable reign her successors cultivated the word, Ku-Bua a curse related to the birth of intersex children and a warning that women should not be allowed to rule. She is isolated on the Kings list as the sole ruler in the third dynasty of Kish however it is believed her son and grandson may have ruled after her creating one unbroken dynasty. If this is the case, then her isolation on the kings list appears to be to highlight her as an aberration.

I strongly suspect that were she male she would be rewarded for her reign with posthumous epithets like “The peace bringer” instead she has just been allowed to fade into the background noise of history.

Asher-Greve in her 1997 book the essential body: Mesopotamian Conceptions of the Gendered Body points out that aggression and typically masculine dominance were highly prized in ancient Mesopotamia. She uses examples of literature and art to convincingly support this. If accurate perhaps a man with the same achievements would not have been celebrated either. That may account for the perception shift in her right to rule after her death but leaves a lot of questions around how she amassed sufficient political (and maybe military) strength to rule in the first place if this was their perception of women and femininity.

Some Reading

Most of my reading for this were academic works and whilst many didn’t relate to Kubaba directly they offered incredible insight into the context of her reign. This are in no particular order.

Grayson, A. K. (1975) “Two Fragmentary Assyrian Royal Inscriptions,” Iraq. Cambridge University Press, 37(1), pp. 69–74.

Tate Paulette, Inebriation and the early state: Beer and the politics of affect in Mesopotamia, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology,

Harris, R. (2003). Gender and Aging in Mesopotamia: The Gilgamesh Epic and Other Ancient Literature. University of Oklahoma Press.

Grayson, A, Dietrich, M,  Loretz, O (1995). Eunuchs in power. Their role in the Assyrian bureaucracy. Vom alten Orient zum Alten Testament, 85-98.

 Asher-Greve, J.M. (1997), The Essential Body: Mesopotamian Conceptions of the Gendered Body. Gender & History, 9: 432-461
Crawford, H. (Ed.). (2012). Women and agency: a survey from Late Uruk to the end of Ur III. The Sumerian World (1st ed.). Routledge.

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