Kubaba, A Queen Among Kings

Bow Down to this Tavern-Keeper

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Kish might not look like much now, but Kubaba helped make it into a nice place!. De Agostini/C. Sappa/Getty Images

Want to know which monarch of ancient Sumer reigned supreme at any given time? You’d have to check out the aptly named Sumerian King List. But the Sumerians had a super-special idea of “kingship”: it was a force that liked to travel. For generations at a time, nam-lugal, or “kingship,” was bestowed upon a particular city, represented by a monarch who ruled for a long time. Only one city was believed to hold true kingship at any given time.

After a few hundred years, kingship went from one city to another, which then held the honor of nam-lugal for a few generations. Apparently, the gods, who bestowed rulership as a privilege, not a right, upon humans, got fed up of one place after a period of time, so they regifted it elsewhere. In reality, the list may have reflected a particular city’s rise to power or military defeat in Sumer: if City A came to prominence, then its hegemony could be justified by claiming divine right. This mythological idea wasn't realistic - many cities had individual kings reigning at the same time - but since when did myth have reflect reality?

It's Ladies' Night

Tons of monarchs make an appearance on the Sumerian King List, but there’s only one lady named: Kubaba, or Kug-Bau.  Not to be confused with the monster Huwawa or Hubaba in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Kubaba was a woman alone – the only queen regnant who’s recorded as bearing divine rulership.

The Sumerian King List records that the city of Kish held nam-lugal multiple times. In fact, it was the first city to hold kingship after a great mythical flood – sound familiar? After sovereignty bounced around to a lot of different places, it landed in Kish a few more times – although that’s since been cast in doubt.

On one of those occasions, a woman named Kug-Bau ruled the city.

Drink Up!

Kubaba is first identified in the King List as the “the woman tavern-keeper.” How could she have gone from owning a bar/inn to ruling a city? We can’t be sure, but female tavern-keepers actually held important positions in Sumerian mythology and daily life. Perhaps that’s because of the mega-importance of beer in Sumerian culture. While some scholars theorized that taverns equaled brothels in Sumer, apparently “tavern keeping was a common and respectable female occupation until later periods in Mesopotamia,” according to Julia Assante. Regardless of what kind of show they were running, women often ran taverns, holding perhaps one of the only independent female positions of power in ancient Sumer.

In fact, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, an important character is Siduri the tavern-keeper, who runs an inn in the Underworld. She must be an immortal of some sort to live where she does, and gives Gilgamesh sage advice like “Who of the mortal can live forever? The life of man is short….let there be pleasure and dancing.” So, in what was probably a very important epic even in antiquity, a female tavern-keeper was seen as a guide along perilous paths and a figure worthy of veneration.

Real-life politics may or may not have allowed a tavern-keeper co to rule over her city. But what was the purpose in identifying her profession? By associating her with the mythical Siduri and a prominent feminine profession – whether she ran a brothel or not - the recorder of the King List literally immortalized Kubaba and made her the one of world’s most independent women before Beyoncé.

According to Carol R. Fontaine in her essay “Visual Metaphors and Proverbs 15:15-20,” there was a sacredness attached to female tavern-keepers. She wrote that, “given the association of Inanna-Ishtar with the tavern and the sweet (sexual?) wine to be drunk there, as well as female ownership of taverns and involvement with the process of brewery, we should not assume Ku-Baba to be some sort of prostitute but a successful business woman with divine associations herself.”

So what else did Kubaba do? The King List says she “made firm the foundations of Kish,” indicating she fortified it against invaders. Lots of monarchs did this; Gilgamesh even built a lot of walls to protect his city of Uruk . So it sounds like Kubaba carried on a grand royal tradition of building up her city.

According to the King List, Kubaba ruled for one hundred years. That’s obviously exaggerated, but a lot of other monarchs on the list have similarly long reigns. But it didn’t last forever. Eventually, “Kish was defeated” – or destroyed, depending on the version you’re reading – and the gods decided to remove kingship from this city. It went to the city of Akshak instead.

A Woman's Work Never Ends

But Kubaba’s legacy didn’t end there. It seems that later generations weren’t crazy about women occupying traditional men’s roles. A later omen reading indicated that, if an individual is born intersex, it’s the “omen of Ku-Bau who ruled the land; the land of the king will become waste.”  By taking on the duties of a man – a king – Kubaba was seen to have crossed a boundary and transcended gender divisions in an improper fashion. Combining male and female genitalia in an individual would echo her reign as lugal, or king, which the ancients saw as violating the natural order of things.

The omen texts indicate that both an individual with the sexual organs of two genders and a queen regnant were seen as unnatural. “These were linked in the elite mind as a challenge and threat to the political hegemony of the king,” said Fontaine. Similarly, in another omen reading, if a patient’s lung didn’t look so good, it was the sign of Kubaba, “who seized the kingship.”  So, basically, Kubaba’s legacy served as a means of identifying bad stuff that went against the way things "should" be. It's also worth noting that Kubaba is portrayed as an improper usurper here.

Kubaba’s legacy might not have been limited to her reputation. In fact, she might've founded a real dynasty! After her reign, kingship transferred to Akshak; a few generations later, a king named Puzur-Nirah ruled there.

Apparently, Kubaba was still alive at this time, according to the Weidner Chronicle, and Kubaba, a.k.a. “the alewife,” fed some local fishermen who lived near her house. Because she was so nice, the god Marduk liked her and gave “royal dominion of all lands entirely over to Ku-Baba.”

On the King List, royal power is said to have gone back to Kish after Akshak…and guess who ruled? “Puzur-Suen, the son of Kug-Bau, became king; he ruled for 25 years.” So it looks like the story about Marduk giving kingship back to Kubaba’s family demonstrates her real-life family taking power eventually. Puzur-Suen’s son, Ur-Zubaba, ruled after him. According to the list, “131 are the years of the dynasty of Kug-Bau,” but that doesn’t add up when you tally the years of each reign. Oh, well!

Eventually, the name “Kubaba” became best-known as that of a Neo-Hittite goddess, hailing from the city of Carchemish. This Kubaba probably didn’t have any relation to our Kug-Bau from Sumer, but an incarnation of the deity so prominent in Asia Minor might’ve become the goddess the Romans knew as  Cybele (née Cybebe). If so, then the name Kubaba had come a long way from Kish!