When was the world’s first love poem written? Somewhat frustratingly, we may never know for sure. As archeologists unearth more and more ancient tablets and scrolls from around the world, we find that the current holder of the “oldest love poem” can always be unseated by a new discovery. For now, the honor belongs to an ancient Mesopotamian poem known as “The Love Song of Shu-Sin.”
A World-Changing Discovery
Until less than a century ago, the Bible’s “Song of Solomon” was widely assumed to be the oldest love poem in existence. The ancient scroll was also known as “The Canticle of Canticles.” That alternative title conveys the sense that the ancient poem is the most perfect in its class – in this case a series of letters of note from both a man and a woman in love and yearning to be together physically.
And while researchers can’t yet pinpoint exactly when “Song of Solomon” was written, all agree it can’t be any older than 1000 BCE, or about 3000 years ago. For centuries, it was considered the world’s oldest love poem.
But relatively recently, a new contender took the “oldest love poem” crown away from “Song of Solomon.” In 1845, archeologists discovered a series of tablets in modern-day Iraq. Their finds included a love poem written to the Sumerian king Shu-Sin, probably around 2000 BCE. That tablet was not fully translated or understood until the 1950s, when Sumerian scholar Samuel Noah Kramer undertook the study of the specific tablet on which the letter of note was inscribed.
Once Kramer was able to fully unlock the secrets of the Sumerian tablet, he confirmed its status as a love poem. That makes the poetic letter of note, known familiarly as “The Love Song of Shu-Sin,” at least 1000 years older than “Song of Solomon” – meaning it is about 4000 years old.
The History Behind One of the Oldest Poetic Letters of Note
While the poem is often called “The Love Song of Shu-Sin,” the preposition “for” is more accurate than “of.” That’s because it’s known that the poem was written to Shu-Sin, who ruled the Neo-Sumerian empire from around 2037 BCE to 2028 BCE.
Further, the love poem itself is written from the point of view of a woman. The translations usually describe the erotic lines as written to a “bridegroom,” but it’s also possible that the woman would have been about to become Shu-Sin’s concubine, rather than an official wife.
This now-famous letter of note may also have marked the eve of a “sacred marriage,” in which humans take part in sexual rituals as stand-ins for gods and goddesses. Only people of high rank would have been considered worthy of the rite. If Shu-Sin was indeed one of the participants, it’s believed that a high priestess would have been his partner in his rite. The priestess, therefore, would have authored this, one of the world’s most famous letters of note, if it did indeed describe a sacred marriage.
But whether the author was a bride-to-be, prospective concubine, or a high priestess,it’s clear that King Shu-Sin was the subject of the poem. It’s likely it would have been read to him publicly, as part of a ceremonial event.
The Sacred/Erotic Text
On the red clay tablet, written in what is known as cuneiform (or wedge-shaped) script, the erotic letter of note still has the power to make modern readers blush. Among the tamer stanzas is:
To prove that you love me,
give me your caresses,
my Lord God, my guardian Angel and protector,
my Shu-Sin, who gladdens Enlil’s heart,
give me your caresses!
The “Enlil” mentioned in the above passage was an important Mesopotamian god.
The rest of this oldest known love poem contains coy allusions to the anticipation of the couple’s first night together in the bedroom. These include the pleasures the author promises to give her bridegroom – as well as those she hopes to receive.