I Think About This a Lot: A Sumerian Goddess’s Demand to Have Her Vulva Plowed

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I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.

About a year ago, in the midst of a robust “quarter-life crisis” — shortly before I quit my job, gracelessly exited a long-term relationship, and accidentally got TERF bangs through a horrible miscommunication with my hairdresser — I did what any reasonable woman in my position would: decided to get into goddess worship.

I approached the process of choosing a patron goddess carefully, soliciting advice from experts and loved ones. I briefly considered Athena, but was warned by a notable witch that she’s “the Hillary Clinton of the Greek pantheon” (stodgy and too invested in legitimizing male hierarchies of power). I also thought about Lilith, a misunderstood Bible-adjacent figure who predated Eve — according to legend, she was kicked out of the Garden of Eden for refusing to have missionary-style sex with Adam and subsequently relegated to Hell, where she became Lucifer’s consort, emerging by night to seduce sleeping men and feed on infants — but decided against it after my sister told me that there was “already enough darkness” in my life.

Eventually, I came across an ideal option: Inanna, the ancient Sumerian goddess of love, sensuality, beauty, and war, who later came to be equated with Ishtar and even later inspired the Greek goddess Aphrodite. The poems and myths from that time period paint a very consistent picture of her: seductive, ambitious, and impulsive. She’s obsessed with gaining power and wholly unwilling to face consequences for her actions, and also promiscuous and cruel to men. And everyone loved her for it! She was, according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, the most popular goddess in all of Mesopotamia, venerated “because of who she was” — i.e., cool, mean, and chaotically horny — “not what she had to offer.”

This seemed like the sort of energy I needed. However, it felt disrespectful to claim allegiance to a goddess without doing my due diligence, like showing up to a job interview having barely perused the company website. This is how I came to be in possession of a book titled Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns From Sumer. It pieces together the goddess’s full story, or as much of it as we can know, through translations of a series of cuneiform fragments discovered between 1889 and 1900. There are many legends associated with Inanna, including a particularly charming one in which she she gets her dad very drunk, and then steals the concepts of wisdom and culture from him while he is passed out. But what immediately stood out to me was her courtship with the shepherd Dumuzi, who eventually wins her heart, only to foolishly squander it through his own selfishness and pride.

I particularly appreciated Inanna’s first meeting with the young shepherd, whom she is initially not impressed with (she would prefer a farmer), but eventually grows extremely horny for. Ahead of the couple’s first erotic encounter, Inanna provides him with some pertinent information about herself, then poses a series of related questions:

My vulva, the horn,

The Boat of Heaven

Is full of eagerness like the young moon.

My untilled land lies fallow.

As for me, Inanna,

Who will plow my vulva?

Who will plow my high field?

Who will station the ox there?

(Dumuzi’s response, which is honestly pretty uninspired: “Great lady, the king will plow your vulva / I, Dumuzi the King, will plow your vulva.”)

Who will plow my vulva? is a perfect phrase, which is one of the reasons I find myself returning to it so frequently: It’s authoritatively consonant, unexpectedly poetic, the unlikely meeting place of frat-house and and Bronze Age lexicons. It’s also just a useful thing to wonder in general as you enter a bar or swipe through dating apps. For all of the agonizing that’s done over the state of modern dating, much of it can be reduced to this query; additionally, if taken as a sort of call-and-response, it is essentially identical in intent to most wedding vows.

Above all, I feel particularly drawn to the pragmatism of the query. Like many millennial women who have sex with men, I often find myself at the irritating crossroads of the erstwhile sex wars — too frequently disgusted by men as a category to be sex-positive, too rowdy and amorous to be truly sex-negative. Inanna’s nearly managerial approach seemed to me a perfect representation of this dilemma: This vulva needs to be plowed, and someone has to plow it, but the whole situation isn’t necessarily ideal. (Which is not to impugn the plowing process; indeed, Inanna and Dumuzi spend the subsequent several verses of the hymn rapturously praising each other’s thighs, navels, and loins, speaking effusively of their plans to “fill [Innana’s] holy churn with honey cheese” and “drink [Dumuzi’s] fresh milk.”)

A year after my initial encounter with Inanna and her “wondrous” vulva — the Mesopotamians’ words, not mine — I would like to think I honor her well. I have an altar to her in my fireplace, upon which I place roses and candles; I try to comport myself in a cool, mean, and chaotically horny manner; I endeavor to have no regard for what men think of me. Above all, I’ve found Inanna’s story instructive, particularly what comes after she and Dumuzi have their holy churns filled: Later in the arc of her myth, the goddess becomes trapped in the underworld, where she is told she can only go home if she condemns someone to the realm of the dead in her place. Upon surveying her loved ones on Earth, she realizes that useless Dumuzi hadn’t mourned her at all in her absence, because he was too busy sitting on the throne she’d built. She then makes her glorious return to the world of the living with her faithful shield-maiden Ninshubur, who never once forsook her, and elects to have Dumuzi suffer in the subterranean darkness in her stead.

There is a neat moral here, I think, one that we can all learn from: Having your vulva plowed by someone eager to sit on your hard-earned throne is one thing, but finding someone who will wait for you to return from hell is another.

I Think About This Sumerian Goddess’s Romantic Demand a Lot