Pyramid diagram titled Sumerian social hierarchy with apex pointing up, is divided into four horizontal sections.
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What does the information on the chart indicate about how Sumerian society supported itself?

At the base of society were the majority of people, who were mostly peasant farmers. Some had their own land, but most worked land belonging to the king or to temples. Sumerians also owned slaves. Most slaves were people who had been captured in war. Some, though, had sold themselves into slavery to pay their debts.

The role of women in Mesopotamian society changed over time. In Sumer, goddesses were highly honored in religious practice. Perhaps because of the importance of female deities, women held a higher social standing in Sumer than in later civilizations of the region. However, Sumerian women never held legal rights equal to those of men. But some rulers' wives had supervisory powers, and a number wrote songs about their husbands, revealing to later scholars that they had learned writing and music. On rare occasion, a woman may have inherited property.

Religious Beliefs

Like most ancient peoples, the Sumerians were polytheistic, worshiping many gods. These gods were thought to control every aspect of life, especially the forces of nature. Sumerians believed that gods and goddesses behaved like ordinary people—they ate, drank, married, and raised families. Although the gods favored truth and justice, they were also responsible for causing violence and suffering.

Sumerians believed their highest duty was to keep their gods and goddesses happy and, by doing so, ensure the safety of their city-state. Each city-state had its own special god or goddess to whom people prayed and offered sacrifices of animals, grain, or wine. Sumerian rulers served as the high priest for their city-state's chief deity, or god.

People celebrated many holy days with ceremonies and processions. The most important ceremony occurred at the new year when the king sought and won the favor of Inanna, the life-giving goddess of love. The king then took part in a symbolic wedding to Inanna. This ritual, Sumerians believed, would make the new year fruitful and prosperous.

The Sumerians believed in an afterlife. At death, they thought, a person descended into a grim underworld from which there was no release. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, a character describes the underworld as “the place where they [the dead] live on dust, their food is mud, / … and they see no light, living in blackness…”

Sumerian Writing

By 3200 B.C., Sumerians had invented the earliest known writing. It was later called cuneiform (kyoo NEE uh fawrm), from the Latin word cuneus for “wedge,” because scribes wrote by making wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets. Cuneiform grew out of a system of pictographs used to record goods brought to temple storehouses.


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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments