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Myths of Babylonia and Assyria

Page: 122

This custom is mentioned by other writers, but it is impossible to ascertain at what period it became prevalent in Babylonia and by whom it was introduced. Herodotus understood that it obtained also in "the Illyrian tribe of the Eneti", which was reputed to have entered Italy with Antenor after the fall of Troy, and has been identified with the Venetians of later times. But the ethnic clue thus afforded is exceedingly vague. There is no direct reference to the custom in the Hammurabi Code, which reveals a curious blending of the principles of "Father right" and "Mother right". A girl was subject to her father's will; he could dispose of her as he thought best, and she always remained a member of his family; after marriage she was known as the daughter of so and so rather than the wife of so and so. But marriage brought her freedom and the rights of citizenship. The power vested in her father was never transferred to her husband.

A father had the right to select a suitable spouse for his daughter, and she could not marry without his consent. That this law did not prevent "love matches" is made evident by the fact that provision was made in the Code for the marriage of a free woman with a male slave, part of whose estate in the event of his wife's death could be claimed by his master.

When a betrothal was arranged, the father fixed the "bride price", which was paid over before the contract could be concluded, and he also provided a dowry. The amount of the "bride price" might, however, be refunded to the young couple to give them a start in life. If, during the interval between betrothal and marriage, the man "looked upon another woman", and said to his father-in-law, "I will not marry your daughter", he forfeited the "bride price" for breach of promise of marriage.

A girl might also obtain a limited degree of freedom by taking vows of celibacy and becoming one of the vestal virgins, or nuns, who were attached to the temple of the sun god. She did not, however, live a life of entire seclusion. If she received her due proportion of her father's estate, she could make business investments within certain limits. She was not, for instance, allowed to own a wineshop, and if she even entered one she was burned at the stake. Once she took these vows she had to observe them until the end of her days. If she married, as she might do to obtain the legal status of a married woman and enjoy the privileges of that position, she denied her husband conjugal rites, but provided him with a concubine who might bear him children, as Sarah did to Abraham. These nuns must not be confused with the unmoral women who were associated with the temples of Ishtar and other love goddesses of shady repute.

The freedom secured by a married woman had its legal limitations. If she became a widow, for instance, she could not remarry without the consent of a judge, to whom she was expected to show good cause for the step she proposed to take. Punishments for breaches of the marriage law were severe. Adultery was a capital crime; the guilty parties were bound together and thrown into the river. If it happened, however, that the wife of a prisoner went to reside with another man on account of poverty, she was acquitted and allowed to return to her husband after his release. In cases where no plea of poverty could be urged the erring women were drowned. The wife of a soldier who had been taken prisoner by an enemy was entitled to a third part of her husband's estate if her son was a minor, the remainder was held in trust. The husband could enter into possession of all his property again if he happened to return home.


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