The Sumerian King List is unsurprisingly filled with the names of men: Alulim, Hadanish and Zizi. But alongside its male monarchs, the world’s first known civilization also produced the first known female ruler: Kubaba (also Kug-Bau or Ku-Baba) who brewed and sold beer in the ancient city of Kish in Mesopotamia.
The story of powerful ancient women often centers on Egypt, where Sobekneferu, Hatshepsut and Cleopatra reigned as pharaohs. But Kubaba ascended to the throne of Sumer long before them all, likely around 2400 B.C. To be clear, she was a true monarch — a queen regnant who ruled in her own right, rather than a queen consort, who is simply the wife of the monarch. The King List refers to her as lugal (king), not as eresh (queen consort). She is the only woman to bear this title.
The little we know about her comes from this list, a chronicle of rulers that frequently blurs the line between history and legend. Enmen-lu-ana, for example, allegedly ruled for 43,200 years. Kubaba’s reign is more plausible, but she’s still credited with an unlikely 100 years at Sumer’s helm.
Her epithet is longer than most, which suggests that ancient scribes found her especially noteworthy. Alongside her name it reads, “the woman tavern-keeper, who made firm the foundations of Kish.”
In the Sumerian tradition, kingship isn’t tied to a permanent capital. It shifts from place to place, bestowed by the gods upon one city and then, at their pleasure, transferred elsewhere after a few generations. Before Kubaba, the lone member of the Third Dynasty of Kish, the kingship rested in Mari for more than a century. After Kubaba it moved to Akshak. But Kish returned to prominence once more with Kubaba's son, Puzer-Suen, and grandson, Ur-Zababa, who served as the first two rulers in the city’s fourth and final dynasty. (However, some versions of the King List do not show an intervening Akshak Dynasty between Kubaba and her descendants.)
How Kubaba Rose to Power
One source claims, vaguely, that Kubaba “seized” the throne. A more detailed account of her rise to power comes from the Weidner Chronicle, which isn’t a proper history so much as “a blatant piece of propaganda,” in the words of Canadian Assyriologist Albert Kirk Grayson. Grayson has written that “the whole point of the narrative is to illustrate that those rulers who neglected or insulted [the god] Marduk or failed to provide fish offerings for the temple Esagil had an unhappy end.”
According to the text, Kubaba feeds a fisherman and persuades him to offer his catch to Esagila. Marduk’s favor in response comes as no surprise: “Let it be so,” the god said, and with that, he “entrusted to Kubaba, the tavern-keeper, sovereignty over the whole world.” That’s right — her campaign expenses for world domination amounted to a loaf of bread and some water.
Coincidentally, bread and water (the ingredients of Sumerian beer) were the foundation of her pre-monarch life as well. It’s tempting to imagine Kubaba’s path from lowly brewer to lofty queen as a rags-to-riches tale, but female tavern-keepers were common and well-respected. Sometimes they were members of the nobility. Considering the people of Sumer cherished beer as a gift from the gods, it may be more accurate to think of her as “a successful business woman with divine associations herself,” writes theologist Carole R. Fontaine.
Whatever made her fit to rule, it clearly made her unique among the women of Sumer. In an empire that endured well over 1,000 years, she was the only queen to reign without a man. But it seems later generations rejected this transgression of gender roles, associating it with other supposedly abnormal blends of masculine and feminine. The birth of an intersex child became the foreboding “omen of Ku-Bau who ruled the land,” with the consequence that “the land of the king will become waste.” As Assryiologist Rivkah Harris writes, “sitting on the throne was behavior unbecoming for a woman, just as a bearded woman was an unnatural phenomenon.”
Over time, it seems the human Kubaba faded from memory and the divine associations took precedence. She was apparently deified in the next millennium, during the Hittite period, as the protector of the Syrian city of Carchemish. However, the relationship between the deity and the historical person is unclear, especially because Baba was the name of a Sumerian god, and the prefix “ku” meant “holy,” according to the American archaeologist William F. Albright.
If the goddess does stem from the real-life queen, though, her legacy outlasted the fall of Sumer, and even of the Hittites. After evolving into the Greco-Roman Cybele, or Cybebe, this “great mother of the gods” still boasted a cult of worshippers as late as 3,000 years after her death — not bad for a barmaid.