Love songs, love poems, love magic, love charms, operas, ballets, plays, stories, sculptures, paintings, holidays, temples, palaces: the world is strewn with the artifacts of intense romantic love. Anthropologists have now examined over 200 societies and everywhere they have found evidence of this passion. Romantic love is a “human universal.”
Some still believe that romantic love was “invented” by the troubadours, singing minstrels in 12th-century France. But the oldest love poem dates back some four thousand years to ancient Sumeria. Found on cuneiform tablets in the Uruk language, this story recounts the romance of Inanna, a queen, who fell in love with shepherd boy, Dumusi, whom she called, “My beloved, the delight of my eyes.”
Declarations of love are found in every other culture too. In the ancient Greek story, Pysche whispers to Eros, “I love you, I love you desperately, I love you more than my own self.” A 7th-century Arabic legend told of Majnum and Layla whose feuding families kept them apart; both died young, of love. In the 12th-century Chinese fable The Jade Goddess, Chang Po, a vivacious boy with long tapered fingers and a gift for carving jade, eloped with Meilan the daughter of a high official. Chang Po said to her, “You were made for me and I was made for you, and I will not let you go.” But these lovers were of different classes in China’s then-rigid social order. And when Meilan was captured by her family, she was buried alive in her father’s garden. The tale of Meilan still haunts many Chinese.
And deep in the jungles of modern Guatemala lies a temple built in the 700s (AD) by the grandest Sun king of the Mayan empire. He stood over 6 feet tall and lived into his 80s; but Mayan inscriptions report that he was madly in love with his wife. She died young. So he built a temple for her, facing his. And every spring and autumn, exactly at the equinox, the sun rises behind his temple to perfectly bathe her temple with its shadow. Then in the evening, the disappearing sun perfectly bathes his temple with her temple’s shadow. Some 1300 years later, these lovers still touch—from the grave.
If we could transport ourselves back to the grasslands of ancient Africa a million years ago, I suspect these hunter/gatherers also lay around the fire late into the night, retelling myths of love.