Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Review of The Literature of Ancient Sumer

The Literature of Ancient Sumer, Jeremy Black, Graham Cunningham, Eleanor Robson, Gabor Zolyomi, 2005. Glossy's rating: 4/10.

This is a collection of Sumerian texts which, along with early Egyptian writings, constitute the oldest literature that has survived to our days.

It's heavily religious in character. Some of this book's chapters are titled "Love and Sex", "The Natural Order" and "Scribes and Learning", but this is a bit misleading because in reality almost all of these 70-odd pieces are primarily about Sumerian gods.

The mental leap made by some classic-era Greeks which allowed them to discuss history, politics, nature, etc. without recourse to the supernatural seems especially impressive to someone who's just finished reading this book, or just had a long conversation with a low-IQ person.

Yet like all normal religions the Sumerian one must have been enormously helpful to the propagation of its believers. Here is one god describing the underworld to another:

`Did you see him who had one son?'
`I saw him.'
`How does he fare?'
`He weeps bitterly at the wooden peg which was driven into his wall.'....
`Did you see him who had seven sons?'
`I saw him.'
`How does he fare?'
'As a companion of the gods, he sits on a throne and listens to judgments.'
'Did you see the palace eunuch?'
`I saw him.'
`How does he fare?'
`Like a useless alala stick he is propped in a corner.'
`Did you see the woman who never gave birth?'
`I saw her.'
`How does she fare?'
`Like a ... pot, she is thrown away violently, she gives no man joy.'
`Did you see the young man who never undressed his wife?'
`I saw him.'
`How does he fare?'
'You finish a rope, and he weeps over the rope.'
`Did you see the young woman who never undressed her husband?'
`I saw her.'
`How does she fare?'
`You finish a reed mat, and she weeps over the reed mat.'
'Did you see my little stillborn children who never knew existence?'
'I saw them.'
`How do they fare?'
'They play at a table of gold and silver, laden with honey and ghee.'

Almost all of these texts are highly repetitive:

"'What does your king have to tell me, what does he have to add to me? What does En-suljgir-ana have to tell me, what does he have to add to me?" "This is what my king said, what he added, this is what En-suhgir-ana said, what he added."'

This is at least partly because many of them were meant to be sung to musical accompaniment. It's natural for lyrics to have refrains. But even if one takes that into the account, the narratives still sound extremely monotonous in the specific way that annoys you when you hear one modern dull person try to explain something to another. Lots of simple points are made many times over in different ways.

Some of these stories are like modern children's fairy tales with talking animals and sentient garden implements. Except that they're raunchier:

"...after father Enki had lifted his eyes across the Euphrates, he stood up full of lust like a rampant bull, lifted his penis, ejaculated and filled the Tigris with flowing water."

"She placed mascara which is called `Let a man come, let him come' on her eyes. She pulled the pectoral which is called `Come, man, come' over her breast..."

Both of these quotes are about Sumerian gods. There is a description of "sacred marriage", a ceremony where a king copulates with a goddess on a platform in front of the people:

"The king goes to her holy thighs with head held high,° he goes to the thighs of Inana with head held high. Ama-usumgal-ana lies down beside her and caresses her holy thighs°. After the lady has made him rejoice with her holy thighs on the bed, after holy Inana has made him rejoice with her holy thighs on the bed, she relaxes (?) with him on her bed: `Iddin-Dagan, you are indeed my beloved!'"

The editors say it's impossible to know whether king Iddin-Dagan actually did it on a stage with a stand-in for the goddess Inana (a priestess of hers, for example), or whether the ceremony was handled in a more symbolic way in real life.

The preface to one of the stories says that only heterosexual kind of love is ever talked about in Sumerian literature, yet there is a mention of male prostitutes parading in front of the crowd before the above-mentioned sacred marriage performance.

In one story king Gilgamesh, trying to lure out the monster Huwawa, offers him his "big sister" En-me-barage-si in marriage. Huwawa doesn't know that En-me-barage-si is actually the king of Kish and the father of Gilgamesh's enemy Aga. The editors say this is a joke and I believe them - people still joke like that today.

Some of the cultural associations used in these tales clash with ours though. For example, when Sumerians compared a beautiful goddess to a cow or a fearsome god to a donkey, they weren't trying to insult them.

Sumerians' chief name for themselves was "the black-headed people". Black-headed as opposed to whom? Modern Swedes sometimes call foreigners svartskallar (black skulls), obviously in contrast to themselves. In less politically correct times there was some controversy over whether or not Gutians, a barbaric tribe that overran Sumer in the late 3rd millennium BC, were light-haired. And there are statues with blue eyes from the Near East of this period.

In this collection Sumerians call Gutians "an unbridled people, with human intelligence but canine instincts' and monkeys' features..." "who do not resemble other people, who are not reckoned as part of the Land."

I was surprised that none of the stories in this book mention conflict between Sumerians and Semitic Akkadians whose language ended up replacing Sumerian. Most of these texts are known from clay tablets of the 18th century BC and later, when spoken Sumerian was probably already dead. Maybe after Akkadian culture won Sumerian texts disparaging Akkadians were destroyed? And maybe any texts disparaging Sumerians would be in Akkadian, which would put them outside the scope of this book?

My favorite text here was The Instructions of Shuruppag, one of the two oldest pieces of Sumerian literature that survived to our day. It's about 4,500 years old, and its opening line says:

"In those days, in those far remote days, in those nights, in those faraway nights, in those years, in those far remote years..."

It's a collection of advice, which this document (one of the oldest ones on Earth if we disregard accounting tables and the like) already called ancient.

"Although the number of unhappy days is endless (?), yet life is better than death .."
"At harvest time, at the most priceless time, collect like a slave girl, eat like a queen." The modern English equivalent is "work hard, play hard."
"You should submit to the respected; you should be humble before the powerful. My son, you will then survive (?) against the wicked."
"Without suburbs a city has no centre either."
"What flows in is never enough to fill it, and what flows out can never be stopped - don't envy the king's property!"
"When you bring a slave girl from the hills, she brings both good and evil with her. The good is in the hands; the evil is in the heart."
"My son, you should not use violence (?); .... You should not commit rape on someone's daughter; the courtyard will learn of it." A hint that the Sumerians were a shame-based, not a conscience-based people.
"You should not have sex with your slave girl: she will chew you up."

The receiver of all this advice is Zi-ud-sura, the Noah of the Sumerian flood story, which was the original source of the Biblical story everyone now knows. Archeologists did discover evidence of a catastrophic river flood in Sumer around 2900 BC. The Sumerian king list includes a chronological list of cities which led Sumer before the flood. The first one is Eridu, which this book calls Eridug. Archeologists determined that it was indeed the first city in the region - the king list had that right - and that it was founded around 5400 BC. So if you want to know how far back humanity's historical memory goes, 5400 BC is one possible answer. Which I think is pretty impressive.


  1. Interesting though not surprising to see they had a strong emphasis on natality. Famously true for the Hebrews. Did it apply to Egyptian civilization?

    1. I suspect that the vast majority of traditional religions were/are pro-natalist, though I don't know if the Egyptian one was.

  2. [i]"Although the number of unhappy days is endless (?), yet life is better than death .."[/i]

    I think that is the message of all successful religions in a nutshell. Anti-natalist religions like Gnosticism, Buddhism (before it was deeply perverted from it's original message) and Manicheanism always appear at times of steep decline of advanced cultures, and only ever appeal to an educated elite.

    - Yevardian