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How Sumerians made sense of the universe

First there was ______, then there was ______, and the universe was created.

It’s a pretty standard and simplified formula of how humans have been trying to explain the elusive origins of our universe and its inhabitants, since the beginning of time.

The most well known of such explanations to come out of our favorite place here at All Mesopotamia is Enûma Eliš (Enuma Elish), a Babylonian creation myth. Its composition date is believed to either be as early as the 18th century BCE, or as late as the 11th century BCE, depending on who you ask, but it is definitely one of the oldest comprehensive written creation myths.

As is common knowledge, before Babylon was even a thought, Sumerians had the run of Mesopotamia, and did a lot of organizing while they did. This required making sense of the chaos that was the universe to the people who had to figure out even how to produce their own food.

Who am I? Where am I?

To people vulnerable to every little speck of dust the universe threw their way, our ancestors needed to make sense of what must have been a terrifying existence. Hence, the titular questions of this section that we all might ask if we woke up with pizza stuck to our face, in a strange place.

For Sumerians, the universe was that strange place. It was vast and harsh, and especially where they were standing, a hot and flood-plagued spot. They needed a way to explain their surroundings, and their existence within those surroundings.

There is always something there…

Illustration of the Sumerian Creation Myth by Hanna Agosta.

 

Ira Spar of the Metropolitan Museum of Art writes in his piece Epic of Creation (Mesopotamia): “…no single myth addressed issues of initial creation. It was simply assumed that the gods existed before the world was formed.”

Though not all Mesopotamian creation myths tell the same story, they all have one thing in common: They all begin with a universal element already in existence, like water or earth or sky, represented by corresponding primeval gods.

The Sumerian Myth webpage says: “Often, the Sumerians wrote as if their civilization (agricultural techniques, cities, classes of people) came first, and people later.”

The introduction of a Sumerian story called “The Huluppu Tree,” gives a great example of this:

In the first days when everything needed was brought into being,
In the first days when everything needed was properly nourished… (Source)

In another Sumerian text, it is Nammu, the sea, that is the starting point. “[Nammu is] the mother, who gave birth to heaven and earth.” (Source)

But why and how did I end up here?

All Mesopotamian creation myths share one purpose for the creation of humankind, and it’s pretty cut and dry (not to mention depressing): Humans were created by the gods to do the menial jobs they didn’t want to do themselves. And if you didn’t feel lucky enough as a general peon, you could take delight in knowing you were also created to keep the temples stocked with food and spirits for, you guessed it, the gods.

One can understand (albeit grudgingly by yours truly) why scholars often label the Mesopotamian civilization “pessimistic.”

The purpose is the same, but the how is where Mesopotamian creation myths differ when it comes to the creation of humankind.

Sumerians believed they were fashioned out of clay by Enki, the god of wisdom, and Ninmah, the goddess of birth. (Source) While in Enuma Elish, humans are created from the blood of a defeated god, Kingu, the second husband of Tiamat (salt water goddess).

Regardless of how they came to exist, their existence sounds like a bleak existence, doesn’t it? I believe inventing beer was one way for these poor people to cope with their lot in life, for sure, but as smart as that invention was, there was something even smarter still.

Waxing philosophical

Top bird explains your place in the universe. (Source)

Philosophy is usually associated with the Greeks, but Sumerians also spent time philosophizing. In fact, around the 3rd millennium BC, Sumerians put their philosophical thoughts about humanity’s place in the universe into writing.

The Sumerian Disputations is a series of seven debate topics, or dialogues, between various opposite entities. Though the entities are not always intellectual, their arguments reflect intellectual views of the universe.

In Debate Between Bird and Fish, for example, the bird and fish try to more or less one-up each other by pointing out their strengths and, ultimately, their importance in/to the universe, all the while using human standards for measurement, in this case, which of the two pleases Culgi, the son of the chief god Enlil, the most. In this debate, the bird comes out the winner for its sweet song. Another debate is between Winter and Summer, in which Winter wins for being the provider of water, pointed out as an important element for agriculture.

What matters

Sumerians, Babylonians, and every people who questioned their existence since, after, or even before them, have explained the universe in one way or other. Today, we have TV shows and the actual Big Bang theory for those of us who want a scientific explanation for the universe, but even science doesn’t have all the answers. We might forever wonder about our ever present universe, our home, in which we have built and continue to build our purpose and destiny, and maybe that is the point of it all.

 

Sources and further reading:

http://www.ancient.eu.com/article/225/

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/epic/hd_epic.htm

http://faculty.gvsu.edu/websterm/SumerianMyth.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumerian_disputations

http://www.gatewaystobabylon.com/myths/texts/disputations/birdfish.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debate_between_Summer_and_Winter

 

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The Mesopotamian Shakespeare

World’s first author, Enheduanna.

There are very few women in ancient history who made their mark on the world with the full moral support of their fathers. Sargon the Great (of Akkad) was considered great for many reasons, but an unofficial reason I’m going to talk about in this blog post (which echoes Fathers Day, albeit belatedly) is that he might have even been a great dad to his daughter, Enheduanna.

Dubbed by scholars “Shakespeare of Sumerian Literature,” (just in time for Shakespeare outdoor events!) Enheduanna began her journey as an Akkadian princess and wound up being the world’s first named author. Some even consider her the world’s first feminist.

In her essay “Enheduanna, Daughter of King Sargon. Princess, Poet, Priestess,” Janet Roberts summarizes what Enheduanna represents perfectly:

“Enheduanna represented a strong and creative personality, an educated woman, and one who fulfilled diverse roles in a complex society, not unlike women’s aspirations today.”

An ornament

Although the 100+ clay tablets that were found bearing Enheduanna’s writings date back to the Old Babylonian period, she lived about 500 years prior to that, around 2285-2250 BC. Though some scholars question whether Enheduanna is really Sargon the Great’s biological daughter, she must’ve possessed something extra special, charisma, because Sargon ordained her as high priestess of the most important temple in Sumer at Ur. It was a political strategy to help him stabilize the empire he’d just acquired by way of a high priestess of royal blood meld Sumerian gods with those of Akkad.

It is through her ordainment that Enheduanna got her name. It translates into “High Priestess of An,” An being the sky god, or “En-Priestess,” wife of the moon god, Nannar. She was the first known holder of the title of En-Priestess, a role of great political importance held by royal daughters, a tradition which began with Enheduanna. Other translations of her name I came across all boil down to “High Priestess of the Ornament of the Sky/Heaven,” but her birth name is not known.

The Shakespeare of Sumerian Literature

The title that would strike us the most today when we talk about Enheduanna is the one given to her by William Wolfgang Hallo, a Yale scholar and professor of Assyriology and Babylonian Literature. After reading her works, Hallo dubbed Enheduanna “Shakespeare of Sumerian Literature.”

But unlike the elusive identity of the man we call Shakespeare, we know how and why Enheduanna was  literate, and enough so to write all she wrote. You see, it was not rare for high priestesses and royal women in Ancient Mesopotamia to be literate. (Wikipedia) What separates Enheduanna from other women of her status, however, is that she was more than just a scribe. She was an author whose status and father’s support allowed her to write in first person and include herself in her hymns and poems.

One source I found describes her writings: “Her hymns function as multi-layered incantations, interweaving political, personal, ritual, theological, historical and legal dimensions.” (Enheduanna Research Pages)

Copies of her work were made and kept in Nippur, Ur and possibly Lagash. Having been kept alongside royal inscriptions drives home the idea that Enheduanna’s writings were highly valued, even centuries after her death.

A tablet with a poem of Enheduanna’s. (Source)

Being that religious appointments in the ancient Near East were pretty much political appointments, Enheduanna’s political influence was so strong, that after her father’s death, and during her brother Rimush’s reign, a coup was attempted against her by a Sumerian rebel, Lugal-ane. This forced her into exile, and her most famous work, Nin-me-sara or “The Exaltation of Inanna,” was a hymn in which she detailed her expulsion and eventual reinstatement as High Priestess during that time. It is especially through this hymn that we have a record of some details of her life.

Perhaps Hallo dubbed Enheduanna the Shakespeare of Sumerian Literature for her writings on things that continue to be timeless subjects continually discussed in even the most modern literature-like the horrors of war she describes in “Lament to the Spirit of War.

Ahead of Her Time

Enheduanna also had a hand in systematizing theology with the Sumerian Temple Hymns, which comprised of 42 hymns addressed to temples across Sumer and Akkad. This collection is considered by scholars to be the first attempt at a systematic theology. In them, Enheduanna herself states that they are the first of their kind:

Tablets of the Sumerian Temple Hymns. (Source)

“My King, something has been created that no one has created before.” (Wikipedia)

Enheduanna remained active in her influential role as En-Priestess for over 40 years, stopping only at her death, during her nephew Narim-Sin’s reign. She continued to be an important figure posthumously, and might have even attained semi-divine status. (Wikipedia)

The Enheduanna Disk, found either in 1927 by Sir Leonard Wooley during an excavation at Ur of the temple where Enheduanna lived. It was the first artifact found that introduced Enheduanna to the modern world. The Penn Museum’s description of the disk states that it is a “Disk of white calcite; on one side is a panel wherein is carved in relief a scene of sacrifice, on the other an inscription of Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon of Akkad ” (Source)

Enheduanna’s tomb may never be found, and scholars might continue to debate whether she really is the one who wrote all those hymns and poems like they do Shakespeare, but her legacy is sealed by her writings.  They echo her personal feelings about the world she lived in.

“Me who once sat triumphant, he has driven out of the sanctuary.
Like a swallow he made me fly from the window,
My life is consumed.
He stripped me of the crown appropriate for the high priesthood.
He gave me dagger and sword—‘it becomes you,’ he said to me.

It was in your service that I first entered the holy temple,
I, Enheduanna, the highest priestess. I carried the ritual basket,
I chanted your praise.
Now I have been cast out to the place of lepers.
Day comes and the brightness is hidden around me.
Shadows cover the light, drape it in sandstorms.
My beautiful mouth knows only confusion.
Even my sex is dust.” (Source)

At the next Shakespeare festival, silently call the Bard “Enheduanna of English Literature.”

Sources and further reading:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enheduanna

http://www.ancient.eu.com/Enheduanna/

http://www.angelfire.com/mi/enheduanna/index.html

http://www.penn.museum/collections/object.php?irn=293415

http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section4/tr4801.htm

http://www.transoxiana.org/0108/roberts-enheduanna.html (Janet Roberts Essay)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckP95dKpkhE (Video of excerpt from Exaltation of Inanna)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlBkzD1h6Js&feature=related (Voices in wartime video)

http://home.infionline.net/~ddisse/enheduan.html (Sumerian Temple Hymns)

http://www.gatewaystobabylon.com/gods/ladies/ladyenheduanna.html

http://historicity-was-already-taken.tumblr.com/post/18640619740/fierce-historical-ladies-post-enheduanna

http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/lesson2.html

http://networkedblogs.com/nHLH1

http://www.cddc.vt.edu/feminism/enheduanna.html

 
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Posted by on June 25, 2012 in Akkadian, Women, Writing

 

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Guest post: Where the world’s first literature was found

By Dr. Jane Moon

Since writing was invented, life has never been the same again. The ability to transfer something we want to say onto a physical object, which can be read in a place where we can’t be in person, makes a fundamental difference to human interaction. It is one of the basic features of civilization. And because written things can have a longer lifetime than humans, our words can be read even after we are dead, so that humans, uniquely, have a sense of their own past.

It’s a sad fact that writing was devised not to write poetry, or love letters, but to keep accounts. But the ever-resourceful Sumerians, who knew a bit about luxury and refinement, soon adapted it to better things. The earliest literature found so far comes from a Sumerian city not far from Nippur, now in the Maysan province of Iraq. We don’t know its original name, but today people call the mound that covers it ‘Abu Salabikh’, which means ‘father of clinker’. The mound is littered with potsherds, like most Mesopotamian ancient sites, and because of the severe salination of the ground (the downside of all that Sumerian irrigation), only the sherds that were accidentally overfired to clinker have survived.

Salt on the surface of the ground near Abu Salabikh.
Photo Credit: Prof. Nicholas Postgate, University of Cambridge

Under this inauspicious surface, expeditions first from Chicago (1963-65) and then from the UK (1975-89) found a whole city, occupied from Uruk times and finally abandoned around 2,000 BC. Work concentrated on the Sumerian levels (c. 2,900 to 2,300BC), and in these were found about 500 clay tablets, including the world’s first literature. Among them were the earliest known version of compositions famous in later times, such as the list of proverbs and wisdom known as ‘The Instructions of Shuruppak’, written in the form of advice to the Flood hero Utnapishtim (also known as Ziusudra, and in the Bible as Noah) from his father Shuruppak. Some of it is a bit obvious: ‘Don’t make a field on a road’, and some of it absolutely ageless: ‘Don’t play around with a young married woman’. Other tablets had school exercises, hymns, and incantations.

This one is an incantation against digestion problems:

Photo Credit: Prof. Nicholas Postgate, University of Cambridge

Excavations revealed monumental public buildings as well as city quarters of narrow lanes and intersecting houses. High-tech methods for detecting buried architecture do not work well on sites like this, so much of the city layout was mapped by simply scraping away the top crust of earth, revealing wall lines and other features underneath.

Photo Credit: Prof. Nicholas Postgate, University of Cambridge

The city was divided into different ‘quarters’ including an area where pottery manufacture was carried out. A potter’s workshop was found, with part of the wheel still discernible.

Photo Credit: Prof. Nicholas Postgate, University of Cambridge

The citizens of Abu Salabikh liked to bury their dead under the floors of their houses, equipped for the afterlife with household goods and items of value. Under the potter’s house was the skeleton of an adult, perhaps the potter him/herself!

Photo Credit: Prof. Nicholas Postgate, University of Cambridge

The contents of graves varied according to the status of the deceased, and sometimes even children were richly equipped.

Photo Credit: Prof. Nicholas Postgate, University of Cambridge

Photo Credit: Prof. Nicholas Postgate, University of Cambridge

Child’s grave, as found (left) and the miniature vessels after cleaning. Note the double-compartment stone cosmetic jars on the right, and the shells in the foreground – also used to hold make-up.

The excavations at Abu Salabikh were a model of interdisciplinary research, using a whole range of different techniques to decipher the material remains left by hundreds of years of city life. The vast majority of the objects recovered were of everyday things, and the salty conditions meant that few were of spectacular museum display quality, but it is the painstaking research, still ongoing, on items such as these that really gives us insight into the world of early civilization.

The tablets and many of the objects from Abu Salabikh were destroyed when the Iraq Museum was looted, but the information they contain is preserved for us, meticulously recorded and published, thanks to that great Sumerian invention, the written word – with a little help from some later ones, such as photography and the internet!

It is my honor and pleasure to present a very special guest post. It is not only special because it is our first such post, but also because its author is an archaeologist with a background rich in Mesopotamian knowledge.

Dr. Jane Moon is co-director of the Ur Region Archaeology Project (URAP), and an honorary research fellow at the University of Manchester, and one of those people who do wonderful things for Iraq, and in turn, humanity.

She was assistant director of the Abu Salabikh project in the 1970s and 1980s, and plans to return to Iraq for further excavations at Ur in January 2013. “We’ve all grown old waiting to get back to Iraq, but I certainly intend to take some youngsters with me, and especially to do what I can to encourage young Iraqis while I am there.” Good luck to Dr. Moon!

You can follow Dr. Moon on Twitter- @EaNasir. To learn a bit more about URAP, visit http://www.urarchaeology.org/.

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2012 in Sumerian, Tablets, Writing

 

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Some Mesopotamian romance for Valentine’s Day

It’s that time of year when love is on everyone’s mind and I thought I’d throw together a little something of the romance variety.

First, I thought I’d remind you that the world’s first love poem ever written down was Sumerian, and dates back to 2025 BC.

“This inscription, dating from the 8th century BC and belonging to the Ancient Babylonian Era, is described as the world’s oldest known love poem. According to the Sumerian belief, it was a sacred duty for the king to marry every year a priestess instead of Inanna, the goddess of fertility and sexual love, in order to make the soil and women fertile. This poem was most probably written by a bride chosen for Shu-Sin in order to be sung at the New Year festival and it was sung at banquets and festivals accompanied by music and dance.” (Source)

I introduced this poem back in October, and thought it perfect to revisit for Valentine’s Day. I’ve also added a  new link for you to read about it further. It is just lovely.

So forget all that violent history of Valentine’s Day madness from Ancient Rome being posted all over the internet and go back to a simpler time, when a ritual between a king and the goddess of love conjures up nothing but images of romance.

https://allmesopotamia.wordpress.com/2011/10/28/the-first-love-poem-is-sumerian/

Happy Valentine’s Day!

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2012 in Music, Sumerian, Tablets, Writing

 

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Tablet #36 by Sumerian Shakespeare

If you like a good mystery and if you’ve been swept up into the hullabaloo of the authenticity of Shakespeare’s works as a result of the movie Anonymous, then you’ll really gobble this stuff up, as it’s just as intriguing…

The mysterious “Tablet #36”. (Source)

This tablet, Tablet #36, is shrouded in mystery.

The only sure thing about it is that it is Mesopotamian, that it’s 4,000 years old, and that it bears Sumerian writing. The sureness stops there.

Ever since this tablet was acquired in 1929 by the Library of Congress from a private collector, it has given even the most seasoned of Sumeriologists a headache in deciphering its message. For years, scholars have speculated that it could be anything, from nothing but Sumerian gibberish to an administrative tablet, though in any case, the writing on it is incomprehensible.

Enter Jerald Jack Starr, who maintains a website dedicated to Mesopotamian history at www.sumerianshakespeare.com. He has come up with his own theory about Tablet #36, and writes that he believes it is a cryptogram of the world’s first work of literature; a murder mystery, dark comedy and political satire written entirely in code by nothing short of a Sumerian Shakespeare.

“There are some terrible things happening in this story, but it’s told in a humorous manner. No other Sumerian story is so completely comical throughout the text. This tablet is also the world’s first “murder mystery”. There are at least two attempted murders on this tablet. The perpetrators are never named, but clues to their identity and their motives are deliberately planted in the story (Hint: in this murder mystery, the butler didn’t do it).”

Starr points to one detail that led him to the idea that the tablet was encoded. That detail is a key, or a hint, inscribed on the tablet itself, which deciphers only one character, much like with today’s newspaper cryptogram-type puzzles. It was that little hint that helped him unlock what he believes is an ancient literary masterpiece consisting of 40 lines, and a missing ending, thanks to damage to that part of the tablet.

Through his work deciphering, Starr has titled the work as “The Great Fatted Bull.” (Language lovers, you can read the details of how he came to this title here.)

You might be wondering why a mere story much like any bestseller would be written in code. Starr writes that the reason such a story might have been encoded by its scribe is most likely because of its political satire aspect.

“When this tablet was written,” Starr writes, “Sumerian kings were worshiped as living gods; so it’s unlikely that they would allow themselves to be the objects of public ridicule. This is why the tablet is written in code; so it couldn’t be easily read by anyone, except the one who wrote it.”

I urge you to read Starr’s detailed explanation of how he came to the conclusion that Tablet #36 is a 4,000-year-old literary masterpiece. Just keep in mind that this is one individual’s interpretation of a piece that has baffled many for years.

Enjoy!

(Source: http://sumerianshakespeare.com/119112.html)

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2011 in Sumerian, Tablets, Writing

 

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