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The Lives of Scribes in Ancient Mesopotamia

Scribes. Scribing with their reed styli. (Source)

Before writing

Around 3500 B.C., just before the birth of writing, Sumerians had already been maintaining a civilization for thousands of years, complete with farming, temples, and all kinds of commerce, all of which required record keeping.

But how do you keep records without writing? Well, not very practically. Before writing, Sumerians had a system to record their business transactions; it involved tokens made out of clay and a clay bubble to hold the tokens, which they baked into the bubble, rendering the tokens, well, completely pointless. The owner of the token-stuffed bulla (Latin for “bubble”) would’ve made impressions of the tokens on the outside before baking them in, of course, but, you know, that made the tokens even more pointless. (Source)

Not practical. A clay bulla and the tokens inside it. (Source)

Luckily, someone in 3500 B.C. decided there was a better way to keep records, one that was quicker, more convenient, and undoubtedly one that was easier to file than a bunch of clay balls!

Pictographs. Cuneiform went through a series of innovations that turned it into cool-looking, abstract symbols. (Source)

And so writing was born, bringing with it the demand for those who could do it.

Who could?

In 2000 B.C., scribes were some of the most educated people in the world. Along with reading and writing cuneiform, scribes eventually evolved to have chops in math or science or business or literature.

If you could read and write in ancient Mesopotamia, you had a good life, and chances were pretty high you were born into that good life. In fact, some 70% of the scribes we know by name were the sons of society’s elite, including royalty. (Source)

This isn’t to say status was the requirement to become a scribe, but rather the usual source of the requirement: money.

The son of a merchant had as much a chance at becoming a scribe as the son of a king. Even more socially progressive, it eventually became that the daughter of a king, had as much chance of becoming a scribe as her male counterpart. (It is only appropriate, since Sumerians credited the goddess Nisaba with the invention of writing!)

How could they?

A day at school. An illustration of boys studying to be scribes, the future elite of society. (Source)

Along with money, becoming a scribe took time and hard work.

It’s important to keep in mind that cuneiform was very difficult, even for those who used it practically.

“The scribe did not so much read a line of text as translate it,” wrote Jerald Starr on his website. A scribe had to learn business, math, science, and literature in order for his/her basic literacy skills to even matter. In other words, scribes had to know the context of what they were reading in order to read it, pretty much on a jargon level. The reason for this is because cuneiform, a script used to record more than one language, was a phonetic one—one syllable could make up any number of words, with any number of definitions, depending on whether you were writing in Sumerian or some other Mesopotamian language. (Source)

Boys were sent to an e-dubba, a tablet house where they would spend years learning to read and write the cuneiform script and the subjects they would write about. When they graduated, they became dubsars, tablet writers.

That schooling was no cakewalk for the student, nor was it for his parents. Aside from what I am going to take the liberty of calling tuition, a future scribe’s father also had to factor in the expense of keeping his son’s schoolmaster happy, who expected to be wined and dined in order to go a little easy on a pupil. The son, in the meantime, had to climb up a hierarchy within an e-dubba. You can read more about what these tablet houses were like here and here.

Of course, writing didn’t include women as soon as it was invented. It took a few years for women to show up in records as scribes. According to Radner and Robson, the earliest record of a woman scribe dates to the Akkad period (ca. 2350 – 2150 B.C.). (Source)

Although Karen Radner and Eleanor Robson wrote in their book, The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture, “The profession of scribe is much better attested for men than for women,” there are things we do know about how women scribes came to be. In her book Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat wrote that women scribes were the daughters of the elite, some the daughters of scribes. Nemet-Nejat also points out that there were women scribes who were slaves: “Slaves with scribal skills were sometimes given to princesses as part of their dowries.” (Source)

As far as how those women scribes got their chops, priestesses were taught at the temples they served, while those not taking the religious path were taught at home.

What did scribes write?

Sumerian King List. A scribe was first and foremost a recorder of history. (Source)

For the first thousand years or so after writing was invented, everything written down was of an administrative nature. “Most people will therefore be disappointed to learn that writing was invented for the simple purpose of conducting business transactions, to record the exchange of merchandise,” wrote Starr.

Even after Sumerians branched out to recording more subjective subjects, 97% of what they recorded were things like receipts, ledgers, inventories, contracts, nothing inherently interesting or telling about the human condition. They were practical people, those Sumerians.

This brings us to what scribes could do with their skills, subjectively or not.

“…It’s unlikely that any scribe ever went hungry for lack of paying work,” wrote Starr.

And it’s easy to see why the sky was the limit for a man who graduated from a tablet house. If he came from a family of merchants, he kept records for the business; if he worked in a temple, he recorded offerings for the gods. Heck, e-dubbas needed teachers, and given that e-dubbas were focused on producing bureaucratic officials, the king, whether literate or not, needed a scribe. The king’s court was like Google, where the best minds wanted to end up.

Code of Hammurabi stele. This was some commission for one special scribe. (Source)

A scribe didn’t even have to be a full-time scribe to reap the benefits of his skills. He could set up shop in the middle of the town square and write letters for his illiterate neighbors and never go hungry like most people did in the ancient world.

In the Old Babylonian City of Sippar women recorded the transactions of members of the cloister, the city’s financial institution. What we might consider HR records from Sippar (and Mari too) show that a good number of those women were slaves. Women scribes are also known to have written songs and lullabies for the royalty, along with laments. According to Nemet-Nejat, royal women of the Ur III Dynasty (2114-2004 B.C.) wrote songs to praise their kings.

Their Bylines

A tablet bearing the world’s oldest love poem that depicts the sacred marriage between Inana and Dumuzi. Could a woman’s hand have written this tablet? (Source)

As I mentioned in the last section, only some scribes got to let themselves be known directly through their work to anyone other than their employer. I also mentioned there were female slave scribes whose social status gave them less pay than their colleagues.

Obviously, there was a hierarchy within the elite. The son of a merchant has as much chance to become a dubsar as the son of a king, sure, but once those two are out in the real world, their social differences surely resurface. Moreover, without a signature, it gets hard to know anything about the scribe, even their gender.

Nemet-Nejat wrote that we see signatures on some tablets as early as 2600 B.C. Now, perhaps due to the verbal storytelling tradition, literary works, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, were set to stone anonymously, but that did not mean the one who set it to stone couldn’t be held accountable for mistakes–a list of scribes who wrote and edited well-known works was found at Nineveh.

For scribes who got to sign their names, as their heads inflated with importance, they took to including their lineage, traveling back as far as their earliest ancestors (helping us determine their social status thousands of years later!). Some took their title up a notch, adding “astrologer” to scribe, for example, or were probably asked to make it clear they were a “junior scribe.” Some just showed up in their own narrative, but they were very special (I will talk more about this in the next section). (Source)

The most profound examples, I feel, which demonstrate just how big a gap there is between a royal/noble scribe versus anyone else, lies in one of the products of scribes: the seal. Loftier scribes made seals, autograph stamps, if you will. Seals were cylinders made of stone, carved with impressions pertaining to their owner, often bearing divine scenes that tell a lot about his/her social status. It is through these scenes we get an idea of just how revered a literate royal or noble was.

The seal of Arad-Nanna, a scribe of very high status. (Source)

On the cylinder seal of Arad-Nanna, a high official and possibly of royal blood, we see him having audience with the king, with a goddess in tow. According to Starr, the difference in body language of Arad-Nanna and the goddess accompanying him is one of great significance. “Arad-Nanna doesn’t hold his hands in the ‘reverence’ position,” Starr points out. “The scene is almost relaxed and familiar, as between two near-equals. This suggests he is a member of the royal family. The goddess who accompanies Arad-Nanna is not a minor goddess … The multiple horns on her helmet indicates that she is a major goddess. Significantly, she has her hands held up in reverence to the king, whereas Arad-Nanna does not.” (Source)

Even goddesses took the backseat to scribes of noble or royal birth, and it is clear that it was those individuals whom the king employed in his courts to be his officials and recorders of his feats.

As for knowing the gender of the writer, often the only thing we have to go on to tell us a woman is the author of something is the presence of a feminine touch in the writing. Starr sensed that in a tablet he translated recently. Radner and Robson also wrote about how the Ur III and Old Babylonian periods were seasoned with Sumerian writings about the goddess Inana and the god Dumuzi being in love, leading scholar Jerrold Cooper to believe that the authors of some of those compositions were women, simply because of “feminine sensibility and a female approach to sexuality.” (Source)

And this brings us to an important distinction, a case of semantics.

When a scribe is an author

Tablet #36. A mystery, far from administrative. (Source)

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word “Author” as “a person who starts or creates something (such as a plan or idea).” Nemet-Nejat wrote that when a work is by a single author, it shows “uniqueness in language, subject matter, and artistic development.” Ultimately, the two sources agree that an author is more than just a recorder. (Source)

On his blog, Starr has written about Tablet #36. It is a tablet that embodies all of what Nemet-Nejat (indirectly) says makes it the work of a unique author. Tablet #36 was a mystery until Starr translated it and found it was an encoded political satire, a work written by one, no ordinary scribe: “…the language of [Tablet #36] is too sophisticated to have been written by someone who was only casually acquainted with the complexities of narrative cuneiform writing,” Starr wrote. “There can be little doubt that the story of [Tablet #36] was written by a full-time ‘wordsmith.'” You can read about this tablet, the content of which Starr titled “The Great Fatted Bull,” along with Starr’s musings about its enigmatic author here.

Starr points out that the author of Tablet #36 was most probably not a full-time scribe, just someone who could write and had the luxury of thinking for himself, along with the time to create a code for his dangerous thoughts. This guy was a completely different animal from, say, Arad-Nanna, who was too drunk on rubbing elbows with the king to criticize him.

Enheduanna. An author. (Source)

Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon of Akkad and the Shakespeare of Sumerian literature, was also a different animal. She wrote poems and laments that included a personal dimension, something I mentioned earlier was reserved for a special few allowed to include themselves in the human experience, and a rare occurrence in much of the ancient world’s writings. Enheduanna was no run-of-the-mill scribe who only wrote generic praise-filled songs to the king, no. She wrote about her expulsion during her brother’s reign, a criticism that wouldn’t have let her writing career span some forty years, as she wouldn’t have been left to live it.

Radner and Robson wrote that being an author in a world of scribes was a feat for a king, and certainly one for a woman of high birth:

“The essential point is that in antiquity unusual men, such as rulers, or a woman such as Enheduana, exceptional because of her high birth and religious duties, could equally be regarded as authors.” (Source)

Contemporaries of their own legacy

It is safe to say that the first scribes were contemporaries of their own lasting legacy, and the status they enjoyed was appropriate, whether they recorded sheep sales or wrote in code…

“Without scribes, letters would not have been written or read, royal monuments would not have been carved with cuneiform, and stories would have been told and then forgotten.” (Source)

Imagine what a world this would’ve been without scribes.

Sources and further reading:

The Sumerian invention of writing http://sumerianshakespeare.com/30301.html

Nisaba http://www.goddessschool.com/projects/artesia/fpl1nisaba.html

Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia (Women scribes) https://books.google.com/books?id=lbmXsaTGNKUC&pg=PA150&lpg=PA150&dq=women+mesopotamia+scribes&source=bl&ots=dt2I9mGPqk&sig=qJ_MkVscUVs9hUvb_D28fKDB87I&hl=en&sa=X&ei=WGBJVes0hKOwBfDYgdAB&ved=0CCUQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=women%20mesopotamia%20scribes&f=false

Priests and priestesses in Ancient Mesopotamia http://www.fofweb.com/History/HistRefMain.asp?iPin=MESP0664&SID=2&DatabaseName=Ancient+and+Medieval+History+Online&InputText=%22priests+and+priestesses+in+ancient+Mesopotamia%22&SearchStyle=&dTitle=priests+and+priestesses+in+ancient+Mesopotamia&TabRecordType=All+Records&BioCountPass=0&SubCountPass=1&DocCountPass=0&ImgCountPass=0&MapCountPass=0&FedCountPass=&MedCountPass=0&NewsCountPass=0&RecPosition=1&AmericanData=&WomenData=&AFHCData=&IndianData=&WorldData=&AncientData=Set&GovernmentData=

Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia (Scribe signatures) https://books.google.com/books?id=lbmXsaTGNKUC&pg=PA64&lpg=PA64&dq=how+scribes+signed+their+names+on+mesopotamian+tablets&source=bl&ots=dt2L3mNWpq&sig=6LCEsL7O0Y56BNxD8KiYP0D-CPk&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Zx1uVcPFIIanyQS68YP4Cg&ved=0CCUQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=how%20scribes%20signed%20their%20names%20on%20mesopotamian%20tablets&f=false

Scribal social ranking in Sumerian Society http://sumerianshakespeare.com/34101/68901.html

Family life in Ancient Sumeria http://stravaganzastravaganza.blogspot.com/2011/12/sumerian-family-life.html

Women As Scribes Throughout History http://exploringfeminisms.com/2011/06/27/women-as-scribes-throughout-history-originally-written-fall-of-2010/

An introduction to the princess wife http://sumerianshakespeare.com/533701/index.html

The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture https://books.google.com/books?id=i4jBn3cThwgC&pg=PA99&lpg=PA99&dq=sippar+records+of+women+scribes&source=bl&ots=jpjBY4p0pZ&sig=Hbeu85_RO6zV86PKQYti3cy90bY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=neeJVc2MFsHasQXR7YL4Cg&ved=0CCgQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=sippar%20records%20of%20women%20scribes&f=false

Tablet #36 https://allmesopotamia.wordpress.com/2011/11/01/tablet-36-by-sumerian-shakespeare/

Tablet #36 (Sumerian Shakespeare) http://sumerianshakespeare.com/6801.html

The Scribe http://sumerianshakespeare.com/34101/index.html

Writing Page http://www.mesopotamia.co.uk/writing/home_set.html

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Posted by on June 26, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Part I: Sargon!

You saw him in the video wearing a helmet, playing bass guitar and grinning at the end with bugs crawling all over his teeth…he is Sargon!

And there were actually two Mesopotamian kings named Sargon, and I will tell you about them both, starting with…

The Akkadian One

Bronze head believed to be that of Sargon of Akkad, aka Sargon the Great. (Source: http://www.ancient.eu.com/article/109/)

The first Sargon is known as Sargon of Akkad, Sargon the Great or Šarru-Kīn (Sharru-Kin).

The dates of his reign seem to be unclear, and most sources I found show it being from 2334 BC to 2279 BC, while others show it as being from 2270 BC to 2215 BC, and that is because different ancient texts can’t agree on the dates of his reign either. Let’s just say this Sargon existed somewhere between 2334 BC and 2215 BC.

Sargon’s beginnings are quite fascinating, and I’m not even going to talk about his daughter, the world’s first known author (I’ll tell you about her in another post soon).

Sarru-Kin is Akkadian for “True King,” and what a king Sargon became after rather humble beginnings, and nothing short of what seems like a series of miracles.

One source that tells us a little bit about the first Sargon is what’s been dubbed as The Sargon Legend, a Sumerian text purported to be his biography. It is incomplete, due to the wear and tear of time, but what it does tell us is, like I said, quite fascinating (as all legends are).

The Sargon Legend tells us that Sargon was an illegitimate baby boy, set adrift down the Euphrates River by his mother, a temple priestess, who apparently had a reed basket (lined with bitumen) and a baby and a river. Sargon’s mom did what any woman in ancient times with that combination of baby, basket and river at her disposal would do when she’s trying to keep that one night with that handsome stranger a secret; she set him adrift like Moses’s mom did, almost like she knew he’d amount to something great without her nurturing.

And whether it’s a legend or not, Sargon did amount to plenty; he became known as the greatest man who ever lived for centuries!

The Sargon Legend relays that while Baby Sargon was on his way down the river, a gardener believed to be from the kingdom of Kish named Akki picked him up and made him his own. Akki raised Sargon to become a gardener, and from gardener, Sargon went on to become cup bearer to Ur-Zababa, the somewhat neurotic king of Kish.

The Sargon Legend goes on to detail exactly how Sargon the drifting baby turned gardener turned cup bearer began his journey toward the throne. It seems that Ur-Zababa’s neurosis manifested itself in his vivid dreams, which involved his cup bearer, Sargon, overthrowing him and becoming king. This dream led Ur-Zababa to devise a plan to murder his cup bearer, but divine intervention by Inanna, the goddess of sexual love, fertility, and warfare, which also happened to be the goddess of the temple Sargon’s mom worked at. Finding he wasn’t good at murder and that the gods favored Sargon, Ur-Zababa decided to make Sargon his messenger and sent him to Uruk with a letter addressed to Uruk’s king, Lugalzagesi. The letter contained instructions to murder its carrier, that is all. Deceitful guy, that Ur-Zababa.

Well, Lugalzagesi wasn’t any better at murder than Ur-Zababa, and Sargon was not only not murdered, but he eventually overthrew Lugalzagesi, became king of Uruk, and also gave Ur-Zababa’s paranoia some weight by overthrowing him too. It was a messy affair that included Lugalzagesi being defeated and brought to the city-state of Nippur wearing a dog collar as is described by an inscription at the city:

“Sargon, the king of Agade, the King of the Land, laid waste the city Uruk, destroyed its wall; fought with the men of Uruk, conquered them; fought with Lugalzaggesi, the king of Uruk, took him prisoner and brought him in a neck stock to [Nippur].” (Source: http://cornellia.fws1.com/Ancientworlds/sargon.htm)

Yeah, that grin in the video says a lot. Sargon the Great went from being a drifting baby, to a gardener, to the king’s cup bearer, to the king’s messenger, to a full-on king- obviously there’s no room for being nice in there.

He also founded and ruled over the Akkadian Empire, the greatest Semitic empire the world had ever known, which included all of southern Mesopotamia and parts of Syria, Anatolia and the kingdom of Elam. He made Akkadian the official language of the empire, and had it standardized and adapted for use with the Cuneiform script. He also built the first city of Babylon and is believed to have also built the capital of his empire, Agade, which has yet to be found.

The Akkadian Empire of Sargon the Great, which maintained trade and diplomatic contacts with kingdoms around the Arabian Sea and elsewhere in the Near East. (Source: http://www.ancient.eu.com/article/109/)

Now, as impressive as it was, Sargon the Great’s ascension to the throne was not met kindly. The city-states he’d taken over from Lugalzagesi, who had united a large chunk of them into one kingdom, rebelled against Sargon, forcing him to constantly showcase his military might, which he had oodles of. So great was Sargon the Great’s military might that his technique of arming a group of his infantry with bows became the Mesopotamian military tradition, and helped him quash many a rebellion, including those that rose in the latter years of his reign, some of which left him besieged in Agade. Still, his military strength helped him defeat his enemies and keep a tight first over the empire he built and maintained until his death.

When he died, possibly in 2215 BC, revolts broke out throughout Mesopotamia against the Akkadian Empire, but were quashed by his son who reigned for nine years, and then by his other son for fifteen years, followed by his grandson. After the Akkad dynasty, Mesopotamia entered a period known as the dark ages of Mesopotamia that lasted a century and a half.

Despite the resistance he faced during his reign throughout his empire, Sargon the Great still left a legacy of greatness that made him a model for Mesopotamian kings for centuries after his death.

The Assyrian One

The second Sargon is appropriately known as Sargon II and was an Assyrian king—no relation to the previous Sargon. He reigned from 721 BC to 705 BC, and also spent the whole time on the throne fighting.

During the time that Sargon II decided to add Assyrian King to his resume, he was at least 40 years old, and there was total chaos and rebellion in the land. It is unclear whether the chaos in the land was the driving force behind the violent coup he carried out against his brother for the throne, or if it was his own fault for having a violent coup in the first place, but that is the way it is when there is more than one child in the family, isn’t it? You never know who broke that broken thing.

Sargon II chose Sharru-Kenu as his throne name, which translates to “Legitimate King,” or “the king is true,” because, as he explained it, “…the great gods assigned (Sharru-Kenu) to me in order to uphold law and justice, to help the powerless prevail and to protect the weak.”

He portrayed himself as the restorer of order, despite being met with opposition and rebellion from within Assyria and from outside of it. Just a year after taking the throne, Sargon II had to deal with a revolt that included the kingdoms of Hamat, Arpad, Damascus and Israel, leaving him busy while another revolt was brewing in Babylonia to the south. The Babylonian revolt was a success and control of Babylonia was lost for a time, but he was able to get it back in 710 BC and spent three years there just collecting homage and gifts from pretty much everyone, and probably gloating like crazy.

But going back to the revolt that had its hub in Hamat, it was a demonstration of just what kind of guy Sargon II was. In 720 BC he destroyed Hamat and spared the lives of some 6,300 people from the region, dubbed them “guilty Assyrians,” and made them rebuild the city.

That grin, folks. It says a lot.

Now, where Sargon the Great had mad military skills, Sargon II had mad manipulation skills (on top of a mighty military). He also had mounting bills and no cash, so he put his manipulation skills to work.

In 717 BC Sargon II attacked the small but wealthy via-location-on-trade-route kingdom of Carchemish and accused its king of treachery. The king of Carchemish probably knew that Sargon II was not very nice, so even though he knew he was being jerked around, he also knew he was helpless against the Assyrian army, so he had no choice but to just do as Sargon II told him to do, which was to just show him the 60 tons of silver and everything else that made Carchemish especially useful to Assyria.

Now, this huge acquisition of silver was enough to help the Assyrian economy go from being bronze-based to silver-based, so you can add that to Sargon II’s list of accomplishments.

Three years later Sargon II must have run out of cash, because he went on to capture the holy city of Musasir and accused its king of treachery, too. The loot from that manipulation venture garnered more than a ton of gold, with about 10 tons of silver among other riches, mostly collected by the city’s main temple over many centuries. This allowed Sargon II to not only pay the bills, but to also build Dur-Sarruken, a vast palace that eclipsed all those that preceded it in size and quality. It was vast in size and filled with reliefs that included scenes from the conquest of Musasir, as well as the well-known winged bulls that still amaze all who stand before them.

Winged bulls at Sargon II’s palace in Khorsabad, as they were found. You can now see them at the Louvre in Paris. (Source)

Sargon II’s Palace was built in an otherwise sleepy village in 713 BC that eventually became Khorsabad, the largest city in Assyria, complete with a massive irrigation system that sustained the population presiding over an area that measured almost three square kilometers.

Plan of the city of Khorsabad and Sargon II’s Palace. (Source: http://www.arthistory.upenn.edu/spr03/422/April28/422April28.html)

Sargon II’s struggle to keep the Assyrian Empire stretching far and rebellion-free continued until his final military attempt to secure the Tabal region in 705 BC. That rebellion, like that of Babylon’s, was successful, but Sargon II was never able to reclaim it like he did Babylon, as he was killed in battle and his body was lost to the enemy.

It was a catastrophic end to the reign of a king who spent a lot of time and effort keeping something together that just did not want to be together. Sargon’s II’s legacy was one of a powerful empire plagued by unrest and bad fortune for those who ruled it, including Sargon II’s son, Sennacherib, who is believed to have been murdered by one of his own sons.

And that concludes the first part of a four-part series, and next, I will tell you about Hammurabi, the lead singer of The Mesopotamians, and a bit nicer than the two Sargons.

Sources and further reading:

http://history-world.org/sargon_the_great.htm

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

http://cornellia.fws1.com/Ancientworlds/sargon.htm

http://www.hyperhistory.net/apwh/bios/b1sargon.htm

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/article_index/s/sargon_ii,_king_of_assyria.aspx

http://cornellia.fws1.com/Ancientworlds/sargon.htm

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2012 in Akkadian, Assyrian, Kings

 

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