RSS

Tag Archives: sumerian

Ku-Baba

 

74fa5e1171ddcc8affff8f22ffffe417

A little too much eye makeup! (Source)

A long while ago, I wanted to write about Ku-Baba, the only woman on the Sumerian King List. I went first to my go-to source on anything Sumerian, Sumerian Shakespeare, and found that Jerald Starr, the brain behind the site, had not mentioned Ku-Baba at all. It was as if I was just imagining this rather intriguing figure.

Nonetheless, I wrote to Starr with the hope he would have some information about Ku-Baba, or at least a good source he could point me toward. His response, which was basically doubt that she existed at all, left me feeling like I was at a dead end at the time, so I abandoned the idea of writing about her.

Fast forward to today, and Starr has changed his mind. “I had to revise my opinion,” he wrote to me in a surprise email. He also included a link to a new post on his website, in which he explains in detail how he arrived at the conclusion that Ku-Baba might have existed after all.

“For a long time I doubted that Ku-Baba even existed,” he writes in the post. “I believed the reference was a sly mean-spirited joke by the scribe who wrote the King List.”

What changed Starr’s mind was an alabaster statue at the Louvre from Girsu, with a little too much eye makeup to be just your run-of-the-mill Sumerian priestess, as he had initially believed. “When I first saw the statue, I believed it was a Sumerian priestess because she seems to be wearing a circular headband,” he writes, “. . .although for a priestess I thought she was a bit heavy-handed with the makeup.”

From the eyes, Starr traveled back up to the head, where it became clear to him that it was no headband this statue was wearing–that it was a hat he’d never seen on a Sumerian woman before. “The hat on the statue most closely resembles a shepherd hat, the crown of a Sumerian king,” he writes.

2930d42471db47c6ffff8b8fffffe415

That’s no headband! (Source)

And from there, Starr writes as only he can about the minutest details to put Ku-Baba, the first woman ruler in history, back into the realm of possibility, giving me a chance to write about Ku-Baba like I had originally wanted.

The First Woman Ruler

kubaba-1

Ku-Baba. (Source)

Ku-Baba, Kug-Bau in Sumerian, is the only female monarch on the Sumerian King List. She ruled between 2500 BC and 2330 BC. On the list itself, she is identified as:

… the woman tavern-keeper, who made firm the foundations of Kish, became king; she ruled for 100 years.

Every source I came across in my research, including Starr, questioned how a woman who was a tavern-keeper became king. They then went on to explain that tavern keeping was one of many occupations Mesopotamian women could hold. Now, aside from Starr, said sources all described tavern keeping as a well-respected occupation, even while some mentioned that taverns in Sumer were pretty much brothels. This complicates further the rationale of a woman tavern-keeper becoming king, but in her About.com article titled, “Kubaba, A Queen Among Kings,” Carly Silver writes, “Regardless of what kind of show they were running, women often ran taverns, holding perhaps one of the only independent female positions of power in ancient Sumer.”

Silver drives home the rather high status of the tavern-keeper profession by mentioning Siduri, the female tavern-keeper Gilgamesh meets in the Underworld in his quest for immortality in the epic of his namesake. In it, the tavern-keeper gives Gilgamesh, a powerful god-king, sage advice about the nature of human life, how short it is, and how one ought to enjoy it.

“So, in what was probably a very important epic even in antiquity,” she writes, “a female tavern-keeper was seen as a guide along perilous paths and a figure worthy of veneration.”

Conversely, Starr’s description of the status of a tavern-keeper, or barmaid, is one that is very different from Silver’s. He writes, “Throughout history, a barmaid was typically considered to be a woman of loose morals, freely available to the patrons of the tavern, and little better than a common prostitute.”

So, how can this be? Several sources commend tavern keeping as a respectable occupation, almost making it sound like it was a foot in the door for Ku-Baba to become queen in her own right, while one all but ascribes it to prostitutes.

It helps that Starr does mention a distinction between a mere barmaid who slings drinks and provides patrons with her company, and someone who owns the establishment where this business takes place, a distinction other sources do not mention. Starr also classifies an owner of a tavern as “middle class,” while iterating that the employee slinging the drinks is “a commoner, and a lowly commoner at that.”

Furthermore, in order to see more clearly how tavern keeping relates to Ku-Baba’s rise to royalty, it helps to look at the picture in a different way.

According to Starr, even though there is no question Ku-Baba was a commoner, she might not have been a tavern-keeper. Starr states in his post that it was her parents who were tavern-keepers, a nugget he says her enemies distorted and used against her to tarnish her reputation and legacy. “I believe Ku-Baba was unfairly characterized as a bawd (the usual description of a female barkeeper) for propaganda reasons,” Starr writes. “I believe it was a deliberate attempt to sully her reputation. It is the kind of thing her enemies would say about her.”

Bottom line, we must let go of the idea that Ku-Baba was a tavern-keeper to get to the bottom of how she became a queen in her own right, because everything is questionable when you have an enemy, which she did, according to Starr.

And who was that enemy, you ask? Sargon of Akkad, our favorite baby in a basket here at AllMesopotamia.

Again, I point you toward Starr’s article for a more comprehensive telling of this story and presentation of the case involving Ku-Baba’s previous profession, but Sargon of Akkad usurped the throne of Kish from Ur-Zababa, Ku-Baba’s grandson, 31 years after her death, serving as background for Starr’s conclusion.

But how did Ku-Baba take the throne?

In her article titled “Ku-Bau, the First Woman Ruler,” Darci Clark writes, “In general, other women in Mesopotamian society would only be able to exert any political influence through their relationships to the king.”

Starr echoes Clark’s statement: “Sumerian queens were always the wives of kings. They never governed on their own.”

Okay, but would a king marry a commoner?

“Although it is highly unlikely that a king would marry a commoner,” Starr explains, “it is certainly within the realm of possibility.”

It’s possible Ku-Baba married a king, but there is no mention of such a thing happening in ancient texts. Nevertheless, a king was involved. According to Clark, Ku-Baba became lugal of Kish after performing an act of kindness. It seems that a king–Puzur-Nirah, king of Akshak, namely–awarded Ku-Baba her kingship for a “pious deed.”

Researching this further, I came across an article on the website History Hustle, titled “Kubaba, the Bartender Who Became the First Woman Ruler in History,” which pointed me toward the Weidner Chronicle, an interesting ancient Babylonian religious text, where the deed and its reward are described:

In the reign of Puzur-Nirah, king of Akšak . . . Kubaba gave bread to the fisherman and gave water, she made him offer the fish to Esagila. Marduk the king, the prince of Apsu, favored her and said: “Let it be so!” He entrusted to Kubaba the tavernkeeper, sovereignty over the whole world. (Lines 43-45, Weidner Chronicle)

500055977

The city of Kish. (Source)

A Feminine Legacy

Very little is known about Ku-Baba’s reign. We do know that she made Kish strong, and that she reigned for 100 years. It is easy to conclude then that she was a successful monarch. Really, there’s no way she could have not been.

Starr writes, “Any female pretender to the throne who didn’t do an excellent job would quickly find herself in the middle of a coup d’état. She was capable enough, and respected enough, to stay in power and establish a dynasty.”

That dynasty, the 4th Dynasty of Kish, lasted for two generations, ending with the above-mentioned Ur-Zababa, son of Puzur-Suen, son of Ku-Baba. Not bad for a woman living in a man’s world, and a man’s world it was.

Carly Silver writes that Ku-Baba’s was remembered by later generations as an improper usurper. They would also refer to Ku-Baba when describing things that are not as they should be–women taking on men’s roles has never been popular. “By taking on the duties of a man – a king – Kubaba was seen to have crossed a boundary and transcended gender divisions in an improper fashion,” Silver writes.

Ku-Baba was also referenced when a lung didn’t look so good, or a child was born with both male and female genitalia. “Combining male and female genitalia in an individual would echo her reign as lugal, or king, which the ancients saw as violating the natural order of things,” Silver writes.

Nonetheless, Ku-Baba lived in people’s memories until Babylonian times, becoming a goddess. “But she was still a barmaid,” Starr explains. “She is portrayed as a kindly woman in all of the stories about her . . . Ku-Baba never lost the ‘common touch’. Queen Ku-Baba was always ‘the people’s queen’.”

Whether her legacy when she was an actual memory was a positive or negative one, today, in 2017, Ku-Baba’s legacy is that of (written) history’s first woman ruler, one who could only be slandered by a past that might have been falsified by her enemy, and one whose ascendancy to the throne was built upon kindness.

How feminine. How fitting.

P.S. Make sure you read Starr’s Ku-Baba post, as there are things and photos I did not include here that are sure to pique your interest further in this interesting lady. And while you’re at it, if you haven’t already, read our Q&A interview with Sumerian Shakespeare himself!

Sources and Further Reading:

Queen Ku-Baba – Sumerian Shakespeare  http://sumerianshakespeare.com/748301/769001.html

Sumerian King List – http://www.livius.org/sources/content/anet/266-the-sumerian-king-list/

Ku-Bau: The First Woman Ruler – Darci Clark http://semiramis-speaks.com/ku-bau-the-first-woman-ruler/

Kubaba, A Queen Among Kings – Carly Silver  http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/sumer/fl/Kubaba-A-Queen-Among-Men.htm

Kubaba, the Bartender Who Became the First woman Ruler in History http://historyhustle.com/kubaba-bartender-became-worlds-first-woman-ruler/

Weidner Chronicle http://www.livius.org/sources/content/mesopotamian-chronicles-content/abc-19-weidner-chronicle/?

 

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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

 
2 Comments

Posted by on June 26, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Q&A: Shining a Light on Starr

The Standard of Ur.

One of the things we try to do here at All Mesopotamia is shine a light on the not-sung-enough heroes doing great things for Mesopotamian history.

This time we’re shining a light on someone you might remember being mentioned in a few of our posts or tweets, or you might have his awesome website bookmarked. He is Mr. Jerald J. Starr, aka sumerianshakespeare.com.

Simply put, Starr is your (and our) go-to guy for anything Sumerian, like the Standard of Ur (pictured above). His passion for the rockers of the cradle of civilization is what drives him to not only gravitate toward what’s already known about them, but also to make his own fascinating discoveries of a people long gone, but whose all-encompassing legacy of civilization still reverberates thousands of years later.

Now, I asked Starr a few questions to find out what he is all about.  I was pleasantly surprised by all his answers, and think you will be too!

1. You’re kind of an enigma. I communicate with you regularly about the history I cover on the blog, but I hardly know anything about you. Who is this enigmatic expert I’m talking to and what is his background—what makes him the expert he is on everything Sumerian?

Your readers may be surprised to learn that I am not a “properly accredited” Sumerologist. I am just an amateur. I have no formal training in the field, neither do I have a college degree in the subject; although with the thousands of hours I’ve spent researching Sumerian history I could have easily earned a PhD, perhaps several.

“…my mind is 4,000 years away, in the land of ancient Sumer.”

If I am to be considered any kind of “expert” (your word, but thanks) it’s only because Sumerology is my obsession, my sole preoccupation. Often when my friends are talking to me, I barely hear what they are saying because my mind is 4,000 years away, in the land of ancient Sumer.

It also helps that there are very few other experts in the field. At last count, there were only about 400 Assyriologists in the entire world, of which only a few are dedicated to the Sumerians exclusively. One day it suddenly occurred to me that I am probably “the world’s foremost expert on the Standard of Ur.” Then I realized that I am probably the world’s only expert on the Standard of Ur!

2. Ever since I came across sumerianshakespeare.com, it has been my go-to website for reliable information and great pictures. In fact, my only complaint about your website is that you only cover the Sumerian material. Having said that: what drew you to the Sumerian civilization in particular out of all the others that thrived in Mesopotamia, and do you ever delve into any other group of Mesopotamian peoples?

When I was in college, I read The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. It wasn’t part of a reading assignment for a class I was taking; I was reading it for my own pleasure. I remember how impressed I was that the Sumerians seemed to invent civilization entirely on their own, when the rest of the world was still living in the Stone Age. I didn’t pay much attention to the Sumerians after that; I had other interests to pursue.

Fast-forward several decades later to about five years ago. I was with a girlfriend, Loring. We were looking at a display of cuneiform tablets at the Frist Museum here in Nashville, Tennessee. I said, “Wouldn’t it be great to own one of these tablets? I’d love to own something so ancient, when writing and civilization were first invented.” Those were the exact words I used, “when writing and civilization were first invented.” I didn’t give the remark a second thought until two months later when Loring gave me a cuneiform “tablet” for my birthday. At first I didn’t know what it was. It was an odd cylindrical shape with writing down the sides. I later found out that it was actually a Gudean “foundation cone” from the temple of the god Ningirsu. I decided to write a thank-you note to Loring, in Sumerian, to show my appreciation for her sweet and thoughtful gift. Nothing fancy, just a few signs written on notebook paper. Little did I know what I was getting into.

The Gudea Foundation Cone was Starr’s inspiration.

It’s not for nothing that Sumerian is known as the world’s most difficult language. Even the Sumerian scribes had difficulty writing it! I was immediately frustrated by the fact that it was difficult to learn even a few Sumerian words, much less learn enough grammar to write a complete sentence. I could have just strung some words together like beads, they didn’t have to be grammatically correct; but noooo, that wasn’t good enough. So then it became an intellectual challenge. As described in “Adventures in Cuneiform Writing,” it became an all-consuming passion, to the exclusion of everything else – like eating, sleeping, and bathing. Even at the time I would sometimes wonder, “Why am I so obsessed? Who cares about this stupid dead language?” Sometimes I seemed more “possessed” than merely obsessed. It was a lot like that scene in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where Richard Dreyfuss feels compelled to create a huge clay mountain on his kitchen table, without knowing why. As it turns out, there was a predestined purpose for all of this. If I had not been so completely obsessed with writing Sumerian correctly, I never would have learned enough of the language to translate (“decode”) Tablet #36, the story of The Great Fatted Bull. This tablet would not give up its secrets to just anyone, to some sort of “dilettante.” It was Tablet #36, along with my reawakened interest in Sumerian history inspired by the Gudea cone, that led to all my other discoveries in Sumerology.

Starr cracked the code of the mysterious Tablet #36.

This leads me (finally!) to the second part of your question. I consider myself to be a Sumerologist, in particular, rather than an Assyriologist (someone who studies Mesopotamian history in general). As a matter of fact, I make a deliberate effort to sort out the Sumerians from the Akkadians and the Babylonians, who are routinely jumbled together in the history books. I usually write about the Akkadians and Babylonians only in reference to the Sumerians. I feel called upon to be an advocate for the Sumerians, to be their voice. So for the time being I will continue to dedicate my efforts solely on their behalf.

As for the rest of Mesopotamian history, we have All Mesopotamia for that.

Starr concluded that this otherwise anonymous statue bears the actual true face of Gudea. Read about Starr’s research here.

3. What does your research on the subjects you discuss on your website entail? Do you work alone, or are you a part of a team or organization?

I quickly exhausted the limited selection of books on Sumerian history at the local library. I mostly use the Internet for my research. I use the CDLI, ePSD, ETCSL, and Sumerian.org for the language studies. Museum websites are also a good source of information. I enjoy seeing Sumerian artifacts in museums all around the world without leaving the comfort of my living room. One of my favorite research methods is image searches on the Internet, since I’m always trolling for good pictures to use on my website. This is how I found Tablet #36 in the Library of Congress, Ur-Namma in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gudea in the Barakat Gallery, and other original discoveries.

The man behind Sumerian Shakespeare. Starr told me this is where you will find him most of the time, sitting in front of his computer, researching and discovering everything Sumerian. (Photo courtesy of Jerald J. Starr)

The man behind Sumerian Shakespeare. Starr told me this is where you will find him most of the time, sitting in front of his computer, researching and discovering everything Sumerian. (Photo courtesy of Jerald J. Starr)

I work entirely alone. This is partly my preference. I am in contact with a few professional Sumerologists, but I am being boycotted by the other Sumerologists. I am the pariah of Sumerology. I have to admit, it’s my own fault. On December 6, 2008, I proudly posted my translation of Tablet #36, the story of The Great Fatted Bull. It was my first major discovery. The very next day, Bendt Alster, a world renowned Sumerologist, posted on his website that Tablet #36 wasn’t really about The Great Fatted Bull. He thought it was “A Dialogue between Two Women.” Mr. Alster was a pioneer in the field of Sumerology. If he said Tablet #36 wasn’t about The Great Fatted Bull, then who was going to listen to an amateur like me? So I might have over-reacted just a tad. I posted a new page on my website challenging him to a “Sumerian Showdown,” my translation against his. I am usually not so confrontational, but I was deliberately being provocative. I was hoping that someone would try to refute my translation, and failing that, would be forced to confirm it. I also thought I was being very clever and funny; satirical, like the scribe who wrote Tablet #36 (I was defending his work as well as my own). But I soon realized that I was just being a smart-aleck, to use the polite term. After all, Mr. Alster was merely expressing his academic opinion, which he stated in a polite and civilized manner (unlike me). Eventually I deleted the page from my website and sent a letter of apology to Mr. Alster. He made a gracious reply, so all was well between us. He was a really nice guy about it, which doubly made me feel like a heel. He passed away suddenly and unexpectedly a few years later, so I am grateful that I was able to make amends with him. But the damage had already been done. I had thoroughly alienated other Sumerologists. They still hold it against me and I can’t say that I blame them. In the meantime, the story of The Great Fatted Bull remains the only proven translation of Tablet #36.

4. The Sumerian civilization is where our modern world began to take shape. Writing, literature, the wheel, agriculture, and according to a very enthusiastic Discovery Channel documentary, earth-shattering beer…all these things and more. And yet it’s not nearly as popular as the Egyptian or Greek civilizations, which as great as they were with their own innovations and inventions, in my mind, they were mostly reinforcing and building upon foundations laid by Mesopotamians. Drawing from my frustrating experience, I must ask: why do you think my Western Civilization class in college detailed the Egyptian mummification process, but only briefly mentioned that writing was invented in Mesopotamia and very little else about the land between two rivers?

I know what you mean. When I try to talk to someone about the Sumerians, they get a blank look on their face and say, “Who?” I always want to reply, “The Sumerians; you know, the ones who invented civilization.” I don’t actually say this, of course; that would be rude. If people don’t know much about the Sumerians it’s probably because so little Sumerian history has survived to the present day. You can read all that remains of Sumerian history in a single afternoon. On the other hand, the Egyptian civilization continued for 2,000 years after the Sumerians had disappeared, so there is a lot more Egyptian history to cover. I think that’s why a class in Western Civilization gives a brief introduction to the Sumerians and then quickly skips over to the Egyptians. Surprisingly, very few Egyptian artifacts date back to the time of the Sumerians. If we only had Egyptian artifacts dated before 2000 B.C., we would know as little about the Egyptians as we do about the Sumerians. Only the Pyramids are as old as the Sumerians.

I agree that the Sumerians don’t get proper credit for their inventions. How many people today know that the Sumerians are the reason why we still divide a circle into 360 degrees? (The Sumerians used the sexagesimal number system, based on the number 60.) How many businessmen know that the Sumerians created formal bookkeeping methods? I think the problem is that people have been using these inventions for so long they’ve forgotten who invented them. For instance, I doubt that anyone using a handsaw would think, “This works great. I’m glad the Sumerians invented it.” I doubt that anyone sipping on a beer would say, “Thank you, Sumerians, for this wonderful gift.”

You are right in pointing out that the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians built upon the foundations of the Sumerian civilization. So even if we don’t always realize it, the Sumerians are still with us today, 4,000 years after they passed into history.

5. What are, or are there, challenges that you or any other Sumerologist face in this discipline, as opposed to an Egyptologist, for example?

The main challenge for a Sumerologist is that he/she doesn’t have a lot of material to work with. Very few Sumerian artifacts have survived the millennia — a few ruined temples, some pottery shards, a few statues, some jewelry. This is the opposite problem faced by Egyptologists. They cannot sink a spade in Egypt without hitting an artifact. A modern Egyptologist has tons of artifacts to work with (literally); more than can process in several lifetimes. Of course, a Sumerologist has access to countless cuneiform tablets, hundreds of thousands of them. The problem is that 97% of these tablets are “Administrative” (receipts, ledgers, inventories, etc.). Only 3% of the tablets are “Literature” (history, hymns, poems, proverbs, etc.) where the Sumerians actually tell us something about themselves. Imagine an archaeologist 4,000 years in the future trying to reconstruct 21st century America by using business accounting records.

Egyptology is a very old science; many ancient Greeks and Romans were “Egyptologists.” By comparison, Sumerology is relatively new. The modern world didn’t know about the Sumerians until the late 19th century. The world is still in the process of discovering the Sumerians. As a result, much of the information about the Sumerians is either contradictory or just plain wrong. Even the experts don’t always agree on it. You and I both know from personal experience the difficulty in finding reliable information on the subject. It’s hard to know who to trust when every major museum in the world includes some erroneous information about the Sumerians, even the Iraq Museum!

6. What do you think most distinguishes sumerianshakespeare.com from the other Sumerian websites?

First of all, it is the number of pictures I have on my website. The other websites have only a few, with the exception of All Mesopotamia. I realized that most people have no idea what the Sumerians looked like. We can easily imagine the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians because we’ve seen so many pictures of them, but most people have no “visual concept” of the Sumerians. By including a lot of pictures of the Sumerians, I hope to make them more familiar to the modern reader.

The face of Ur-Namma, one of Starr’s original discoveries.

Second, and more important, are my original discoveries. Many people think that I am merely parroting information I got from other sources, but most of my website is devoted to my own discoveries. Some of my major discoveries include Tablet #36, the portraits of Gudea and Ur-Namma, both Sargon victory steles, and everything about the Standard of Ur, among several others. I have also made a lot of minor discoveries, more than I can keep track of. I have to admit, I am very proud of these discoveries. They are the most noteworthy things I have ever done in a life that is otherwise devoid of accomplishments.

A detail from one of Sargon’s victory steles that Starr wrote about on his site, here.

7. What’s next?

More of the same, I guess. I’m hoping I can make some more discoveries. In any case, I will continue to write about the extraordinary civilization of the Sumerian people. It’s my new-found calling in life. This is what I was meant to do.

***

And we all agree that this is what you were meant to do, Mr. Starr.

 
4 Comments

Posted by on May 8, 2013 in Q & A, Sumerian

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Gudea, the man who loved Lagash.

A white alabaster statue that could either be a priest or the priest king, Gudea of Lagash. One Sumerologist believes it is the most life-like representation of the Sumerian king. (Source)

You are looking at what Jerald Starr, an American Sumerologist and friend of All Mesopotamia, believes is the first realistic, recognizable portrait of a man in all of history. Gudea, a Sumerian king who ruled the Sumerian city-state of Lagash between 2140 and 2120 BC, has been the subject of many statues, but the statue pictured above is unique.

“I’ve seen a lot of pictures of Gudea during my research in Sumerian history, so I know what he looks like,” Starr writes in an article on his website, sumerianshakespeare.com, titled The True Face of Gudea. “I took one glance at the white alabaster face and the distinctive shepherd’s hat (the crown of a Sumerian king) and I said to myself, ‘That’s not just a priest, that’s Gudea.'”

You might be looking at the face in the picture and wondering what makes this particular statue so special. To sum it up, Starr explains what sets it apart:

“There are two things noticeably different about this statue compared to the other statues of Gudea. First, at 12.5 inches high, it is life-size. The seated statues of Gudea, which show his whole body, are less than 18 inches high (they’re called “Little Gudeas”). Second, and most importantly, this statue is a realistic portrait, unlike the other statues of Gudea which are rather formal and idealized, typical of royal portraiture in the ancient world.”

Consider these diorite statues we know are Gudea:

One of many stylized “Little Gudeas”, the type of which were mostly found at temples. (Source)

And another stylized little Gudea depicting the king, not the man. (Source)

Now scroll back up and look at the tilted white alabaster face, which should appear much more alive than the other two. As Starr puts it: “This is clearly the real face behind the other more idealized statues of Gudea.”

So, you’ve now seen the man who happened to be king. Let’s get to know the man, shall we?

There’s something about Gudea

To put it simply, Gudea of Lagash was a great, humble guy.

“He was the model of piety and virtue, working tirelessly for the gods and the welfare of his people,” Starr writes in an article on his website titled, Gudea.

Gudea’s reign brought with it some revolutionary social reform that even a modern eye would conclude made life easier for, and kinder to, the common man, woman and child living in ancient Sumer. He might not have written an extensive code of laws as famous as Hammurabi’s, but keep in mind that he also took the throne nearly 350 years before Hammurabi did. You’ve got yourself a pretty progressive guy here.

The Gudea Cylinders, housed at the Louvre in Paris. They celebrate Gudea of Lagash’s accomplishments. (Source)

“He was concerned about social justice, and not just the exercise of power,” Starr writes.

In The Building of Ningirsu’s Temple, a Sumerian myth inscribed on what is known as the Gudea cylinders, Gudea’s many accomplishments are celebrated, but what catches my attention the most are those of the social justice variety. Gudea worked to help improve the way servants and slaves were treated by their masters, and aimed to protect anyone who needed to be protected:

“He provided protection for the orphan against the rich, and provided protection for the widow against the powerful. He had the daughter become the heir in the families without a son.” – Translation of Gudea Cylinders A and B (Source)

And this raises the issue of motive…

Why was Gudea so darned nice?

Gudea was a great king, because he did what great and noteworthy kings do; he built walls to successfully protect his city and its people from clear and present danger(s), he also built temples, and helped things like art and social justice thrive under his rule. That’s pretty great and nice of him, but that’s what any ruler or leader is supposed to do, if not in ancient times, then definitely in modern times. There’s nothing too fascinating about that.

What’s fascinating about Gudea was that he went against the grain of typical royalty, even when he didn’t need to. Royalty wasn’t really concerned with the common people back then, and there was no one who could make them, and yet Gudea made social reforms that benefited people who’d never even been given a thought by royalty before.

Consider that up until he took the throne, Gudea lived in a time and place where kings were not only anointed by the gods, but were also granted divine status themselves. We need only look at Gilgamesh–he was a great Sumerian god king, and an epic was written about him that seems as much myth as it is a testament to the status a king holds in the eyes of his subjects, for better or worse.

Now, add to this that Gudea was not of royal blood. In fact, very little is known about his origins, save for having been fortunate enough to marry the right woman at the right time. Her name was Ninalla, and she was royalty, the daughter of King Ur-Bau (Ur-Baba). Lack of an attached dumu (son of) to his signature further obscures Gudea’s origins. “This would suggest that his father was only a minor nobleman and not a ranking member of the high nobility,” Starr says.

So, here we have this non-royal marrying into royalty, and suddenly he is in the king pool, and there’s absolutely no resistance to his ascension to the throne. I mean, come on, not only did Ur-Bau let his daughter marry this non-royal man, but he let that non-royal man ascend the throne without hiring a hit man to stop that from happening. That’s pretty amazing.

Another amazing thing that accompanied Gudea’s ascent to the throne of Lagash is that he was now king and he could be a god king, just like all the Sumerian kings who came before him, because that was pretty much part of the package at this point: become king and get one divine status free!

But he didn’t use that card.

“Gudea did not represent himself to be a god, but only as a man who was divinely favored, so it’s significant that Gudea is shown bareheaded, without his crown, and with his hands raised in the ‘reverence position’, as was required of a mortal man when in the presence of a god,” Starr writes about the Seal of Gudea. (See below)

The Seal of Gudea shows him with his head bared, being led and followed by deities to stand before Enlil, the chief Sumerian god. Gudea is the only figure without horns, which are a symbol of divine status. (Source)

Gudea’s humility also extends to him choosing to only refer to himself in inscriptions as ensi, ruler, rather than lugal, king.

Gudea wearing his crown, a typical stylized shepherd’s hat styled for him with curled lambswool. Well played, True Shepherd. Well played.(Source)

Gudea also worked hard to keep things peaceful and he did a good job, despite ruling during a difficult and dangerous time for Sumerian city-states. Akkadian rule had just been weakened by tribesmen from the north, known as Gutians. The Gutians constantly raided Sumerian city-states, but Gudea mostly only built walls and repaired them when needed for protection, appearing rather pacifist.

Unlike Gudea’s origins, his reign was very well-documented, and we know that he led only one major military campaign. Even the goods brought to Lagash from faraway lands were not the spoils of war, but rather those of commerce and trade, handed to him out of brotherly love, even from what are otherwise enemy lands.

“Unlike other ancient kings, Gudea did not routinely boast of his military prowess,” Starr writes. “He was not the kind of king…who would portray himself marching to victory over the bodies of his enemies.”

Charles Gates writes in his book, Ancient Cities: “For Gudea, a king best serves his city not as a warrior, but as a devoted servant of the gods.”

The Priest King

Another seemingly curious thing about Gudea’s wish and determination to be known as a peaceful ruler was his dedication to serving Ningirsu, the Sumerian god of war and the main god of Lagash. One of Gudea’s most notable accomplishments, in fact, was that he rebuilt a temple dedicated to Ningirsu, among others. Gudea was nothing if not religious, so that was one reason for his devotion.

Of what made the pious part of Gudea build the temple of Ningirsu, Gates writes: “The god Ningirsu ordered Gudea, in a dream, to rebuild his temple; the pious king duly carried out the order, and had the statue made, with an explanatory text carved on it, to commemorate the deed.”

But of what made the strategist part of Gudea build the temple of Ningirsu, Starr says Gudea was also a “tough-minded realist”, who knew where Lagash was on the map in relation to the Gutians, and that the city-state was not strong or big enough yet to fight them. He also knew he needed to build more than just a tough army.

So, temple rebuilding served two purposes, one pious, one strategic.

The rebuilding of the Ningirsu temple eventually helped Lagash and Sumer regain strength and power, because it renewed a feeling of nationalism for Sumerians that proved quite beneficial. It was a brilliant strategy that worked from inside out, and brought with it a fresh new attitude of reclaimed pride and nationalism, and an eventual Neo-Sumerian Revival that united and strengthened all the Sumerian city-states that eventually beat the Gutians and gained complete independence from the Akkadians.

“For Gudea,” Starr writes, “building and restoring the temple of the war god symbolized the re-emerging hopes of Sumerian independence, after two centuries of Akkadian domination and during the ever present danger of attack by the Gutian barbarians.”

Gudea meanwhile was able to build and strengthen his military in a peaceful climate. He produced maces, spears and axes, all in the name of Ningirsu.  (Source)

Gudea’s pride

The proud, yet humble priest king. (Source)

As I bring this post to a close, still unsure if I’ve done Gudea the man the justice he deserves, I go back to something I read on the Louvre’s website about one of the typical diorite statues of Gudea, which I think is very telling about the man:

“This stone [diorite] already had a kingly connotation in earlier periods, and it is known through a text that Gudea, anxious to ensure the durability of the work, imposed its use, importing it at great cost from the Gulf region.” – Gudea Prince of Lagash at the Louvre

Such insistence on using a type of stone with kingly connotation and lasting power might be testament to Gudea’s ego, but I don’t see it that way, not only because of all the clear humility he exercised, but especially when I remember something Starr wrote in his The True Face of Gudea article:

“It [the alabaster statue] is obviously modeled from life, with Gudea himself sitting for the portrait.” – Face of Gudea at sumerian shakespeare

The way I see the alabaster statue is that it is of a man who loved his city and his people. He never took what Lagash and its people gave him of good fortune and admiration and support for granted. He wanted future generations to know what he, a non-royal, common man, looked like, and he took the time to perhaps sit for the portrait himself like Starr suggests, so that they would know that anyone can benefit from the greatness of Lagash and Sumer.

What I see in the alabaster statue is that Gudea wasn’t proud of himself. Gudea was proud of his land that made him what he became…

The true face of Gudea. (Source)

Gudea of Lagash became a great man whose greatness will always be known.

Now that you’ve seen his true face, do you think you could recognize Gudea if you ran into him on the street? Let us know in the comments! (I personally think Phil Collins could be his living doppelganger. What do you think?)

Sources and further reading:

Gudea Cylinders http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/cylinders-gudea

Picture of Gudea Cylinders http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GudeaZylinder.jpg

Gudea entry at Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gudea

Ancient Cities http://www.scribd.com/doc/97236625/13/THE-NEO-SUMERIAN-REVIVAL-HISTORICAL-SUMMARY

Gudea of Lagash at the Louvre http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/gudea-prince-lagash-seated-statue-dedicated-god-ningishzida

 
2 Comments

Posted by on February 10, 2013 in Kings, Sumerian, Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Q&A: Andy Lowings, a reincarnated Ancient Mesopotamian (I’m pretty sure)

The bull head of the Lyre of Ur peeks out of a beautiful cover sent to Andy Lowings by an Iraqi woman from Baghdad, who painted it by hand. `Iraqi bull just refused to be kept in!` Mr. Lowings said. (LPhoto courtesy of Andy Lowings)

A year ago, I discovered and wrote about the Golden Lyre of Ur Project, a multinational effort to recreate the 4,750-year-old instrument from scratch, just as the Ancient Mesopotamians did.

The project was spearheaded by Andy Lowings, a man who put his mind to doing something amazing and set out to do it. What he ended up with was a worldwide sensation (at times met and welcomed with a rose-petal-strewn stage, no less!) that brings to life an ancient world unknown to many.

Although the post mentioning the Golden Lyre of Ur Project has been on the blog since November of 2011, I wasn’t lucky enough to hear from Mr. Lowings until just a few months ago. It is an honor to now be in contact with such an amazing individual, who I’m sure is a reincarnated Ancient Mesopotamian!

So, without further delay, here is a Q&A I did with Mr. Lowings, through which I’m sure you will find him an inspiring individual that reminds us that no matter what we set out to do, passion drives us further than we can possibly imagine. He also makes it look easy, but rest assured that only he can carry it out so beautifully!

***

Can you tell us a little bit about your background, and how and when you became interested in Mesopotamian history?

Of course! It`s a nice thing to be asked about yourself from across the world, thank you for taking an interest!

I`m a Civil Engineer and I spent 9 years in Dubai and enjoyed building up the city there in the 70`s. I liked the Arab world and enjoyed the big mix of different people there in the Emirates.

At that time everyone was thinking big and changing the world with new airports and hotels and roads. Everyone mixed-in well there and got on with making it happen…no-one ever said anything was impossible. I came back to Britain and then worked on the Channel Tunnel..the longest 24-mile railway under the sea to France. I think they all taught me that you could do anything.

But I also played the harp, and after a while, through the new `Internet`, I looked at the first musical instruments of all … some found in Iraq in 1929. It seemed like a well-kept secret. No-one seemed to know of these great artifacts found in Ur. All so very, very, old!

I thought that it would be a nice thing to make one of the Lyres again and see how it sounded! I thought the Baghdad Gold Lyre was the nicest and so, one day, April 10th, 2003, I said I`d make that one.

The very next day the Museum in Baghdad was looted and the original Lyre was vandalised! It was just fate. It was all over the world press and it was clear that it was a well-loved Iraqi icon. So I had to make a playable version of it.

Lyre_in_downtown_DC_rs[1]

Transporting the Lyre into Washington DC to the Smithsonian Theatre! (Photo and caption courtesy of Andy Lowings)

;

How is the Golden Lyre of Ur project doing now that it’s been around for a few years?

What started just as a hobby suddenly became of interest to lots of other people, and I managed to involve them into helping…though to be honest it was clear what existing sympathy there was, for ordinary Iraqis after the war. People were very kind and offered to help in what fields they could.

Since then, we have discovered lots about other aspects connected to the instruments of the Royal Graves at Ur. There are cuneiform texts and linguists busy interpreting them, there`s musicians and archaeologists, precious metal workers, artists and museums…all who have lots to give, in connection to these ancient times.

So we have tried to involve them too, in the story of these first musical instruments. We go to talk about different aspects to various groups. People are eager to find out what we have learned or just to hear the story of how we made the Gold Lyre again and how it connects us all today. We go to museums, universities, schools, conferences and festivals all over.

But we always try to make the connection to Iraq and its past, and so it`s always special when we meet Iraqi people who are interested. We met the Baghdad Museum staff one day in London and they were amazed at what everyone had made.

Even Kadim Al Sahir came and sat inside the van to see the Lyre with me after his concert at the Albert Hall in London…whilst hundreds of fans were outside shouting! He was a great guy.

We have just performed at the local college to drama students and later this month we will go to Cambridge University for archaeologists there. We will be providing the music! So there are lots of ideas for how to bring the Gold Lyre of Ur to people`s attention.

But of all the places, we would rather go to Iraq, and show people our Gold Lyre there and bring it to life right there in Baghdad and Basra.

After the "Githarra al someria"  show.  With Prof. Donny George, Dr Hadi Hind (Iraqi Cultural Attache), Jennifer Sturdy and Andy Lowings. (Photo and caption courtesy of Andy Lowings)

After the “Githarra al someria” show. With Prof. Donny George, Dr Hadi Hind (Iraqi Cultural Attache), Jennifer Sturdy and Andy Lowings. (Photo and caption courtesy of Andy Lowings)

You said that the unfortunate looting of the Baghdad museum in April 2003 inspired you to recreate the Golden Lyre of Ur, which lay in pieces afterwards. You’ve also said that you’ve recently recreated some Sumerian jewelry. How did this latest project come about, and what did it entail?

The Gold Lyre was found with 68 women, and it`s likely that the last player who had her hand over it in death was a woman, so in many ways this is a project about women. The jewellery was so spectacular (most of it by the way is still behind the back of the museums in storage there is so much of it) that as part of a performance we could perhaps show a little of the style of the period too.

We went to the British Museum and asked to see the jewellery, and they were kind enough to give us free access. It was such a strange feeling to really hold such tremendous objects from so long ago. We had a little gold offcuts and so thought to make the “Gold choker” which we inspected there in London.

There are actually around 60 of them and thousands of beads and silver objects in the museum. Many of the items are amazingly detailed and as good as anything made today. Tiny details and scrolls and carvings were quite impossible for me to learn how to do. But a jewellery maker near here was giving lessons so I spent the winter making the simpler Gold Choker: alternating gold and lapis lazuli triangles in a neck band.

The finished Gold Sumerian necklace in its box. (Photo and caption courtesy of Andy Lowings)

The finished Gold Sumerian necklace in its box. (Photo and caption courtesy of Andy Lowings)

Every lady we show it to wants to put it on herself! It immediately makes them look like Queen Pu’Abi herself, and so it`s an added side to our performances. I`m sure in Iraq it would be hugely interesting to the women there.

Are there any other projects related to Mesopotamia you’ve worked on or are working on?

The languages of Mesopotamia are largely unknown or too complicated for people to understand. But only this year the book “Teach Yourself Spoken Babylonian” has been published and so now gives anyone the possibility to actually pronounce the dialects of the old regions! A Cambridge University don has discovered this and so we are making some songs in the real dialects of the time. With the Lyre as an accompaniment of course, it will be a new CD of Mesopotamian hit numbers… from their Sumerian Top “Sixty” maybe?

Recording our new Gold Lyre of Ur song, in November. Its called “The Flood” and its sung in the original Akkadian language by Stef Conner. (Photo and caption courtesy of Andy Lowings)

Recently, we played the Gold Lyre of Ur in Germany at Lake Constance to a conference of 450 world Lyre players. We were given a huge stage and lights and even a special welcome of rose petals strewn over the stage for the Lyre`s arrival. It was most moving.

So we thought that we might, in future, invite some dancers to make a collaboration with the Gold Lyre. And even to invite an artist to create some backdrop stage images; paintings, to set the scene for what the Gold Lyre of Ur is all about. Scenes of old Iraq, old civilisations and reconstruction and new civilisations..

Positive images for the future, I hope. Yet the last chapter of our book has not yet been written..and that must be the visit to Iraq.

How has doing the amazing work you do in educating the world about Mesopotamia in a most unique way changed your life?

It`s been an honour to direct the course of a project. One which started just as a hobby and which now connects so many different people. One which can do some good.

Without doubt it has changed me and everyone who has been involved with it, though it`s not always been simple and easy, I have to say. We have met such great, great people. Brave people, and clever people, kind people who have not asked for anything in return for helping.

Last week a lovely hand-painted Lyre cover was sent to us from a lady in Baghdad (pictured at top of post)…”I wanted to help you,” she said.

I hardly know her name. Who wouldn`t be moved by such generosity coming this way?

***

Be sure to check out the Lyre of Ur website at http://www.lyre-of-ur.com, where you can learn more about the project, and see if you can witness it where you are!

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Feasting in Mesopotamia

Standard of Ur Banquet scene. (Source)

The Greek historian Herodotus said that when the city of Babylon fell to the Persians in 539 BC, what King Cyrus and his armies found behind its walls were Babylonians feasting. The Bible says the same about the event, which served to peg the very name of that great city to excessive luxury.

I started with the fall of Babylon, but luxurious feasts and banquets had been a part of Mesopotamian culture from the time of the Sumerians, the ones who started it all.

Why they feasted

We feast today to celebrate all things happy, from weddings to religious holidays. Mesopotamians were no different.

The famous Standard of Ur (pictured above) contains a rather detailed Sumerian banquet scene in which servants bring food and drink to seated figures, one of them higher and larger than the rest, with musicians performing. There are also cattle being led in to be prepared for the feast, which we know is a celebration of a war victory, thanks to an accompanying war scene. (Source)

The amount of detail in the Standard of Ur and other art depicting a feast or a banquet tells us of the significance of these rituals that continued to be important through the centuries.

Another depiction of a feast is found on Assyrian relief from King Ashurbanipal’s palace that dates back to the 6th Century BC. The detail of the “Garden Party” relief is incredibly intricate. It shows King Ashurbanipal (668 – 627 BC) reclining on a chaise-longue with his wife seated next to him as servants bring food and drink and play music, all in celebration of his victory against the Elamite kingdom.

The relief known as “Garden Party,” found at Ashurbanipal’s North Palace at Khorsabad.  (Source)

What makes this feast depiction so special is not only its intricate detailing, but that it also serves as a medium for gloating. Ashurbanipal’s ruthlessness is something that is echoed in most all of his depictions, and in this relief it is manifested in hanging of the defeated Elamite king Teumman’s head hanging from a nearby tree (far left tree, right in Ashurbanipal’s line of sight).

There were other occasions for celebratory feasting by kings in Ancient Mesopotamia, besides war victories and gloating. The Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (883 – 859 BC) held a huge banquet to celebrate the inauguration of his new palace in 879 BC.

But kings weren’t the only ones who feasted. So did ordinary people. For example, Assyrians, presumably the concerned merchants, celebrated the arrival of new trade goods by having feasts in their homes. (Source).

What was on the menu?

When King Ashurnasirpal II celebrated his palace’s inauguration, he spared no expense in feeding his 69,574+ guests:

“1,000 oxen, 1,000 calves, 14,000 sheep, 1,000 lambs, 500 deers, 500 gazelles, 1,000 large birds, 500 geese, 500 cranes, 1,000 mesukku-birds, 1,000 qaribu-birds, 10,000 pigeons, 10,000 turtle doves, 10,000 smaller birds, 10,000 fish, 10,000 akbiru (a small rodent), 10,000 eggs, 10,000 containers of beer, 10,000 goatskins of wine, 10,000 jars of a hot condiment, 1,000 boxes of fresh vegetables, and large quantities of honey, pistachios, roasted grain, pomegranates, dates, cheeses, olives, and all kinds of spices.” (Source)

The guests at this banquet (which was boasted about in an inscription put on a stele) were local as well as foreign dignitaries and workers. The gods were also considered guests at such extravagant banquets, and that meant part of the food was designated for the gods. For the goddess Ishtar alone Ashurnasirpal II designated some 200 heads of cattle.

To drink, Mesopotamians served beer and wine at their feasts. They also performed toasts in honor of their host.

What an Assyrian toast might’ve looked like. (Source)

Here is a description of a scene in which nobles offer a toast to their king:

…the nobles sat at tables of four. In front of them was placed a dish of food as they toasted the king, raising a rhythm (cornucopia-shaped drinking cup) with a base in the shape of a lion´s head.” (Source

Finally, are you wondering just how flavorful a Mesopotamian feast might be? At History Tastes Like This, a blog about recipes from olden times, an attempt at a Mesopotamian Beef Stew recipe is described, and it sounds like a Mesopotamian feast would’ve made your taste buds sing. Maybe you could have yourself a different kind of feast this holiday season.

Bon Appetit!

Sources and further reading:

http://joseph_berrigan.tripod.com/ancientbabylon/id19.html

http://mesopotamia.mrdonn.org/commerce.html

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/t/the_garden_party_relief.aspx

http://chloemiriam.hubpages.com/hub/standard-of-ur

http://www.ancientreplicas.com/ashurbanipal-feasting.html

http://historytastes.wordpress.com/2012/08/11/ancient-grains-mesopotamia/

http://www.gatewaystobabylon.com/myths/texts/life/recreation.htm

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on November 22, 2012 in Holidays

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,