BMCR 2006.01.27

The Literature of Ancient Sumer

, The literature of ancient Sumer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 1 online resource (lxiii, 372 pages) : illustrations, maps. ISBN 1423757122 £63.00.

[Note: The reviewer was a student of one of the book’s editors (Dr Eleanor Robson) after the book was published. He has in no way been involved with the ETCSL project.]

This elegant and thoroughly commendable volume deriving from the acclaimed Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature project translates seventy works of Sumerian literature into English, arranging them into thematic groupings.1 It will be welcomed by all desiring closer acquaintance with the literary treasures of Ancient Mesopotamia,2 and can be warmly recommended as the standard new first port of call for those who approach Sumerian literature by medium of English.

Translating Sumerian is a particularly demanding and intricate task, as the language presents many more difficulties than modern or even other ancient ones. Sumerian (whose very existence was still disputed just over a century ago) is still not fully understood, and many nuances are provisionally lost to us. Research tools are inadequate — a comprehensive up-to-date dictionary is lacking.3 The number of scholars working in the field is small. The literary compositions themselves have to be pieced together painstakingly from thousands of clay fragments housed in museums all over the world. The content of the compositions is often far removed from modern aesthetics and ethics and not always easy to comprehend.

All these factors, and others, have seriously limited the diffusion and appreciation of Sumerian literature outside Sumerological circles, so volumes of translations aimed at non-specialists are particularly desirable. The Literature of Ancient Sumer ( LitAS) has only one serious predecessor in English: The Harps that Once …, by the Danish Sumerologist Thorkild Jacobsen.4 Jacobsen was a great but idiosyncratic scholar, and his idiosyncracies were compounded by the use of a complex, poetic English style in translation. The overall effect of his translations was to augment rather than lessen the obscurity of the original. The translations in LitAS, by contrast, are deliberately plainer and more readable, and correspondingly more effective in rendering the works accessible to non-specialists. Attention to important detail is maintained in the translation of variants from different manuscripts.

Even in the best translation, however, the alterity of Sumerian literary works is bound occasionally to baffle a first-time reader. This is one reason why, though the translations in LitAS are taken (with slight modifications) from the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, the printed volume can be recommended over and above the online translations: unlike the ETCSL website, LitAS includes extensive introductions. In the first place there is a wide-ranging general introduction (pp. xix-lxiii). Secondly, the translations are divided into ten thematic groupings (A ‘heroes and kings’, B ‘Inana and Dumuzid’, C ‘Enlil and Ninlil’, D ‘the moon-god Nanna-Suen’, E ‘the warrior gods Nergal, Numushda, and Ninurta’, F ‘love and sex’, G ‘the natural order’, H ‘the hymnic genres’, I ‘scribes and learning’, J ‘the Decad, a scribal curriculum’), and each grouping has its own introduction. Lastly, each single work translated also receives its own introduction. The general introduction and the introductions to the thematic groupings include bibliographies. The cumulative effect of the introductions is to render the volume a rare and much-needed organic introduction to Sumerian literary achievement.

The publication of LitAS is very much an occasion to celebrate the riches of Sumerian literature as literature. It is one of the cumulative aims of the ETCSL team to promote appreciation of Sumerian works and to emancipate them from unflattering and reductive designations such as ‘stories’, ‘tales’, ‘myths’ and the like (perhaps even ‘literary texts’). In this respect, the very title The Literature of Ancient Sumer is programmatic. Equally so is the general introduction, which opens with a section ‘The literature of ancient Sumer’, tackling the question of what it means today to call Sumerian works ‘literature’. This discussion is grounded by way of illustration in a close reading of a Sumerian inscription inspired by comparison with the poem London Airport by Christopher Logue (1974). The exposition includes sub-sections on literariness, literary language, genre, fictionality, narrative and character, affect, and intertextuality. It is limpid, revealing and compelling. Sections on ‘The tablets of ancient Sumer’, ‘The scribes of ancient Sumer’ and ‘The study of ancient Sumer’ follow, dealing with topics such as the nature of ancient manuscripts, textual transmission, scribal education, and the history of Sumerology. Thus no topic is neglected which one would expect to see discussed, but the editors’ choice of which section to put first is noteworthy.

The critical appreciation of Sumerian literature is still very much in its infancy,5 and in urgent need of contributions by (or written in conjunction with) literarily minded and trained scholars from outside the small field of Sumerology. Despite certain obscurities as mentioned above, works of Sumerian literature often achieve unexpectedness, vividness, memorability. Some examples may be cited to entice readers as yet unfamiliar with them. Sigmund Freud would surely have been interested to read: ‘My shepherd, I will explain your dream for you in every detail. The person who, as you said, was as enormous as the heavens, who was as enormous as the earth, whose head was like that of a god, whose wings, as you say, were like those of the Anzud bird, and whose lower body was, as you said, like a flood storm, at whose right and left lions were lying, was in fact my brother Ningirsu’ (p. 48). Readers accustomed to stories beginning with ‘Once upon a time, in a city far, far, away’ may find the following incipit refreshing: ‘There was a city, there was a city — the one we live in’ (p. 103). Sir Thomas Browne might have approved the following meditation on the cyclicality of government: ‘Urim was indeed given kingship but it was not given an eternal reign. From time immemorial, since the Land was founded, until people multiplied, who has ever seen a reign of kingship that would take precedence for ever? The reign of its kingship had been long indeed but had to exhaust itself’ (p. 137).6 Another passage has a Gothic quality which would do credit to Matthew Lewis: ‘She filled the wells of the Land with blood, it was blood that the irrigated orchards of the Land yielded, it was blood that the slave who went to collect firewood drank, it was blood that the slavegirl who went out to draw water drew, and it was blood that the black-headed people drank. No one knew when this would end’ (p. 202). Readers of many of the world’s religious literatures will recognise a sentiment as familiar: ‘Heaven is far, earth is most precious, but it is with heaven that you multiply your goods, and all foreign lands breathe under it’ (p. 287).

The volume is extremely well produced, and a credit to Oxford University Press. It contains thirty-nine well chosen illustrations. The following criticisms are quibbles. Pp. xxxiv-v the reference to ergativity is perhaps too compressed for an uninitiated reader to follow (the term ‘ergative’ is not actually explained). P. xxxv ‘a large four-sided tablet (known as a ‘prism’)’: ‘tablet’ and ‘prism’ are usually regarded as exclusive categories, so perhaps simply say ‘object’ instead of ‘tablet’. P. 275 ‘Sumerian literature was by definition chosen, written, remodelled by a few highly literate individuals’: the actual point is well taken, but the words ‘by definition’ are perhaps unduly reductive of oral literature. P. 360 ‘Glossary of Sumerian Names’: ‘Glossary of Ancient Names’ might be a better title, since many Akkadian names are included (and could usefully be identified as such), e.g. p. 365 Ilum-puzura, p. 369 Rim-Sîn, p. 370 Sîn-iqisham, etc. Pp. 360-72 for some names in the glossary the literal meaning is given (e.g. p. 363 E-sikil is translated as ‘pure house’), for others not (e.g. p. 364 Iddin-Dagan could have been translated as ‘Dagan gave’). It might have been desirable to supply etymologies for all names (indicating uncertainties ad hoc). This would have assisted the reader in e.g. discerning the link between the god Enmul (‘lord star’) and his wife Ninmul (‘lady star’).

Such trivia by no means detract from an important and necessary work for which the editors deserve gratitude and congratulations. Jeremy Black, co-editor of LitAS and founder of the ETCSL project, died while the book was in press. A sentence in the introduction thus acquires a moving poignancy: ‘A good literary work will survive, one hopes, long after the individual patron is dead’ (p. xlvii). LitAS enshrines much of Jeremy Black’s expertise, literary sensitivity and vision. It is a tribute to him and his colleagues that thanks to their volume Sumerian literature will be read with pleasure, interest and gain for many years to come — by, one hopes, ever wider audiences.


1. Sumerian civilisation flourished in a network of city-states in the south of Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) in the third and late fourth millennia BCE. The Sumerian language, written in cuneiform script (usually on clay tablets), has no known cognates. It probably died out as a vernacular language in the first half of the second millennium BCE, but continued to be used in learned, religious and magical contexts even into the Common Era. From the third millennium, tens of thousands of administrative letters and records are preserved, while literary works are sparse. In the early second millennium, however, Sumerian literature figured prominently in the curriculum of Old Babylonian scribal schools, where students copied and re-copied them (sometimes under dictation). It is from the Old Babylonian period (c.1900-1600 BCE) that most extant manuscripts of Sumerian literary works derive, especially from the sites of Nippur and Ur.

2. For literary works written in Akkadian, the principal language of Mesopotamia after Sumerian had died out, one can turn to several publications: Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia (2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2000); Andrew George, The Epic of Gilgamesh: a new translation (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 2000); Benjamin R. Foster, Before The Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature (3rd ed. Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005).

3. It deserves mention, however, that in recent years the search facilities of the ETCSL itself and the online interface of the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary have brought about incalculable improvements in Sumerian lexicography, which these projects promise to set on a new footing in the not too distant future.

4. Thorkild Jacobsen, The Harps that Once …: Sumerian Poetry in Translation (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1987). Anthologies of translations into other languages include: Herman Vanstiphout, Helden en Goden van Sumer. Een keuze uit de heroïsche en mythologische dichtkunst van het Oude Mesopotamië (Nijmegen: Uitgeverij SUN, 1998); Jean Bottéro and Samuel Noah Kramer, Lorsque les dieux faisaient l’homme (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1989 repr. 1993).

5. The best introduction to critical appreciation of Sumerian literature is perhaps J.A. Black’s Reading Sumerian Poetry (London: Athlone, 1998), the bulk of which is taken up with a study of the use of imagery in the Lugalbanda poems.

6. Browne wrote ( Religio Medici, 1643, section 17): ‘because the glory of one state depends upon the ruin of another, there is a revolution and vicissitude of their greatness, and must obey the swing of that wheel, not moved by intelligencies, but by the hand of God, whereby all estates arise to their zenith and vertical points, according to their predestinated periods. For the lives, not only of men, but of commonwealths and the whole world, run not upon a helix that still enlargeth; but on a circle, where, arriving to their meridian, they decline in obscurity, and fall under the horizon again’. As Browne himself was a firm believer in the polygenesis of ideas, he would have been particularly pleased by the similarity between his own idea of divinely ordained periodicity of government and that expressed in the Sumerian Lament for Sumer and Urim, composed over three millennia previously.