ETCSLliteratureSignSign name: NIM
Values: deḫi3, elam, nim, tum4

Sumerian literature


The question of what constitutes literature has no definitive answer, different societies providing different responses, although there is often more agreement about what is not literature rather than about what is.

In Sumer, in the south of what is now Iraq, it is clear that the first writing, dating to some 5,000 years ago, had a simple and practical information function, being used to keep socio-economic and administrative records on clay tablets.

However, such texts were soon accompanied by lists of cuneiform signs. These include complex signs that appear never to have had any function outside of the lists in which they occur, and which were modelled on other signs that do appear in socio-economic texts. As such, these signs can be regarded as part of the creative and imaginative process which also resulted in literature written in Sumerian. And even among the early texts there is one poorly understood composition which differs so markedly from other contemporary documents that it can possibly be regarded as literature.

The third millennium

The third millennium history of Mesopotamia, a wider area incorporating Sumer, is conventionally divided into three broad periods: Early Dynastic until approximately 2350; Sargonic, until approximately 2150, named so after the celebrated king, Sargon of Agade, a city whose patron deity was the goddess of love and war, Inana; and Ur III until approximately 2000, named so after the then capital city, Ur (an anglicisation of the Sumerian Urim), and termed 'III' because some literary sources describe this as the third time that Urim had served as the capital.

It is only towards the end of the Early Dynastic period that there is more straightforward evidence for literary compositions, although their contents often still remain somewhat elusive. Among these is one composition, entitled 'The instructions of Šuruppag' by modern scholars, in which a father offers proverbial advice to his son, and another in praise of a cult centre, 'The hymn to Keš'. In both cases, versions of these compositions are also written on later tablets dating to the 18th century, edited within the corpus as numbers 5.6.1 and 4.80.2 respectively. Another recounts the adventures of a goddess and a legendary ruler, Lugalbanda, who is the central figure in two later narratives (,

Also first attested in the late Early Dynastic period are two particular types of non-utilitarian text that had a long history in Mesopotamia: incantations and royal inscriptions.

The former employ various religious and rhetorical strategies, as well as mimetic ritual, to achieve instrumental ends such as curing illness. Currently these compositions are not included within the corpus.

The royal inscriptions commemorate the deeds of a ruler and were typically written on a material other than clay tablets. Most follow a fairly conventional formula and again do not form part of the corpus. Those, however, that are less stereotyped have been included, among them the earliest, and longest, manuscript in the corpus, 'The building of Ninĝirsu's temple' (2.1.7), an epic account of temple-building for the god Ninĝirsu which is written on two clay cylinders dating to between the Sargonic and Ur III periods.

No manuscripts in the corpus date to the Sargonic period, although Sargon's rise to power is the subject of one composition, 'Sargon and Ur-Zababa' (2.1.4), which is again written on tablets of a later date. In addition, his daughter Enḫeduana, a priestess of the moon-god Nanna, is mentioned in various later attested compositions: 4.07.2 and 4.07.3 are hymns to the goddess Inana credited to her; 4.80.1 is a collection of hymns to cult centres of which she is said to be the compiler; and 4.13.03 is one of several hymns to Nanna in which she is mentioned.

A few manuscripts may date to the Ur III period (one a hymn to the Ur III king Ur-Namma, 4.1.a, and the other a hymn to Inana, 4.07.a), including some instances in which versions of the same composition are known both from this and later periods, the former being more fragmentary (,, 2.1.5,,, 4.16.1, 4.80.1).

The corpus

The bulk of the compositions in the corpus are, however, written on tablets that date to the 18th century, with many coming from the city of Nibru, the religious centre of Sumer. Uncertainties remain about when much of this literature was first composed, and about the extent of any debt to a preceding or ongoing oral tradition. Many of the compositions consist of praise either of earlier rulers or of divine hymns with prayers on behalf of these rulers, two kings being particularly prominent, the Ur III ruler Šulgi and Išme-Dagan, a 20th century ruler whose capital was Isin. Whether these 18th century manuscripts innovate rather than preserving an earlier, so far unrecovered tradition is difficult to establish.

Many of the tablets come from schools in which literature served a curricular function. However, the presence in some of the compositions of rubrics, technical terms indicating different sections of a composition, and of subscripts specifying different types of native genre, may indicate that they had predecessors which served a ritual function. The corpus itself is divided into seven broad groupings; inevitably these categories are based on modern perceptions which do not necessarily reflect Mesopotamian ones.

  • An initial 0 is used for ancient literary catalogues in which compositions are cited by their first lines.
  • An initial 1 indicates compositions with a high narrative content, 1.1 to 1.7 being ones in which deities are the principal protagonists and 1.8 ones in which legendary heroes such as Lugalbanda play that role.
  • Category 2 moves on from myth and epic to compositions referring to events and rulers that are attested elsewhere in the written record, although presenting both according to highly stylised paradigms that provide little historically reliable information. Categories 2.3 to 2.8 consist of praise of rulers and of divine hymns with prayers on behalf of rulers, grouped first by the city which then served as capital, and within that by the kings in chronological sequence.
  • The primary focus of category 3 is on letters, including ones between historically documented figures and ones petitioning deities for assistance. While most of Sumerian literature can be classified as poetry on the basis of its style, a particular feature being the frequent use of syntactic parallelism, the letters between human correspondents are best regarded as prose. They are, however, classifiable as literature partly because they come from a curricular context and partly because they appear to be creative adaptations, rather than exact copies, of actual correspondence.
  • Categories 4.01 to 4.33 consist of hymns praising deities and 4.80 of hymns praising temples, illustrating the central role that the divine played in Mesopotamia and the conceptual importance of the temple, the deity's earthly residence, to the functioning of society.
  • Category 5 is more heterogeneous. It includes various compositions related to schooldays and scribal training (5.1); debates between personified aspects of nature in which each participant piles increasingly extravagant vitriol on the other until a deity, or sometimes king, reaches a verdict between the two (5.3); dialogues and diatribes, some of which glory similarly in invective but feature human participants (5.4); compositions celebrating the qualities of living as well as departed individuals (5.5); didactic compositions offering idealised moral and practical guidance (5.6); and lexical compositions making elaborate use of different words containing the same sound (5.5.4) or placing semantically related words within a narrative structure (5.9.1).
  • The final category, 6, consists mainly of proverbs, many of which were organised into collections that also contain animal fables and folk tales.

Most of the compositions in the corpus are written entirely in the main variety of Sumerian, known as Emegir (perhaps meaning 'native tongue'). Some, however, contain words written in a variety of Sumerian known as Emesal (perhaps meaning 'thin or fine tongue'). Such writings occur particularly in the speech of goddesses, the assumption being that the whole speech was understood to be in Emesal regardless of how it was written. Ritual compositions written much more extensively in Emesal are also attested but are currently not part of the corpus.

In one of the compositions in his honour Šulgi declares: 'May my hymns be in everyone's mouth; let the songs about me not pass from memory. So that the fame of my praise ... shall never be forgotten, I have had it written down line by line in the House of the Wisdom of Nisaba in holy heavenly writing, as great works of scholarship. No one shall ever let any of it pass from memory .... It shall not be forgotten, since indestructible heavenly writing has a lasting renown' ( lines 240-248). His prediction proved false, very little of Sumerian literature surviving the changes that took place in Mesopotamia in the 17th century. The work of preserving such compositions has fallen instead to modern scholars over the last 100 years, reclaiming the world's earliest written literature for an audience of which it never dreamt.

Sumerian scribe

© Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 The ETCSL project, Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford
Updated 2005-03-14 by GC

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