Sumerian literature

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As Sumerian literature is called from Babylonia native literature in the Sumerian language . According to current knowledge, it is considered the oldest literature in the world.


Sumerian literature has been handed down in cuneiform on clay tablets. Most of the tradition found comes from copies that were made in ancient Babylonian times . A few specimens come from the previous epochs of the 2nd dynasty of Lagasch , the 3rd dynasty of Ur and a few from the Akkad period . This means that most of the copies were made at a time when the Sumerian language had already been replaced by the Semitic Akkadian language . However, since Sumerian was still taught in the writing schools, we have copies from such schools. For a small spectrum of Sumerian literature there is also more recent tradition up to the end of the 1st millennium BC. A few tablets from the time after Alexander also contain translations into Greek letters. In addition, there are also translations into Akkadian, mostly line by line on the same table, rarely as a separate text such as the 12th table of the Gilgamesh epic in particular.


Most Sumerian literary texts fall into the following categories:

Hymns are among the oldest texts in Sumerian literature and live on until the 1st millennium BC. Chr. Hymns praise gods, kings, temples and cities. Lamentation hymns, of which the complaints about the destruction of cities reflect negative historical events , occupy a special position . In addition, there are the ritual hymns of lament that were recited by cult priests in the Sumerian dialect Emesal with music, while the Emesal was otherwise only used for literal speech by women. The lamentations for cities are also partly written in Emesal, especially when the lamentation of a goddess is put into the mouth.

Myths deal with the lives of deities, their adventures and mutual visits. The most common gods are the goddess of war and love Inanna and the god Enki. Enki appears in his two roles as a drunkard and a lecher and as a clever and helpful god. In addition, there are sometimes human protagonists in the myths. At the beginning there is often a short section with a report from prehistoric times (creation of the world and people, etc.). Such prehistoric narratives can also precede the actual text in other genres.

Epics deal with heroes of the past, mostly partly mythical kings of the 1st dynasty of Uruk .

School discussions / disputes are on the one hand satirical exercise texts about everyday school life to learn Sumerian, perhaps also exercises in rhetoric . In disputes, personifications of opposing things like summer and winter, hoe and plow, bird and fish meet. In the end, a deity chooses the winner.

Above all, fables have animals instead of humans as actors.

Love songs are mostly about the songs between the goddess Inanna and the shepherd Dumuzi.

Texts with a historical background, riddles, incantations, collections of proverbs

Literary letters are letters from or to historically documented kings, rarely to a deity, that were copied in the writing schools. Some of it is certainly fictional, others could be based on real letters. The correspondence of the kings of Ur (3rd dynasty) was of particular interest.


The oldest known texts of mankind come from Layer IV and the somewhat younger Layer III in Uruk . They are written in a script that reproduces administrative processes, such as the summation of goods, without clothe them in the sentences of a language. So they do not yet represent a written language. In this context, it was discussed whether the so-called tribute list might be a literary text. However, this has not yet been clarified. The inscription on the so-called Figure aux plumes , which is centuries younger, has more prospect of being recognized as a literary text . Initially, a legal deed or sales contract was suspected, whereby the editors admitted that they did not understand the text. However, some sumerologists now interpret it as a hymn to the god Ningirsu .

The first certainly literary works were found in Fāra and Tell Abū ṢalābĪḫ . They date from around 2600 BC. They include incantations, hymns, collections of proverbs and wisdom literature and at least one excerpt from an epic that has not survived later, but whose hero Lugalbanda appears in other stories. Since the language and writing system differ from the better known, more recent Sumerian, some grammatical elements have not yet been written and the order of the characters can vary, these texts are only partially understandable. In addition, there is the use of a second orthographic system in which many of these texts are written and which could not be fully deciphered. Relatively few literary texts found in layers of the following epochs, namely the more recent Early Dynasty, Akkadian and the 2nd Dynasty of Lagasch and the 3rd Dynasty of Ur (until 2003 BC). Many texts of the later Old Babylonian period, such as the hymns to the kings of Ur, certainly come from this time. It is noteworthy that with En-hedu-anna , which dates from around 2200 BC BC lived in Ur, for the first time in history someone can be recognized as an author, or in this case as an author of literary works. Otherwise Sumerian literature is anonymous.

In the old Babylonian period, when the Semitic Akkadian was spoken in everyday life, Sumerian literature experienced its climax, or rather, the surviving written tradition is by far the most extensive. Numerous genres become tangible (see above). The tradition of many works ends with the ancient Babylonian period. In addition to a few other works, anthems of lamentation and incantations in particular have been handed down for a long time. In addition to Sumerian literature, Akkadian literature is now also frequently written down. The original Sumerian Gilgamesh fabric is redesigned in Akkadian.

Characteristics and text examples

Apart from the use of the Sumerian language, there is no characteristic that appears in all texts of Sumerian literature. Many texts show a proximity to the oral tradition. This closeness is expressed in a limited length, in frequent repetitions like in a song, and in the anonymity of the authorship and free changeability of the text. There are also texts that explicitly belong to a written tradition, such as literary letters. The mythical introductions with stories from prehistoric times are another common characteristic, but they can also be completely absent. From the Iliad of Homer and other epics, the Sumerian epics differ in that they have very little interest in battle scenes. It is discussed whether individual epics and disputes were also staged in front of an audience. But there are no clear stage directions.

It is not possible to give an overview of Sumerian literature in this context. So here are just a few examples:

One of the oldest texts is the “Council of Shuruppak”. He begins with the words:

“The understanding, who knows the words, who lives in the land of Sumer,
Shuruppak, the understanding, who knows the words, who lives in the land of Sumer,
Shuruppak gave advice to his son:
“ My son, I want to give you advice,
pay attention to mine Advice!
Do not put your field next to a street [...] ""

In the Old Babylonian version, about 800 years later, the beginning has become:

"At that time, in those distant days,
in those nights, in those distant nights,
in those years, in those distant years,
then (advised) the disciple who knows the artful words, who knows the words, who lives in the land of Sumer,
Shuruppak, the disciple, who knows the artful words, who knows the words, who lives in the land of Sumer
, Shuruppak truly advised his son.
Shuruppak, the son of Ubartutu
advised his son Ziusudra [...] "

As a young woman, the goddess Inanna meets her lover Dumuzi on the street. He holds her hand, but Inanna has to go home. Dumuzi says:

“I want to teach you, I want to teach you!
Inanna, I want to teach you the lies of women!
“My friend danced with me in the wide square.
She ran around with me, playing the drum and tambourine.
Her songs were beautiful, she sang for me,
the joy was beautiful, the time passed. “
Your birth mother presented that as a lie!
But as for us, let me make you love in the moonlight,
let me loosen your hair on the pure, luxurious bed! "


See also

Sumerian literature in translations


  • J. Krecher: Sumerian Literature. In: W. Röllig (Hg): Old oriental literatures . Wiesbaden: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft Athenaion, 1978, ISBN 3-79970-710-7 .
  • J. Liebermann (Ed): Sumerological Studies in Honor of Thorkild Jacobsen on His Seventieth Birthday June 7, 1974 . Chicago: The Oriental Institute, 1976. (Assyriological Studies; XX), ISBN 0-226-62282-7 .

Individual evidence

  1. Geller, MJ 1997. 'The Last Wedge'. Journal of Assyriology and Near Eastern Archeology. 87, pp. 43-95.
  2. ^ A. R George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, Oxford / New York 2003, ISBN 0-19-814922-0 , pp. 528-530; 743-777
  3. J. Krecher, Klagelied, in Reallexikon der Assyriologie, Vol. 6, Berlin / New York, 1980-83, ISBN 3-11-010051-7 , pp. 1-6
  4. K. Volk, controversy, in MP Streck, Reallexikon der Assyriologie, Volume 13, 2011-13, Berlin / Boston, ISBN 978-3-11-030715-3 , pp. 214-22
  5. ^ Piotr Michalowski, The Correspondence of the Kings of Ur. An Epstolary History of an Ancient Mesopotamian Kingdom, Winona Lake 2011, ISBN 978-1-57506-194-8
  6. ^ R. Englund, Texts from the Late Uruk Period, in: Josef Bauer, Robert K. Englund and Manfred Krebernik, Mesopotamien. Late Uruk and Early Dynastic times . Approaches I. (Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 160/1.), Universitätsverlag Freiburg Switzerland 1998, ISBN 3-7278-1166-8 , Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1998
  7. ^ Wilcke, C., The inscription of "Figure aux Plumes" - an early work of Sumerian poetry, in U. Finkbeiner, R. Dittmann and H. Hauptmann (eds.), Contributions to the cultural history of the Middle East. Festschrift for Rainer M. Boehmer , Mainz, Verlag Philipp von Zabern 1995, ISBN 3-8053-1863-4
  8. Manfred Krebernik, in J. Bauer et al. (Ed.) Mesopotamia. Late Uruk Period and Early Dynastic Period, Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 160/1, Freiburg (Switzerland) / Göttingen, 1998, ISBN 3-525-53797-2 , pp. 257-59
  9. Manfred Krebernik, in J. Bauer et al. (Ed.) Mesopotamia. Late Uruk Period and Early Dynastic Period, Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 160/1, Freiburg (Switzerland) / Göttingen, 1998, ISBN 3-525-53797-2 , pp. 313-15
  10. ^ DO Edzard, Old Babylonian Literature and Religion, in D. Charpin et al. (Ed.), Mesopotamia. The Old Babylonian Era, Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 160/4, Friborg / Göttingen, 2004, ISBN 3-525-53063-3 , pp. 485–642, especially 491–572
  11. ^ A. R George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, Oxford / New York 2003, ISBN 0-19-814922-0
  12. MPStreck, The Prologues of the Sumerian Epics , Orientalia 71, Rome 2002, ISSN 0030-5367, pp. 189-266
  13. C. Wilcke, The Sumerian Poem Enmerkar and En-suhkes-ana: Epic, PLay, Or? , American Oriental Series 12, New Haven 2012, ISBN 978-0-940490-89-5
  14. ^ B. Alster, Wisdom of Ancient Sumer Bethesda 2005, ISBN 1-883053-92-7
  15. Y. Sefati, Love Songs in Sumerian Literature, Bar-Ilan 1998, ISBN 965-226-203-X