The Sumerian Character: Drives, Motives, and Values

By and large, studies devoted to Sumerian culture and civilization approach their subject from the descriptive point of view only. Usually, they proceed to break up Sumerian culture into its various aspects; social, political, economic, administrative, legal, religious, technological, artistic, and literary.

Each of these sub-divisions is then described with as much detail as the available data permit and the particular purpose of the study calls for. Rarely is Sumerian culture approached from the psychological point of view, that is, from a consideration of the character and personality of the people who created it. To help fill this gap, I have devoted a series of studies in the past several years to the psychological aspects of Sumerian civilization, especially as revealed in their literary documents.

In a paper entitled “Rivalry and Superiority: Two Dominant Features of the Sumerian Culture Pattern,” I tried to isolate and describe one of the major motivating forces of Sumerian behavior, the drive for superiority and pre-eminence with its great stress on competition and success. In an article entitled “Love, Hate and Fear: Psychological Aspects of Sumerian Culture,” I sketched the role of love, hate, and fear as motivating emotional drives in Sumerian conduct. In this chapter, I shall try to summarize the results of these two studies. It cannot be stressed strongly enough that the conclusions here presented are preliminary and tentative in character; even the literary documents whose texts are complete cannot be fully understood, let alone thoseand they are in the majority-which still have numerous gaps and breaks. Nevertheless, it can be safely said that at least some of the results sketched in this chapter are reasonably trustworthy and will stand the test of time.

Let us start with the three emotional drives which motivate not a few of man’s values: love, hate, and fear. The Sumerian word for “love” is a compound verb which seems to mean literally “to measure the earth,” “to mete out a place”; just how this developed into the meaning “love” is uncertain.

As is true of all mankind, love among the Sumerians was an emotion which varied in character and intensity. There was the passionate, sensuous love between the sexes, which usually culminated in marriage; the love between husband and wife, be-tween parents and children, between the various members of the family; the love between friends and intimates; and the love between gods, kings, and people. We may begin our sketch of love in Sumer with the natural, passionate love between “man and maid.”

It is well known that marriage in ancient Sumer, and indeed in the ancient Near East in general, was usually a practical arrangement in which the carefully weighed shekel counted more than love’s hot desire. Nevertheless, there is considerable evidence that there was no little wooing and cooing before marriage; much of it was no doubt surreptitious and all the sweeter for it. A very illuminating example is furnished by a poem inscribed on a tablet in the Hilprecht Collection of the Friedrich-Schiller University of lena, which might well be entitled “Love Finds a Way” or “Fooling Mother.” The two main characters in the poem are lnanna, “Queen of Heaven,” the Sumerian Venus, and Dumuzi, her sweet-heart and husband-to-be. The poem, which is designated by the ancient scribe himself as a tigi, that is, probably a song recited to the accompaniment of the lyre, is divided illto two stanzas. The first begins with a soliloquy by lnanna in which she relates that one day while she was innocently singing and dancing about in heaven, Dumuzi met her, took her hand, and embraced her; she then begged him to let go of her, since she did not know how she could keep this clandestine love from her mother Ningal, wife of the moon-god, Sin. Whereupon Dumuzi suggests that she deceive her mother by telling her that she whiled away the hours with a girl friend in the public square. And with this as a ready excuse, they make love by the moonlight. Here now are the poet’s own words:

Last night as I the queen was shining bright, Last night as I the queen of heaven was shining bright, As I was shining bright, was dancing about, As I was singing away while the bright light overcame (?) the night,

He met me, he met me, The lord Kuli-Anna (Dumuzi) met me, The lord put his hand into my hand, Ushumgal-Anna (Dumuzi) embraced me.

There then follows a rather engaging, tender, and amorous tete-a-tete between the two lovers, with Inanna pleading:

Come (?) now (?) set me free, I must go home, Kuli-Enlil, (Dumuzi) set me free, I must go home, What can I say to deceive my motherl What can I say to deceive my mother, Ningall

But this does not stop Dumuzi, who has a ready answer:

I will tell you, I will tell you, Inanna, most deceitful of women, I will tell you, (Say) “My girl friend, she took me with her to the public square, There a player (?) entertained (?) us with dancing, His chant, the sweet, he sang for us, In sweet rejoicing he whiled away the time for us”; Thus deceitfully stand up to your mother, While we by the moonlight take our fill of love, I will prepare (?) for you a bed pure, sweet, and noble, The sweet day will bring you joyful fulfillment.”

The second stanza consists of an exulting monologue by Inanna -and no wonder-since it seems that after their night of pleasure, Dumuzi had agreed to marry her. The first part of the stanza is destroyed; when the text picks up again, Inanna is making a joyful announcement that Dumuzi is about to speak to her mother, presumably to ask for her hand in marriage. The poem concludes, naturally enough, with Inanna’s ecstatic eulogy of her husband-to-be and the future victim of her dire wrath.

I (Inanna) have come to my mother’s gate, Walking in joy, I have come to Ningal’s gate, Walking in joy, To my mother he (Dumuzi) will say the word, Will sprinkle cypress oil on the Hoor, To my mother Ningal he will say the word, Will sprinkle cypress oil on the Hoor, He whose dwelling is fragrant, Whose word brings joy.

My lord of pure and seemly limbs, Ama-Ushumgal-Anna, the son-in-law of Sin, My lord, sweet is your increase, Tasty your plants and herbs in the plain, Ama-Ushumgal-Anna, sweet is your increase, Tasty your plants and herbs in the plain.

Although according to this poem, Inanna and Dumuzi keep their love a secret and are even prepared to deceive Inanna’s mother, there is another version of the affair in which Dumuzi woos his bride in the open and with her mother’s full approbation. According to this myth, Dumuzi, the shepherd, comes to Inanna’s house and asks for admittance. At her mother’s advice, she bathes and anoints herself, puts on her queenly robes, adorns herself with precious stones, and opens the door for Dumuzi. They embrace in joy and probably cohabit.

In still another version of the Dumuzi-Inanna courtship and marriage, the permission of Inanna’s father, the moon-god, Sin, seems to be an essential condition. According to this poem, which consists of two stanzas, Inanna, after bedecking the various parts of her body with jewels of precious metals and stones, is met by Dumuzi in the gipar of the Eanna temple in Erech. She is eager to bed with him at once, but evidently finds it advisable to get her father’s consent; in any case, we find her sending a messenger to her father with the request that Dumuzi be allowed to dally with her.

While according to the three versions summarized above, Inan-na’s love for Dumuzi seems every bit as warm and passionate as that of Dumuzi for her-even more so in some respects-we get quite a different picture from another Sumerian poem which belongs to the disputation genre of literary works. According to this myth, which is in the form of a playlet, lnanna actually loves the farmer Enkimdu and not the shepherd Dumuzi. In spite of the persuasive efforts of her brother, the sun-god Utu, lnanna first turns Dumuzi down “Hat” and only changes her mind after a rather angry and aggressive speech by Dumuzi in which he em-phasizes the superiority of his possessions over those of Enkimdu. In fact, Dumuzi is so upset by lnanna’s preference that he tries to pick a fight with his rival, Enkimdu, and it is only after the latter appeases him with friendly words and promises that the two rivals become reconciled.

Nor were Dumuzi and lnanna the only deities whose marriage was preceded by a passionate love affair. Enlil, the leading deity of the Sumerian pantheon, Nippur’s “young man,” fell in love at first sight with Ninlil, Nippur’s “young maid,” when he saw her on the bank of Nippur’s stream, Nunbirdu, after she had bathed in its “pure waters.” When she turned down his ardent advances, he had his messenger Nusku bring up a boat, where he raped her and impregnated her with the seed of the moon-god, Nanna. For this violent act he was punished by the fifty great gods with ban-ishment to the nether world, but the faithful Ninlil followed him and had there three more children by him. At some time the couple must have gotten married, for Ninlil is known throughout the Sumerian literary documents as Enlil’s worthy and respectable wife.

The Bedu-god Martu, on the other hand, had no need to rape the lady of his choice, Adnigkishar, daughter of Numushda, the tutelary deity of the city Kazallu. When at a divine banquet in the city of Aktab Martu expressed his wish for her to become his wife, she joyfully agreed in spite of a friend who tried hard to dissuade her because Martu was known as

A tent-dweller [buffeted (?)] by wind and rain, [he knows (?) not ( ?) ] prayers,

With the weapon he [makes (?)] the mountain his habitation, Contentious to excess, he turns (?) against the lands, knows not to bend the knee, Eats uncooked meat, Has no house in his lifetime, Is not brought to burial when he dies.

Finally the important role which love and sex played before marriage, at least in some cases, may be inferred from the love songs purported to be sung by priestesses selected as brides for the king on the occasion of the hieros-gamos celebrated on New Year’s Day. Two such songs have come down to us, and these ring out with passionate love and sexual ecstasy. Here, for example, is one of these poems addressed to the king Shu-Sin by his beloved “bride”:

Bridegroom, dear to my heart, Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet, Lion, dear to my heart, Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet.

You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you, Bridegroom, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber, You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you, Lion, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber.

Bridegroom, let me caress you, My precious caress is more savory than honey, In the bedchamber, honey-filled, Let me enjoy your goodly beauty, Lion, let me caress you, My precious caress is more savory than honey.

Bridegroom, you have taken your pleasure of me, Tell my mother, she will give you delicacies, My father, he will give you gifts.

Your spirit, I know where to cheer your spirit, Bridegroom, sleep in our house until dawn, Your heart, I know where to gladden your heart, Lion, sleep in our house until dawn.

You, because you love me, Give me pray of your caresses, My lord god, my lord protector, My Shu-Sin, who gladdens Enlil’s heart, Give me pray of your caresses.

Your place goodly as honey, pray lay (your) hand on it, Bring (your) hand over like a gishban-garment, Cup (your) hand over it like a gishban-sikin-garment.

Thus there is reason to believe that not all marriages in Sumer were for practical advantages and that at least in some instances they were motivated by love and desire. It is not surprising there-fore to find a Sumerian proverb reading:

Marry a wife according to your choice; have a child as your heart desires I

To be sure, marriage was no light burden for the Sumerian, as is evident from ~e proverb:

Who has not supported a wife or child, has not borne a leash.

Moreover, the Sumerian husband frequently found himself neglected, or as one of them puts it:

My wife is at the outdoor shrine, my mother is down by the river, and here am I starving of hunger.

Indeed, the Sumerian male at least at times regretted his marriage, as can be seen from the saying:

For his pleasure-marriage; on his thinking it over-divorce.

Whether there was love or not before marriage, once married, the couple settled down to humdrum, day-by-day existence in which love receded more and more to the background. Even so, it is not altogether unknown, and such phrases as “beloved husband” and “beloved wife” are not infrequent in the Sumerian documents. Thus, for example, in the poem “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether World,” we find GilgaIl!esh advising his loyal servant Enkidu, who is about to descend to the nether world to bring up Gilgamesh’s pukku and mikku:

Kiss not your beloved wife, Strike not your hated wife, Kiss not your beloved son, Strike not your hated son.

Or when the king Ur-Nammu, having died and gone to the nether world, finds no peace and sets up a long and bitter lament in part because of his wife whom he can no longer press to his bosom and his child whom he can no longer fondle on his knee. The king is frequently designated as the “beloved husband” of Inanna. On the votive inscriptions, the husband not infrequently includes his wife and children, that is, he dedicates the object to the deity not only for his own life but also for that of his wife and children.

This brings us to the family, the basic unit of Sumerian society. That the members of the family were knit closely together by love, respect, and familial obligations is clear from the proverb: The desert canteen is a man’s life; the shoe is a man’s eye; the wife is man’s future; the son is a man’s refuge; the daughter is a man’s salvation; the daughter-in-law is a man’s devil.

And from a lamentation passage such as:

The storm which knows not the mother, the storm which knows not the father, The storm which knows not the wife, the storm which knows not the child, The storm which knows not the sister, the storm which knows not the brother, The storm which knows not the male friend, the storm which knows not the female friend.

And from this passage which describes the lamentable conditions which were to prevail in the city of Ur in accordance with a decision reached by the angry gods:

The mother will not care for her son, The father will not cry out, O my wife, The concubine will not rejoice in the lap, The children will not be fondled on their knees.

Similarly, when the Sumerian “Job,” afflicted with dire suffering and pain, beseeches his own personal god, his “guardian angel,” the father who begot him, as it were, he calls on his family to stand by him with tears and lament:

Lo, let not my mother who bore me cease my lament before you, Let not my sister utter the happy song and chant, Let her utter tearfully my misfortunes before you, Let my wife voice mournfully my suffering, Let the expert singer bemoan my bitter fate.

Revealing, too, in this respect, is the more or less stereotyped description of the galla’s, the underworld’s inhuman, loveless, and cruel demons, as beings who

Take away the wife from the man’s lap, Take away the child from the nursemaid’s breast;

or, more extensively, who

Sate not with pleasure the wife’s lap, Kiss not the well-fed children, Take away the man’s son from his knee, Carry off the daughter-in-law from the house of the father-in-law.

Turning from the family as a whole to the parent-child relationship, it is clear from the passages just quoted that it was normal for Sumerian parents to love and care for their children and for children to love and heed their parents. In the edubba essays dealing with the Sumerian schools and schoolmen, the relation-ship between father and son, in particular, is revealed as close, intimate, and full of understanding. In the Sumerian myths, admonition and advice by parents for the good and well-being of their children are common and stereotyped. The goddess Nin-mah, the mother of the storm-god, Ninurta, was filled with compassion for her son, who had performed dangerous and heroic deeds in his struggle with the monsters of the Kur, to such an ex-tent that she was unable to rest and sleep until she had traveled to the Kur, in spite of the «fear and terror of the battle” raging all about. Even animals are thought of as loving their children dearly. The love between cow and calf is proverbial throughout the literature. The love of a bitch for its pup is admirably expressed in this succinct proverb:

This is what the . . . (?) bitch says, “Whether I make them fawn ( colored) or whether I make them brindled, I love my young onesl”

Even the monstrous Imdugud-bird and his wife raise a bitter cry when they approach their nest and find their young missing.

Normally, too, there must have been a close and warm relation-ship between brother and sister as well as between parents and children. The brother, especially, seems to have taken the place of the father in some respects. Inanna, for example, turns to her brother, Utu, for help when her sacred tree in Erech is invaded by the snake, the Imdugud-bird, and the vicious Lilith. When the time comes for Inanna to choose a husband, it is her brother, Utu, who tries to guide her choice and to persuade her, for her own good, to marry the shepherd Dumuzi rather than the farmer En-kimdu. When the gardener Shukalletuda tries to escape Inanna’s wrath, he takes his father’s advice and “stay(s) close to his brothers’ cities”; and while the word «brothers” here refers to the “black-headed” people as a whole, the fact is that it was because they were looked upon as “brothers” that Shukalletuda felt safe and secure. Enmerkar, when besieged by the Martu in his city Erech, sends Lugalbanda to his «sister” Inanna in Aratta for help. When Dumuzi is seized by the demons, he pleads with Utu to transform him into a gazelle that he may «betake his soul” to his sister, the goddess Geshtinanna, who loves him dearly and tenderly. When Enki falls sick and the mollified Ninhursag proceeds to heal him, she asks repeatedly and tenderly: «My brother, what hurts you?”

To judge from the proverb, «Friendship lasts a day; kinship endures forever,” love between friends was not as strong and lasting as that between blood relations. Nevertheless, friendship and loyalty were highly prized in Sumer. The friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu was legendary and proverbial throughout the ancient Near East. Lugalbanda’s friends were deeply concerned about his contemplated journey to Aratta, which involved the crossing of high mountains and the dreaded river of Kur. When in the course of the march of the Erechites on Aratta, Lu-galbanda became deathly ill on Mount Hurum, his grieving friends abandoned him only after they had tried in every way to revive him and believed all hope gone-even so, they promised themselves to pick up his body and return it to Erech on their way back. The Sumerian Job’s anguish and bitterness is due not a little to the fact that he finds himself betrayed by his friends and companions.

As for love divine, the love of god for man, it is to be borne in mind that, theoretically at least, the Sumerian theologians taught that man was created by the gods solely to serve and tend them and presumably, therefore, that the god-man relationship corresponded to that of master-slave. But religious attitudes and practices rarely accord with theory and theology, and the love of god for man on the pattern of love between parents and children as well as between husband and wife is a not infrequent phenomenon in.the Sumerian documents. To start with, there was the doctrine of the personal god-the “my god” of the worshipper, whom he thought of as his father or mother. It was the love of Inanna for Erech and its people that prompted her to go to Eridu and carry off the me’s, the “divine laws,” in the “boat of heaven,” dangerous though this was. In the lamentation literature, the gods again and again manifest their love and affection. Ningal, the wife of the moon-god, for example, is depicted by the authors of “The Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur” as begging, pleading, and weeping before An and Enlil not to destroy her city and its people. According to a second Ur lamentation, it is Nanna himself who pleads with Enlil to spare his city and its people. When the Hood had been decreed, Nintu weeps and lnanna sets up a lament for the people. Even Enlil, aloof and aweinspiring, is conceived as a beneficent, fatherly deity.

On occasion, individual mortals were treated with love, affection, and compassion by the gods. Both An and Enlil cherished the Flood-hero, Ziusudra, presented him with eternal life, and took him up to dwell among the gods in the “place where the sun rises.” When Enmerkar was besieged in Erech by Martu, he sent Lugalbanda with a plea for help to his “sister” lnanna in Aratta, which said in part:

If she (Inanna) loves the city (Erech) but hates me, Why should she link the city with me? If (on the other hand) she hates the city but loves me, Why should she link me with the city?

Lugalbanda, sick to death, abandoned and forsaken on Mount Hu-rum, raised his eyes to heaven and wept before the gods Utu, lnanna, and Sin, and in each case-even in the case of lnanna-the poet says that he wept before the deity “like his father who begot him.” When Gilgamesh brought an offering to Utu and pleaded for his support as he was about to march off to the “Land of the Living,” the poet writes:

Utu accepted his tears as an offering, Like a “man of mercy” he showed him mercy.

According to another poem, Gilgamesh is “the prince beloved of An.” Gudea, the man “whom Ningirsu loves,” pleads with the goddess Gatumdug:

I have no mother, you are my mother, I have no father, you are my father.

King Shulgi is the beloved of Ninlil. His son, Shu-Sin, is “the Beloved of Enlil, whom Enlil has chosen as the beloved of his heart.” Finally, the kings of Sumer are known as the “beloved husbands” of Inanna throughout the Sumerian documents from the time of Enmerkar down to post-Sumerian days, since they seem to have been mystically identified with Dumuzi, an early deified king of the city of Erech, who according to the Sumerian mythographers had actually married Inanna and, at least according to one version, had been handed over by her to the demons, who carried him off to the nether world.

Patriotism, love of country, and particularly love of the home city, was a strongly moving force in Sumerian thought and action. Love of the city-state naturally came first in time and was never altogether superseded by love of Sumer as a whole. The inhabitants of a city were known as its “sons” and were considered a closely related, integrated unit. Normally, they took pride in their city, god, and ruler and were ever ready to take up arms in their behalf. The struggle between the city-states, which in a sense proved to be Sumer’s undoing, was bitter and persistent; and they stubbornly refused to give up their independence. At what time Sumer began to think of itself as a political entity consisting of a land divided into numerous city-states is uncertain; it must have occurred some centuries before 2500 B.C. As the royal hymns show, it was the king’s sacred, patriotic duty to defend the land from the enemies and bring security and well-being to “the Land,” as Sumer was often designated. At least from the time of the Third Dynasty of Ur, the Sumerians, “the sons of Sumer,” are known as “the black-heads” and “brothers.” The love of the people for their city and state makes itself manifest particularly in the bitter, heartbreaking lamentations in which the Sumerian poets bewail the destruction of both city and state.

Where there is love there is hate, and Sumer was no exception in this respect. Gilgamesh contrasts the beloved wife and the hated wife, the beloved son and the hated son, in the following four lines, which were cited above:

Kiss not your beloved wife, Kiss not your beloved son. Strike not your hated wife, Strike not your hated son.

Enmerkar contrasts love and hate with telling effect in his plea to Inanna quoted above. The god Hendursag is a king who “loves justice” but “hates violence.” Indeed, if I am not mistaken, hatred played a rather dominant role in Sumerian behavior. As will be shown later, the Sumerian political, economic, and educational institutions were deeply colored by aggressive compe-tition, by a drive for prestige and pre-eminence, which must have inspired a high degree of hatred, scorn, and contempt.

The gods, too, not infrequently displayed hatred and wrath. Enlil, himself, “with frowning forehead,” puts “the people of Kish to death” and crushes «the houses of Erech into dust.” Then, because his Ekur in Nippur has been pillaged and defiled, Enlil, “the raging Hood which had no rival,” brings about the wellnigh total destruction of all Sumer by bringing down the barbarous Gutians from their mountains. All four leading deities, An, Enlil, Enki, and Nintu, are implacable in their decision to destroy Ur and Sumer in the reign of Ibbi-Sin. Ninhursag angrily pronounces a curse of death upon Enki, who had eaten the eight plants which she had brought into being. Ninurta angrily curses the stones who had acted inimically toward him in his struggle with the Asag demon. Ereshkigal, the queen of the nether world, “bit her thigh, was filled with wrath” when her chief gatekeeper, Neti, announces the arrival of her sister, Inanna, at the “palace of the nether world.”

But the great hater in Sumerian mythology, as might have been anticipated, is also the great lover: the cruel, ambitious, aggressive, but evidently not unattractive, Inanna. When “Dumuzi put on a noble robe” and “sat high on his seat” instead of groveling before his wife, Inanna, who had just ascended from the nether world, she became enraged and turned him over to the seven nether world demons who had accompanied her. As the poet puts it:

She fastened the eye upon him, the eye of death, Spoke the word against him, the word of wrath, Uttered the cry against him, the cry of guilt.

When the gardener Shukalletuda took advantage of weary Inanna and raped her, she was so enraged that she sent three destructive plagues against Sumer in a vain effort to locate her abuser. When Gilgamesh rejected Inanna’s love proposals, she sent down the vicious “bull of heaven” to ravage Gilgamesh’s city of Erech. Even in the hymnal literature, she is depicted at times as a goddess of bitter wrath and dire destruction.

Fear, like hatred, tended to color deeply and darkly the Sumerian way of life. From birth to death the Sumerian had cause at times to fear his parent, his teachers, his friends and fellow citizens, his superiors and rulers, the foreign enemy, the violence of nature, wild animals, vicious monsters and demons, sickness, death, and oblivion. No wonder, then, that the most significant feature of man’s golden age, according to Sumerian thinkers, was freedom from fear, or as the poet puts it:

Once upon a time, there was no snake, there was no scorpion, There was no hyena, there was no lion, There was no wild dog, no wolf, There was no fear, no terror, Man had no rival.

Let us turn now from the emotional drives and motivations to the values which pervaded Sumerian life and begin with what is basic and fundamental in all cultures, life itself and the importance attached to it. Love of life pervades Sumerian civilization in all its forms and aspects: social, political, economic, and religious. On the numerous votive objects which the Sumerians dedicated to one god or another, they state frankly and expressly that they do so for the prolongation of their own life or for the life of those close to them. The royal hymnal prayers are replete with special prayers for the long life of the king. The vain and pathetic quest for eternal life is a favorite theme of the Mesopotamian epic. While all peoples and cultures cherish life and value it dearly, the Sumerians clung to it with particular tenacity because of their theological conviction that after death the emasculated spirit descended to the dark and dreary nether world, where life was at best but a dismal, wretched reflection of life on earth. There was no heart-lifting, soul-soothing hope of a life in paradise, although paradoxically enough, there are indications that the good and deserving did have a happier fate than the wicked and evil.

Closely allied to the love of life was the value put on material prosperity and well-being. The Sumerians prized highly wealth and possessions, rich harvests, well-stocked granaries, folds and stalls filled with cattle large and small, successful hunting on the plain and good fishing in the sea. The kings constantly boast in their hymns of bringing prosperity and well-being to the land and its people. The disputation texts, such as those involving Emesh and Enten, and Lahar and Ashnan, are replete with passages exalting the products of farming and cattle-raising. In the lamentations, the poets constantly and in no uncertain terms bemoan the loss of material possessions. To take only one example, here is a revealing passage from a lamentation over the destruction of Ur:

o my possessions, I will say, My possessions, who comes from the lands below, to the lands below has carried off, o my possessions I will say, My possessions, who comes from the lands above, to the lands above has carried off, O my possessions, I will say, My precious metal, stone, and lapis lazuli have been scattered about, O my possessions, I will say. The Sumerian proverbs contain many a jibe at the weakness, ineffectualness, and wretchedness of the poor; for example: When a poor man dies do not try to revive him. When he had bread he had no salt, when he had salt he had no bread, When he had meat he had no condiment, when he had the condiment he had no meat. Wealth is hard to come by, but poverty is always with us. The poor have no power. How lowly is the poor man; the edge of the oven is his mill. His ripped garment stays unmended; what he has lost remains unsought for.

There seems to be no trace of such consoling promises to the Sumerian poor as “inheritance of the earth” in some coming millennium or “pie in the sky,” to use an American phrase. We may therefore conclude that the pursuit of wealth, no doubt, played an important role in Sumerian life.

Finally, on the level of ethics and morals, the documents reveal that the Sumerians cherished and valued goodness and truth, law and order, justice and freedom, wisdom and learning, courage and loyalty-in short, all of man’s most desirable virtues and qualities. Even mercy and compassion were treasured and practiced, at least in the breach, to judge from the numerous references to the special protective treatment accorded to widows, orphans, and refugees as well as to the poor and oppressed.

The step-by-step evolution of these ethical values is as difficult to trace for the ancient Sumerian culture as it is for our own. At least in part, they must have grown out of the extension of the love motive from the individual and his immediate family to the community at large and even to humanity as a whole. For the Sumerians, the “black-heads,” as they came to be known, realized quite clearly that they were only part of a larger humanity which inhabited the four ubda’s, that is, the four regions into which they divided the world as a whole. In fact, as recently pointed out by the young scholar, J. J. A. Van Dijk, the Sumerian word for “man-kind,” namlulu, came to designate in Sumerian not only humans in the collective sense but, like the English word “humanity,” all conduct and behavior characteristic of humanity and worthy of it. Thus, for example, in the edubba essay cited above, “A Scribe and His Perverse Son,” the father upbraids his son not only for shocking ingratitude and for failing to follow in his footsteps and become a scribe, but for actions not worthy of his humanity.

But in spite of their lofty ideals and sublime ethics, the chances are that the Sumerians could never have come as far or achieved as much either materially or spiritually, had it not been for one very special psychological drive which motivated much of their behavior and deeply colored their way of life-the ambitious, competitive, aggressive, and seemingly far from ethical drive for pre-eminence and prestige, for victory and success. I first came upon the idea that the will to superiority, the driving ambition for victory over a rival, was a pervading source of motivation in Sumerian behavior in the course of piecing together and translat-ing the Sumerian poems and essays which the ancient scribes themselves categorized as “contests” or “disputations.” Quite a number of these uninhibited and quarrelsome literary debates have come down to us, and their very popularity indicates that they reflect a behavioral pattern well known to the Sumerians and approved by them. To cite just a few typical examples of the style used in these contest dialogues, here is first one of the more intelligible portions of a speech addressed by Copper to Silver in the “Copper-Silver” debate:

Silver, only in the palace do you find a station, that’s the place to which you are assigned. If there were no palace, you would have no station; gone would be your dwelling place . . .. . (Four lines unintelligible.) …. In the ( ordinary) home, you are buried away in its darkest spots, its graves, its “places of escape” (from this world). When irrigation time comes, you don’t supply man with the stubble-loosening copper mattock; that’s why nobody pays any attention to youl When planting time comes, you don’t supply man with the plough-fashioning copper adz; that’s why nobody pays any attention to youl When winter comes, you don’t supply man with the firewood-cutting copper ax; that’s why nobody pays any attention to you! When the harvest time comes, you don’t supply man with the grain-cutting copper sickle; that’s why nobody pays any attention to youl . . . . (Four lines unintelligible.) Silver, if there were no palace, you would have neither station nor dwelling place; only the grave, the “place of escape,” would be your station. Silver, if it were not for these places, you would have no place to be assigned tol …. (One and a half lines unintelligible.) …. Like a god you don’t put your hand to any (useful) work. How dare you then to assail (?) me like a wolf (?)? Get into your dark shrines (?); lie down in your graves I

Thus ends Copper’s speech. The author then continues:

The taunts which mighty Copper had hurled against him made him (Silver) feel wretched; the taunts filled with shame (?) and bitterness made him smart (?) and wince (?) like water from a salty well. . … ( One line unintelligible.) …. Then did Silver give the retort to mighty Copper: …. (There follows Silver’s bitter address to Copper, much of which is unintelligible at the moment.)

Or, to take a passage from the “Dispute between Summer and Winter”:

Then did Summer give the retort to Winter, who had hurled taunts against him: “Winter, don’t brag about your extraordinary strength! I know your lair (?). Let me tell where you “hole up” in the city; you cannot find enough cover (?). You are a sickly (?) fellow and weak-kneed! The fireplace (?), the very edge of the fire, the oven, that’s your mountain (?) Your shepherds and herdsmen with (their) heavy (Hocks of) ewes and lambs, the weak-kneed fellows, run before you like sheep from fireplace (?) to oven and from oven to fireplace (?). During the height of the storm you sentence them to constant coughing (?). Because of you, the city people set up a constant chattering of teeth. During the water-drenched (?) days, no one walks the streets. The slave rejoices with the fireplace (?) and spends his days inside the house. The slave girl does not go out into the downpour, and spends her time with clothes. During the winter, the fields are not worked, their furrows are not attended to . .. . (Three lines unintelligible.) … Don’t you boast of your extraordinary strength; let me keep you straight on the rules and regulations (which govern you) !”

Finally, there is a sample of a bragging speech by the shepherd-god, Dumuzi, whose plea for marriage has just been rejected by the goddess Inanna in favor of the farmer-god, Enkimdu.

The competitive drive for superiority and pre-eminence played a large role in Sumerian formal education, which entailed many years of school attendance and study. Together with the whip and the cane, it was consciously utilized by both parents and teachers to make the student exert himself to the utmost to mas-ter the complicated but far from exciting curriculum in order to become a successful scribe and a learned scholar.

Thus in the “Schooldays” essay discussed in chapter vi, we find the teacher encouraging the ambitious student with the following persuasive words: “Of your brothers may you be their leader, of your friends may you be their chief; may you rank the highest among the school graduates.” Or, to take the essay “The Disputation of En-kimansi and Girnishag,” the rival students’ speeches bristle with such insulting and vituperative name-calling as “dolt,” “numskull,” “pest,” “illiterate,” “bungler,” “windbag,” etc.

Moreover, this par-ticular essay ends in a sentence which prompts a rather startling, but not unilluminating, conjecture concerning another important facet of Sumerian culture, the emphasis on law and legality, the penchant for compiling law codes and writing legal documents, which has long been recognized to have been a predominant fea-ture of Sumerian economic and social life. This sentence reads: «In the dispute between Enkimansi and Girnishag, the teacher gives the verdict.” The Sumerian word used here for “verdict” is the same term used for verdicts at court trials, and one cannot hold back the thought that the extraordinary importance which the Sumerians attached to law and legal controls is due, at least in part, to the contentious and aggressive behavioral pattern which characterized their culture.

Turning to the political scene, we now have at least two epic tales celebrating the victory of the head of the Sumerian city-state of Erech over a presumptuous rival who ruled the city-state of Aratta, which was situated not in Sumer but perhaps some-where in the neighborhood of the Caspian Sea.

To judge from the contents of these two poems, it was the driving ambition of each of these rulers to break down the morale of his rival by a kind of “war of nerves” and thus to make submissive vassals of him and his subjects. The tales are replete with taunts and threats carried back and forth by messengers and heralds as well as with challenges and contests. It is finally Enmerkar, the lord of Erech, who emerges as victor and to whom, according to one of the poems, his defeated rival, the lord of Aratta, offers abject submis-sion in these rather revealing words:

You are the beloved of Inanna, you alone are exalted, Inanna has truly chosen you for her holy lap; From the lower (lands) to the upper (lands) you are their lord, I am second to you, From the (moment of) conception, I was not your equal, you are the “big brother,” I cannot compare with you eve!

Quite revealing, too, for the Sumerian drive for victory, prestige, and glory on the political front are the numerous self-laudatory royal hymns in which the Sumerian king recites his own virtues and achievements unblushingly and uninhibitedly in rather hy-perbolic and extravagant language.

It is thus fairly obvious that the drive for superiority and pres-tige deeply colored the Sumerian outlook on life and played an important role in their education, politics, and economics. This suggests the tentative hypothesis that not unlike the strong emphasis on competition and success in modem American culture, the aggressive penchant for controversy and the ambitious drive for pre-eminence provided no little of the psychological motiva-tion which sparked and sustained the material and cultural advances for which the Sumerians are not unjustly noted: irriga-tion expansion, technological invention, monumental building, the development of a system of writing and education.

Sad to say, the passion for competition and superiority carried within it the seed of self-destruction and helped to trigger the bloody and disastrous wars between the city-states and to impede the unification of the country as a whole, thus exposing Sumer to the external attacks which finally overwhelmed it. All of which provides us with but another historic example of the poignant irony inherent in man and his fate.


  1. Selected Papers of the Fifth International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (1960), pp. 287-91.
  2. Eretz-Israel, V (1958),66-74

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