Fragments from Sumerian wisdom texts

posted in: History | 0

It’s simultaneously amazing, humbling and endlessly entertaining to read humanity’s oldest known writings.

You feel a deep kinship with all of civilization, and people thousands of years ago, and get the sense that if you could travel in time and cross the language barrier, you’d have a lot in common and get along really well with Sumerian farmers. You’d buy the guy who wrote those things down a beer.

Put another way, the human experience is mostly universal, and hasn’t changed much in historical times, if ever, despite dramatic changes of scenery.

Considering our historical knowledge is limited by what has been found to date, a criterion that is biased towards dry climates (because absence of rot) and places that have been, by happy accidents of geography, inhabitable for a long time without interruption, which means our dating of the the rise of civilisation is almost certainly a colossal case of survivorship bias, and that people have nevertheless built complex civilization at the latest by 10000 BC, it is likely people with experiences and mindsets broadly like mine and yours have been around for tens of thousands of years.

Much like today, life in ancient Sumer revolved around the three great B’s – beer, boobs, and beards.

To illustrate the continuity of experience, and for your enjoyment and enlightenment, I present to you hand picked excerpts from literally the oldest known (known!) written work, the Instruction of Shurrupak, followed by a collection of proverbs from other sources:

“You should not pass judgment when you drink beer.”
Off to a strong start.

On priorities:
“Property is something to be expanded; but nothing can equal my little ones.”
“Nothing at all is to be valued, but life should be sweet. You should not serve things; things should serve you.”

Five thousand years later, people still don’t get it.

Apparently, lawyers were a massive pain in the arse even underneath those handwoven reed skirts:
“The artistic mouth recites words; the harsh mouth brings litigation documents”

But not yet that huge a thing:
“You will not multiply your possessions using only your mouth.”

Most robbery was still of the old fashioned variety, and discouraged:
“A thief is a lion, but after he has been caught, he will be a slave.”

Family life was important:
“A loving heart maintains a family; a hateful heart destroys a family.”

As anyone who has ever been to a club can attest:
“You should not choose a wife during a festival. Her inside is illusory; her outside is illusory. The silver on her is borrowed; the lapis lazuli on her is borrowed. The dress on her is borrowed; the linen garment on her is borrowed.”

Good advice for personal credibility:
“You should not boast; then your words will be trusted.”
“Tell a lie and then tell the truth: it will be considered a lie.”

And what so many politicians learned the hard way:
“You should not have sex with your slave girl: she will chew you up.”
“You should not boast in beer halls”

Public finances haven’t changed much since 3000BC:
“The palace is like a mighty river: its middle is goring bulls; what flows in is never enough to fill it, and what flows out can never be stopped.”

Work ethic advice:
“At harvest time, at the most priceless time, collect like a slave girl, eat like a queen; my son, to collect like a slave girl, to eat like a queen, this is how it should be.”
In case you missed it, that’s “work hard, play hard”.

If you thought Twitter and fake news were new, consider this:
“Only insults and stupid speaking receive the attention of the Land.”

On associating with successful people:
“By grasping the neck of a huge ox, you can cross the river. By moving along at the side of the mighty men of your city, my son, you will certainly ascend.”

This incomplete line is intriguing:
“A vicious donkey hangs its neck; however, a vicious man, my son, …”
I’m gonna go ahead and propose “however, a vicious man struts about proudly”.

Explicit hierarchies are often at the mercy of subtler networks:
“The wet-nurses in the women’s quarters determine the fate of their lord.”

Conceits of borrowed authority:
“Like the bitch of a scribe, he struts through the fields as though he were in charge”

The need for emotional detachment, especially in leaders, was recognized:
“A man raising his hand in anger does not see clearly.”
“The man who gets excited should not be made foreman.”

As was the need for structure:
“In the city where there are no dogs, the fox is boss.”

As anyone who has visited Russia will attest:
“My son, you should not travel alone eastwards.”

Behavioral economists who think they’re discovering previously unfathomed depths of human nature should pay attention to brief and poignant expressions of what is today called “negativity bias” and “loss aversion”, and treated as some sort of revolutionary insight:
“You don’t speak of that which you have found. You talk only about what you have lost.”
“When present, it was considered a loincloth; when lost, it is considered fine clothing.”

Then there are the funny ones, This is the oldest recorded joke:
“Something which has never occurred since time immemorial: a young woman did not fart in her husband’s embrace.”
It’s not exactly a zinger, but I note with a hint of sadness that Sumerian girls 6000 years ago apparently had better manners than their contemporary comradettes.

“What has been spoken in secret will be revealed in the women’s quarters.”
It’s not wrong.

“Beer is a bull. The mouth is its stairway.”
Perhaps this sounded profound at 3am, and was jotted down, to be gazed at in bemused incomprehension the next morning.
Story of my life.

“The beer-drinking mouth ……. My little one ……. The beer-drinking mouth ……. Ninkasi ……. 5 lines unclear”
The “5 lines unclear” really makes it.

Good advice and one of my favorite principles, always doing and keeping extra as insurance:
“Let it be plentiful, so that it is not deficient. Let it be excessive, so that it does not have to be supplemented. Let it be piping hot, so that it does not become cold.”

Sumerians were well aware of a problem that all men will recognize: cold female extremities in bed are one of the greatest horrors remaining in a modern man’s life
“May Inana make a hot-limbed wife lie with you!”

Leave your comfort zone and rage against inertia and expecetations to fulfill your destiny:
“Accept your lot and make your mother happy. Run fast and make your god happy.”

Hear hear, guys:
“He who does not support a wife, he who does not support a child, has no cause for celebration.”
“Marrying is human. Having children is divine.”

“A malicious wife living in the house is worse than all diseases.”
“For his pleasure he got married. On his thinking it over he got divorced.”

A friend who got married recently, and lives near his in-laws, has assured me this is entirely the case:
“A brewing trough not previously tried is put to the test by means of salt. A mixing jar not previously tried is put to the test by means of water. A son-in-law whose behaviour is unknown is put to the test by means of quarrels.”

Relativity of perceptions:
“Says the man lying on the roof to the man living in the house: “It is too bright up here!”

This man’s 5000 years old dilemma:
“My wife said “Unfaithful!” to me — shall I go chasing after women’s genitals?”

And with refreshing forthrightness of style:
“An unfaithful penis matches an unfaithful vagina.”

Importance of exercise:
“He who knows how to move around becomes strong. He will live longer than the sedentary man.”

Laziness in young men isn’t a new thing:
“In a household of several grown-up young men, the hoe and the work basket must cultivate the fields.”

“A hand will stretch out towards an outstretched hand. A hand will open for an opened hand.”

Proverbs we still express in slightly different words thousands of years later:
“You should not cut the throat of that which has already had its throat cut.”
“In the city of the lame, a cripple is the courier.”
“The manicurist is himself dressed in dirty rags.”
“If the ox kicks up dust, it gets flour in its own eyes.”
“He has not yet caught the fox but he is already making a neck-stock for it.”
“While you still have light, grind the flour.”

Generally good observations:

“He who says “I will live for today” is bound like a bull on a nose-rope.”
I’ve always said it and I will continue to say it. “Living for today” is a stupid-ass irresponsible attitude. It just means being at the mercy of whims. Live for all your days, including today, but not at the expense of tomorrow. How hard is that to understand.

“As long as you live you should not increase evil by telling lies; for if you do, to succumb will be your lot.”

“Two Akkadians lost a donkey. One went after it while the other wasted the day. The one who just sat around — the fault was his.”
Classic. The person who is at fault isn’t even trying to fix the problem.

“One does not marry a three-year-old wife, as a donkey does.”
Local customs in Mesopotamia have apparently deteriorated.

“What is placed in the fire has a valuable role to play but leaves nothing behind when it’s gone.”

On the importance of economics and math:
“A heart which does not know accounting — is that a wise heart?”

“The shepherd cannot increase his flock where the wolf takes sheep.”

Learning from others’ mistakes:
“No-one walks for a second time at the place where a lion has eaten a man.”

Slyness and deceit breed more slyness and deceit:
“Each fox is even more of a fox than its mother.”

Again a dig at lawyers:
“The fox had a stick: “Whom shall I hit?” He carried a seal: “What can I challenge?””

A stoic mindset:
“I have found it — a cause for celebration! I have lost it — my heart does not ache!”

A pair of commercial opportunities for you as a bonus:

If anyone wants to make a bestselling brand of plus-sized clothing, try this name:
“I am a lady who wears large garments.”
In Sumerian: [ga-ca]-/an\ tug2 gal-gal-la-jen. UTFG to find the original cuneiform.

If you’re planning to open a really out-of-the-way pub, here’s a quote you can use:
“The good thing is the beer. The bad thing is the journey.”

The whole genre is fascinating. Once you get over the idiosyncracies of style, as well as the frequent “wtf” where the translations obviously leave a lot to be desired, the clay tablets of ancient Sumer make for surprisingly enjoyable reading.

The biggest takeaway is the constancy of the human experience.

If you enjoyed the article, you should by me a beer, because Sumerians drank it also.