By Professor Wolfram von Soden ©All rights granted to author. Text reproduced here as a tool for research and studies purposes



Literature is a narrower term than written material, and in the field of cuneiform does not include the several hundred thousand letters and documents of all types. Within the area of literature in Babylon and Assyria, the "scientific" writings, in the widest sense of the term, present the most comprehensive sector, and will deserve a closer look soon in this website. Prayers and incantations are often recorded in their entirety. More frequent1y, however, the beginning the first line is cited and represent the missing title of a work.

Extensive poems, especially many myths and epics which could not be recorded on a single multi-column tablet, were spread over as many as twelve tablets and thus, at least formally, comprised series similar to the larger scientific works. The division into tablets was usually determined in advance. Since the end of a tablet always came at a break in the contents, only in exceptional cases did the partial tablets encompass the same amount of material. Shorter compositions, such as hymns and prayers, were not collected in series with a fixed number of tablets, but were only compiled on larger tablets from case to case.

Literary works other than the royal inscriptions were composed predominantly in a stereotypical language in which the ends of lines and verses usually coincided. Even today, we are in no position to distinguish with certainty between poetic and prose compositions, or to recognize in any reliable way prose sections in verse compositions.

The attempt to analyze poetic rhythm in Sumerian poetic compositions is only in its inception, and we cannot tell whether this will ever meet with any success. We can do somewhat better with the Akkadian, even if the dominant assumption until now- that in Babylonian as in Hebrew poetry, it was always only a question of the number of accented syllables, since there was no basic principle governing the number of unaccented syllables between them - has not always proven to be true. Therefore, in order to recognize an actual rhythm we must first of all come to know the pronunciation and accentuation of individual words in the vernacular much more precisely than is now possible for us regarding the ancient Orient. Even with very careful study of the manner in which words and groups of words were written, we are often unable to get beyond working hypotheses which enable us to understand much, though not all, of the material. In all languages, even if in quite different degrees, words are shortened So that they can fit into the poetic rhythm.

This is done either by omitting vowels or by adding emphasis through a clearer accentuation of open syllables with short vowels. Neither technique is always evident in written texts. On methodological grounds we do well if we reckon as little as possible with altered word forms and shifts in accents in the verses. At the same time, we cannot always determine how often we may do that, so that considerable room is left to our discretion. Thus many are of the opinion that attempts to recognize the poetic rhythm have too little chance of success to be significant. It is my view, however, that those chances are not so negligible and that the study of poetic form can contribute much to our understanding of the nuances of many expressions. Even in other fields of knowledge there is no way around assumptions which are not borne out later, and the correction of initial errors still yields much essential knowledge.

In a great portion of the Babylonian poems of the second millennium one can establish no quantitative meter by counting syllables over alternating verse lengths. According to our terminology, the iambic ('- ), trochaic ( -'), and amphibrachic (.-') metrical feet alternate with one another in quite variant ways. The triptych predominates in narrative, while verses CompoSed only in diptych lend particular emphasis to pronoUncements. TWO verses generally form a double-verse on the basis of what is usually an antithetical parallelism or, more rarely, a tautological parallelism. Without exception, the thyrmic and syntactical units are concealed by a trochaic conclusion. The strophes compirse four to twelve verses and only rarely more, or by counterstropes only two. The verse structure of much later poetic compositions such as the Gilgamesh Epic and a great number of prayers, sharply departs from the older form, often in the preference for longer verses. In contrast to earlier works, there now appear to be as many as three unaccented syllables - or even none at all - between two accents. In addition, we must reckon with the possiblility that, just as in many of our songs, the strength of the accents varied, especially in the quite popular musical delivery of poetry, and that the accentuation was often quite different from its merely spoken recital.


The inscriptions of kings and, less frequently, other functionaries can only be regarded as literature if they offer more than the very brief enumeration of building projects or campaign reports. The great mass of these are shorter or longer building inscriptions which sometimes also record dedications. Such inscriptions are introduced either through the designation of the god or gods for whom the building was built, and include hymnic attributes. They can also open with the self-introduction of the ruler, with brief or more extensive titles and the subsequent mention of the deities. Occasionally, an invocation of the god stands at the beginning.

In the conclusion, blessings are quite often invoked for those who restore the edifice, and curses are called down upon those who neglect it. In more lengthy building inscriptions, the description of the building process itself as a literary form can go beyond the common format of the building report. Generally people were satisfied with an elevated proSe using a somewhat freer word order, and in every case rhythmically metrical language can be found here and there. The inscriptions of the Chaldean kings offer particularly detailed building descriptions, in several cases with historical retrospectives. These inscriptions often replace the usual blessing and curse formulas with prayers to the god to whom the structure is commended.

The second major category of royal inscriptions, the reports of wars and conquests, is found in Babylon in only a minority of inscriptions. In the Sumerian period, for example, these come almost exclusively in the late Early Dynastic period, and particularly fully in the vulture stela of Eannatum of Lagash. Eighty to one hundred years later, Uruinimgina uses this medium to delineate his manifold social reforms instead. Conversely, the campaign reports in the Sumerian and, more frequently, in the Akkadian inscriptions of the great kings of Akkad from Sargon I to Naram-Sin are again extensive. In the Old Babylonian period only a few kings, among them those of Mari, give brief campaign reports. Hammurabi says in the poetic introduction to his law stela only what he later accomplished for the cities he had conquered; the curse formulas at the conclusion are unusually comprehensive. After 1500 Before Common Era, we find campaign reports from only a few Babylonian kings, who describe particular actions. Normally, one was satisfied with very brief references to victories over enemies, but without supplying any names: the actions of the gods, and of the king on behalf of the gods, were supposed to be given the primary emphasis. A unique text is the grave inscription which Nabonidus dedicated in 548 to his mother, Hadda-hoppe, who died at the age of 103. Here the mother herself speaks at length. From a literary standpoint, the Sumerian sacral and building inscriptions on the statues of the ruler Gudea of Lagash present an exceptional case. In these Gudea speaks of himself as "he," as was customary in Lagash even earlier, and he has adopted many expressions from religious texts. The great building hymn, recorded on two or three multi-column clay cylinders, is unique. It includes many theological reflections as well as a detailed account of the dedication festival following completion of construction of the temple. Little here has been borrowed from the usual building reports.

In Assyria, moreover, there are building inscriptions in which political themes are completely overlooked or resonate only on the periphery. The primary inscriptions of the conquering kings increasingly enlarged and elaborated the depiction of battles and conquests after about 1300, so that the building report often appears as no more than an appendix to the campaign reports. By the time of the NeoAssyrian Empire, the building report was often omitted completely, and several kings even tell of their hunting expeditions. The long inscriptions were most often written on great stone tablets or clay prisms, which could hold up to six, eight, or ten columns and as many as 1,300 lines. If we overlook some kings between 950 and 725 who mainly preferred a very dry style for their reports, the style of these inscriptions was highly polished and in some battle reports could even be gripping. Despite the many conventional formulations, various kings, particularly the Sargonids, revealed elements of a personal style ( e.g., sometimes impressive portrayals of nature or technical details by Sennacherib). Frequently the campaigns were not ordered chronologically, but rather according to other criteria, such as geographical considerations or others less easily discernible. In special cases, extremely detailed initial reports of particular campaigns were composed for and dedicated to the god Ashur. These, too, were literarily demanding presentations.5 Occasionally the governors of larger provinces had inscriptions composed in the style of the royal inscriptions.

The royal inscriptions in other lands of the ancient Orient are to be distinguished from those of Assyria and Babylonia not only by their language, but in many respects by their structure and style as well. That is as true of the Hittite inscriptions as it is of those from Urartu, for the Elamite as well as for the often trilingual inscriptions of the Achaemenaean kings, and for the Phoenician and Aramaic inscription



Myths of the gods, which narrate stories of the gods and from which people could extract answers to important questions with respect to their own times, are often much older than the written versions of the myths. However, it is only rarely possible to draw more than speculative conclusions about the preliterary myths from the poetic accounts. Occasionally, remarkably original forms of the myths are briefly narrated in the context of other texts; but the bulk of poetic myths are reflective myths, which transformed the ancient mythic traditions according to certain basic themes and even enriched the earlier myths with new episodes. Most of the creation myths belong to this category. These are concerned not only with the creation of the world, life, and important implements, but also with the ordering of the world following often arduous strugg1es against the powers of a primeval chaos. Besides these myths there are also somewhat comprehensive poetic myths, which are tied to earlier traditions only in small part or not at all. These can be called "constructed myths," since the entire treatment has been constructed only loosely on the basis of earlier mythic poetry, and has been fleshed out using contemporary mythological schemata. In some cases impressive mythic poems could emerge through this process. It is not accidental, then, that the name of the author often appears in such poetic compositions, whereas the earlier poetic myths considered the author to be unimportant to the essential message and thus were unconcerned to name an author. In fact, anonymity is typical for the greatest portion of literature throughout ancient Mesopotamia.

In addition to those myths in which only gods and demons take part, there are those in which semi-divine heroes, or even humans, play important roles. In such myths, historical reminiscences continue to exist, at least to some degree. Not until after about 1400 did historical events - those of the distant past as well as those only a few years past - become the objects of epics with expressly political intent in Assyria and Babylonia. Small fragments are generally all that remain of these. We possess larger portions from a poem which concerns the events in the last years of the Kassite dynasties and which from a Babylonian perspective depicts and laments the horror ascribed to the Elamites. By contrast, an Assyrian poet of the thirteenth century sings in eight to nine hundred long verses of the great success of Tukulti-Ninurta I in his struggles against Babylonia. He wrings out victory with the help of the gods, Who have been enraged by the crimes of the Babylonians. As in the great majority of the royal inscriptions from Assyria, the language is a dialect of Babylonian colored by Assyrian.



As far as we know, the Sumerians never treated the theme of the creation of the world in a great mythic poem. We do know their ideas from the introductions to dialogues concerning disputes in rank (see below, section 4b). According to these, the separation of heaven and earth took place at the very beginning. The further course of events involved differentiations. Thus people, who had originally lived as animals, became a special type of creature. Because there were the sick, the crippled, and the helpless elderly, one myth traces these back to a dispute over a contention between Enki and the mother goddess Ninmah.

There are various ideas of creation and theogony among Babylonian myths. The Old Babylonian myth of Atrahasis, which is associated with the name of Nur-Ayya as the author or scribe, offers the most carefully thought-out presentation. By the later period this myth had been transformed several times and even came to presuppose another myth of theogony. The myth of Atrahasis begins with the words, "When the gods were [ simultaneously ] humans," in other words, when the types "god" and "human" had not yet been differentiated. At that time, the weaker group of gods, the Igigi, had to perform by themselves all of the works of irrigation and drainage which were necessary for life in Mesopotamia. They finally became tired of the work, went on strike, and threatened the ruling Anunnaki. Immediately before a struggle could break out, a solution was reached: it was agreed that humans should be created to do this work. Enki and the mother goddess then worked together to create the first human from a mixture of clay and the blood of a god, "who possessed the sense to plan." Rites of birth were then established. Twelve hundred years later, however, the humans had become too numerous and restless, and they had even acquired for themselves forbidden wisdom. Therefore, the gods decided to decimate them by pestilence and plagues. Enki (Ea) then advised the humans to withhold prayers and sacrifices from most of the gods, while turning only to one god in particular, so that he would hold the plagues in check.

The god did this, but after twelve hundred years more the same thing recurred, and again a third time, with the same result. At the summons of Enlil, the gods then carne to the decision to exterminate humanity again, this time through the Deluge. The Sumerians already knew the myth of the Deluge, though the sole literary form of this of which we have even limited knowledge first emerged only in the Old Babylonian period, and was probably influenced by a Babylonian poem. The story in the Atrabasis myth agrees in the order of events, at some places even in wording, with the story of the Flood inserted into the Gilgamesh Epic some five hundred years later. According to both compositions, the god Enki (Ea) betrays the plan of the gods to a reed hut, in which Atrabasis (called Utnapishtin in the Gilgamesh Epic) is sitting. As soon as this is done, the idea comes to this man to build a cube-shaped ark for his family and all species of animals, but he is not allowed to share the reason for his actions with his fellow humans. Then the masses of water break in upon the land from above and beneath; all life drowns, and only the ark is borne up on the waters, and finally lands on Mt. Nisir after the waters have receded. The gods are confounded by what they have caused, but they come to the sacrifice that Atrabasis offers. Enlil, who has caused the debacle, is at first wroth that some of the humans have been saved, but then desists and transfers Atrabasis (Utnapishti) and his wife to an island far to the west, where they enjoy life without death. The children of these two become the progenitors of the new humanity, which ",rill never again be given over to an extermination such as the Deluge. Hereafter, only the guilty shall be punished. The differentiation bet\veen gods and humans, with its fearful consequences, will now be superseded by a new, well-thoughtout solution that is fair for all.

The creation epic Enuma Elish ("when on high") first appeared in the fourteenth century, and was designed to establish Marduk as king of the gods. A very brief theogony stands at the beginning of this account. Tiamat, the goddess of the seawaters, is the first to rise from the primeval chaos "with her husband Apsu, the god of the groundwater. Thereupon follow further generations of gods, just as in other ancient myths of theogony. Anu, the god of the heavens, appears as the greatgrandson of Tiamat and Apsu, and as the ancestor of other gods. After Anu comes Nudimmud (Ea) with his consort Damkina. Awakened by the younger gods, the old Apsu wants to kill them, but is himself kil1ed by Nudimmud (Ea), who uses magic and erects his own palace upon the groundwaters. There the divine marvel-child Marduk is bom, and by his riotousness he arouses the old Tiamat as well against the young gods. Tiamat then commissions her "paramour" Kingu to raise an army of all kinds of monsters against the gods. The young gods then tum to some older gods with a plea for help, but when these refuse, they tum to the young Marduk, who agrees, on the condition that they make him king of the gods. This happens and Marduk, using special weapons, kil1s the dragonlike Tiamat and takes Kingu prisoner. Then Marduk creates the heavens and the earth from the two halves of Tiamat's bodv and, I following this, stars, plants, and other living things. Last of all, Marduk even creates humans from the blood of the rebel god Kingu and, as ever)Tone knows, forces them to work for all time. After founding Babylon and its temple Esagila, the gods hold a victory celebration for themselves and exclaim in laudatory fashion the fifty names of Marduk; the epic gives an explanation for each of these which partially rests on an etymological wordplay. The great struggle between the gods is mitigated here: only three gods are killed, but after their deaths they are integrated into the new order of the world in various ways. This epic in seven tablets became the cult legend recited every year at the New Year festival in Babylon. The Assyrians under Sennacherib substituted Ashur for Marduk in the epic. Berossus later propagated a reshaped version of the epic in his Greek Babyloniaka ( about 300) . Direct influences of the Babylonian creation epic on the biblical account of creation cannot be discerned.


A few references must suffice for myths in this category, which deal with struggles against powers which are at enmity with the created order. Among these, the Sumerians and Babylonians counted the tales of the mythic eagle Anzu. This figure once stole from the gods the tablets of destiny from Enlil, tablets which are indispensable to rule over the world. Ninurta is chosen as the avenger of the gods. Anzu and Ninurta/Zababa meet in combat, and Anzu is killed.

A love story involving a descent to the Underworld, which can be well described and a young couple coming of age is the myth of "Enlil and Ninlil." According to this story, the young Enlil seeks out Ninlil as she bathes, lies with her, and begets the moon god Nanna-Suen. Because Enlil has now become "unclean," for having raped the young goddess, he is then banished from Nippur to the Underworld. Ninlil goes after him in the Great Below and he meets her in disguise three times. Three times they also lay together, and Ninlil thus begets more gods. In the end, both Enlil and Ninlil return to from the Underworld and great praise is sung for both of them.


d. Heroic Sumerian Myths: Enmerkar, Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh

The heroic myths of Sumer were woven primarily around the early dynastic kings of Uruk, Enmerkar, Lugalbanda and Gilgamesh (earlier Bilgamesh), who were later divinized. The poetic myths about Enmerkar and his son Lugalbanda focus on conflicts between the kings of Uruk and of central Iran and the city of Aratta. In the Enmerkar myth, Inanna is courted by Enmerkar, king of Aratta, and by the king of Aratta as well. In the end, She chooses Enmerkar, king of Uruk, and Aratta concedes defeat, but the city is not destroyed by Enmerkar.


The sagas about Gilgamesh still had not been compiled into a single Akkadian poem during the Old Babylonian period; yet the extant epics from that time, although they are only preserved incompletely, do show a completely new impres in comparison with the earlier form. After 1400 Before Common Era, there were in Syria-Palestine and in Asia Minor Babylonian, Hittite and Hurrian versions of the Gilgamesh poem. On the basis of the meager remains of these versions, we can conclude that they represent very free imitations of the original Babylonian forms. Then around 1100 Before Common Era, a person listed as Sin-leqe-unnini of Uruk composed the twelvetablet epic of about three thousand verses as the most fully developed form of the materia1. Nevertheless, the scribes of the first millennium did not hand on this text without alteration in every detail.26 The epic begins by praising the 9.5 km. city wall of Uruk, for whose construction Gilgamesh had imposed upon the inhabitants a heavy burden of forced labor. In order to hold this hero in check, the gods created as his counterpart the wild man Enkidu, who grew up among the wild anima1s but was led to Uruk by a cu1t prostitute, where he immediately confronted Gilgamesh. The struggle between these two ended with Gilgamesh and Enkidu dec1aring their mutua1 friendship and together planning and undertaking the batt1e against tIuwawa (tiumbaba) in the cedar forest (see above) . After a long, difficu1t trek, and with the help of Shamash, they were victorious. Upon their return, Ishtar offered Gilgamesh her love, which he blunt1y rejected with reference to her behavior toward earlier lovers. Ishtar then pleaded with her father Anu that she might have the Bull of Heaven in order to avenge herself. The Bull plunged many men in Uruk into deep pits with his snorting, but was then kil1ed by the two friends. During the victory celebration Enkidu insu1ted the goddess so grievously that the gods ordered his death. The premonition of death, final illness, and the actual death of Enkidu are narrated a1ong with the insertion of many dreams, which are presented in detail along with their interpretations, just as in the ex:pedition against tiumbaba. Likewise, there is the dreadful pain of Gilgamesh, who is unable to save his friend.

Now Gilgamesh himself experiences the anxiety of death and sets out to the far west, to learn from Utnapishtin, the hero of the Deluge (see above, section 3b), how he might escape death. The journey, which ran underground in some stretches, led him to the kind1y pair of scorpion people, the ale-wife Siduri and the ferryman Urshanabi. They are good to Gilgamesh, and Urshanabi brings him across the waters of death despite the ban. These meetings are portrayed in detail, with much repetition. Utnapishti relates to Gilgamesh the story of the Deluge, after which the gods gave him the gift of life without death. When Gilgamesh fails a test of sleep, Utnapishti advises him to retrieve the herbs of life from the bottom of the sea. Gilgamesh does that and starts back, but along the way he carelessly al1ows a serpent to steal the herbs of life, whereupon the serpent immediately sheds his skin. At this point, all becomes futile; Gilgamesh resignedly returns to Uruk, and on his arrival proudly shows the city walls to Urshanabi, who must ferry him back to mortal humanity in accordance with the ban. The epic adds as the twelfth and final tablet the translation of the Sumerian poem of"Enkidu and the Underworld," which gives a completely different portrayal of the death of Enkidu from that in Tablet VII. The Gilgamesh Epic has become one of the great works of world literature by virtue of its unique style of composition, by which the greater human concerns (e.g., the friendship between males) are given repeated expression. Members of lowly professions, moreover, such as prostitutes and ale-wives, appear as representatives of a special degree ofhumanity. Over long stretches ofthe epic, the time-bound elements recede almost entirely from view.

A myth about Etana also deals with the search for life, though it is only preserved in incomplete form in some Old Babylonian and later versions. Etana, the first king after the Flood whom the gods set on the throne of Kish, was without a son. At this point, a fablelike story of an eagle and a serpent is inserted. These two become friends and swear themselves to mutua1 help. Both have young and always care for the offspring of the other. But one day, the eagle takes advantage of the serpent's absence to devour that creature's young, despite the warning by its own offspring about the vengeance of Shamash. The serpent complains to Shamash about its misfortune and is advised to hide itself in a great carcass in the mountains in order to punish the eagle when it comes to devour. What transpires is this; the serpent rips the eagle's wing off and hurls the bird into a pit, where it begins to starve. The eagle then cries out daily to Shamash, pleading for forgiveness and deliverance. Shamash then commands Etana to go and pu1l the eagle out and nurse it back to health. Etana does this and then asks Shamash to show him the "plant ofbirth" (so that Etana may have a son). In spite of Etana's prayers, the eagle cannot fulfill his plea but is prepared to carry the king up to heaven on his back, so that he can receive eternal life there. They f1y up to the second heaven, but Etana then becomes dizzy, and both crash. This myth proves impressively the ethos of prayer as a determinative power for humans and animals.28 The myth of Adapa of Eridu shows humorous features. Adapa breaks a wing of the southern storm, who had spoiled his fishing; he is therefore cited for punishment before the god Anu. Ea then advises Adapa not to accept any offer of Anu. Anu, however, who not always lacks in understanding for people, ex:periences compassion for the poor sinner, and instead of the food of death, offers him the food of life. Adapa, however, rejects this and so forfeits for himself life without death.


Constructed myths (see above, section 3a) are known primarily from the eighth and seventh centuries. Arnong these, the myth of the god of pestilence, Erra, assumes a special rank. Composed by Kabt-ilaniMarduk between the end of 765 and the beginning of 763, as is evident from some historical references, these five tablets were claimed by the author to have been revealed by verbal inspiration in a single night.

They were copied in Assyria, although the slant is clearly pro-Babylonian. According to the plot, which was freely invented by the poet, Erra, along with the warring demons created for him by Anu and designated "the seven," is aroused after a long period of rest by his vizier, Ishum. The demons call him to take renewed action against humanity, which has again become rest1ess, and to decimate them and their livestock. Since Marduk is the king of the gods for Babylonia, Erra must first of all move Marduk to relinquish to him his dominion for a time.

As it appears- the text is broken at this point - Marduk withdraws to be with Ea in his groundwater palace; Erra can now instruct other gods (such as Shamash, Sin, and Adad) to withhold their gifts from people as well. Among the humans, "every man is against his brother," even in the family, and many are lost to drought and the heavy fighting.

In Tablet IV; Ishtum shows Erra in detail all that has transpired, and thereby moves him to restraint; in the future, such catastrophes should befall only the enemies of Babylon, such as Assyria and Elam. Marduk's return is never mentioned; the last that is reported of him is his lament over the fate of his city, Babylon. The poem is obviously rich in contemporary features that we can only partly understand, although it contains many literary reminiscences as well. Much in the long discourses of the gods remains obscure to us. The pompous style, which so sharply deviates from the earlier epics, shows that this myth was not composed for presentation at a temple festival.

The political slant of some myths from Assyria is even more obviously massive. On account of his unpopular war of extermination against Babylon, Sennacherib commissioned some theologians with the task of producing a myth which would have as its focal point a divine legal proceeding against Marduk, who would be found guilty. This myth would then be the subject of a cultic presentation. All that survives of this work is fragments of a commentary, and these appear to have interpreted the individual actions for use in the rituaIs of the New Year festival. The text, composed in Assyrian, has incorrectly been taken as evidence of an actual passion myth.31 Assyrian commentaries interpret still other, often absurd mythic constructions from that country.

Lnder Sennacherib's successor, the nationalist party in Assyria concerned itself with the struggle against pro-Babylonian groups at the royal court, and \\rith drawing cro\vn prince Ashurbanipal over to their side. To this end, they employed a constructed myth of the vision of the underworld by a cro\vn prince under the pseudonym of Kumma. The first part, unfortunately, is only poorly preserved. Later Kummã sees in a dream the gods and demons of the underworld from theological tradition, and is led before the god NergaI. The model behavior of Sennacherib is displayed to him, and Kummã is given a harsh warning and sent back to earth. This myth also shows that belief in the gods was often degraded into a purely political measure.



In direct dependence upon the Hebrew word Chochma "wisdom," theologians have coined the term "Wisdom Literature" as a collective designation for works with predominantly moralistic and didactic purposes, ranging from collections of proverbs and religious stories to the animal fables and dialogues of Babylonia. In many of these texts, humor also comes to the fore as more than simply a brief, relaxing element. Texts of this sort were not compiled into larger works.


For the most part, sayings and jokes are passed on orally everywhere. Many are tied to a particu1ar period and thus are quickly forgotten; others, however, express something that is universally human, and these are often passed from people to people. In Babylonia, the Sumerians were the first to compile larger collections of sayings, which are preserved mostly in transcriptions of the Old Babylonian period. Many of these sayings are difficu1t to understand, and their interpretation is therefore disputed.

Included among the sayings are animal fables. The themes are manifold and various: they comprise the personal, as well as the social and the religio-cultic realms. More than a few sayings and jokes are richly elaborated and are in alllikelihood only the products of scribal schools. The Babylonians adopted only a portion of the Sumerian collections and passed them on in Akkadian translation. Larger collections of purely Akkadian proverbs are unknown. It is said of an informant: "A scorpion stung a human, what profit did he get from it? An informant brought someone to his death; what advantage did he get?" In a smaller col1ection of humorous short stories from Assyria, one finds similarities with Arabic short stories. These are often quite well formulated. They frequently contain only a few lines and include many brief fables, as well as human anecdotes which warn against perverse behavior. Sayings are occasionally quoted in letters, and in a few cases there are references to riddles, though we have no collection of riddles.


The dialogic controversy between two partners was one of the most polished genres of Sumerian literature. In it, the respective parties stress the merits of their own arguments while denigrating those of the other.

Since the partners cannot agree, a god is cal1ed upon, or in some cases a king, who should conclusively establish who has the advantage. It does not seem to happen that both partners are recognized simu1taneously to be right to the same degree. The dialogue partners can be gods or humans, as for example the shepherd represented by Dumuzi and a farmer, or the (scribe)-father and his son, and even the annual seasons summer and winter, the sheep and the barley, the sickle and the plow, and many others. In every case the controversy must concern the order of the world and also be relevant to humanity: that is, it must present more than a trivial issue. Most of the mythic introductions which precede these dialogues point to the same thing: they draw one's attention back to the creation of the world. Occasionally the behavior of one of the partners resolves the controversy, as for example in the dispute between the heron and the turtle, when the turtle devours the heron's nest of eggs; unfortunately, the conclusion to this dialogue has not been preserved. In a departure from the pattern of the fables, the animals in the dialogues of controversy do not represent people.

As already mentioned, the concisely formulated animal fables constitute a portion of the aphoristic literature in which the behavior of animals occupies a very wide space. The few comprehensive compositions in the Akkadian language occur only in the tradition of the dialogues of controversy, as, for example, the dispute between the ox and the horse. Occasionally there are several disputants, such as a fox, wolf, hound, and lion. Plants such as the Euphrates poplar, the dogwood, the tamarisk, and the date palm also serve as important dialogue partners for humans, along with emmer and wheat. In later texts, the dialogues of controversy are more animated and less bound by pattern. Another form of dialogue is represented by the dialogue between two friends concerning divine justice, which was briefly discussed above (see above, XII.4). This richly elaborated form allows no deity to mediate this ample display of speeches and counter-speeches, showing liberal application of theological erudition. In a thematically related dispute from the Old Babylonian period, the case was different: there the deity himself spoke at the end, promised the sufferer his help, and exhorted him: "Anoint him whose skin is parched; feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty!" Finally, the dialogue form is satirized in a later conversation between a lord and his slave, in which the lord always says what he wants to do and the slave responds by praising him. The lord then states the opposite, and again receives praise, this time with supporting argumentation. When the lord finally says that he wants to kill the slave, the slave responds quick-wittedly: "My lord will survive me by no more than three days!"


The few stories of this type which we know from the Sumerians belong for the most part to the composition É-dub-ba (House ofTablets), which has not yet been published in its entirety. This composition concerns the school of that time. One fragment depicts the daily life of a pupil, both at school and at home, in the form of a conversation, then brief1y describes a dismal day in his life during the course of which he is beaten seven times for various reasons. Consequently, the father invites the teacher home for supper and gives him a gift in the bargain; afterwards, the black sheep of the family becomes a model pupil. Some texts which deal with the methods of summoning and examining have come down to us in bilingual form. These instruct not aridly, but often humorously in the form of discourse and counterdiscourse by teacher and pupil.

Another passage presents us with a father's conversation with his son, in which the father repeatedly holds up the son's refractory behavior and his slovenliness, at the same time holding up his own claim to have always been especially careful. A Babylonian story which is completely unique for its time, about 1100, deals with the case of the impoverished Gimil-Ninurta, who out of desperation gives his only possession, a goat, to the mayor of Nippur in the hope of receiving a commensurate gift in return. The mayor, however, contemptuously dismisses the man after giving him a mug of beer. As Gimil-Ninurta is leaving, he tells the gatekeeper that he will avenge himself three times, and requests as the first item an elegant chariot from the king. With this, he drives forth as the commissioner of the king, demands a private audience with the mayor, and then beats him thoroughly "from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet." Afterward he takes from the mayor the amount in gold for the rental of the chariot. Gimil- Ninurta next disguises himself as a doctor seeking to treat the ill-handled mayor, then beats the offender as before. The mayor and his retainers then take up the pursuit of his tormentor, but he is trapped by Gimil-Ninurta under a bridge and beaten a third time.

The text concludes with the words: "The mayor could only crawl back into the city [againJ." Many would certainly have had similar fancies regarding the powerful in that age, and just as today they would have smirked over this story.



a. Difficulties in Differentiating Genres

Sharp boundaries can rarely be drawn between the various genres of prayer literature, since so many of the prayers can be classified under a particular genre only with great difficulty. Moreover, careful investigations exist for only a part of the known collections of texts as well as their genres. There are also transitional forms between prayers and incantations. Therefore, the following delineations of the most important genres can have only a provisional character.

b. Sumerian Hymns of Gods and Kings, Laments, Prayers, and Letters to the Gods

As far as our present knowledge goes, the oldest Sumerian hymns are the temple hymns which are attested as early as the middle of the third millennium, focusing on the great temples; a tablet collection which was copied quite often after 2000 contains 545 lines and comprises forty-two of these hymns.44 Many, often very long hymns to the gods are known after the Ur III period. These describe the descent, the great power, and the place of the deity in the pantheon, as well as his or her significance for humanity; they often end with intercessions for the king.

Narrative pieces are often inserted. The hymns to kings, who are in most cases divinized (see above, VI.2), are almost entirely written as selflaudatory compositions in the first person singular; the same is true of many hymns written primarily to goddesses. The dominant themes in these are the origin and legitimation of the king, his favor with the gods and his care for their temples, and his care for the poor, the orphans, and the widows, as well as for justice. Along with these one finds the king's physical strength, his exploits in war, and his accomplishments for the economy of the land. This singular genre of hymns ceased after 1650 with the Babylonian kings Hammurabi and Samsu-iluna, who no longer had themselves divinized. The Babylonians translated no royal hymns and passed none on. In addition, some myths contained hymnic prologues. The Sumerians had no specific literary genre of prayer. Very short prayers are found at the end of several ancient Sumerian commemorative inscriptions. Longer prayers have been inserted into the great building hymn of Gudea of Lagash (see above, section 2), as well as a number of myths, a long didactic poem, and as intercessory prayers at the ends of hymns; these follow no established structural schema. The letters to the gods comprise a strange substitute for prayers; in these the petitioner brings his desire before the god in the form of a letter of request. The drafting of such letters was practiced in the schools.46 The late Sumerian literature developed new genres after 1500, such as the summary prayers on cylinder seals of the Kassite period and some prayers, generally passed on in bilingual form, which were used in certain rites. The «laments to comfort the heart" are modeled on the Babylonian prayers in particular; these laments are different from all earlier prayers and contain confessions of sin and petitions for redemption from one's sins.47 The last genre to be mentioned is that of the Sumerian songs of lament. The quite comprehensive and tiresomely monotonous laments over political catastrophes, such as the destructions of Akkad and Ur, are included. To these must be added primarily rituallaments in the «woman's dialect" Emesal from a later period- including the ersemma-songs, performed in concert with the balang-harp, and laments for the god in the distant underworld, above all, Dumuzi (see above, XII.5b). These were recited down into the Seleucid period. The same elements, with the variation of a member, are very frequently repeated in the litanies of lament in a refrainlike fashion, though they are preserved on tablets only in abbreviated form. Finally, there are some personal laments, such as "A Man and His God," in which the motifs of Job resonate.

c. Babylonian Hymns and Prayers

Hymns to the gods are preserved for us as early as the Old Babylonian period. Strangely, these are overwhelmingly addressed to goddesses; they repeatedly end in intercession for the king and reveal quite a diversity of forms, along with an unevenness of scope. Myths are imbedded in some of these hymns. The song of Agushaya is a hymn to Ishtar which depicts the apprehension the gods feel face Ishtar's mighty warrior powers. Ea then creates Saltu/Strife, as a mirror-image of the young gutsy Ishtar so that the Goddess can come to Her senses and appease Her own instincts. .Only fragments remain of other hyrnns of this type, and this is a myth of Ishtar in the first person singular.

There is a very long hymn concerning Ishtar of Nippur which probably goes back to the Old Babylonian period. The language of the later hymns, which often comprise two hundred verses and more, is more artistic than that of the Old Babylonian hymns. Some of these are also hymns of repentance. The literary merit and content of the pronouncements found in the great hymn to the sun god Shamash stand out markedly; at the same time, a hymn to Gula in the first person singular which is just as long, is quite meager in content. Finally, some royal prayers from Assyria are to be reckoned among the hymns, and there is a note of self-criticism in these.

Stylistically related to the hymns in many respects are the limited number of psalms of lament and repentance. Among these is one from Tukulti-Ninurta I of Assyria during the last years of his reign, when the revolts against him were by no means able to break his sense of selfrighteousness. The only great hymn of repentance to Ishtar from the Old Babylonian period is unfortunately very badly preserved. The hemerologies often demand the recitation of prayers of repentance of the sigu-genre for certain days in which calamity threatens. As in a great prayer to Nabu, the priest sometimes speaks for the penitent and asks for forgiveness.

A further group of prayers which is richly represented are the prayers of oracular sacrifice of the genre ikribu; these usually include a formulaic conclusion. Finely formulated references to the previous life of the sacrificial animal in its pasture, as well as descriptions of the deep stillness of the night, are found in prayers of this genre from as early as the Old Babylonian period. Petitions for redemption from sin seldom occur in these hymns. Moreover, many personal names are very short prayers of petition or thanksgiving in sentence form; the contents of these vary greatly. We have referred to royal prayers in many inscriptions above (see above, section 2).

The so-called individual prayers of lament comprise by far the largest group of prayers. These prayers are often called prayers of incantation because their superscriptions occasionally contain magical formulas and are frequently imbedded in rituals. These begin with shorter or longer sections praising the deity; then follows the lament with the self-introduction, the plea for release from suffering, reconciliation with the guardian deity, and forgiveness for sins. A generally formulaic promise of thanks forms the conclusion. Some of these prayers are among the most beautiful pieces of prayer literature because of the earnestness of their confession of sin. A prayer begins with the petitioner's complaint that he has not yet been heard; not the slightest echo of magic can be found here. The situation is different with so-called "special prayers" of this genre, which deal with completely distinct forms of suffering and sickness. These often present mixtures of prayer and incantation and are imbedded in extensive magical rituals which have to be carried out by the incantation priest (see above, XII.6). This priest directs himself primarily to Shamash, Marduk, and Ea, individually or all together. The so-called "cultic medium" prayers apply to the substances which are used in the ritualS. There are many echoes of the individual prayers of lament in the biblical psalms, but the constraints of the genre left the Babylonian poet much less freedom to formulate these.

The psalm of lament "I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom" (see above, XII.4) holds a special place in the religious literature of the ancient Orient. In this composition of 480 verses, a very long lament is put in the mouth of a high official of the period around 1100, who laments his many illnesses and his loss of social status, which have brought him to the brink of death. In a scene that is presented only slightly more briefly than his suffering, Marduk finally announces the man's deliverance through a messenger in a dream. The praise of Marduk by all who experienced these events provides the final note. Just as in the book of Job, the quantity of suffering heaped on the individual surpasses all that he considers imaginable. The meaning is this: regardless of what form one's suffering may take, everyone should find himself in the poem and find hope in a similarly miraculous solution.


d. Sumerian and Babylonian Incantations

The incantation literature is quite extensive among the Sumerians as well as the Babylonians. Sumerian incantations have survived in monolingual form mostly in Old Babylonian transcriptions and were later handed on accompanied by Akkadian translations. In many cases, of course, even the Sumerian text is post-Sumerian. The texts of Sumerian demonic exorcisms have been discussed above. In some of them, which were later compiled in the great series Evil udug/utukku's and Bad asag/asakku's, the activities of the demons are portrayed in lively fashion, and we often find long successions of similar pronouncements. Depending on one's purpose, various types of incantations with particular emphases can be distinguished. The post-Sumerian incantations, which were no doubt translated from the Akkadian with some frequency, were not compiled into their own larger tablet series. They have not yet been studied from a literary standpoint. Among these are the incantations directed against spells (see above, 4). By contrast, we still have no evidence for Sumerian incantations against witches.

The number of Akkadian incantations of different sorts is very large, and these were generally compiled, in part with the associated rituals, only in smaller series, as for example those against the Lamashtu, against spells, and against witches (see above, 6). Many of these are found scattered among the collections of medical prescriptions, as well as among rituals against suffering of all kinds. They have not yet been the subject of a literary investigation. Until now, only a few have been found from the Old Assyrian and Old Babylonian periods.

Finally, there are the so-called Abracadabra texts. These are found on small tablets of the Old Babylonian period, and later occur as parts of other incantations. Mostly they consist of what are for us - and no doubt were for most Babylonians as well- senseless combinations of syllables. It has been observed, however, that at least some of them were derived from other languages ( e.g., from Old Elamite) and subsequently became incomprehensible through the deterioration of texts.


The works which can claim to be "scientific," in both the widest sense of the word and their structure, have been treated above in chapter XI and in those parts of chapter XII which have to do with the teachings about the gods and the syncretistic doctrine of identification. Established supplements for school are found in the series, House of Tablets, (Eduba). One finds in this series, for instance, tables of special dialects and technical languages and types of information which are important to us. The writers of scientific works were rarely concerned with a polished literary form, since they were largely bound by a rigid schema.

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