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The Harps that Once...

The Harps that Once...: Sumerian Poetry in Translation

Copyright Date: 1987
Published by: Yale University Press
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  • Book Info
    The Harps that Once...
    Book Description:

    The eminent Assyriologist Thorkild Jacobsen, author of Treasures of Darkness, here presents translations of ancient Sumerian poems written near the end of the third millennium b.c.e., including a number of compositions that have never before been published in translation. The themes developed in the poems-quite possibly the earliest poems extant-are those that have fascinated humanity since the time people first began to spin stories: the longings of young lovers; courage in battle; joy at the birth of a child; the pleasures of drink and song.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16187-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)

    Sumerian literature is one of the oldest known literatures in the world, perhaps the oldest, and stands out by the power, variety, and sheer mass of its content. Some of its works are exceedingly beautiful; others are perhaps less readily enjoyed by a modern reader, yet appeal as bearing witness to a strange, long-vanished world.

    Writing was invented in southern Mesopotamia, Sumer, at some time around the middle of the fourth millennium B.C. It was at first a pure picture writing, but was soon supplemented by the use of signs for phonetic values without reference to meaning. By means of...

  5. PART ONE Dumuzi Texts

    • [PART ONE Introduction]
      (pp. 1-2)

      The worship of a young god representing seasonal abundance of one kind or another, who dies when the season and its bounties are over, seems to have been one of the oldest and most widespread cults in ancient Mesopotamia.

      The god has different names and to some extent different character, depending upon which seasonal feature he is connected with. His best-known form is that of Dumuzi, or Tammuz, the shepherd, in which he was the power behind the successful lambing of the ewes and the related milking and dairy tasks of the shepherds in the spring. The cult celebrated his...

    • The New House
      (pp. 3-7)

      Dumuzi’s and Inanna’s parents have concluded arrangements for their children to marry,¹ and so Dumuzi has gone off with friends to build a house for himself and his wife-to-be near the house of her parents.

      Inanna has not yet been told. Thus, when from the roof of her parents’ house she becomes aware of a commotion in the street below, she thinks she and her girlfriends have been followed to the house by a brash youngster and is indignant at the intrusion.

      Dumuzi is amused and keeps her in ignorance, so that he can tease her gently. Although she does...

    • The Sister’s Message
      (pp. 8-9)

      Geshtinanna has been invited in by Inanna so that Inanna can confide in her how utterly she has fallen in love with Geshtinanna’s brother Dumuzi. Geshtinanna loses no time in relaying the exciting news to her brother, and Dumuzi—pretending to have official business in the palace—is quick to be off to reassure the suffering Inanna that he loves her too.

      The ditty, rather amusingly, renders the teenage sense of drama. Geshtinanna’s description of how Inanna suffers all the pains of love to the point of faintness is probably meant to be taken with a grain of salt. She...

    • The Wiles of Women
      (pp. 10-12)

      Inanna and Dumuzi have met the day before and have fallen in love. Inanna has whiled away the day, longing for it to become evening when, she hopes, he will show up after having finished the day’s work.

      He does so, and impetuously propositions her. This is not what Inanna wants, and yet she does not want to lose him by too severe a brush-off; so she pleads that she has to be home at a decent hour. He counters, offering to teach her excuses for being late she can tell her mother—his naiveté must have amused her—but...

    • The Bridal Sheets
      (pp. 13-15)

      Inanna’s brother Utu has made binding arrangements for her to marry Ama-ushumgal-anna. All that remains is for him to tell her. Not quite sure how his news will be received, he begins tactfully by suggesting that they need new sheets, not letting on that they are to be her bridal sheets. Inanna, however, at once guesses what it is all about and, nervous about whom her brother may have chosen for her, she tries to push the whole matter off. She is young and dainty and does not know how to spin, weave, etc.

      Utu though, is not swayed from...

    • Let Him Come! Let Him Come!
      (pp. 16-18)

      Utu asks Inanna what she has been doing, and she answers that she has been bathing and dressing in all her finery—obviously with a view to receiving her bridegroom.

      Utu realizes this and suggests that they send for him to celebrate the wedding.

      Inanna agrees, and wishes to welcome him with wine. Utu will then escort her to the bridal chamber, where, he hopes, she may conceive a child as lovely as she is. The composition ends with a chorus of the bride’s girlfriends who likewise escort her and rejoice in the occasion....

    • Dumuzi’s Wedding
      (pp. 19-23)

      This idyllic little tale begins, rather incongruously, with an address to Inanna—presumably by her girlfriends—in which she is celebrated as goddess of war, devastating enemy countries.¹

      More in keeping with the rest of the tale is the accompanying praise of her for having such good providers serving as bridegroom and as attendants at her pending wedding. The praise apparently makes Inanna decide to set a date for the wedding, and so she sends messengers specifying what each is to bring as a wedding gift.

      The groom, Dumuzi/Ama-ushumgal-anna, and the guests arrive, but are left waiting in the street...

    • Unfaithfulness
      (pp. 24-27)

      One of Inanna’s slave girls has been sleeping with Dumuzi, and Inanna has found out. The girl’s punishment is to be death. So Inanna sends her herald Ninshubur out to call people together for the execution of the condemned girl. They gather at the city wall, from the plinth of which Inanna throws the girl down to them to have them fall upon her with any weapon they have handy and kill her. Inanna has had her revenge, but the pain of having been betrayed by Dumuzi is not assuaged; memories of what the girl told her when she confessed...

    • Dumuzi’s Dream
      (pp. 28-46)

      Forebodings of approaching death send Dumuzi lamenting out in the desert. Here he lies down to sleep but wakes up from a bad dream. His sister, Geshtinanna, who is fetched to interpret it, can only assert that it means he will die.

      Dumuzi thus expects that Death, the netherworld and its powers, will send for him. Its ghostly emissaries are depicted in the myth under the image of army recruiters—in real life Death’s messengers for many a young man—and he asks Geshtinanna to go up a nearby hill as lookout. Geshtinanna does so and sees a boat approaching....

    • The Wild Bull Who Has Lain Down
      (pp. 47-49)

      The Sumerian shepherd, pasturing his flock in the desert in the spring, was always in danger of attack by marauding bandits from the mountains, and the death of Dumuzi was often visualized as due to such an attack.

      The image gains deeper meaning from the fact that the Sumerians considered the mountains to be the realm of Death and the abode of the dead. In a sense, therefore, the attack is the powers of Death itself reaching out for Dumuzi.

      In the lament here translated, Dumuzi’s young wife, Inanna, has come to the desert to join him but finds him...

    • Recognition
      (pp. 50-52)

      As work in the fold in spring became more and more demanding, the shepherds would send for their wives, mothers, and sisters to join them in the desert to help out.

      Dumuzi has done that, but when the women arrive he is dead, killed by raiders from the mountains. The dirge here translated begins as a lament for his death by his wife, his mother, and his sister, but it quickly centers on the mother alone. It follows her as she walks up to her son’s body and loses, as she recognizes it, any last hope she might have clung...

    • Vain Appeal
      (pp. 53-55)

      Essentially a lament for Dumuzi the shepherd, this composition also incorporates passages that come originally from the Damu cycle. To it belongs the Damu litany, which lists Damu and the other local gods identified with him and Dumuzi. There belongs also the image of the dead god as a reed blown by the wind and pursued by his mother. See below, “ln the Desert by the Early Grass” II. 186ff.

      The basic story deals with Dumuzi’s little sister Geshtinanna who, coming out of the destroyed fold, follows a netherworld ranger down to her dead brother to urge him to come...

    • In the Desert by the Early Grass
      (pp. 56-84)

      The composition called, from its opening lines, “In the Desert by the Early Grass” is remarkably disjunct and diverse, having obviously been put together from many and various sources. Nor does it help attempts to understand it that lacunas of uncertain length keep snapping such thin thread of narrative as may once have existed, nor that we are forced, in seeking to restore the text of such gaps, to rely on later versions rather than on the Old Babylonian (OB) one, which forms the basis of our presentation here.

      The sources on which the composition drew were, clearly, actual ritual...

  6. PART TWO Royal Lovesongs

    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 85-87)

      A great body of courtly literature from the archives of the Third Dynasty of Ur made its way into the school curriculum of the Sumerian schools of the times of the dynasties of Isin and Larsa that succeeded it. Here belong royal hymns to the kings of Ur, highly polished administrative and political correspondence from the chancellery, and much more. Most surprising in this literary heritage is perhaps a collection of love songs—if one may take the words in their broader sense—most of which are directed to the fourth king of the dynasty, Shu-Suen. One guesses that this...

    • Love Song to Shu-Suen
      (pp. 88-89)
    • As You Let Day Slip By
      (pp. 90-90)
    • He Arrives
      (pp. 91-92)
    • My “Wool” Being Lettuce
      (pp. 93-93)
    • Vigorously He Sprouted
      (pp. 94-94)
    • The First Child
      (pp. 95-96)
    • Tavern Sketch
      (pp. 97-98)
  7. PART THREE Hymns to Gods

    • Hymn to Enlil
      (pp. 101-111)

      The hymn to Enlil here translated shows him—unlike the many addresses to him found in laments—predominantly as a benefactor of man and all life on earth.

      The hymn begins with a description of his innate authority and power, which make the other gods recognize him as their lord and master. Next it tells how Enlil chose Nippur as his abode, and the sacred character of the city is stated, its quick and unrelenting retribution of all forms of evil or disrespect stressed. To ensure a firm basis for the authority structure in the family the citizens built the...

    • Hymn to Inanna as Warrior, Star, and Bride
      (pp. 112-124)

      This hymn was apparently written under Iddin-Dagan, the third king of the dynasty of Isin, for he is mentioned by name in it. It may even be that it was meant for use at the yearly rite of the sacred marriage in which the king took on the identity of the god Ama-ushumgal-anna and as such married Inanna, who was almost certainly incarnated in the reigning queen, as shown by the epithet Ninegala(k), “queen of the palace,” by which she is called in connection with this rite.

      The hymn opens with an address to the goddess as morning and evening...

    • The Nanshe Hymn
      (pp. 125-142)

      The Nanshe Hymn is a difficult text, and much in it remains obscure, whether due to language difficulties or to our ignorance of life in an ancient temple with its particular set of values and of the common sins against them. The glimpse into that singular world it promises makes it, however, worth the attempt to understand as much of it as one can.¹

      The Hymn begins by telling how Nanshe, who was a native of Eridu, wanted to have a city of her own and how she chose Ninâ, the present Tel Zurghul, in the Lagash region. Ninâ at...

  8. PART FOUR Myths

    • The Eridu Genesis
      (pp. 145-150)

      The fragment here translated was written at some time around 1600 B.C. It constitutes the lower third of a six-column tablet, the upper part of which, containing roughly some 36 lines per column, is lost. The content of the lost sections can be restored to some extent from other versions of the same tradition, most of which are of later date. By the time of the Assyrian Empire the tradition in somewhat shortened form had been included in the so-called Babylonian Chronicle, heading it.

      The story, which has a structure much like that of the biblical stories in Genesis, dealt...

    • The Birth of Man
      (pp. 151-166)

      Two originally separate and independent stories are combined in this composition,¹ which celebrates Enki and mankind’s debt to him. He was the one who thought up a way for man to be born, and he was the one who devised ways in which the physically handicapped could yet earn their livelihood as useful members of society.

      The first of these stories tells how in the beginning the gods had to farm for their food themselves. The hard work of cleaning rivers and canals weighed heavily on them and put them in a rebellious mood, so that they blamed Enki and,...

    • Enlil and Ninlil
      (pp. 167-180)

      In mythical times,¹ when its gods had not yet settled in it, Nippur was a town like any other town. The localities the tale mentions cluster around the temple Ekur suggesting the area of a small village only. The town well, the “Honey Well,” we know to have been located in the main courtyard of Ekur, Kiur, where the gods sat in judgment on Enlil later in the tale. Kiur was the forecourt of Ekur, and the fateful Nunbirdu canal flowed just outside the town wall northeast of Ekur, not very far away.

      The town in those days had only...

    • Enki and Ninsikila/Ninhursaց̃a
      (pp. 181-204)

      This odd composition is perhaps best understood as an occasional piece put together to entertain visitors from the island of Dilmun at a banquet at the royal court in Ur. Dilmun, modern Bahrein, was the intermediary for sea trade with India and Africa, and so was of sufficient importance for traders from there to be given official welcome when their ships docked at Ur.

      The composition takes pains to flatter the visitors with praise of Dilmun’s sacred origins and its god-given worldwide trade relations. It is also, one might venture, tailored to a sailor’s robust sense of humor.¹ Apparently it...

    • Inanna’s Descent
      (pp. 205-232)

      The joining together of two independent stories which makes up so many Sumerian compositions is here more ingeniously done than is usually the case.

      The first story is a myth telling how Inanna unsuccessfully tried to take the rule of Hades away from her sister Ereshkigala, and had to be rescued. The second story, also a myth, deals with the capture and recapture of Dumuzi by a detachment of military police (rangers), originally probably for service in the army, as in other similar Dumuzi tales. In this composition, however, Inanna’s release from Hades depends upon her providing a substitute to...

    • The Ninurta Myth Lugal-E
      (pp. 233-272)

      The composition known from the word with which it begins as Lugal-e has been admirably edited by J. van Dijk. It is a myth—or combination of myths—cast in epic form. It deals with the god of the spring thundershowers and floods, Ninurta, telling of his war against a rival in the mountains, his regulation of the river Tigris, and how he determined the character and use of various kinds of stones.

      The story begins with the young warrior-king, Ninurta, feasting quietly at home, when his weapon Sharur brings him disturbing intelligence. A rival has risen in the mountains,...

  9. PART FIVE Epics

    • Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta
      (pp. 275-319)

      The story of Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta begins in legendary times, when trade and barter were still unknown and when many other achievements of civilization—such as written communication by letter—had not yet been invented. In Uruk ruled the “lord” or “priest-king” (en) Enmerkar. By virtue of his office he was the human husband of the goddess of the city, Inanna, with whom he united in the yearly rite of the sacred marriage. On him rested the responsibility for establishing the proper relations to the gods in cult, and rites on which the welfare of the community...

    • Lugalbanda and the Thunderbird
      (pp. 320-344)

      Lugalbanda, hero of this story about his meeting with the Thunderbird, seems originally to have been a god, chief deity of the old town of Kullab that was early merged into Uruk. In time, however, his status tended to decline to that of a mortal hero and early king of Uruk, around whom a cycle of tales gathered. In references to him outside these tales, though, his original divine status often lingers on.

      The cycle of tales about Lugalbanda appears to have been oral in nature with sometimes one, sometimes another section of it put into literary form and committed...

    • Gilgamesh and Aka
      (pp. 345-356)

      This short tale of Gilgamesh and Aka remains so far the only example of true primary epic that Sumerian literature has to offer. It may well be that the genre was losing favor and was dying out by the time of the Third Dynasty of Ur, from which the bulk of the known literary compositions dates. That the genre once was better represented is indicated by “Gilgamesh and Aka” itself, for that tale is clearly not self-contained, but represents rather a single episode in a much wider epic context leading up to it that is now lost. This particular tale...

  10. PART SIX Admonitory History

    • The Cursing of Akkadê
      (pp. 359-374)

      The composition which is here called “The Cursing of Akkadê” occupies a position all its own in Sumerian literature as we have it. It is neither myth nor epic, neither hymn nor lament. At best one might perhaps describe it as “admonitory history,” stretching the term “history” to include “mythohistory.” It tells how the famous city of Akkadê was cursed by the gods and annihilated because its equally famous ruler Naram-Suen willfully disregarded the express wishes of Enlil and demolished his temple Ekur in Nippur—albeit with the intention of rebuilding it. The tale might thus serve to warn rulers...

  11. PART SEVEN Hymns to Temples

    • Hymn to Kesh
      (pp. 377-385)

      The hymn to the temple Kesh is one of the oldest Sumerian literary works that have come down to us. Fragments of copies dating to the early part of the third millennium B.C. have been found, and a more complete text of this earliest version may be hoped for. As it stands, the hymn makes a distinctly archaic impression, and it is not easy to say how much of it we actually understand, and how much of it refers to things we know not of, but which may have been obvious to early hearers who knew the temple and its...

    • The Cylinders of Gudea
      (pp. 386-444)

      Cylinders A and B of Gudea, ruler of the Lagash region in southern Mesopotamia, formed the middle and end parts of an original trilogy entitled “The house of Ninց̃irsu having been built . . . . ”¹ They were written around 2125 B.C. to celebrate Gudea’s building of a new version of the temple Eninnu for the god Ninց̃irsu in the then capital of the region, Girsu. Girsu is the modern site of Tello, which was excavated by a series of French archeological expeditions, the first of which was undertaken in 1877. Unfortunately very little of the actual remains of...

  12. PART EIGHT Laments for Temples

    • The Lament for Ur
      (pp. 447-474)

      The lament for Ur was written as part of efforts by the early kings of the dynasty of Isin to rebuild the former capital. It aims to calm the disturbed, turbulent, suffering soul of Nanna, the god of Ur, so that he can regain his composure and think of rebuilding his destroyed home.

      The reign of the illustrious Third Dynasty of Ur had ended in disaster. A rebellion around the tenth year of the last king, Ibbi-Suen, had reduced that ruler to the status of a mere petty king who may not have controlled much more than the territory around...

    • The Destroyed House
      (pp. 475-477)

      The lament is for the destruction of the city of Isin and its chief temples. It is attributed jointly to the major goddesses of the city, so one should probably understand the opening litany to mean that each of the goddesses mentioned shares in the sentiments expressed in the following lament: sorrowful memory of happy days in the destroyed house, when festive meals were served, music played, and where they lived with husbands and children.

      There is an appeal to Enlil, whose decision in the divine assembly ordered the destruction. The lament ends with a half-longing, half dead tired, wish:...

    • The Verdict of Enlil
      (pp. 478-484)

      Enlil’s verdict, the act of destruction he proposes in the assembly of the gods, is traditionally accepted by it. The members make it their own by voting hé-àm “so be it.” The combined breaths that go into these divine announcements create an irresistible storm and as—not merely like—a storm, the destruction decided upon falls upon the country, for enemy attack is only the superficial, “political,” appearance, storm the more profound, “theological,” reality, Enlil’s “word.”...

  13. Texts Translated
    (pp. 485-488)
  14. Index
    (pp. 489-498)