II - Sumer and the Beginnings of History

Civilization began in Sumer, in the Land of the Two Rivers, Mesopotamia. No one knows where the Sumerians came from, but about 4000 BC they were already developing a culture which was to affect the whole world for over five thousand years. The rich agricultural land of the alluvial plains meant there was always sufficient food for man and beast; fowl and fish were in abundance and the Bible did well to find here its Garden of Eden.


Amid such plenty nomadic man needed no more to move from place to place as he exhausted the land’s resources. His was now an urban culture. He could build cities like ancient Eridu accommodating several thousands of people. His simple buildings became classic examples of monumental architecture rising high above the surrounding plains.


Arts and crafts became the specialist industries of the few.

The over brimming wealth of Sumer could attract raw materials and services from these favored lands round about, and a class of traders arose to channel imports through their warehouses and to travel abroad seeking more. Labour was organized and rigorously controlled for efficient production, and in every city management of the economy, religion, and culture was in the hands of the king and the priesthood. For the land was the god’s, without whose procreative power all life would cease.


The king was his bailiff, a less, temporarily earthbound god whose function was also to ensure the productivity of the community. The administrative centre of each district was the god’s house, the temple, with its priestly officials whose control over the people was absolute.


The temple was the seat of justice, land administration, scientific learning, and theological speculation, as well as the theatre of religious ritual.


It was the community’s university and primary school, to which small boys would drag their unwilling steps each day to set the pattern of grammar school curricula for more than five millennia.


It was in such temple colleges that their tutors built, over the next two thousand years, some of the richest and most extensive libraries of the ancient world. From the ruins of ancient Nippur on the lower Euphrates, a hundred miles or so from modern Baghdad, have come several thousand literary texts.

A large number were written in the most prolific period of Sumerian culture, from about 2000 to 1500 BC.


They evince a wide range of intellectual exploration in the fields of theology, botany, zoology, mineralogy, geography, mathematics, and philology, the results of centuries of creative thought. Along with a continuing search for new knowledge went the systematic preservation of past results. The library of Nippur contained texts going back to around 2300 BC, as well as dictionaries, legal works, and myths reaching down nearly to the end of the second millennium.


Elsewhere, the library at Uruk held a range of literature stretching some 3,000 years, from the earliest times to a century or so before the Christian era, when Sumerian was still being used as a special, esoteric language. For, although after 2360 BC Sumer had to share her hegemony of the region with her northern Semitic neighbors of Accad, and afterwards lost political control completely, she had set seal upon the cultural life of the Near East and the world for all time.


Yet, a century ago no one had ever heard of the Sumerians. Archaeologists who were at all interested in Mesopotamia were looking for the remains of the Assyrians and Babylonians, referred to often in biblical and classical sources. About the middle of the nineteenth century Sir Henry Rawlinson and other scholars were examining clay tablets found in the ruins of ancient Nineveh. They were inscribed with wedge-shaped (“cuneiform”) signs already familiar as the writing of Semitic- speaking Acadians (Assyro-Babylonians).


To this family of languages belong Hebrew and Aramaic, sister dialects used in the Old Testament, and Arabic, the language of Muhammad’s Qur’an and the modern Arab world. The initial decipherment of Acadian cuneiform had been made by Rawlinson in 1851, mainly on the basis of a trilingual inscription from Behistun in Persia.


However, some of the tablets now being studied had, besides the familiar Semitic dialect, another quite unknown tongue, interspersed between the lines. The script was the same so that the phonetic values of each sign could be transcribed even though the string of resultant syllables made no immediate sense. There were also discovered amongst the tablets word-lists in which Acadian words were set alongside equivalents in this strange tongue. Some scholars refused to believe it was a real language at all.


They spoke of a “secret script” used by the priests to overawe the laity and preserve their rituals and incantations from the uninitiated. The name by which it was known in the texts, “the tongue of Sumer” was incomprehensible, and it was some years before the experts would take it seriously. However, when, later, monuments were discovered written only in this language and dating from a time before Semitic Acadian was being written in Mesopotamia, even the most skeptical had to admit that there must have existed in the area a pre-Semitic population from whom the Assyrians had borrowed the art of writing.


The cuneiform method of writing was well suited to the area. The alluvial soil of the plains provided an abundance of a particularly fine clay which could be moistened and shaped into a lozenge or pat in the palm of the hand. The earliest shape of “tablets” was roughly circular, smoothly rounded on top and flat underneath. It was the shape of the flat loaf of the East even today, or of the biblical “cake of figs” or circular disk of a spinning whorl.


It was, in fact, the shape of the top of a mushroom, and it was from the fungus that it received its name.


Later the primitive “bun” tablet was regularized into a rectangular slab some two or three inches long and one and a half or two inches wide, and capable of bring held in the scribe’s hand. The soft clay was firm enough to take and preserve the impression made by the squared end of his stylus, but not so tacky as to stick to the scribe’s hand as he worked.


As the texts required to be recorded grew longer, the tablets were made larger so that they could no longer be held in the hand. This meant that when the bigger tablets were introduced the attitude of the scribe’s hand to the clay as it lay now on the table underwent a change, and with it the orientation of the symbols, which turned ninety degrees.


The "jotting-pad” kind of tablet, recording some passing transaction or the like, was simply hardened by being baked in the sun.


But this method gave too impermanent a result for more important legal or religious texts, and offered too much scope to the forger, who had simply to remoisten the clay, smear over the impression and write in a new word. Important documents were baked hard in an oven, and the method is used even today by archaeologists finding sun-baked tablets which could too easily suffer damage during handling.


When the Semites took over the Sumerian technique of writing, it had already developed stylized forms far removed from the first, crude pictorial signs we find on the earliest tablets. The oldest text we know is probably a tally list of some kind and dates from about 3500 BC. It comes from Kish near ancient Babylon, and the signs at this stage are clearly recognizable representations of objects, like a head, a leg, an erect penis ejaculating sperm, and a hand. The signs had been made by drawing a pointed instrument through the clay like a pen.


However, it was found that this method tended to push the clay into ridges before the stylus so that the signs became blurred and crossing over previous strokes obliterated them. So the scribes began simply pressing the end of the reed into the clay forming a series of separate wedge-shaped marks. Inevitably, the flowing line of the original drawings was lost, stylized into formal representations which became further and further removed from the subject.


To take the above examples, we see the following sequence of development:

The importance of such a primitive script for the etymologist is that he can illustrate the word with a picture, as a child is taught to read with bricks on which word and picture are printed side by side.


Thus represents SAG, “head” (the Sumerian words are conventionally transcribed into capital letters, their Acadian equivalents into lower case type, italicized, in this instance, rëshu).


Identification of the object with a human head here, of course, poses no problem, but there are instances where to have the accompanying picture is to gain a valuable insight into the Sumerian mind. For example, where one is trying to discover the significance of fire in fertility mythology, it is useful to know that to represent the idea of “love” the Sumerian scribe drew a simple container with a burning torch inside, to indicate the fermenting heat of gestation in the womb.


Or again, as a sidelight upon social customs, the word for “male slave” was an erect, ejaculating penis superimposed with three triangular impressions used to express “hill country” or “foreign land”, and his feminine counterpart was the usual representation for “woman”, the pubic triangle with the slit of the vulva, with a similar subscription:

The word for “male slave”, ERI, leaves no doubt that his prime function was to procreate more slaves for his master, since a home-born slave was a better security risk than one dragged away from his native land as a spoil of war. Unfortunately, this simple representative writing could not long survive the extension of the art to express more complex ideas than ”laundry-lists”.


That same picture of the erect penis came also to be used, not unnaturally, to express “standing up straight”, or “length”, and so a number of verbs and nouns could ultimately be intended by the one picture. Furthermore, it could also represent the sound of the “penis” word, ush, and so could be used simply as a phonetic symbol where no reference to the meaning of the original was intended.

Our alphabet is also, of course, composed of symbols, which were originally pictures. The letter A, for instance, is derived from the picture of a bull’s head, seen in its earliest form as b’, stylized in Phoenician as 4, and passing into early Greek as ), and A and so on into our western alphabet. Similarly, our letter B began as a picture of a house, or rather, the courtyard of a house, r, which appears in Phoenician as, in Greek as and.


Our D was a door, hieroglyphic LI, from which it developed the characteristic triangular shape of Phoenician and Greek delta, <J, and L. Our letter I came from a very much simplified version of a hieroglyphic hand, , through Phoenician j, into Greek 3 and ). And so on. But the idea of having symbols represent single sounds, consonants and vowels, was a major step forward and was not to be achieved for more than a thousand years after writing began in Sumer.

Just how great an advance this constituted can be appreciated by realizing that the cuneiform system required some three hundred different signs, and that each of these ideograms could represent a number of different sound-values. For instance, the sign for a road junction, SILA or SIL, >—, also meant TAR, “make a decision, judge”, or KUD, “cut”, or KliASh, “break, grind up”.


All have this radical idea of “division” but its extension to similar motifs, physical and juridical, brings under the same ideogram a variety of different words. Similarly, the ideogram for “scrotum”, simply a skin bag, DUBUR, can also represent DUGGAN, “wallet”, KALAM, “kidney”, and even GIRISh, “butterfly”, presumably from its origins in a chrysalis.


When Acadian took over the cuneiform system, the Semitic scribes added to the lists of values attaching to each ideogram those relating to their own equivalents of the Sumerian words. For example, Sumerian SAG, “head”, was translated by Acadian rèshu, so to the Sumerian values of the “head” ideogram, they added their own phonetic and etymological approximations, sak, sag, saq, shak, shag, shaq, resh, res, rish, ris.


(Incidentally, it should be noted that Sumerian and Semitic had single consonants representing our sh sound, shown here as sh in Semitic and Sh in Sumerian.)


Obviously learning to read and write would be very much easier if the student had only to memorize a couple of dozen signs representing individual sounds, consonants and vowels, and use these symbols to express the phonemes of which each sound-group or “word” was composed. He could then build up any word he wanted, like a Meccano model of standard-shaped pieces.


Not surprisingly, until this radical step forward had been taken, proficiency in this highly complex cuneiform system was the privilege of a few, and, carrying with it power and prestige, tended to resist change and the wider dissemination of the craft. Even when it did arrive, alphabetic writing was used to express only the “harder”, consonantal sounds, whilst in reading the “softer” vowels had to be inserted according to the most likely meaning of the word in the context.


This is still the case in many parts of the Semitic world, where vowelling words in Arabic newspaper printing, for example, is the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, full vowelling systems for most Semitic scripts were not introduced until the Christian era, and in the Bible considerable doubt can arise over the precise meaning of a passage because the text was only consonantally written and the context insufficiently clear to offer grounds for certain interpretation.


The advantage of the old, clumsy syllabic writing to the modern decipherer is that it shows the vowels as well as the consonants of the dead language. When one is trying to relate words from different language groups of widely varying dates, every scrap of information about their early pronunciation is of the utmost value. Because we have the vowels of Sumerian we can trace the developments of its vocabulary into related dialects with more certainty than would have been possible had the alphabet been invented and widely used a thousand years earlier.


The Sumerian language is put together like a house of bricks. First, there are certain word - bricks expressing basic ideas, like KUR, “conquer”, BA, “give”. On to these the writer adds other word - bricks, like TA or NE, modifying the verb in some way or adding a possessive suffix, like “my”, “his” or “their”, to a noun. These added particles do not concern us so much in this study, since the words we are interested in are built mainly of the basic word-bricks.


What is of vital importance for our researches is, however, that unlike many other languages, including our own, Sumerian tends to keep these basic idea-words unchanged. English often expresses tense in a verb by altering the sound within the root, as “he gives”, but, for the past tense, “he gave”; “I run”, but “I ran”, and so on. Sumerian will keep the same radical element, merely adding a particle word - brick to modify the verb or its relationship with other grammatical members of the sentence.


Thus in our search for a Sumerian idea-word within Indo-European or Semitic names we can feel confident that, whatever phonetic changes it may have undergone through dialectal influences, the radical element we seek will originally have been a single, unchangeable word-brick. Once we can penetrate to that, we stand a good chance of deciphering the original meaning of the name. Sometimes two or more radical elements can be combined to form a new word-brick like SILA, “road junction”, abbreviated sometimes to SIL.


Clearly this word is a combination of SI, “finger”, and LA, “join together”, the overall picture being that of Winston Churchill’s “victory-V” sign. We should express that supposed original form of two separate but, as yet, uncombined elements as *sI... LA, with a preposited asterisk. This sign, here, and elsewhere, indicates a verbal group whose constituent parts are known to have existed in Sumerian but whose grouping or combination in that precise form does not actually appear in literature so far recovered.


At this point it must be emphasized that although we now have thousands of tablets from which to reconstruct a great deal of the vocabulary of Sumerian, they represent only a fraction of the original literature. Doubtless there is much more to be found beneath Mesopotamian soil, for archaeology has already demonstrated the very high level of Sumerian civilization and extent of its accumulated learning.


It is now possible to propose combinations of known root elements with a fair degree of assurance; nevertheless the asterisk will appear frequently in the following pages and serve to remind us that such reconstructions, however probable, must find adequate crosschecking through the cognate languages if they are to be anything but speculative. Furthermore, they are only possible when the phonetic rules governing consonant and vowel changes from one language into another have been established.


We know that Sumerian was spoken in more than one dialect.


These are referred to in the texts but there is not yet sufficient material to reconstruct them completely, or to know for certain their geographical and literary boundaries. What is now apparent, however, is that some of the most important phonetic changes evinced by these dialects are observable in the forms of Sumerian words as they appear in Indo European and Semitic. Perhaps in the future it may be possible to draw dialect boundaries which will show not only where the Sumerians originated but from what geographical points their language spread into the Indo-European and Semitic worlds.


For the moment, to know the phonetic changes that may be expected in vocal transmission of Sumerian roots makes it possible to trace them in other language families.  For example, to our ears m and g could hardly be more different. In Sumerian, however, they are dialectally equivalent. The word AM, for instance, can appear as AG, MAR as GAR, and so on.


The same variation can be seen in dialectal Greek, as in the word magganon, “hunting-net”, which appears rarely as gaggamon,’ and between Greek and Latin, as in amnos, “lamb”, Latin agnus. Again, to us g is quite different from b, but they can fall together in Sumerian,14 and also parallel one another in Indo-European dialects.


For example, the Greek balanos, “acorn”, is the Latin (and English) glans. Some phonetic correspondences are more easily understood since the sounds are, in any case, not far apart, like b and p, with their “soft” sounds ph and f Latin pater is our “father”. The sounds m and n are close enough to make their interchangeability easily comprehensible, as are the “liquid” letters r and 1.


But not so immediately obvious is a common variant in the Sumerian and Semitic worlds between 1 and n, and 1 and sh, and this has particularly to be looked for when Sumerian origins are sought for names in Semitic format.’ Specialists will note for themselves phonetic correspondences affecting their own fields of linguistic interest, but another variant which may seem strange at first sight to the non—specialist reader is that between the Sumerian Kh, a somewhat throatish rasping sound akin to the ch in the Scottish “loch”, and hardg. This interchange occurs within Sumerian’8 and also externally.


For example, MAKh, “great”, appears in Greek as megas, Latin magnus. On the other hand, Sumerian Kb is found as its straightforward phonetic equivalent in the Greek chei (transliterated in these pages as kh for the sake of uniformity), in, for example, khalbanë, a kind of gum, but as hard £ in the Latin cognate galbanum. Vowels follow a fairly uniform and easily recognizable pattern. However, the sound i often disappears between consonants in the derived forms.


For example the Sumerian BIL, “bum”, appears in the Greek phlego and Latin flagro, “burn” (the source of our “flame”), but the medial i has’ disappeared between the b and!. The full form of the Sumerian original was probably *BIL..AG.


The Greek, it will be noted, has depressed the a of the last element to e, although Latin preserved the original sound. This “flattening” of the a sound is very common. Less expected is the frequent change of the Sumerian u, normally appearing in the cognates as u or o, to the Greek ëta(,).


Among other vowel-changes which might be mentioned here are those combined vowels we call diphthongs. Some are predictable enough when they occur through the conjunction of a and o, for example, becoming long ö, or e and i becoming ei. But some diphthongs have arisen through the loss of an intervening consonant, particularly the letters 123 and r.


An interesting example of this occurs in the title of Apollo, Paian, and the Greek plant-name Paionia, our Paeony. Both go back to an original *BAR_IA_U_NA, which reappears with only the a and u combined in the New Testament Bariönas, “Bar-Jona”, Peter’s surname.

Summarizing: in the language and culture of the world’s most ancient civilization, Sumerian, it is now possible to find a bridge between the Indo-European and Semitic worlds. The first writing known is found on tablets from the Mesopotamian basin, dating some five thousand years ago, and consisting of crude pictures drawn with a stylus on to soft clay.


Later the recognizable pictures became stylized into ideograms made up of nail- or wedge-shape impressions, so-called cuneiform signs, each representing syllables of consonants and vowels.


These syllables made up “word-bricks” which resisted phonetic change within the language, and could be joined together to make connected phrases and sentences. To such word-bricks we can now trace Indo-European and Semitic verbal roots, and so begin to decipher for the first time the names of gods, heroes, plants, and animals appearing in cultic mythologies.


We can also now start penetrating to the root-meanings of many religious and secular terms whose original significance has been obscure.

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