Win the adventure of a lifetime!

UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Sumeria - Writing

The earliest known writing originated with the Sumerians about 3500 BC. The Sumerians were the first people known to have devised a scheme of written representation as a means of communication. The earliest writing systems evolved independently and at roughly the same time in Egypt and Mesopotamia, but current scholarship suggests that Mesopotamia's writing appeared first. That writing system, invented by the Sumerians, emerged in Mesopotamia around 3500 BCE. At first, this writing was representational: a bull might be represented by a picture of a bull, and a pictograph (simplified pictures on clay tablets) of barley signified the word barley. Though writing began as pictures, this system was inconvenient for conveying anything other than simple nouns, and it became increasingly abstract as it evolved to encompass more abstract concepts, eventually taking form in the world's earliest writing: cuneiform.

The English word cuneiform comes from the Latin cuneus, meaning "wedge." Cuneiform is a way of arranging impressions stamped on clay by the wedge-like section of a chopped-off reed. Using cuneiform, written symbols could be quickly made by highly trained scribes through the skillful use of the wedge-like end of a reed stylus. An increasingly complex civilization encouraged the development of an increasingly sophisticated form of writing. Cuneiform came to function both phonetically (representing a sound) and semantically (representing a meaning such as an object or concept) rather than only representing objects directly as a picture. The use of combinations of the same basic wedge shape to stand for phonetic, and possibly for syllabic, elements provided more flexible communication than the pictogram. Through writing, the Sumerians were able to pass on complex agricultural techniques to successive generations; this led to marked improvements in agricultural production.

They were a tremendously gifted and imaginative people. Their language, linguistically related to no other, ancient or modern, is preserved through the thousands of clay tablets on which they inscribed and developed the first writing as yet known to man. Fortunately, the Sumerians were prolific writers and meticulous record- keepers: these tablets richly describe their existence. With the invention of writing the simple village life could evolve into complex civilization.

They developed schools for an educated elite and for the many scribes who were needed for all the record-keeping and letter-writing they liked to do. Not only business records were written down but also the first numbers, calendars, literature, laws, agricultural methods, pharmacopoeias, personal notes, maps, jokes, curses, religious practices, and thousands of lists and inventories of all manner of human interests. These cuneiform tablets show the Sumerians established great city states at Ur and elsewhere, absorbing the indigenous peoples and extending their influence beyond Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean Coast, the Arabian Peninsula, to Egypt, and India.

Another important Sumerian legacy was the recording of literature. The most famous Sumerian epic and the one that has survived in the most nearly complete form is the epic of Gilgamesh. The epic is the story of the half-legendary traditional hero of Babylonia, found in the library of Ashurbanabal. It originally included 12 tablets and 3,000 lines, about half of which are now available.

The story of Gilgamesh, who it is generally accepted actually was king of the city-state of Uruk in approximately 2700 BC, is a moving story of the ruler's deep sorrow at the death of his friend and of his consequent search for immortality. Other central themes of the story are a devastating flood and the tenuous nature of man's existence. Laden with complex abstractions and emotional expressions, the epic of Gilgamesh reflects the intellectual sophistication of the Sumerians, and it has served as the prototype for all Near Eastern inundation stories.

The wily goddess, Ishtar, the "creator" goddess, who has become notorious for destroying those whom she has made to love her, endeavors to induce Gilgamesh to wed her. This he refuses, and for this insult loses his chance for immortality. After the death of Enkidu, his friend and associate, Gilgamesh is represented as deeply depressed, seized by the fear that death, too, will soon overtake him. The last four tablets of the Epic are taken up with this theme of the sad end in store for man—death from which there seems to be no escape. Gilgamesh undertakes a series of wanderings in search of a remote ancestor, Utnapishtim, the son of Ubara-Tutu, who has escaped the common fate and enjoys immortal life with the gods. No reason is adduced for the escape of the Babylonian hero from the dreary world of the inactive shades; no religious nor ethical merit belongs to him. He make clear the dislike of the world of the dead, the presence of a desire for continued life amid happy circumstances, and the belief that such a blessed fate was not altogether impossible. The soul could not be sundered from the earthly body without suffering a permanent loss; it became a tenuous, ineffective ghost.

From him Gilgamesh hopes to wrest the secret of immortality. After many adventures—into which astral myths have been woven — he at last is face to face with Utnapishtim, whose name conveys the idea of continuous life. Gilgamesh tells the purport of his quest, but receives the sad answer in reply that death is the inexorable law imposed by the gods. Utnapishtim tells the story of the great Deluge.

The oldest and most important of these versions is the one found among the tablets from Nippur. The significant features of this version are, first, that it is written in Sumerian, which in itself points to its high antiquity, as against the one in the Gilgamesh Epic which is in Semitic (or Akkadian), and, secondly, that it occurs as part of a continuous narrative which, like the group of narratives and traditions forming the first eleven chapters of Genesis, begins with the Creation story, passes on to the Deluge story and embodies chronological lists furnishing the names and length of reigns of early rulers and dynasties that appear to represent the source whence Berosus obtained his remarkable array of early Babylonian rulers with their amazingly long reigns.

Gilgamesh became immortal by making a significant contribution to the greatness of his city by availing himself of the city’s ultimate cultural invention: writing. The great king does, in fact, conquer death and wins his immortality each time his tale is read. The only thing that lasts is fame.

Join the mailing list

Page last modified: 06-08-2019 18:40:35 ZULU