THE SOURCES: THE SUMERIAN LITERARY TABLETS DATING FROM APPROXIMATELY 2000 B. C.
The study of Sumerian culture introduced by the present volume, Sumerian Mythology, is to be based largely on Sumerian literary sources; it will consist of the formulation of the spiritual and religious concepts of the Sumerians, together with the reconstructed text and translation of the Sumerian literary compositions in which these concepts are revealed. It is therefore very essential that the reader have a clear picture of the nature of our source material, which consists primarily of some three thousand tablets and fragments inscribed in the Sumerian language and dated approximately 1750 B. C. It is the first aim of the Introduction of the present volume to achieve such clarification. It therefore begins with a brief sketch of the rather rocky road leading to the decipherment of the Sumerian language and continues with a brief résumé of the excavations conducted on various Sumerian sites in the course of the past three-quarters of a century. After a very brief general evaluation of the contents of the huge mass of Sumerian tablet material uncovered in the course of these excavations, it turns to the Sumerian literary tablets which represent the basic material for our study, and analyzes in some detail the scope and date of their contents. The Introduction then concludes with a description of the factors which prevented in large part the trustworthy reconstruction and translation of the Sumerian literary compositions in the past; the details, not uninteresting in themselves, furnish a revealing and illuminating commentary on the course and progress of one of the more significant humanistic efforts of our generation.
The decipherment of Sumerian differed from that of Accadian and Egyptian in one significant detail, a detail which proved to be one of the factors in hampering the progress of Sumerology to no inconsiderable extent. For in the case of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia, the investigating scholars of western Europe had at their disposal much relevant material from Biblical, classical, and postclassical sources. Not only were such names as Egypt, Ashur, and Babylon well known, but at least to a certain extent and with much limitation and qualification, even the culture of the peoples was not altogether unfamiliar. In the case of the Sumerians, however, the situation was quite different; there was no clearly recognizable trace of Sumer or its people and language in the entire Biblical, classical, and post-classical literature. The very name Sumer was erased from the mind and memory of man for over two thousand years. The discovery of the Sumerians and their language came quite unexpectedly and was quite unlooked for; and this more or less irrelevant detail was at least partially responsible for the troubled progress of Sumerology from the earliest days to the present moment.
Historically, the decipherment of Sumerian resulted from that of Accadian, which in turn followed the decipherment of cuneiform Persian. Briefly sketched, the process was as follows. In 1765, the Danish traveler and scholar, Carsten Niebuhr, succeeded in making careful copies of several inscriptions on the monuments of Persepolis. These were published between the years 1774 and 1778, and were soon recognized as trilingual, that is, the same inscriptions seemed to be repeated in three different languages. It was not unreasonable to assume, since the monuments were located in Persepolis, that they were inscribed by one or more kings of the Achaemenid dynasty and that the first version in each inscription was in the Persian language. Fortunately, at approximately the same time, Old Persian was becoming known to western European scholars through the efforts of Duperron, who had studied in India under the Parsees and was preparing translations of the Avesta. And so by 1802, with the help of the newly acquired knowledge of Old Persian and by keen manipulation of the Achaemenid proper names as handed down in Biblical and classical literature, the German scholar, Grotefend, succeeded in deciphering a large part of the Persian version of the inscriptions. Additions and corrections were made by numerous scholars in the ensuing years. But the crowning achievement belongs to the Englishman H. C. Rawlinson. A member of the English Intelligence Service, Rawlinson was first stationed in India, where he mastered the Persian language. In 1835 he was transferred to Persia, where he learned of the huge trilingual inscription on the rock of Behistun and determined to copy it. The Persian version of the Behistun inscription consists of 414 lines; the second, now known as the Elamite version, consists of 263 lines; while the third, the Accadian (designated in earlier Assyriological literature as Assyrian or Babylonian--see note--version, consists of 112 lines. During the years 1835-37, at the risk of life and limb, Rawlinson succeeded in copying 200 lines of the Persian version. He returned in 1844 and completed the copying of the Persian as well as the Elamite version. The Accadian inscription, however, was so situated that it was impossible for him to copy it, and it was not until 1847 that he succeeded in making squeezes of the text. To return to the decipherment of cuneiform Persian, by 1846 Rawlinson published his memoir in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, which gave the transliteration and translation of the Persian version of the Behistun inscription together with a copy of the cuneiform original.
Long before the final decipherment of the Persian text, however, great interest had been aroused in western Europe by the third version of the Persepolis inscriptions. For it was soon recognized that this was the script and language found in numerous inscriptions and bricks, clay tablets, and clay cylinders which were finding their way into Europe from sites that might well be identified with Nineveh and Babylon. In 1842 the French under Botta began the excavation of Khorsabad, and in 1S45 Layard began his excavations of Nimrud and Nineveh. Inscribed monuments were being found in large quantities at all three sites; moreover, Layard was uncovering at Nineveh a large number of inscribed clay tablets. By 1850, therefore, Europe had scores of inscriptions coming largely from Assyrian sites, made in the very same script and language as the third version of the Persepolis and Behistun inscriptions. The decipherment of this language was simplified on the one hand by the fact that it was recognized quite early in the process that it belonged to the Semitic group of languages. On the other hand, it was complicated by the fact that the orthography, as was soon recognized, was syllabic and ideographic rather than alphabetic. The leading figure in the decipherment of Accadian, or Assyrian as it was then designated, was the Irish scholar Edward Hincks. But once again a major contribution was made by Rawlinson. In 1851 he published the text, transliteration, and translation of the Accadian version of the Behistun inscription, the large trilingual to whose text he alone had access.
As for the second, or Elamite version, of the Behistun inscription, it offered relatively little difficulty as soon as progress was made in the decipherment of Accadian, since it uses a syllabary based on the Accadian system of writing. The major figures in its decipherment were Westergaard and Norris. As early as 1855 Norris, the secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society, published the complete text of the second version of the Behistun inscription, which had been copied by Rawlinson, together with a transliteration and a translation; this remained practically the standard work on the subject until Weissbach published his Achämenideninschriften zweiter Art in 1896.
As will be noted, nothing has yet been heard or said of the Sumerians. As early as 1850, however, Hincks began to doubt that the Semitic inhabitants of Assyria and Babylonia had invented the cuneiform system of writing. In the Semitic languages the stable element is the consonant while the vowel is extremely variable. It seemed unnatural, therefore, that the Semites should invent a syllabic system of orthography in which the vowel seemed to be as unchanging as the consonant. Moreover, if the Semites had invented the script, one might have expected to be able to trace the syllabic values of the signs to Semitic words. But this was hardly ever the case; the syllabic values all seemed to go back to words or elements for which no Semitic equivalent could be found. Hincks thus began to suspect that the cuneiform system of writing was invented by a non-Semitic people who had preceded the Semites in Mesopotamia. In 1855 Rawlinson published a memoir in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in which he speaks of his discovery of non-Semitic inscriptions on bricks and tablets from sites in southern Babylonia such as Nippur, Larsa, and Erech. In 1856 Hincks took up the problem of this new language, recognized that it was agglutinative in character, and gave the first examples from bilinguals which had come to the British Museum from the Nineveh excavations. The name of the language was variously designated as Scythic or even Accadian, that is, the very name now given to the Semitic tongue spoken in Assyria and Babylonia. In 1869, however, the French scholar Oppert, basing himself on the royal title, "king of Sumer and Accad," and realizing that Accad referred to the land inhabited by the Semitic population, rightly attributed the name Sumerian to the language spoken by the non-Semitic people who had invented the cuneiform script. Nevertheless, Oppert was not immediately followed by the majority of the Assyriologists, and the name Accadian continued to be used for Sumerian for many years.
For several decades following the discovery of the existence of Sumerian, practically all the source material for its decipherment and study consisted of the bilinguals and syllabaries from the so-called Ashurbanipal library which was discovered and excavated at Nineveh. This material dates from the seventh century B. C., some fifteen hundred years after the disappearance of Sumer as a political entity. As for the material from the Sumerian sites, it consisted almost entirely of a very small group of bricks, tablets, and cylinders from the Sumerian and post-Sumerian periods which had found their way into the British Museum. In 1877, however, began the first successful excavation at a Sumerian site. In that year, the French under De Sarzec began to excavate at Telloh the ancient Sumerian city of Lagash, an excavation which has been conducted by French archaeologists intermittently and with long interruptions almost to the present day. It was at this site that the first important Sumerian monuments were excavated, the objects and inscriptions of the ishakkus or princes of Lagash. Here more than one hundred thousand tablets and fragments were dug up, dating from the pre-Sargonid and Ur III periods."
The second major excavation on a Sumerian site was that conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, the first American expedition to excavate in Mesopotamia. All through the eighties of the nineteenth century discussions had been going on in American university circles pertaining to the feasibility of sending an American expedition to Iraq, where both British and French had been making extraordinary finds. It was not until 1887, however, that John P. Peters, professor of Hebrew in the University of Pennsylvania, succeeded in obtaining moral and financial support from various individuals in and about the university, for the purpose of equipping and maintaining an excavating expedition in Iraq under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania. Nippur, one of the largest and most important mounds in Iraq, was chosen, and four long and extremely difficult excavating campaigns were conducted during the years 188990, 1890-91, 1893-96, and 1896-1900.
The hardships and handicaps were severe and discouraging. One young archaeologist died in the field, and there was hardly a year in which one or the other of the members of the expedition did not suffer from serious illness. Difficulties with the Arab tribes were not infrequent and at times assumed a most threatening character. In spite of the obstacles, however, the excavating continued, and in the course of the four campaigns which lasted more than a decade, the expedition achieved magnificent and in some respects unparalleled results, at least in the inscriptional field. The Nippur expedition succeeded in excavating approximately thirty thousand tablets and fragments in the course of its four campaigns, the larger part of which are inscribed in the Sumerian language and date from the second half of the third millennium to the first half of the second millennium B. C.
The contents of these tablets are rich and varied. The greater part is economic in character; it consists of contracts and bills of sale, promissory notes and receipts, lists and accounts, wills, adoptions, court decisions, and other legal and administrative documents. Many of the tablets are letters; some are historical inscriptions; still others are lexical in character, that is, they contain Sumerian dictionary and grammatical material of priceless value for our study of the language, since they were actually compiled by the ancient scribes themselves. But especially noteworthy is the large group of tablets dated about 1750 B. C. which are inscribed with the Sumerian literary compositions consisting of epics and myths, hymns and laments, proverbs and "wisdom."
After Nippur, the excavations by the Germans at Fara (the ancient "flood" city Shuruppak) in 1902-03 and those by the University of Chicago at Bismaya (ancient Adab) in 1903-04 uncovered important Sumerian economic and lexical material dating largely from the pre-Sargonid and Sargonid periods in the third millennium B. C. Excavations at Kish, begun by the French in 1911 and continued under Anglo-American auspices from 1922 to 1930, have yielded important inscriptional material. In Jemdet Nasr, not far from Kish, a large group of semi-pictographic tablets that go back to the early beginnings of Sumerian writing were uncovered. Ur, the famous site excavated by a joint expedition of the British Museum and the University Museum between the years 1919 and 1933, yielded many historical and economic inscriptions and some literary material. In Asmar (ancient Eshnunna) and Khafaje, east of the Tigris, a large number of economic tablets dating largely from the Sargonid and Ur III periods, that is, the latter part of the third millennium B. C., were excavated by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in recent years. Finally in Erech, where the Germans conducted excavations from 1928 until the outbreak of the war, a large group of pictographic tablets antedating even those found at Jemdet Nasr has been uncovered.
This brief survey furnishes a bird's-eye view of the Sumerian inscriptional finds uncovered and brought to light by legitimate excavations. In addition, scores of thousands of tablets have been dug up clandestinely by the native Arabs in the mounds of Sumer, especially in the ancient sites of Larsa, Sippar, and Umma. It is therefore difficult to estimate the number of Sumerian tablets and fragments now in the possession of the museums and private collections; a quarter of a million is probably a conservative guess. What now is the nature of the contents of this vast accumulation of Sumerian inscriptional material? What significant information can it be expected to reveal?
In the first place it is important to note that more than ninety-five per cent of all the Sumerian tablets are economic in character, that is, they consist of notes and receipts, contracts of sale and exchange, agreements of adoption and partnership, wills and testaments, lists of workers and wages, letters, etc. Because these documents follow a more or less expected and traditional pattern which is found also in the Accadian documents of the same character, their translation, except in the more complicated cases, is not too difficult. It is the contents of these tablets which furnish us with a relatively full and accurate picture of the social and economic structure of Sumerian life in the third millennium B. C. Moreover, the large quantity of onomastic material to be found in these economic documents represents a fruitful source for the study of the ethnic distribution in and about Sumer during this period.
Of the Sumerian inscriptions that are not economic in character, one group consists of approximately six hundred building and dedicatory inscriptions on steles, bricks, cones, vases, etc. It is from this relatively small group of inscriptions that the political history of Sumer has been largely recovered. The translation of these inscriptions, too, offers no very great difficulties, since the contents are usually brief and simple. Moreover, the structure and pattern of the Sumerian dedicatory inscriptions are followed to a large extent by the later Accadian building inscriptions; the bilingual material, too, is of considerable help. All in all, therefore, except in the more complex instances, the Sumerian historical material is relatively simple to translate and interpret.
In addition to the economic and historical material described above, there is also a varied and important group of tablets inscribed with lexical and mathematical texts and with incantations. But by far the most significant material for the study of Sumerian culture, especially in its more spiritual aspects, consists of a group of "literary" tablets dated about 1750 B. C. which are inscribed with Sumerian epics and myths, hymns and lamentations, proverbs and "words of wisdom." And it is important to note that, in spite of the vast quantity of Sumerian inscriptional material excavated to date, only some three thousand tablets and fragments, no more than one percent, are inscribed with Sumerian literary compositions. Of these three thousand pieces, approximately nine hundred are distributed as follows. Some three hundred very small fragments have been found in Kish by the French and were published by De Genouillac in 1924. Approximately two hundred tablets and fragments were bought by the Berlin Museum from dealers; these were published by Zimmern in 1912-13. Approximately one hundred were acquired by the Louvre from dealers; these were published by De Genouillac in 1930. Less than a hundred pieces have found their way to the British Museum and the Ashmolean Museum; these have been published in the course of several decades by King, Langdon, and Gadd. To these must be added an uncertain number (two hundred?) excavated in Ur which are to be published by Gadd of the British Museum in the near future.
The remaining two thousand and one hundred tablets and fragments, by far the major part of our Sumerian literary tablets, were excavated by the University of Pennsylvania at Nippur some fifty years ago. Of this number, over one hundred have found their way to the University of Jena in Germany; approximately eight hundred are in the possession of the Museum of the Ancient Orient in Istanbul; almost eleven hundred are located in the University Museum at Philadelphia. It is no exaggeration to state, therefore, that it is the Nippur expedition of the University of Pennsylvania which is to be credited in large part with the recovery and restoration of the ancient Sumerian literary compositions as written down at approximately 1750 B. C. It is well worth noting that these Sumerian literary creations are significant not only for their remarkable form and illuminating contents. They are unique, too, in that they have come down to us as actually written by the scribes of four thousand years ago, unmodified and uncodified by later redactors with axes to grind and ideologies to satisfy. Our Sumerian literary compositions thus represent the oldest literature of any appreciable and significant amount ever uncovered.
Let us now examine very briefly the nature of the contents of this Sumerian literature. As already mentioned, it consists of epics and myths, hymns and lamentations, proverbs and "wisdom" compositions. Of the epic tales at least nine can now be restored in large part. Six of these commemorate the feats and exploits of the great Sumerian heroes Enmerkar, Lugalbanda, and especially Gilgamesh, the forerunner of the Greek hero Heracles; these three Sumerian heroes lived in all probability toward the end of the fourth and the beginning of the third millennium B. C., fully five thousand years ago. The remaining three epic tales deal with the destruction of Kur, the monstrous creature which at least in a certain sense corresponds to the Babylonian goddess Tiamat, the Hebrew Leviathan, and perhaps the Greek Typhon. As for the myths, their contents, which obviously enough represent the prime source material for our Sumerian mythology, will be sketched with considerable detail in the following chapters. Only the Tammuz myths dealing with the dying deity and his resurrection will be omitted; the contents are still too obscure for reasonably safe interpretation.
The hymns are both royal and divine. The latter consist of songs of praise and exaltation directed to all the more important deities of the Sumerian pantheon; they are quite diversified in size, structure, and content. The royal hymns, frequently self-laudatory in character, were composed largely for the kings of the Third Dynasty of Ur and of the Isin Dynasty which followed it. This is a significant historical fact, for it helps us date the actual composition of much of our Sumerian literature. The Third Dynasty of Ur reigned during the last two centuries of the third millennium. B. C.; with the defeat and capture of their last king Ibi-Sin in approximately 2050 B. C. Sumer ceased to exist as a political entity. The kings of the Isin Dynasty which followed were Semites; nevertheless their hymns, like those of their predecessors, were composed and written in Sumerian, which continued to be used as the literary and religious language of the conquerors.
The lamentation is a type of tragic composition developed by the Sumerians to commemorate the frequent destruction of their cities by the surrounding more barbaric peoples; it is the forerunner of such Biblical compositions as the Book of Lamentations. One large poem, consisting of more than four hundred lines which lament the destruction of the city of Ur, has already been restored and published," and a similar composition dealing with the destruction of Nippur and its restoration is in the process of being restored. In addition it is now possible to reconstruct large parts of a lamentation over the destruction of Sumer as a whole, and of another that at present may be best described as the "weeping mother" type. Finally we now have the larger part of a composition which laments a calamity that befell the city of Agade during the reign of Naram-Sin who ruled in the earlier part of the second half of the third millennium B. C.14
And so we come finally to the wisdom compositions of the Sumerians, the prototypes of the wisdom literature current all over the Near East and exemplified by the Biblical Book of Proverbs. Sumerian wisdom literature consists of a large number of brief, pithy, and pointed proverbs and aphorisms; of various fables, such as "The Bird and the Fish," "The Tree and the Reed," "The Pickax and the Plow," "Silver and Bronze"; and finally of a group of didactic compositions, long and short, several of which are devoted to a description of the process of learning the scribal art and of the advantages which flow from it.
Some adequate idea of the scope and quantity of Sumerian literature may be obtained from the contents of a hitherto altogether unknown tablet in the Nippur collection of the University Museum which I had the good fortune to identify and decipher in the course of the past year. This tablet is not a literary composition; it is a literary catalogue. That is, it lists by title one group of Sumerian literary compositions. The scribe who compiled this list was one of those very scribes of approximately 2000 B. C. who wrote or copied our Sumerian literary tablets; the catalogue, therefore, is contemporaneous with the compositions which it lists. His purpose in compiling the catalogue was no doubt practical. For as is now clear, by approximately 2000 B. C. a large number of literary compositions of all types and sizes were current in Sumer, inscribed on tablets of all shapes and dimensions which had to be handled, stored, and cared for. Some of the scribes in charge of the tablets in the temple or palace "tablet house," therefore, found it convenient to note and list the names of this or that group of literary compositions for purposes of reference essential to the storing and filing of the respective tablets.
The catalogue tablet is in almost perfect condition. It is quite small, 2½ inches in length and 1½ inches in width. Small as it is, the scribe, by dividing each side into two columns and by using a minute script, succeeded in cataloguing the titles of sixty-two Sumerian literary compositions. The first forty titles he divided into groups of ten by ruling a dividing line between numbers 10 and 11, 20 and 21, 30 and 31, 40 and 41. The remaining twenty-two titles he divided into two unequal groups, the first consisting of nine, and the second, of thirteen titles. And what is most interesting, at least twenty-one of the titles which this scribe listed in his catalogue are of compositions whose actual contents we can now reconstruct in large part. Needless to say, we probably have the actual texts of many more compositions whose titles are listed in our Nippur catalogue. But since the title of a Sumerian literary composition consists usually of the first part of the first line of the composition, there is no way of knowing the titles of those whose texts we have in large part but whose first lines are broken away. It goes without saying that the sixty-two titles listed in our catalogue do not exhaust the number of literary compositions current in Sumer at the end of the third millennium B. C. There is every indication that this number runs into the hundreds. Should the ancient city of Eridu in southern Sumer, the cult center of Enki, the Sumerian god of wisdom, ever be thoroughly excavated, there is good reason to believe that our store of Sumerian literary compositions will be considerably enlarged.
So much for the scope and contents of Sumerian literature. Let us now turn to the problem of dating in order to see what justifies the statement made in the preceding pages that Sumerian literature represents the oldest written literature of any significant amount ever uncovered. The tablets themselves, to judge from the script as well as from internal evidence, were inscribed in the Early Post-Sumerian period, the period following immediately upon the fall of the Third Dynasty of Ur. Just as a rough point of reference, therefore, the actual writing of the tablets may be dated approximately 1750 B. C. As for the composition of their contents, to judge from the large group of hymns devoted to the kings of the Third Dynasty of Ur, much of it actually took place in that Neo-Sumerian period which lasted approximately from 2150 to 2050 B. C. Moreover, an analysis of the contents of the hymns inscribed on the so-called Gudea cylinders, which date from approximately 2250 B. C., and of the myth inscribed on an archaic Nippur cylinder published by George Barton, which, to judge from its script, dates considerably earlier than the Gudea cylinders, clearly indicates that not a little of the hymnal and mythological material had already been composed several centuries earlier. Finally, an analysis of the religious concepts as revealed in the building and dedicatory inscriptions of the classical Sumerian period, roughly 2600-2400 B. C., leads to the same conclusion. In short we are amply justified in stating that although practically all our available Sumerian literary tablets actually date from approximately 2000 B. C., a large part of the written literature of the Sumerians was created and developed in the latter half of the third millennium B. C. The fact that so little literary material from these earlier periods has been excavated to date is in large part a matter of archaeological accident. Had it not been, for example, for the Nippur expedition, we would have very little Sumerian literary material from the early post-Sumerian period.
Now let us compare this date with that of the various ancient literatures known to us at present. In Egypt, for example, one might have expected an ancient written literature commensurate with its high cultural development. And, indeed, to judge from the pyramid inscriptions, the Egyptians in all probability did have a well developed written literature in the third millennium B. C. Unfortunately it must have been written largely on papyrus, a readily perishable material, and there is little hope that enough of it will ever be recovered to give a reasonably adequate cross-section of the Egyptian literature of that ancient period. Then, too, there is the hitherto unknown ancient Canaanite literature which has been found inscribed on tablets excavated in the past decade by the French at Rash-esh-Shamra in northern Syria. These tablets, relatively few in number, indicate that the Canaanites, too, had a highly developed literature at one time. They are dated approximately 1400 B. C., that is, they were inscribed over half a millennium later than our Sumerian literary tablets. As for the Semitic Babylonian literature as exemplified by such works as the "Epic of Creation," the "Epic of Gilgamesh," etc., it is not only considerably later than our Sumerian literature, but also includes much that is borrowed directly from it.
We turn now to the ancient literatures which have exercised the most profound influence on the more spiritual aspects of our civilization. These are the Bible, which contains the literary creations of the Hebrews; the Iliad and Odyssey, which are filled with the epic and mythic lore of the Greeks; the Rig-veda, which contains the literary products of ancient India; and the Avesta, which contains those of ancient Iran. None of these literary collections were written down in their present form before the first half of the first millennium B. C. Our Sumerian literature, inscribed on tablets dating from approximately 2000 B. C., therefore antedates these literatures by more than a millennium. Moreover, there is another vital difference. The texts of the Bible, of the Iliad and Odyssey, and of the Rig-veda and Avesta, as we have them, have been modified, edited, and redacted by compilers and redactors with varied motives and diverse points of view. Not so our Sumerian literature; it has come down to us as actually inscribed by the ancient scribes of four thousand years ago, unmodified and uncodified by later compilers and commentators.
And so we come to the crucial point. The basic value of Sumerian literature and its fundamental importance for the related humanities being obvious, why has it remained largely unknown; why has it not been made available to scholar and layman? What has hampered and impeded the decipherment of the Sumerian literary tablets? Why has so little progress been made in the reconstruction and translation of their contents? The factors responsible for this unfortunate situation are twofold: linguistic, the difficulties presented by the grammar and vocabulary of the Sumerian language; and textual, the problems arising out of the physical characteristics of our source material.
First, the linguistic difficulties. Sumerian is neither a Semitic nor an Indo-European language. It belongs to the so-called agglutinative type of languages exemplified by Turkish, Hungarian, and Finnish. None of these languages, however, seems to have any closer affiliation to Sumerian, and the latter, therefore, as yet stands alone and unrelated to any known language living or dead. Its decipherment, therefore, would have been an impossible task, were it not for the fortunate fact already mentioned that the Semitic conquerors of Sumer not only adapted its script to their own Semitic tongue, but also retained it as their literary and religious language. As a consequence, the scribal schools in Babylonia and Assyria made the study of Sumerian their basic discipline. They therefore compiled what may be described as bilingual syllabaries or dictionaries in which the Sumerian words or phrases were translated into their own language, Accadian. In addition they also drew up interlinears of the Sumerian literary compositions in which each Sumerian line is followed by its Accadian translation. Accadian, being a Semitic tongue related to numerous known languages, was deciphered relatively early. And so these bilinguals became the basic material for the decipherment of Sumerian, for by comparing the known Accadian word or phrase with the corresponding Sumerian, the meaning of the latter could be deduced.
Now while all this sounds relatively simple on paper, in actual practice the decipherment of Sumerian from the bilingual texts has resulted in many grammatical and lexical misunderstandings. For Accadian and Sumerian are as divergent in vocabulary and structure as two languages can be, and the seeming correspondences in the ancient dictionaries and interlinears frequently proved very misleading, especially since not a few of the earlier decipherers, for one reason or another, tended to draw hasty and superficial conclusions. As a consequence so many errors crept into Sumerian grammar and vocabulary that when scholars were presented with some of our unilingual literary tablets, that is with the tablets inscribed in Sumerian only, the resulting efforts proved largely unproductive. Indeed in many cases the attempted translations were almost entirely untrustworthy and dangerously misleading. It is only in the last two decades, largely as a result of Arno Poebel's Grundzüge der Sumerischen Grammatik that Sumerian grammar has been put on a scientific basis. As for the lexical problems, these still remain serious and far from resolved.
But troublesome and distressing as the linguistic problems frequently are in the process of reconstructing and translating our literary tablets, they are not insuperable. The major impeding factor, the most serious stumbling block, is the textual problem. Tablets, and especially those inscribed with the Sumerian literary compositions which are largely unbaked, rarely come out whole from the ground. Usually they are in a fragmentary, and not infrequently in a very fragmentary condition. Offsetting this disadvantage is the happy fact that the ancient scribes made more than one copy of any given composition. The breaks in one tablet may therefore frequently be restored from duplicating pieces which may themselves be mere broken fragments. Thus in the case of "Inanna's Descent to the Nether World", I utilized fourteen different fragments. In the case of the recently published "Lamentation Over the Destruction of Ur," the text was reconstructed from twenty-two different fragments. And in reconstructing "The Feats and Exploits of Ninurta", I utilized 49 different fragments. To take full advantage of these duplications and the consequent restorations, however, it is essential to have as much as possible of the source material copied and available. But of the Nippur literary tablets excavated by the University of Pennsylvania and now located in Istanbul and Philadelphia, some two thousand in number, only about five hundred have been copied and published to date. And while all of the approximately seven hundred pieces in the British Museum, Louvre, Berlin Museum, and Ashmolean Museum have been copied and published, some of the more important texts did not appear until a relatively recent date. Under these circumstances, the trustworthy and scientific reconstruction and translation of our Sumerian literary compositions on any major scale was obviously impossible.
I first realized this situation and its implications in 1933, almost a decade ago, while working in the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago as a member of its Assyrian Dictionary staff. For in that year died Edward Chiera, the scholar who copied more of the Nippur literary material than all others combined. Long a member of the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, he devoted much of his time and energy during his stay there to the copying of more than two hundred literary tablets and fragments in the University Museum. Later, when called to the rapidly expanding Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago as head of its Assyrian Dictionary project, he took his copies with him, and the Oriental Institute undertook to publish them in two volumes. Upon Chiera's untimely death, the editorial department of the Oriental Institute entrusted me with the preparation of these two posthumous volumes for publication. As the significance of the contents dawned upon me, I realized that all efforts to translate and interpret the material would remain scientifically inadequate unless and until more of the uncopied and unpublished material lying in Istanbul and Philadelphia should be made available.
From that day to this I have concentrated all my efforts on the reconstruction and translation of the Sumerian literary compositions. After devoting years to a thorough study of the Sumerian idiom, I travelled to Istanbul in 1937 and spent some twenty months in the Museum of the Ancient Orient, where I copied one hundred and seventy Sumerian literary tablets and fragments from its Nippur collection; unfortunately this still leaves approximately five hundred pieces in this Museum uncopied and unavailable. Since returning to the United States in 1939, I have devoted practically all my time and energy to the Sumerian literary tablets and fragments in the Nippur collection of our University Museum. I thus succeeded in identifying approximately six hundred and seventy-five uncopied and unpublished Sumerian literary pieces in the collection, almost twice as much as all the literary material copied and published by numerous scholars working in the Museum in the course of the past four decades. Of these six hundred and seventy-five pieces, approximately one hundred and seventy-five are inscribed with epic and mythological material; some three hundred are hymnal in character; fifty are parts of lamentations; the remaining one hundred and fifty are inscribed with proverbs and "wisdom" compositions.
In the past two years my efforts were concentrated largely on the epics and myths. By utilizing all the available published material, together with that part of the unpublished material which I copied in the Museum of the Ancient Orient at Istanbul and all the relevant unpublished material in the University Museum at Philadelphia, I succeeded in reconstructing the larger parts of the texts of twenty-four Sumerian epics and myths; this is the basic source material for the restoration of Sumerian mythology to be sketched in the following chapters. As for the scientific edition of these epics and myths, that is, editions consisting of the reconstructed Sumerian texts with line by line translations and commentary, these are now in the process of preparation; unless the work is unexpectedly interrupted, they should be completed in the course of the coming two or three years.