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The Good Life

Sumerian Philosophy
by Kyrel Zantonavitch

     Civilization began in Sumer. With it came writing.
 
     The first literature took place in the southern half of Mesopotamia -- modern day Shi'ite-dominated Iraq -- and it started around 3300 BC. But it initially wasn't very impressive: mostly just economic records, historical chronologies, and royal geneologies associated with kings and high officials.
 
     By the mid-third millennium BC, however, there began what we might regard as genuine literature -- intelligent, creative, artistically-told stories and observations -- in both Sumer and Egypt. Egypt began writing a few centuries after the Sumerians but they evidently developed faster and far more of their literature, and thus way of thinking, is currently known.
 
     Recently, however, there's been a surge in ancient Sumerian literary scholarship. It seems to reveal much about their way of life and general attitude toward existence.
 
     Neither the Egyptians nor the Sumerians had true philosophy -- which had to wait till the Greeks and 600 BC -- and yet they both did have something. Mostly it was just observations involving simple ethics which are sometimes known as "wisdom texts."
 
     The majority of the recently-discovered material from Sumer seems to have been written between 1900 and 1600 BC. But some came from before, and it seems reasonable to suppose that much of their 'philosophy' originated around 2500 BC or even before. Here then is a brief selection of what I consider to be both the most representative and best of ancient Sumerian thought:

  
Proverbs from Ki-en-gir:
 
     Whoever has walked with truth generates life.
 
     Wealth is hard to come by, but poverty is always at hand.
 
     The poor are the silent ones of the land.
 
     All the households of the poor are not equally submissive.
 
Advice of a Supervisor to a Younger Scribe:
 
     Zeal is proper for a task, time-wasting is taboo; anyone who wastes time on his task is neglecting his task... Do not reject the pleasurable company of a mentor or his assistant: once you have come into contact with such great brains, you will make your own words more worthy.
 
Various Proverbs:
 
     Who can compete with righteousness? It creates life.
 
     You should not cut the throat of that which has already had its throat cut.
 
     What has submitted will exhibit resistance.
 
     Whatever it is that hurts you, don't talk to anyone about it.
 
     He who possesses many things is constantly on guard.
 
     Possessions make trust of crucial importance.
 
     Good fortune is embedded in organisation and wisdom.
 
     To be wealthy and insist on demanding more is abominable.
 
     Don't pick things now; they will bear fruit later.
 
     The lives of the poor do not survive their deaths.
 
     In the city where there are no dogs, the fox is boss.
 
     In the city of the lame, a cripple is the courier.
 
     What has been spoken in secret will be revealed in the women's quarters.
 
     When a dishonest boat is sailing, it runs aground.
 
     A heart never created hatred; speech created hatred.
 
     A plant as sweet as a husband does not grow in the steppe.
 
     May the goddess Inana make a hot-limbed wife lie with you! May she bestow upon you broad-shouldered sons! May she seek out for you a happy place!
 
     He who does not support a wife, he who does not support a child, has no cause for celebration.
 
     A malicious wife living in the house is worse than all diseases.
 
     Marrying is human. Having children is divine.
 
     A chattering girl is silenced by her mother. A chattering boy is not silenced by his mother.
 
     To be sick is acceptable; to be pregnant is painful; but to be pregnant and sick is just too much.
 
     A brewing trough not previously tried is put to the test by means of salt. A mixing jar not previously tried is put to the test by means of water. A son-in-law whose behaviour is unknown is put to the test by means of quarrels.
 
     He didn't plough the field during winter. And at harvest time he turned his hand to carding.
 
The Farmer's Instructions to his Son:
 
     Your implements should be ready. The parts of your yoke should be assembled. Your new whip should hang from a nail -- the bindings of the handle of your old whip should be repaired by artisans. The adze, drill and saw, your tools and your strength, should be in good order. Let braided thongs, straps, leather wrappings and whips be attached securely. Let your sowing basket be checked, and its sides made strong. What you need for the field should be at hand. Inspect your work carefully.
 
     When your field work becomes excessive, you should not neglect your work; no one should have to tell anyone else: "Do your field work!" When the constellations in the sky are right, do not be reluctant to take the oxen force to the field many times.
 
Proverbs from Nibru:

 
     Let great men stir up the conflict for lesser men to fight out.
 
     Talking endlessly is what humankind has most on its mind.
 
     Your role in life is unknown.
 
Proverbs from Susa:
 
     A fettered dog is quarrelsome.
 
     Not to know beer is not normal.
 
     The beloved true commander distributes the leadership.

 
Proverbs from Urim:
 
     Who can compare with justice? It creates life.
 
     Whenever wickedness may cause trouble, a god will not be idle!
 
     That which bows down its neck in submission puts its breast forward in defiance.
 
     When liars enter by the city gate, in front of them there is a finger pointing at them, behind them there is a finger pointing at them.
 
     If a scribe knows only a single line but his handwriting is good, he is indeed a scribe!
 
     If a singer knows only a single song but he performs it well, he is indeed a singer!
 
     A dog which is played with turns into a puppy.
 
     Strength cannot keep pace with intelligence.
 
     The mighty man is master of the earth.
 
     A child without sin was never born by his mother. The idea was never conceived that there was anyone who was not a sinner. Such a situation never existed.
 
     One should pay attention to an old man's words and one should reap the benefits.
 
     A child should behave with modesty toward his mother. He should take the older generation into consideration.
 
     A younger brother should honour an older brother. He should treat him with human dignity.
 
     Pleasure is created. Sins are absolved. Life is rejuvenated.
 
     The wolf circles around it, the lion just picks it up.
 
     Let just men be born in good health, and let their lives last long.
 
     The just man's life lasts long. Life is the gift awarded for it.
 
     No matter how much wisdom exerts itself, the fool achieves what he needs.
 
     By following craftiness, one learns how to be crafty. By following wisdom, one learns how to be wise.
 
     Earth is greater than heaven. Who can destroy it?
 
     A man without a god -- for a strong man it is no loss.
 
     The expenses of those who neglect justice are numerous.
 
Instructions of Šuruppag to his Son Zi-ud-sura:
 
     In those days, in those far remote days, in those nights, in those faraway nights, in those years, in those far remote years, at that time the wise one who knew how to speak in elaborate words lived in the Land [Sumer]; Šuruppag, the wise one, who knew how to speak with elaborate words lived in the Land. Šuruppag gave instructions to his son; Šuruppag, the son of Ubara-Tutu, gave instructions to his son Zi-ud-sura: My son, let me give you instructions: you should pay attention! Zi-ud-sura, let me speak a word to you: you should pay attention! Do not neglect my instructions! Do not transgress the words I speak! The instructions of an old man are precious; you should comply with them!
 
     You should not make a well in your field: people will cause damage on it for you. You should not place your house next to a public square: there is always a crowd there.
 
     You should not vouch for someone: that man will have a hold on you; and you yourself, you should not let somebody vouch for you: that man will despise you.
 
     You should not loiter about where there is a quarrel; you should not let the quarrel make you a witness... You should not cause a quarrel...Stand aside from a quarrel.
 
     You should not steal anything...You should not break into a house; you should not wish for the money chest. A thief is a lion, but after he has been caught, he will be a slave. My son, you should not commit robbery; you should not cut yourself with an axe.
 
     You should not play around with a married young woman: the slander could be serious. My son, you should not sit alone in a chamber with a married woman.
 
     You should not pick a quarrel; you should not disgrace yourself....You should not boast; then your words will be trusted. You should not deliberate for too long.
 
     You should not curse strongly: it rebounds on you.
 
     My son, you should not use violence...You should not commit rape on someone's daughter; the courtyard will learn of it.
 
     The eyes of the slanderer always move around as shiftily as a spindle. You should never remain in his presence; his intentions should not be allowed to have an effect on you.
 
     You should not boast in beer halls like a deceitful man: then your words will be trusted.
 
     The warrior is unique, he alone is the equal of many... With your life you should always be on the side of the warrior.
 
     Property is something to be expanded.
 
     The strong one can escape from anyone's hand.
 
     You should not pass judgment when you drink beer.
 
     Heaven is far, earth is most precious.
 
     Fate is a wet bank; it can make one slip.
 
     The elder brother is indeed like a father; the elder sister is indeed like a mother.  Listen therefore to your elder brother, and you should be obedient to your elder sister as if she were your mother.
 
     By grasping the neck of a huge ox, you can cross the river. By moving along at the side of the mighty men of your city, my son, you will certainly ascend.
 
     A loving heart maintains a family; a hateful heart destroys a family.
 
     To have authority, to have possessions and to be steadfast are princely divine powers. You should submit to the respected; you should be humble before the powerful. My son, you will then survive against the wicked.
 
     Nothing at all is to be valued, but life should be sweet. You should not serve things; things should serve you.
 
     The wet-nurses in the women's quarters determine the fate of their lord.
 
     You should not speak arrogantly to your mother; that causes hatred for you. You should not question the words of your mother ... The father is like a god: his words are reliable. The instructions of the father should be complied with.
 
     This gift of words is something which soothes the mind.
 
Various Proverbs:
 
     The warrior is unique; he alone is the equal of many.
 
     A palace will fall of its own accord.
 
     He who despises a just decision, who loves wicked decisions, is an abomination.
 
     Thanks to the word of his personal god, the fate of the man who speaks just words is favorable, and he is with him throughout the day.
 
     The god of the river ordeal will admire the hearts of those who bear words of truth.
 
     The word of a poor man is not accepted.
 
     Moving about defeats poverty. He who knows how to move around becomes strong. He will live longer than the sedentary man.
 
     If the hearing of the fox is bad, its foot will be crippled.
 
     For his pleasure he got married. On his thinking it over he got divorced.
 
     The palace is a forest. The king is a lion.
 
     The palace is a slippery place which catches those who do not know it.
 
     A millstone will float in the river for a righteous man.
 
     Tell a lie and then tell the truth: it will be considered a lie.
 
A Drinking Song:
 
     The gakkul vat, the gakkul vat! The gakkul vat, the lamsare vat! The gakkul vat, which puts us in a happy mood! The lamsare vat, which makes the heart rejoice! The ugurbal jar, glory of the house! The šaggub jar, filled with beer! The amam jar, which carries the beer from the lamsare vat! The troughs made with bur grass and the pails for kneading the dough! All the beautiful vessels are ready on their pot stands! May the heart of your god be well disposed towards you! Let the eye of the gakkul vat be our eye, and let the heart of the gakkul vat be our heart! What makes your heart feel wonderful in itself also makes our hearts feel wonderful in themselves! We are in a happy mood, our hearts are joyful! You have poured a libation over the fated brick, and you have laid the foundations in peace and prosperity -- now may Ninkasi dwell with you! She should pour beer and wine for you! Let the pouring of the sweet liquor resound pleasantly for you! In the troughs made with bur grass, there is sweet beer. I will have the cupbearers, the boys and the brewers stand by. As I spin around the lake of beer, while feeling wonderful, feeling wonderful, while drinking beer, in a blissful mood, while drinking alcohol and feeling exhilarated, with joy in the heart and a contented liver -- my heart is a heart filled with joy! I clothe my contented liver in a garment fit for a queen! The heart of Inana is happy once again; the heart of Inana is happy once again!

 



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