Proverbs of Ancient Sumer: The World’s Earliest Proverb Collections. – Review

Proverbs of Ancient Sumer: The World’s Earliest Proverb Collections. – Review – book reviews

Gwendolyn Leick

Proverbs of Ancient Sumer: The World’s Earliest Proverb Collections. By Bendt Alster. 2 vols. 548pp. Bethesda, Maryland: CDL Press. ISBN 1883053 20 x

In Mesopotamia the fertile soil of the alluvial plain provided the foundation for one of the earliest agricultural civilisations in history. Properly irrigated and judiciously managed, the fields could produce a steady surplus which, if it was properly administered, could maintain a complex and urban society. Writing was invented and perfected to meet the demands of bureaucratically organised large scale institutions that oversaw the investment, production and distribution of agricultural estates. The writing material was nothing else but the clay-rich earth. Baked in the hot sun or fired in a kiln, these tablets survived millennia. Just as the soil was the basis on which this culture flourished so the clay tablets, formed from the same soil, are the basis of our knowledge today.

Our ability to read and understand the tablets has made considerable advances since they were first excavated systematically in the last century. Now, electronic data bases should facilitate the publication of the bulk of written material, administrative texts. However, the collection, transliteration and scientifically rigorous publication of tablets remains a highly time-consuming and difficult task, demanding a high degree of specialisation which often leaves no scope for a wider consideration of issues that arise from the content of the tablets. Hence, while new editions continue to appear, little effort is made to make them accessible to nonspecialists. Bendt Alster is rare among modern Sumerologists in this respect. While his publications are impeccable by Assyriological standards, they also take into account the fact that a wider readership should have access to the material. Alster has been concerned with texts that have a more general appeal narratives, poetry and especially proverbs and popular sayings. The publication of the present volumes marks his lifelong pre-occupation with traditional culture as revealed by the texts of a buried civilisation.

Perhaps his Danish background had something to do with his long-standing interest in folklore. Alster was one of the very first Assyriologists to introduce to the subject some of theoretical debates in the field of folklore. Long ago he drew attention to the importance of oral transmission in literary cuneiform texts. He was always interested in the possibility of reaching the non-literate stratum of ancient society across the scribal conventionality of an elite, to hear the voice of the person working the field behind the learned exegesis of the scribe. Fortunately the link between the soil and tablet that characterises the physical nature of the writing system had parallels in the Sumerian educational system. Scribes were trained by copying and reproducing the basic components of the cuneiform script, signs and words arranged in lists, and also by memorising popular saying and proverbs. The first category provided the technical competence for literacy, the second connected this activity to a social framework. Alster emphasises that Sumerian proverbs were “not expressions of an intellectual system,” certainly not one that is dissociated from the reality of daily living in an agricultural society. Through a careful analysis of vocabulary, style and content he has been able to separate scribal glosses and comment from the core of traditional material, concluding that “the Sumerian proverb collections reflect a genuine living tradition of proverbs with a real basis in a spoken language,” in spite the fact that Sumerian had very likely ceased to be a “living” language at the time the collections were written down, largely during the so-called Isin-Larsa period (c. 1900-1800 B.C.). The tradition of using proverbs in the scribal curriculum is considerably older, dating back to the beginning of Sumerian writing in the Early Dynastic period (c. 2600-2500), although there are large gaps in the documentary evidence for the latter part of the third millennium. The close connection between the vernacular use of proverbs and their application in the oral debates of trainee scribes seems to provide a missing link. The dialectic debates praising the merits of one thing while disparaging the failings of another were a common feature of Sumerian culture and a wide repertoire of popular sayings was essential for a successful performance. Here the moral elasticity of the proverb was most useful.

Like proverbs everywhere the individual sayings have no inherent truth value but depend on context to emphasise one meaning or another. There are only very few literary compositions where individual proverbs appear in such contexts. Generally the study of the range of meaning is seriously hampered by the lack of demonstrable use in everyday situations. Alster is only too aware of this problem, which is why he provides very literal rather than “free” translations.

However, even though quite a few proverbs in the collections remain obscure, their accumulative effect as a form of non-institutional social control is very clear. The main focus is on the individual house-holder on whose good judgement the happiness and survival of the whole family, and ultimately society, depend. The desirable virtues are level-headedness, thrift and foresight; vices such as lying, slander, sexual incontinence and profligacy are made responsible for social isolation and economic hardship. The general outlook is secular; although there are references to various Mesopotamian deities, the message is one of human self-reliance and responsibility for one’s life. Humour and ridicule, well-known weapons of the weak, are frequently invoked to disparage arrogance, pomposity and the characteristic behaviour of certain members of Sumerian society, such as the camp and effeminate lamentation priests, corrupt overseers of public works, lazy household servants, and the poor. A large number of proverbs feature animals, especially dogs, foxes and donkeys, to convey messages about human failings.

Alster presents this treasure trove of ancient folk wisdom as it appears in the individual collections, where proverbs are often grouped together by a common theme or just by the initial graphic sign. There are 28 major collections, plus some smaller tablets, as well as isolated proverbs only preserved on exercise tablets. In the first volume he provides the transliterations of the original texts and an English translation: the second part contains the scholarly apparatus, photographs and transcriptions of the tablets and philological comment, plus a commentary on the collections and individual proverbs, often citing similar examples from other cultures. This is the part that most folklorists will wish were much longer. It would also have been very useful to have added an index to locate particular themes and subjects. Such desiderata however, cannot detract from the general immense value of this publication. No serious folklore library should be without it.

Gwendoly Leick, Richmond College, London

COPYRIGHT 1999 Folklore Society

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