Vladimir Emelianov (St-Petersburg State University, Russia) “Religious and Philosophical Aspects of the Sumerian Proverbs”


Proverbs and sayings in the Sumerian language (Gordon, 1959; Alster 1997, Afanasjeva, 1997, 322-323; Alster, 2005) constitute a very substantial part of the Sumerian literary texts. Nowadays we know more than 2,000 proverbs from 26 proverb collections, as well as dozens of proverbs from literary texts of different genres. Proverbs were written by teachers of scribal schools from the Old Sumerian time (XXVII century BC.) and came from all ages of the Sumerian history. Proverbs were already studied from the perspective of poetics, language and style (Alster, 1996), the socio-historical content (Diakonoff, 1966), history of fauna (Foster, 2002). The aim of their fixation and the classification of proverbial formulae in them are still unknown (Taylor, 2005). However, no one in the Western or Russian science has tried to illuminate their religious and philosophical content. Meanwhile, all the components of the system of values, characteristic of the inhabitants of the Southern Mesopotamia at the end of III- millennium BC, could be extracted from the Sumerian proverbs.

The paper examines the Sumerian proverbs about life, destiny, ME’s, seasons and months of the year, truth and falsehood, human relationship with a personal god, as well as the taboos on various actions.

Category ME is known in the proverbs as having four meanings: a) brightness of fire, b) power, c) rites, d) office, position. The presence of ME provides the Universe with necessary rituals and principles, on the basis of which life is possible in itself. The concept of life is divided in proverbs to a) life in the human body, and b) life as an external process. A play on homonymous roots til3 ‘life’ and til3 ‘to end’ leads to an understanding of life as a process that is looking to end. The body life in the Sumerian proverbs proclaimed to be self-sufficient and the most significant value of the world. The worst punishment from gods is hunger, nuisance is wandering, and the greatest pleasure is beer (as product of sedentary life). Death was considered to be the lot of all mankind. The destiny of man was described in three main aspects: a) fate as the external thing (clothes, dog), b) fate as fortune, c) fate as mother’s voice. In proverbs great importance is given to human personal qualities, especially to piety towards one’s personal god, dignity, truth, and wisdom.

In the Sumerian proverbs one can find descriptions of actions that are prohibited by the gods. Utu forbids people from demonstrating their isolation and uncleanness, Ninurta does not like aggression, and Inanna does not accept an inappropriate display of emotions. The most disapproved act was considered to be a rich man’s request for addition of his property.

Among the Sumerian proverbs there are those associated with specific months and holidays of the Nippur calendar. The first is a boastful statement of a fox that urinated into the Tigris and caused a “flood of carp”, which means the coming of spring. The fox compares himself to the hero Ninurta, who released waters on the field after the victory over Asag. Another proverb deals with the regulations of fasting and purification during the 6th and 7th months of the Nippur calendar.

The final part of the paper deals with the proverbs as ideas for literary texts that have a philosophical sense. Two proverbs concerning the Flood Story and the Epic of Gilgamesh are discussed.


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Alster, 1996 – Alster B. Literary Aspects of Sumerian and Akkadian Proverbs / M.E. Vogelzang and H.L.J.Vanstiphout (eds.) Mesopotamian Poetic Language: Sumerian and Akkadian (Cuneiform Monographs 6). Groningen, STYX Publications, 1996. P. 1–21

Alster, 1997 – Alster B. Proverbs of Ancient Sumer: The World’s Earliest Proverb Collections. Bethesda, CDL Press, 1997.

Alster, 2005 – Alster B. Wisdom of Ancient Sumer. Bethesda, CDL Press, 2005.

Diakonoff, 1966 – Дьяконов И.М. Общественные отношения в шумерском и вавилонском фольклоре (120 пословиц и поговорок) // Вестник древней истории 1 (1966). С. 9-27.

Foster, 2002 – Foster B. Animals in Mesopotamian Literature / B. Collins (ed.). A History of the Animal World in the Ancient Near East. Leiden, Boston, Köln, 2002. P. 271–288.

Gordon, 1959 – Gordon E.I. Sumerian Proverbs. Glimpses оf Еvегуdау Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. Philadelphia, 1959.

Taylor 2005 – Taylor J. The Sumerian Proverb Collections // Revue d’assyriologie 99 (2005). P. 13-38.