Thursday, January 8, 2015

Book Review: The Sumerians by Samuel Noah Kramer

     In 1869, Jules Oppert first coined the word “Sumerian” to describe a previously unknown civilization near ancient Babylon. At first, much of the archaeological evidence had been attributed to Babylon or Persia, and the first Sumerian cuneiform found was initially described as “Scythian”. But once Oppert and several other men began studying the evidence, they soon realized they were dealing with yet another civilization.

     The beginning of The Sumerians chronicles the archaeological discoveries and the controversies surrounding the study of this civilization. Skeptics tried to keep the evidence from being given serious consideration, but shortly after Oppert’s lecture, more conclusive evidence was discovered.

     The author, Samuel Noah Kramer, was a part of several excavations in the 30’s, and spent much time studying some of the documents from Sumer and their significance to both the Sumerian culture and the surrounding areas. In fact, we have an abundance of knowledge of Sumer, and this is just scratching the surface.

     The book discusses important figures in Sumer’s history, such as King Gudea and Gilgamesh. Most of our knowledge of the rulers come from Sumerian documents, which often exaggerate their deeds or outright assign them mythological origins (such as Gilgamesh). Events are described in the context of the Sumerian religion. The defeat of Naram-Sin, in particular, is described as a result of the gods’ wrath toward Sumer for disobedience.

     Thanks to the Sumerians’ love of law and record-keeping, we have a pretty good outline of what society was like, and how cities were laid out. They were fairly sophisticated when it came to math, had their own farmer’s almanacs (usually for students, who had to learn all aspects of society to be scribes), and even recipes for various medicinal cures. (I still say the fact that there was a doctor called Lulu is probably the greatest knowledge Sumer has given us.)

     We get a good look at Sumerian mythology. Much of it will seem familiar to those who know Babylonian mythology, but some of it will also seem very different. If anything, the gods seem even more impulsive and nonsensical in some of these stories. Society was centered around the idea that man’s chief purpose in life is to serve the gods (who, apparently, were unable to grow food for themselves, for some reason). People performed elaborate rites for both the main pantheon and their “personal god”. While they didn’t believe in an elaborate “king as god” scenario, somewhere along the way the king became known as Inanna’s consort (which meant, of course, acting as consort to a girl chosen to act as Inanna-it’s good to be the king).

     The creation myth caught my attention. In it, the gods lament that the new goddesses are eating them out of house and home (and probably demanding chocolate). Enki asks his mother Nammu to create servants for them. She makes man out of clay, and the goddess Ninmah binds “upon it the mold of the gods”. However, after this is done, Enki decides he wants to make a person too. He does so, but the person has no free will-he does nothing but lie there, unable to act, and Ninmah curses him as a result. I can’t help but feel that Tolkien must have heard this myth at some point, because it reminds me strongly of Aulë creating the dwarves in The Silmarillion.

     With the myths comes Sumerian literature. As noted in the book, most of it is something like prose poems, and they are very repetitive. Very, very repetitive. In one myth, where Inanna is going around from god to god, repeating her sob story, she repeats it verbatim every single time, and adding at the end who else she talked to about it. If this was written in the 1800’s, one would assume the poet is being paid by the word. You can also see how this influenced the way the Bible was written. There is often some poetic repetition in Bible verses, though not to such an extent as the Sumerians liked.

     Like many civilizations in those days, the Sumerians were very ambitious. A lot of their literature is disputes between two persons-sometimes personifications of the seasons (like the argument between winter and summer), and sometimes it’s just two schoolboys slinging insults until the teacher comes around to tell them to shut up. Often descriptions of the king’s interactions with other cultures show the other cultures in awe of Sumer and its glory.

     The book concludes with Sumer’s influence on both the surrounding cultures and later cultures. Their architecture can be seen in Greek structures, and of course the author can’t help but point out all the parallels to the Bible. (Remember kids, if you write it down first then everyone assumes you thought of it first.)

     This book gives us a very thorough look at one of the first great civilizations, and is a must-read for anyone interested in ancient history.



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