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Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature

The Oriental Institute, Oxford University
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Reviewed by:
John Bert Lott
Vassar College
January 2004

This archive makes available transliterations and translations of roughly 400 important texts from ancient Mesopotamia. The archive is not a general anthology of Mesopotamian or cuneiform documents, but rather a focused collection containing only texts that are “literary” in nature, were written in the Sumerian language, and were inscribed in the earliest period of Mesopotamian literary history (from the late 3rd millennium to the early 2nd millennium, BCE). This excludes the legal, administrative, and political texts that make up the vast majority of the surviving documents. Although the limited scope of the archive means that it does not contain the standard works from Mesopotamia usually used in the classroom, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Atrahasis, or the Enuma Elish, the collection is arguably made more valuable and useful by its focus on a limited cultural and historical context and by its presentation of texts that are less well known and more difficult to locate.

The archive organizes texts into six categories. “Narrative and Mythological Compositions” contains early stories about Gilgamesh. “Compositions with A Historical Background” presents documents such as the Sumerian King List and various laments for individual cities. “Royal Praise Poetry” in praise of individual monarchs, divided according to city, dynasty, and ruler, contains poems that acclaim such kings as Gudea of Lagash, Shulgi of Ur, and Hammurabi of Babylon. “Hymns and Cult Songs” presents hymns, prayers, and temple poems, usually addressed to individual deities. Literary Letters and Letter-Prayers contains both royal correspondence (which often stretches the requirement that the texts be literary) and poetic documents identified as letters by their use of epistolary formulas. This includes the beautifully composed poetic petition of Ur-saga to some king concerning the loss of his father’s house. Finally, “Other Literature” comprises important and interesting documents, such as farming instructions, that do not fit any of the other categories.

For most documents, the archive presents a composite transliteration and an English translation. A composite transliteration is one that is derived from one or more actual physical copies of a text—an important point because of the extremely fragmentary nature of many of the texts presented here. Transliterations from Sumerian cuneiform to Roman letters is accomplished according to scholarly conventions, slightly modified to accommodate the limitations of Unicode and ASCII formats.

There is a general tool that allows somewhat complex searches of both transliterations and translations, but there is no general introduction or commentary for any of the texts. Therefore, a user needs to know exactly what text he or she is seeking or be willing to spend substantial time browsing. This is particularly regrettable since the corpus of Sumerian literature is not widely known but contains works that are of broad cultural, historical, and literary interest. For example, one cannot discover from this site that document 4.07.2 (”The Exaltation of Inana”) is one of the hymns supposedly composed by Enheduanna, the daughter of Sargon the first king of Akkad and the earliest named female author.

No images of the original text-objects (mostly clay tablets) are presented and it would be nice to know how often the editors had access to the actual physical document. Nevertheless, the composite transliterations and the translations make the state of preservation of the various texts clear as well as pointing out the textual difficulties that come with studying documents that are 4,000 years old. (The critical apparatus makes clear the various marks used for missing, restored, and replaced letters.) As an exercise, I have had students create and try to restore fragmented English texts and then discuss the difficulties of understanding and interpreting texts such as the ones here. However, I suspect the value of the archive lies mostly in comparative discussions of religion, kingship, and poetry that set these documents against better-known Hebrew, Greek, and Indian literatures. For example, comparing the proverb collections with Proverbs in the Old Testament or comparing the hymns collected here with those in Psalms allows students to uncover differences and similarities in cultural and religious outlook between Sumerian and Hebrew cultures.

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